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(13 pages total)

Page 4 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Buddhist Ideas in India

As it developed in India, Buddhism was a rational evolution emerging from the context of Hindu (Vedantist) religion-philosophy. On the religious level, Buddhism accepted the Vedic posture that sense-based life is suffering and must be transcended to experience a higher state of realization, one's "own true nature," as it is frequently referred to in scriptures of both traditions. It differed from Hinduism, however, on a number of important points, some religious (use of rites, moral precepts, definition of God), and some philosophical.

Despite the highly charged emotionality of much that we associate with Hinduism (colorful festivals, charismatic fakirs and gurus, ecstasies and spectacular mortifications), a rational process of abstract thought, articulated by philosophers within the Vedic context, underpins this rich and ancient tradition. Brahman, the essence of being, is synonymous with atman, the inner light or "god-within." Men and women are suppressed in the material world of samsara and destined to journey through an eternity of rebirths via the law of karma unless they can achieve samadhi (enlightenment). One who would transcend the world of pain, pleasure and distraction to experience total identity with the Absolute must follow a rational program of meditation, austerities and good works. Within the tradition, there was ample room for redefinition of ideas, debate and the development of schools of thought as well as the emergence of individual thinkers such as Patanjali and Shankara.

As Hinduism became enmeshed with the cultural life of India, however, even its most esoteric protagonists became distracted from its original concepts and their subsequent development, according to some critics of the time. Ritual de-evolved into magic shows, and austerities undertaken to remove distractions from the spiritual and intellectual quest became in themselves distractions, as renunciants became fixated on states of discomfort and starvation. It was during a period of calm reflection away from these mortifications that the monk Gautama Siddharta became flooded with insight and developed a less colorful, but more intellectual approach to the pursuit of truth which we call Buddhism.

One of the most appealing premises of Buddhism to Western thinkers is its emphasis on individual exploration, deliberation, debate and practice. According to the Buddha himself, enlightenment (however we choose to interpret it--whether a high state of understanding or a genuine mystical experience of ultimate reality) cannot be reached by a team effort. Ultimately, it is one man or woman working alone who can uncover the path to truth. Buddha reportedly said, "Accept my words only after you have examined them for yourselves; do not accept them simply because of the reverence you have for me."7 It was just this emphasis on individual action and practical rewards in the here and now which greatly appealed to many Chinese once the philosophy crossed their borders. This idiosyncratic quality was developed in China (where it became the Mahayana school) far beyond the direction it took in Southern climates (the Theravada school).

The philosophy of Buddhism developed in various forms in India in accordance with certain basic tenets, most notably the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path.


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