Chan School of Buddhism

Chan is the school of Chinese Buddhism. It is a term that refers to a way of living or experiencing the world.

Ultimately, Chan means direct awakening to interconnectedness and impermanence, and the consequent arising of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. This awakening experience is inexpressible in words; it is inaccessible to the dualism of language and concepts. Rather, it is a state of awareness free of self-reference.

There is a saying: “Chan is not established on words and language.” The teaching starts with knowing one’s self, but the process of practice leads to a discovery of our interconnectedness with others. Direct personal experience of Chan brings about the actualization of wisdom and compassion, leading to peace and understanding of the world.

Chan teaching encompasses four key elements, inseparable and mutually inclusive:
  • Faith is confidence in oneself and the path.
  • Understanding refers to the insights gained on the path.
  • Practice transforms our negative habits and distorted views.
  • Awakening is the actualization of wisdom and compassion.


Equilibrium Between Movement and Stillness

Sitting meditation focuses on regulating body, breath, and mind. Regulating the body involves relaxing the body while sitting in a correct posture. In order to cultivate physical well-being, however, you really need to regulate all aspects of your life. Besides the sitting posture, you can practice walking meditation, sleeping postures, exercises, and massages. You should also regulate and balance your daily diet, your work habits, and the amount of time you sleep. There must be equilibrium between movement and stillness.

Relaxation - A Key Point in Practicing the Method

The foundations of Chan meditation practice are to be relaxed and to sit with full awareness. Your primary concern is to continuously maintain a relaxed body and mind. Accomplishing this, your mind will be less scattered and you will be practicing Chan meditation at least at a basic level.

When trying to relax, most people either become too lax, leading them to sink into dullness, or try too hard, resulting in a tense or scattered mind. Relaxing does not mean that the body becomes slack and the mind becomes lazy; it means your whole being is in repose, wholeheartedly and single-mindedly aware of itself just sitting. Without relaxing it would be difficult to gain power from this practice.

Regulating Body, Breath and Mind

Regulating the breath can help you reach many different levels of practice. Breath and mind are very much connected: you can regulate your mind by regulating your breath, because when your breathing is smooth and stable, your mind becomes stable. Every tradition of spiritual meditation practice, including Taoism, yoga, tantra, and Buddhism, all begin by regulating the breath, for the very simple reason that it is the breath within the body that helps the circulation of energy. This energy, or ch’i, in turn maintains the functions of the physical body. When practitioners experience the benefits of the ch’i, they tune into the importance and pleasure of meditation practice.

Regulating the mind involves learning to be in control of your thoughts. Usually, methods of samatha and vipassana are used to collect and calm the scattered mind. Traditional methods within Buddhism—counting the breath and following the breath—help you reach a calm and collected state of mind and body. You can also calm and balance mind and body by practicing prostration, walking meditation, and recitation of the Buddha’s name. The traditional purpose of sitting meditation practice is to concentrate and unify the mind. When people reach this state, they usually think they are enlightened, or that they have achieved the state of no-self. In reality, whatever they may experience is at most a stage of samadhi. There are eight stages of samadhi; none of them go beyond the state of the unified mind. These states are not the wisdom of emptiness, because attachment to the self still exists even when the mind is unified. In Chan the understanding of samadhi is very different.

The above passages are taken from two books authored by Chan Master Sheng Yen, namely “Dharma Drum” (originally published in 1996 by Shambhala Publications) and “The Method of No-Method” (originally published in 2008 by the same publisher).

Silent Illumination

In true Silent Illumination there is only clarity. One is clear that one’s mind is free from attachment, and one is clear that there is no opposition, no dualism, in relating to others or the world. Furthermore, this illumination is in perfect harmony and union with silence. Silence and illumination mutually enhance each other inseparably. This is very much unlike the dualistic conception of illumination, where there is an illuminator and that which is illuminated. Although I say, “one’s self is aware,” and “one’s mind is not in opposition” these are just ways I am trying to communicate the idea with words. This pure illumination, or clarity, always exists together with silence, or nonattachment. If illumination were separate from silence, it would not be illumination; it would be ordinary clear-mindedness, and it would be dualistic because it involves a relationship between self and subject. On the other hand, if silence were separate from illumination, it could easily become dull stupor, an experience of blankness.

This article is an excerpt from “The Method of No-Method” by Chan Master Sheng Yen, originally published in 2008, Shambhala Publications.


Literally, huatou means “head, or crux, of a saying? A great modern Chinese master, Xuyun (1840-1959), explains a huatou as that which occurs just before a thought arises in your mind. To practice huatou the practitioner recites the sentence or fragment in a questioning manner but without theorizing or analyzing in order to find an answer. If you tried to reason out the meaning of a huatou, this would be looking at the tail end of the thought, not the head. In theory, to investigate the huatou means to examine that which occurs before thoughts arise. But what is that which lies before thoughts arise? What does the huatou point to? Our original, liberated mind. This is also called the “buddha-mind”.

To conceptually understand this is not enough; certainly it has no bearing on our vexations and life problems. You have to personally experience this. In practice, you must abandon concepts, knowledge, and previous experience until the huatou becomes the only thing in your mind, and you must eventually smash through the huatou itself.

This article is an excerpt from “Shattering The Great Doubt” by Chan Master Sheng Yen, originally published in 2009, Shambhala Publications.

Chan Practice in Daily Life

Practice should not be separate from living, and living should be one’s practice at all times. You can practice in any situation. During the busy day, find moments to stop, relax, and clear your mind—anywhere, anytime.

Chan is a way of life, a foundational practice that brings clarity, peace, wisdom, and compassion to enhance your daily experience. It provides an emotional stability that frees you from stress, anxiety and despair. In turn, it develops a deep understanding and compassion for others. Proper practice includes the cultivation of mindfulness, compassion, intuition, and wisdom.
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