[skip to content]

Department of Religions and Philosophies

East Asian traditions of Meditation: From Taoism to Zen

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

The course is structured into four main areas of instruction, each one of which should be ideally covered in two lectures. 

The first segment will introduce the main Taoist traditions of meditation, paying particular attention to the nexus between bodily experience and cosmology. It will discuss in succession the earliest forms and texts such as the Neiye (4th-3rd c. BCE), the visualization of spirits within the body in the Book of the Yellow Court and related scriptures, meditation and ecstatic flight in the Shangqing corpus, and Internal Alchemy. It will also briefly assess the link between the Taoist tradition and modern forms of practice such as qigong. 

The second segment will present Buddhist meditation in China outside and before the Chan tradition. It will therefore introduce the main features of Chinese Buddhism in its creative connection to Indian antecedents and counterparts. Foci will include Chinese versions of the Pratyutpanna samādhi, the series of ‘Contemplation sūtras’ (guan jing, especially the Guan wuliangshou Fo jing) with the visualization of Pure Lands, the debates on the nature of enlightenment, and the great systematization of meditative practice in the early Tiantai school with Zhiyi’s (538–597) Mohe zhiguan. 

The third section will focus on Chan Buddhism. Building on the previous segment, it will explore the emergence and development of Chan as a distinctive culture of meditation in medieval China. Authoritative masters, lineages and doctrinal trends will be discussed in succession, including the so-called patriarchs of early Chan, the Five Houses (wujia), individual leading masters of the classical period (Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huaihai, Linji Yixuan), and the legacy of Chan Buddhism in contemporary China and Taiwan, with personalities such as Sheng-yen. 

The fourth and final part of the course will introduce Japanese Zen both as the inheritor of Chan and in its specific developments. It will offer an overview of the main denominations (Sōtō, Rinzai, Ōbaku) and leading personalities (Dōgen, Nanpo), focusing on the varieties of practice and transmission and the different rhetorics within each group. Finally, we shall briefly consider the impact of East Asian traditions of meditations in areas of Western literature, philosophy and neuroscience.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to:

  • achieve adequate knowledge of a number of major traditions of meditative practice in China and Japan, with special emphasis on Taoist and Buddhist forms;
  • situate those traditions within the broader spectrum of Asian cultures of meditation, notably Indian and Tibetan;
  • relate different varieties of meditative practice in China and Japan to their doctrinal, cultural and historical contexts;
  •  acquire the fundamental methodological skills to produce writing, discussion and research about East Asian traditions of meditation at academic level;
  • reach a critical understanding of the categories ‘meditation’, ‘contemplation’ and ‘religious experience’;
  • demonstrate a critical awareness of the complex relationship between meditative practice and intellectual discourse from an academic perspective.

Method of assessment

Coursework: one 2,000 word essay (20%); one 4,000 word essay (80%)