How Zen Became Chan:  Pre-modern and Modern Representations of a Transnational East Asian Buddhist Tradition

How Zen Became Chan: Pre-modern and Modern Representations of a Transnational East Asian Buddhist Tradition

Photo: Tiantong si 天童寺 Main Hall, a Chan Monastery in Zhejiang, China, Courtesy of Ven. Sheng Kai


How Zen Became Chan: Pre-modern and Modern Representations of a Transnational East Asian Buddhist Tradition

July 29–31, 2022 | ONLINE, in collaboration with Yale University

International Conference




Panelists Abstracts Schedule
Reports Presentations


The FROGBEAR project at the University of British Columbia, with the assistance of the Glorisun Global Network of Buddhist Studies at Yale University, cordially invites proposals for an international conference on “How Zen Became Chan: Pre-modern and Modern Representations of a Transnational East Asian Buddhist Tradition” to be held online, via Zoom. The conference is made possible with generous support from the Glorisun Charitable Foundation, based in Hong Kong.

Scholarly and popular publications in English and other European languages since the early-20th century more often refer to Zen Buddhism than Chan (alt. Ch’an) or Seon (alt. Sŏn) or even Thiền Buddhism, thereby promoting—at least subtly—the notion that Japan, rather than China, Korea, Vietnam, or Tibet, figures most prominently in the history of this tradition of East Asian Buddhism. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English defines “Zen” as either “a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation” or “a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort.” Chan, Seon, and Thiền are not included as entries. Yet scholars and practitioners of Chan, Seon, Thiền, and Zen Buddhism have made it clear that the foundational texts studied and the monastic regulations and daily rituals followed in monasteries across East and Southeast Asia, as well as in Europe, North America, and Oceania, originated primarily in China. Localizing much of our research, scholars regularly refer to Chinese Chan, Japanese Zen, Korean Seon, and Vietnamese Thiền. Yet the overreliance on Zen as the preferred rubric to encompass a broader narrative about this tradition of East Asian Buddhism persists. This conference explores not only how we think about and refer to Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền Buddhism in terms of historiographical, textual, archaeological, philological, philosophical, political or socio-economic analysis, but also what it means in the 21st century to use one of these pronunciations instead of another about a tradition with the well-known 10th – 12th century Chinese maxims about “a special transmission outside the teachings” (jiaowai biechuan 教外別傳) which does not “establish words and letters” (buli wenzi 不立文字).  Various narratives about the early, middle, or modern history of Buddhist meditative practice and the monastic traditions of East and Southeast Asia emphasize trans-cultural, multi-ethnic and cross-regional production and transmission of texts, practices, rituals, and even teachers that contradict what is conveyed when we restrict ourselves to using either Chan or Zen or another single label. Yet even when investigating a tradition sometimes represented as fundamentally opposed to words and letters, we know that words, conveyance, and spaces matter. Topics for this conference include, but are not limited to, studies of:

  • Buddhist meditation in premodern East or Southeast Asia;
  • The Chinese or Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as Chan;
  • The Japanese Buddhist tradition known as Zen;
  • The Korean Buddhist tradition known as Seon;
  • The Vietnamese Buddhist tradition known as Thiền;
  • The production and/or preservation or transmission of scriptures or books related to Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền Buddhism;
  • Editions of Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền Buddhist texts included in or occluded from the so-called East Asian Buddhist canons;
  • Comparative approaches using Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền Buddhist texts excluded from manuscript or printed editions of the so-called East Asian Buddhist canons;
  • Editions of scriptures or ritual manuals that speak to performances or practices, histories, or other Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền texts;
  • Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền individuals and communities who produced or maintained editions of Buddhist texts or epigraphical records in premodern East and Southeast Asia;
  • Comparative codicological, paleographical or doxographical studies of Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền books and the exchange and/or production of editions of these books in East and Southeast Asia;
  • Collections of exceptional editions of Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền Buddhist texts—or “canons”—at specific sites in East and Southeast Asia;
  • Editions of works in multilingual manuscripts or collections;
  • Studies of newly discovered Buddhist materials related to the history of Chan/Zen/Seon/Thiền in East or Southeast Asia


The organizing committee welcomes paper proposals related to any aspect(s) of the multidisciplinary, inter-cultural, and cross-regional study of Buddhist epigraphy in Central and East Asia. Please email proposals and CVs to by April 15.

The conference will produce two volumes, one in English and the other in Chinese. The English volume will collect most of the papers in English, plus the English translations of several papers written in non-English languages, while the Chinese volume will include the Chinese versions for some non-Chinese papers in addition to those papers written in Chinese. Draft papers needed by mid-July to share with other panelists, and revised papers are needed by the end of October for those who plan to publish their papers.

This conference is planned as part of our annual International and Intensive Program on Buddhism  [details here].