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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 5.2 (2022): 1–57;

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‘Introduction’ to the Forthcoming Histories of Chan (Zen)

T. Griffith FOULK
Sarah Lawrence College

Abstract: This monograph is the ‘Introduction’ to a forthcoming book entitled Histories of Chan (Zen). It criticises the modern field of Zen studies, which originated in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century and has since expanded to include scholarship in Chinese, English, French, German, and Korean, for failing to clearly define its primary object of historical investigation: the Chan Lineage (Chanzong 禪宗) of Buddhism in Tang- and Song-dynasty China. Traditional histories of Chan, which date from the Song dynasty, describe it as a spiritual genealogy through which the formless, awakened ‘mind’ of Śākyamuni Buddha was transmitted down through a line of ancestral teachers in India and China. Modern histories, while recognising the mythological character of much of the traditional account, have nevertheless conceived of the ‘Chan School’ of Buddhism as a real historical entity that was comprised of the same set of Chinese ancestors. The ‘Introduction’ to Histories of Chan (Zen) describes the confusion that has resulted from that approach. It then provides a new conceptual framework within which all the existing pieces of a very complicated historical puzzle—a diverse set of stories about the origins, development, and essential characteristics of Chan Buddhism that have been told for different reasons at different times and places—can be sorted out and related to one another in a manner that makes sense and is consistent with all the evidence that we have today.

Keywords: China, Buddhism, Chan, Zen, history


About the Author: T. Griffith Foulk is Professor of Religion at Sarah Lawrence College and Co-editor-in-chief of the Sōtō Zen Text Project, sponsored by the Administrative Headquarters of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokyo. In his youth he trained for several years in both Rinzai and Sōtō Zen monasteries in Japan, where he still maintains close ties. His publications include annotated translations of Standard Observances of the Sōtō Zen School (Sōtōshū gyōji kihan) and the Record of the Transmission of Illumination (Denkōroku) by Keizan Jōkin (1264–1325), and numerous monographs on textual, ritual, and institutional aspects of the history of Chan and Zen Buddhism in China and Japan.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.