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(13 pages total)

Page 2 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Great Buddha in Japan

Translators from Chinese into English often comment on the "ambiguity" of the Chinese language, how one character can have many meanings which can only be inferred from its relationship to other characters within a sentence. When, as in our time, ideas from a more intuitive language (Chinese) are introduced into a culture dominated by a more rational language (English), a rich amplification of consciousness can occur. People find new ways of looking at old problems and expand the circle of their thought processes. Just such an enrichment of consciousness occurred in reverse in China when Buddhist thought, conveyed through the logical-specific language of Indian Sanskrit (the root of Western language and abstract thought), entered its intuitive mental culture.

Indian and Chinese thought and culture were divided by more than language. Language mirrors and expresses the ideas, attitudes and even social conventions of a people. In the down-to-earth pictographs of the Chinese language, where every word-symbol has a highly specific and individualized meaning (e.g., a pictograph depicting a man standing in a house is the word-symbol for "man"), there is no place for metaphysical abstractions. Because the Chinese lived (philosophically) in the here and now and had little concern with ideas focused on the possible hereafter, their language developed with a singular shortage of word-symbols to express ideas of existence beyond the reality perceived through the senses. The most highly esteemed early Indian thinkers (anonymous sages who speculated within a religious consciousness), however, expressed the opinion that life was suffering and a sort of test or ironic game of Brahma. Like the extreme Christian fundamentalist of today, they thought and believed that life truly begins with death and that the senses are deceivers which mislead people into a path leading to the Indian version of hell (eternal rebirth into the world of sorrows until enlightenment frees them from their torments). This attitude shaped the development of the Sanskrit and related Indian tongues with the result that Indian language teems with words dealing with philosophical and religious abstractions Even today, yoga students use such classical Indian terms as samsara, maya, atman and many others, simply because they connote these abstractions better than any other language.

Another difference between Indian and Chinese language lies in the way ideas are expressed. Nakamura states that Indians are more likely to make abstract ideas the subject of a sentence or entire essay. The Chinese, on the other hand, usually make man the subject. (This provides an interesting contrast with Chinese art, where man is portrayed as only a very small part of a larger natural context; however, he is always conspicuous even if his presence is small--or perhaps because he is small--and, in this sense, may be said to be the subject of the artwork as well). Chinese would translate the Indian phrase, "Therefore, the sufferings accompany him," as, "Therefore, he endured various sufferings."3 While the Indian original employs the passive voice, the Chinese uses the active. The Indian sees man's role within the context of a larger, abstract whole; the Chinese interprets everything from a personal point of view. "Influenced by this way of considering all things anthropocentrically, most Chinese were apt to be utilitarian and pragmatic," wrote Nakamara. "In this respect their way of thinking has been different from that of most European scholastic and idealistic philosophers"4 who owe their language and philosophical method to Indian roots.


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