In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chan Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Origins of Western Studies
  • Bibliographies
  • Catalogues
  • Chan/Zen Dictionaries and Dictionaries of Chinese Language of Historical Periods
  • Dunhuang Manuscripts
  • Texts in Canonical Collections
  • Texts in Published Series
  • Chan Sutras
  • Chan Literature and “Old Baihua” (古代白話)
  • Tibetan Translations

Buddhism Chan Literature
Jeffrey L. Broughton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0043


In this survey, “Chan” (禪) refers to Chan texts produced in China from the early Tang dynasty (618–907) through the Yuan dynasty (1279–1367). This is a survey of studies on Chan literature, which is a branch of Chinese literature (and simultaneously a branch of Buddhist literature). The framework involves a selection of representative texts from each of the major Chan literary genres: transmission records, yulu 語錄 (recorded sayings), compendia, miscellanies (“brush notes”), poetry (including poetic lines, inscriptions, songs, so-called case collections, and shi 詩 poetry), monastic codes (“regulations of purity”), and sutras closely associated with Chan. For each text an attempt has been made to give an edition and a translation (usually into Japanese or English or both, depending upon availability) as well as relevant monographs, articles, dissertations, and so forth. In most genre categories the first representative texts are naturally “Dunhuang Chan manuscripts,” because the texts found within this manuscript corpus are the earliest we have. The discovery in the early 20th century of a walled-up cave filled with tens of thousands of Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts within the Mogao Grottoes located outside the oasis town of Dunhuang in northwest China led, over decades, to the retrieval of some of the earliest Chan texts. Woodblock printing of books had its beginnings in China during the Tang (beginning with Buddhist incantations in the 7th century), went through a period of development during the Five Dynasties, and reached a high plateau during the Song (though, of course, manuscripts still circulated). In the Song an extensive printed Chan literature came into wide circulation, including intact Tang texts, Tang materials reworked and burnished by Song editors for their own purposes, and a vast new Song Chan literature. Printed Chan literature was very important in the spread of Chan among the educated elite during the Song.

General Overviews

Dumoulin 2005 is the only general overview of the history of Chan available in the new field of Chan studies. Unfortunately, it is in essence a continuation of Heinrich Dumoulin’s outdated 1950s German-language works based on earlier Japanese scholarship. Faure 1991, Faure 1996, McRae 2003, and Tanaka 2006 serve as better portals into Chan and Chan studies. The Faure books are, respectively, a “deconstruction” of Chan as an immediate access to truth and a “topology” of Chan; McRae 2003 presents Chan as “mythopoeic creation.” Tanaka 2006 is an excellent handbook of Chan studies that thoroughly reviews Japanese scholarship on Chinese Chan.

  • Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History; India and China. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005.

    This is a reprint of a work first published in 1988 (New York: Macmillan) and revised in 1994. The revised edition incorporates some of the results of more-recent scholarship, but it still remains an extension of Dumoulin’s works of the 1950s. John R. McRae’s introduction (pp. xxvii–xli) to the reprint describes this volume as intended to present sympathetically Chan’s spiritual content to the Christian West, and he concludes that it “is not a reliable source for understanding Zen Buddhism.”

  • Faure, Bernard. The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400844265

    Argues that Chan texts claim immediacy, but there are all sorts of mediations in Chan—the thaumaturge, relics, rituals, etc. Calls into question any standard narrative or description of Chan and tries to circumvent a hypostatization of Chan.

  • Faure, Bernard. Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    Aims to present a “topology” of Chan and to open Chan studies to questions in other fields, “in the hope of bringing Chan/Zen closer to the mainstream of Western thought.” First published in 1993.

  • McRae, John R. Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    Presents Chan as fundamentally genealogical; argues that “the mythopoeic creation of Zen literature implies the religious imagination of the Chinese people, a phenomenon of vast scale and deep significance.”

  • Tanaka Ryōshō. Zengaku kenkyū nyūmon. Tokyo: Daitō Shuppansha, 2006.

    A very useful handbook of Chan studies; thoroughly covers Japanese scholarship on Chinese Buddhism and Chan, Dunhuang Chan books, Tang and Five Dynasties Chan, Song-dynasty Chan, and Yuan- and Ming-dynasty Chan.

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