Chan and Modern Life

The Origin of Chan

From the book: In the Spirit of Chan

What is the source of Chan? According to the Chan lore, the monk Bodhidharma brought Chan from India to China in about 500 C.E., more than a thousand years after Shakyamuni Buddha's death. But Indian history contains few records of the interim period, so we know relatively little about the origins of Chan practice.
We do know stories and legends that describe the origins of Chan. Most famous is the account of the transmission of the Dharma (Buddhist 'truth' or 'law') to Mahakashyapa, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, who became the First Patriarch in the Chan lineage. The story is this: one day during a sermon at Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni Buddha held a flower in his hand in front of the assembly and did not speak. No one seemed to know what this gesture meant, but Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, "The Treasure of the Eye of the True Dharma, the Wondrous Mind of Nirvana; only Mahakashyapa understands." This event marks the beginning of the Chan lineage and the master-to-disciple transmission that continues to this day. This story was unknown to Buddhist history until the tenth-century Song dynasty. But the literal truth of the story is not as important as the message it contains about the nature of Chan.