Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan

Some scholars of Chinese Chan Buddhism maintain that the innovations associated with early (eighth-century) Chan were largely in the area of doctrine and mythology. In other words, early Chan meditation and ritual practices would have been indistinguishable from non-Chan forms until the emergence, in the Song, of distinctive new methods such as kanhua meditation. This article argues that at least some of the early Chan patriarchs did indeed experiment with a new method (or methods), and that this method foreshadowed, at least superficially, techniques developed in twentieth-century Burmese Theravāda that we now associate with the satipaṭṭhāna movement (i.e., “mindfulness,” understood as “bare attention”); similar innovations, possibly influenced by early Chan, can be found in Tibetan Dzogchen. There is evidence that in eighth-century China, as in twentieth-century Burma, these new techniques emerged in order to make Buddhist practice more accessible to the laity, who were not in a position to engage in more traditional forms of meditation. And in China, as in Burma, the innovations sparked controversy: opponents held that the cultivation of a non-judgmental, non-discursive meditative state was ethically dubious and at odds with orthodox Buddhist teachings.