Chan Buddhism and the Agamas

Did the early Chan masters base the teachings off the Agimas? I would ask in a Zen forum but they make fun of people with questions


Traditionally, the Agamas didn’t play much of a role in Chinese Buddhism, but they had plenty of sources about early Buddhist meditation techniques like mindfulness of breath and dhyana. In modern times, Chinese Buddhism is much more interested in studying Agamas. Ever since Yinshun, I think, there’s been an effort to combine Agama and Mahayana scriptures together into more of a integrated whole.


To add to this, I wanted to mention Master ShengYen, founder of the Dharma Drum lineage of Chan Buddhism. He in many ways revived Chinese Chan by systematizing the teachings and making them accessible internationally with well trained monastics and lay followers. Because he was interested in modern reform/revival, and he was based in Taiwan (as Dharma Drum is today), he was familiar with movements that spread study of the Āgamas and “orthodox” Buddhist views/practice. If you look into some of his teachings you may learn more about the correspondences.

Master ShengYen saw Chan Buddhism as being a much more inclusive and broad Buddhist “school” historically than something easy to pin down doctrinally, but generally speaking the ancient Chan masters’ ideas are based in things like the Prajñaparamita sutras, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lankāvatāra Sutra (likely the first core text for the early period of Chan), the Avatamsaka Sutra, and others like the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, Lotus, Surangama, etc. The main ideas, in practice, however end up being virtue, impermanence, non-self, dependent arising, emptiness, sīla-samādhi-paññā, samatha-vipassanā, etc. As he and others recognized, there is nothing there too far off from Early Buddhism/the Āgamas at the core (despite differences in presentation), though there are finer points related to Mahayana doctrine that can differ admittedly.

I’m sure others are much more knowledgable about the matter and can provide more detail!


Thank you for mentioning master Sheng yen! I have watched many many of dharma drum videos (available on youtube). He taught a very rare mix although Mahayana. I couldn’t see the deviation from EBT though. Core was teaching of impermanence, no-self, samatha Vipassana only, even if he encouraged teachings of pure land Buddhism, great vehicle, Mahayana suttas and all.

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AFAIK, modern Chan/Zen Buddhist master like Thich Nhat Hanh teaches mindfulness meditation based on Satipatthana Sutta version of Chinese Agamas (e.i. Ekayana Sutra of Ekottarika Agama/EA 12.1)