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(13 pages total)

Page 12 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Preserved Monks

Unlike other schools of Buddhism, Zen does not focus on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, but rather emphasizes sitting meditation and concentrating all one's attention on the essential fact of life. In this sense, it contributed an element of pure mental and/or spiritual activity reliant upon individual initiative which was unprecedented in China. According to the Zen practitioner, however, this was no "pie in the sky" withdrawal, but a practical response to the most ordinary of questions: why am I here, and what am I supposed to do about it? Even at the outer limits of philosophical inquiry, the Chinese manage to bring a "down to earth" attitude to whatever they undertake.

The Chinese contributed several other perspectives which influenced their approach to Buddhist philosophy. Unlike the Indians, they have no absolute concept of evil. The "10 worlds" of Buddhism--hell, hungry ghosts, beasts, fighting demons, man, heaven, Sravaka, Pratykabuddha, Bodhisattva and Buddha--interpenetrate in the Chinese interpretation. It is possible for beings in hell to achieve Buddhahood, while the Buddha can enter the illusory world.21 In Indian philosophy, by contrast, evil and good are mutually exclusive ideas. The Chinese traditional philosophy of "yin-yang," opposites which are complementary and which can exchange polarities, permeates sinologized Buddhism. This is also part of an underlying cultural attitude of harmony and syncretism. The Chinese pursuit of reconciliation at any cost accounts in part for the minor role which logic plays in its philosophies. In fact, in the early years of Buddhist influence, it was common for excuses to be invented to force an agreeable resolution to philosophical or doctrinal differences. While logic-driven Westerners may recoil from efforts to tamper with history or "absolute facts," one must ask again the classic question, "Which is better? Inflexible logical 'truth' which divides people and makes their lives unbearable? Or a position of compromise, collaboration, and peaceful resolution which preserves the germ of truth while smoothing over some of the elements which cause needless suffering and disturbance?"

As a foreign philosophy, Buddhism was accepted in China via an approach called Ko Yi, which is to explain one philosophy by means of another. Philosophers explained the doctrines of Buddhism by using the doctrines of native Chinese philosophies as examples (e.g., explaining that the Buddhist idea of nonsubstantiality was the same as nothingness in the writings of Lao-Tzu).

As a result of these adaptations, Buddhism in its sinologized incarnation flourished in China by the 11th century when it had all but disappeared in India.


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