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Mindfulness in Chan Monastic Life: Two Case Studies of Chung Tai Chan Monastery and Yunmen Dajue Chan Monastery

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Ya-Chu Lee
Publication date16/06/2021
Number of pages253
Awarding Institution
Award date29/04/2021
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


An extensive body of modern scholarly work on mindfulness has focused on early Buddhist texts. However, such an approach by itself cannot explicate how mindfulness is practised in the present-day lived reality of various Buddhist traditions in the Buddhist monastic community. Based on an investigation of contemporary monastic life in Mainland China and Taiwan, this dissertation proposes that mindfulness is seen in Chan tradition as both the means and the goal of the perfect enlightenment of one’s true nature. As this implies, mindfulness is closely integrated into nearly every facet of Chan monastic life, as monks and nuns learn to unceasingly guard their minds against any unwholesomeness, and to dwell in the inherent tranquillity of the ‘true mind’, with the aim of attaining the state of wunian: the ultimate form of mindfulness.

This ethnographic study is based on the author’s experience of living as a monastic in Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Taiwan between 2002 and 2012, and fieldwork data collected between 2015 and 2019 in Yunmen Dajue Chan Monastery in Mainland China. The thesis aims to establish that mindfulness is not a specific ‘exercise’, and that the phrase ‘mindfulness practice’ (zhengnian lianxi) is a misnomer in the lived context of these Chan monasteries. Rather, mindfulness is embedded in a broad array of these institutions’ moral rules, religious rituals, meditation practices, physical labour, and interpersonal interactions.

It goes on to argue that the cultivation of mindfulness in these monastic settings is grounded in interpersonal webs of support, especially through two dynamics: living with and observing charismatic Chan masters, and mutual monitoring by peers. This reflects that mindfulness is not a practice that involves one’s inner mental progress alone, but is also supported and fostered by the awareness of and care for the mindfulness of others who share the monastic environment.