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(13 pages total)

Page 8 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


Because Buddhism was a foreign influence, however, and everything "barbarian" was suspect, certain Chinese critics were jolted out of complacency by the spread of the dharma . An invigorating side-effect of the advent of Buddhism was this critical reaction among many scholars, who were forced into the position of challenging new ideas and defending their long-held position, much in the spirit of Indian and Western dialectic. According to Mather, Nirvana lay entirely outside the realm of traditional Chinese ideas of reality.12 Chinese thinkers had long been appalled by the (inferior) Indian position that the sensual world and its operating principle (the Tao) were "mere illusion," not to mention downright evil. In the first four centuries of the Christian Era, this barbarian influence was infiltrating China just when it was least politically stable and more vulnerable to sedition. As the philosophy and practice infiltrated society, many traditionalists banded together to stop the foreign influence, not so much out of intolerance (an attitude flatly rejected by both Taoism and Confucianism), but because they felt that the Chinese world view was being turned upside down. Any time people's entrenched ideas are threatened...no matter how basically sound those ideas may be, it is like a "shot in the arm" for tired thoughts, providing a tonic which invigorates, freshens and inspires new ways of thinking. This was one of Buddhism's chief contributions to Chinese thought.

Several other adaptations occurred as Mahayana Buddhism crossed the Chinese borders. As the ancient Romans knew and demonstrated in their many conquests, new ideas are more readily accepted if they are presented in the language and culture of the foreign host. When not in Rome, one could say, do as the non-Romans do. Certainly, Mahayana Buddhism as strictly interpreted in India would not have fared well in China without assuming certain Chinese characteristics. Some of these were ritualistic and religious rather than philosophical, such as the introduction of spells and charms.

Nakamura clearly prefers the Indian form of Buddhism with its emphasis on abstract ideas and uses the incorporation of magical phrases as an example of the corruption of Buddhist thought in China. He pejoratively includes a phrase such as "Om mani padme hum" in the category of magical charms. Yet, this phrase has its roots in both India and Tibet as a mantra--something very different than a charm or spell--used to focus the mind in concentration and to keep thoughts from wandering. Eknath Easwaran, a fine writer on Indian meditation who unfortunately has been semi-deified by his followers in recent years, likens a mantra to the large stick a tame elephant is made to carry through the marketplace, keeping his wandering trunk from scooping up melons and bananas from wayside vendors. There is no doubt, of course, that many Eastern people use mantras as charms and spells, much as Westerners may light candles to St. Anthony to help them find a lost watch. This doesn't detract, however, from the efficacy of mantras as a tool which a philosopher may use as he or she develops the set of mental and spiritual skills necessary to focus on metaphysical questions clearly, openly and incisively. As far as popular religion is concerned, Nakamura is of course correct: the Buddhist popular religion in China became more sensual and magical than its austere counterpart in India.


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