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(13 pages total)

Page 3 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Indian and Chinese thought also divide in their use of logic, one of the most highly esteemed tools of philosophy in the West. Despite the intensity of popular, fundamentalist religious practices, major Indian thinkers did not consider sacred scriptures, sutras by famous men and traditions a reliable source of truth. Hsuan-tsang introduced one of the later schools of Indian logical thought (new Hetu-vidya) into China. This school accepted reason alone as the only authority, and acknowledged only the processes of inference (anumana ) and sense (pratyaksa ) as the basis for forming knowledge.5 However, this approach did not take root in China because of the high regard its thinkers had for traditional knowledge and known authorities.

The differences between Indian and Chinese culture and methods of thinking and communicating also extend to visual symbols. In Indian and Greek thought, the sphere--a three-dimensional embodiment of harmony--was the preferred symbol for the perfect expression of reality.6 According to Vaisesika philosophy, the building blocks of the universe ("atoms") were believed to be globular. Indian thinkers also considered the wheel to be a symbol of perfect reality, which accounts for the creation of huge stone juggernauts rolled ominously and symbolically through villages and cities. Here, the idea of motion was inherent in the symbolism of the wheel. Life was a wheel, in a sense, as human life rolls from birth to death to rebirth over countless incarnations. Brushstroke

Chinese thinkers, however, once again revealed a different dimensionality in their thought processes. While the Indian symbol of perfect reality is three-dimensional and kinetic, the Chinese symbol, the circle, appears flat and stationary to the casual observer. Once Buddhism was imported into sections of China, the famous oxherding pictures developed, symbolizing man's evolution from unenlightened being (the farmer who does not have his ox) to the enlightened sage (man who has successfully searched for and found his ox). In this series of pictures, a circle is the final image, signifying perfect emptiness (not in the Western sense of barrenness, but rather to suggest ineffability). The circle appears throughout Chinese culture in many important contexts, such as the unit of the yin/yang icon.

Another difference in graphic expression of intellectual concepts lies in the realm of didactic diagrams. With a subtle Sanskrit vocabulary deftly dealing with abstractions, India had no need of the precise, particular visual aids which Chinese thinkers used to communicate ideas. Chinese thinkers traditionally relied on diagrams to both express and teach, such as the use of the circle of eight trigrams which form the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching (a Taoist sourcebook which has absorbed the attention of Chinese thinkers through the present day, and was adapted to a Buddhist interpretation shortly after the new philosophy penetrated China). Other examples of the use of didactic diagrams and illustrations are the Zen ox-herding pictures and the use of white and black-filled circles (and a complex network of interconnecting symbols and ideographs) to describe polarities in the philosophical writings of Feng-kuei Tsung-mi (780-841), a scholar who attempted to explain what he saw as the relationships between pure and impure mind (cited by Nakamura).

All of this points to the importance of concrete examples, particularity and individualism in Chinese thought and culture, as contrasted with the Indian model. This is important in our consideration of the way Buddhism changed Chinese thought, but also in the way that Chinese interpretation of Buddhist ideas and symbols changed some of the concepts of Buddhism.


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