Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan

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Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan
Citation: Sharf, Robert H. "Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan." Philosophy East and West 64, no. 4 (2014): 933–64.


No abstract given. Here are the first relevant paragraphs:

The Chan tradition is renowned as the “meditation” school of East Asia. Indeed, the Chinese term chan 禪 (Jpn: zen) is an abbreviated transliteration of dhyāna, the Sanskrit term arguably closest to the modern English word “meditation.” Scholars typically date the emergence of this tradition to the early Tang dynasty (618–907), although Chan did not reach institutional maturity until the Song period (960–1279). In time, Chinese Chan spread throughout East Asia, giving birth to the various Zen, Sŏn, and Thiê`n lineages of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, respectively. Today these traditions continue to promote, at least in theory, meditation practices, and these have been the subject of considerable scholarly interest.[1]
      It may then come as a surprise to learn just how little is known about the meditation techniques associated with the “founders” of this tradition—the masters associated with the nascent (or proto-) Chan lineages of the seventh and eighth centuries. It was during this fertile period—which, following scholarly convention, I will call “early Chan”—that the lineage myths, doctrinal innovations, and distinctive rhetorical voice of the Chan, Zen, Sŏn, and Thiê`n schools first emerged. Although hundreds of books and articles have appeared on the textual and doctrinal developments associated with early Chan, relatively little has been written on the distinctive meditation practices, if any, of this movement.
      This essay emerged from an attempt to answer a seemingly straightforward question: what kinds of meditation techniques were promulgated in early Chan circles? The answer, it turned out, involved historical and philosophical forays into the notion of “mindfulness”—a style of meditation practice that has become popular among Buddhists (and non-Buddhists) around the globe. Accordingly, I will digress briefly to consider the roots of the modern mindfulness movement, and will suggest possible sociological parallels between the rise of the Buddhist mindfulness movement in the twentieth century and the emergence of Chan in the medieval period. (Sharf, "Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan," 933)

  1. The literature is vast; on modern Japanese Zen and Korean Sŏn meditation practice in English see, for example, Buswell 1992, Hori 2000, and Hori 2003. On the history of these practices see Bielefeldt 1988, Buswell 1987, Collcutt 1981, Foulk 1993, and Schlütter 2008.