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(13 pages total)

Page 6 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Map of Buddhist Influence

Saddhatissa states that Buddhism has been described in three short axioms: cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify your own mind.10 These axioms and the Eightfold Path may have set the moral parameters for Buddhism, but clearly do not constitute Buddhist practice or philosophy--just as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule do not constitute Christianity.

These suggestions for "better living through Buddhism" provide a context in which true reflection--the essence of Buddhism--and its consequences, whatever they may be, can occur. To use a simile which appears throughout Buddhist literature, when a man points to the heavens, we should not mistake his finger for the moon. Chinese thinkers, with their suspicion of generalizations and rigid religious dogma, were especially attracted to the idea that the doctrine (Dharma) and rules of conduct were not in themselves the end, but rather practical guides to help individuals achieve their highest potential.

Partly because of resistance in staunchly Hindu India, Buddhism began to spread northward into China in the centuries immediately following Buddha's death. It certainly was not met with open arms, but managed to find a niche in southern China by the first and second century by gradually adapting itself to Chinese attitudes and customs. The earthy Chinese were especially suspect of any philosophy emanating from a country whose prevailing philosophy of life was diametrically opposed to their idea of common sense (e.g., one which taught mortification in this life, happiness in the next). Nonetheless, if the Chinese had had opportunity to really observe their Indian neighbors, with their rich family life, colorful feasts and piquant cuisine, they would have realized that India had no shortage of joie de vie either.

Had the Chinese represented a united front, with a peaceful political climate and consistency in religion, ideas and culture, Buddhism may have had a more difficult time making itself known. However, during the Han and T'ang dynasties (approximately 250 to 600 C.E.), Buddhist ideas benefited from an unequaled state of instability and uncertainty, just the sort of environment which welcomes a point of view which admits that life is tough and that there is a way to overcome it, at least on a personal level. With the proliferation of short-lived states, disillusionment with Confucianism, widespread anarchy and invasions by non-Chinese in the north, Buddhism made major inroads into China, provided it adapted itself along the way. It was an immigration which included the appearance in the sixth century of the 28th Ch'an patriarch, Bodhidharma, (Ch'an became Zen when transported to Japan) and in thousands of less well-remembered monks who, without overt proselytizing, communicated an alternative way of living and thinking to men and women looking for a new answer to ancient concerns.


Chinese Forms of Buddhism: Mahayana and Zen

In whichever form it appeared (Mahayana or Zen), Buddhism in China took on a very different cast from its expression in India. Part of this is due to the Chinese way with words. Chinese scholars were quick to translate the sutras into their native tongue before 200 C.E., but not without reflecting certain national idiosyncrasies.


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