When Buddhism first spread from India to China between the 1st and 4th centuries CE, it conflicted with certain Chinese traditions and was difficult to comprehend this new ideology all at once. All forms of Buddhism had made their way to China, but the Mahayana doctrine proved to be the most successful. The Mahayana school of Buddhism was very similar to a few already established Chinese practices such as universalism. Chan Buddhism is based on the idea of "an experience beyond words" and was able to have a lasting impact in China. Integrating the ideals of early Buddhism and Daoism, Chan Buddhism reflected the importance of a non-idealistic nature where the mind was prominent over the use of language. .
Early Mahayana Buddhism differed from Chan in the way their respective followers reached nirvana. In early Mahayana Buddhism as soon as someone reached nirvana and became a Buddha, his goal was to help others reach enlightenment as well. The bodhisattva's main concern was to spread and teach others how to reach nirvana. Mahayana Buddhism was a "doctrinal diverse" (Williams, 2) religion in which each bodhisattva taught in a different way and would adapt to the needs of his own respective community; however, every bodhisattva followed the same basic Mahayana doctrine. This differs from the Zen Buddhist ideal of "an experience beyond words" because whenever someone obtained enlightenment, he would not go on a mission to spread encourage others to reach it too. Instead, the Zen master would meditate and expect his disciples to understand and reach enlightenment by themselves. No words were actually exchanged to describe how to reach enlightenment. When a student in a monastery would have a question what was needed to reach enlightenment, the master would not give a direct answer. If the master gave his student a direct answer, his job as a Zen master and practitioner of Chan would not coincide with the "experience beyond words" because it is not his place to give an identity to the naturalistic world, especially enlightenment.