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(13 pages total)

Page 7 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Buddhist Incense Urn

Interpreting the Dharma to fit Chinese culture:

According to Nakamura, Chinese scholars have a predilection for specificity in literature, history and philosophy. So much so, in fact, that if specificity is lacking, they will provide the needed details by inventing them. This even applies to mythological figures, who are often placed in exact historical contexts, a process called, euhemerism. (E.g., the Buddhist divinity Yama, King of Hell, became literally identified with a Sui dynasty official who died in 592 C.E., according to Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History.)

The existence of so many detailed descriptions of what the Buddha said to whom in Chinese translations of sutras is no proof that Buddha actually said or did any of these things. Rather, it is proof of the boundless imagination, compulsiveness and creativity of the Chinese in painstakingly making up history to accord with their definition of what a worthy scripture should be11 (at least, in Nakamura's opinion). "China's classical conservative ways of thinking modified the form of its reception of Buddhism," Nakamura writes. "Chinese Buddhists...took over the doctrine founded and taught by Sakyamuni, and considered it their duty to exalt their interpretation of his teaching, in spite of the fact that Chinese Buddhism differs from Indian Buddhism in many respects. Therefore, they rewrote arbitrarily even the sentences of the sutra."

Nakamura cites an example in which a tenet is expressed "just the opposite of its original meaning": the original in the Fa Hua Ching states, "An enlightened self opened his eyes to the Truth without looking to his master for help," while the Chinese translation reads, "he listened to the Buddha's law (which is, of course, "looking to his master for help") and accepted it as being true. "

In their search for historical sources of authority for every idea, scholars routinely poured new philosophical wine into old pedagogical wineskins, making sure to backdate, classify, code and make precise-sounding attributions. This was not through a desire to deceive, but to provide continuity and order, two of the governing principles of all Chinese life. This compulsiveness about specificity applied to both Mahayana and Zen throughout their long history in China.

Once the scriptures were properly coded, classified and "Sinologized," many Chinese were ready for the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism. One of its appeals during its period of greatest acceptance was the promise of a higher life beyond the suffering of the present, something which neither Confucianism with its veneration of family lineage, and Taoism, with its cheerful stoicism and vague nature-worship, could not provide. Unlike the Theravada school popular in southern Asia, however, Mahayana Buddhism placed less emphasis on personal salvation and more focus on helping others achieve the goal of liberation. While the Buddhist was likely to become a self-focused renunciant and pursue personal realization, the Mahayanist was enjoined to defer spiritual gratification until "all sentient beings" were liberated. This led to the ideal of the bodhisattva, the saint who comes to the threshold of Nirvana and proceeds no further, accepting reincarnation in the world until others experience freedom. Although this is usually presented in a religious context, I like to think that it applies to the world of ideas as well, both religion and philosophy being inextricably intertwined in Asian thought and experience. Bodhisattvic philosophers would not be content with thinking things through for themselves; they wouldn't rest until their students, too, were well on their way to understanding.


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