The Mysticism of Chan: the Environment-Enlightenment Nexus


This paper analyses the close connection between the natural world, Buddhism in general, and Chan in particular. The nonhuman world has played a crucial role in the infancy of both Buddhism and Chan. However, as Chan developed and expanded to meet the challenges and stay relevant, Chan masters interpreted their religious narratives according to the needs of the time. They preferred human history to natural history. By overemphasizing the personal human experience of enlightenment, Chan seemed to overlook everything else, including the more-than-human world. Thus, environmentalists have accused Chan guilty of a certain degree of anthropocentrism that has contributed to the present environmental crisis.

However, a careful study of Chan tradition’s narratives, mainly in gongan, proves that the natural world has always been part of the Chan spiritual practices and enlightenment experience. Rediscovering this environment-enlightenment nexus opens a new religious horizon where Chan mysticism enhances one’s personal enlightenment experience and contributes to environmental protection. Chan shows how nature-inclusive mysticism can help religious traditions stay relevant in the modern world, where secularization theories trumpet the irrelevance of religious and spiritual traditions.