Demystifying Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism

Target Group

PhD students of the Doctoral School of AHL.


All PhD students

Organizing & Scientific Committee

    Prof. Dr. Ann Heirman
    Faculty: Arts and Philosophy
    Department: Languages and Cultures

    Other members of the organising & scientific committee

    Prof. Dr. Christoph Anderl (Languages and Cultures - China)
    Prof. Dr. Anna Andreeva (Languages and Cultures - Japan)


    This course will focus on the rise and success of Chan Buddhism (known in Japan as Zen) in medieval China. It will cover (1) Indian and Chinese doctrinal antecedents; (2) the emergence of new modes of ritual and literary expression, drawing from both Indian and Chinese exemplars; and (3) the specific contributions of the “public case” literature (gong’an, Japanese kōan) to ongoing philosophical controversies that galvanized the medieval Buddhist scholastic community.

    Topic and Objectives

    The Chan tradition emerged in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and rose to dominance in the Song period (960-1279). Founded on the notion of “mind-to-mind transmission,” it gave rise to new forms of literary expression, notably the genres of “discourse records” (yulu), “records of the transmission of the lamp” (chuandenglu), and “public case collections” (gong’an). This course will look at the Indian and Chinese intellectual background of Chan, the emergence of new ritual and literary forms, and Chan’s distinctive approach to ongoing philosophical debates. While the Chan tradition is often mischaracterized as hostile to critical analysis and as delighting in incoherent mystical utterances, we will find that, on the contrary, Chan writings cogently engage philosophical controversies that lie at the very heart of both Mahāyāna thought and contemporary Western philosophy, including debates over the nature of cognition, the ontological status of the mind-independent world, the epistemic warrants of our truth claims, and the possibility of freedom.

    The course is designed for doctoral students with a background in Buddhist studies, East Asian thought, Chinese literature, Chinese religion, and cross-cultural philosophy. The course consists of lectures, text readings, and discussions and there will be ample time for students to interact and present their own dissertation research. The course is interdisciplinary, drawing from philology, history, ritual studies, philosophy, and so on, and will demonstrate the benefits of combining close historical and textual research with broader methodological and critical reflection. Students will also be exposed to cross-cultural philosophy, as we explore parallels between the arcane issues that galvanised medieval exegetes, and issues that continue to perplex philosophers today. We will end on a critical historicist note, as we explore how “Buddhist modernism” has shaped, if not warped, our appreciation of premodern Buddhist history and thought.

    Learning outcomes include:

    1) to enhance students’ appreciation of the philosophical riches of the Buddhist tradition in general, and the Chan tradition in particular;

    2) to enhance students’ understanding of the place of Chan in Chinese intellectual, institutional, and religious history;

    3) to demonstrate the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to medieval religious history, that combines close textual analysis with methodological tools drawn from ritual studies, literary studies, philosophy, and anthropology;

    4) to enhance the students’ skill in publicly presenting their own research;

    5) (for the sinological specialists) to improve students’ skills in classical Chinese, specifically the specialised language of Buddhist texts.

    Dates and Venue

      4-8 July 2022

      Room Jan Gillis, Het Pand, Onderbergen 1, Gent

      Program and Time schedule

          The five-day course will have 4 to 4.5 contact hours a day (21 contact hours all together) that include lectures, text readings, presentations by the participants, and discussions.

          • Monday, July 4: Orientations

          10:00-10:30: Welcome and introductions*

          10:30-12:00: Philosophical background to Chan Buddhism (or, Thinking about not thinking): On the role of non-conceptual cognition in early Buddhist thought (Robert Sharf)*

          12:00-13:30: Lunch Break

          13:30-16:00: Can insentient objects become Buddhas? The Indian background to a Chinese Buddhist debate (Robert Sharf)*

          • Tuesday, July 5: The Birth of Chan in the Tang Period

          10:00-12:00: Text reading: Two Ox-head Chan lineage texts—Treatise on No-Mind (Wuxin lun), and Treatise on the Cessation of Discernment (Jueguan lun) (Robert Sharf)**

          12:00-13:30: Lunch Break

          13:30-16:00: Student presentations (moderated by Robert Sharf)*

          •  Wednesday, July 6: Insentient Things Becoming Buddhas cont.

          10:00-12:00: Text reading: Zutang ji 祖堂集 (Christoph Anderl)**

          12:00-13:30: Lunch Break

          13:30-15:30: Text reading: Jingde chuandent lu 景德傳燈錄 (Christoph Anderl)**

          •  Thursday, July 7: Chan “Public Cases” (gong’an, Japanese: kōan)

          10:00-12:00: Indian and Chinese literary antecedents of Chan gong’an: Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā, Gongsun Longzi, Zhuangzi, Shishuoxinyu, etc. (Robert Sharf)*

          12:00-13:30: Lunch Break

          13:30-15:30: A reading of the Gateless Barrier (Wumenguan) (Robert Sharf)*

          •  Friday, July 8: Buddhist Modernism: Chan, Zen, and the Mindfulness Movement

          10:00-12:00: How Buddhism became “spiritual but not religious” (Robert Sharf)*

          12:00-13:30: Lunch Break

          13:30-16:00: Open discussion on the study of Chan and the field of Buddhist studies (moderated by Robert Sharf)*


          * Lectures also suitable for a general audience (no Sinological background needed) (15 hours)

          ** Sinological background needed (6 hours)


          Please follow this link:

          If the course is fully booked, you can ask to be added to the waiting list by sending an e-mail to . In case of cancellations, you can take the open place.

          Registration fee

          Free of charge for Doctoral School members of Arts, Humanities and Law.

          Teaching material

          Reading materials (required readings and suggested readings), electronic sources, and source texts for the reading sessions will be (electronically) provided to the participants prior to the course.

          Number of participants

          Maximum 15 participants.



          Evaluation methods and criteria (doctoral training programme)

          100% attendance (non-sinological group 15 hours); active participation (readings, individual presentations, discussions)