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(13 pages total)

Page 9 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


The Chinese who admitted Buddhism to their culture also had less tolerance for its mystical elements, according to Nakamura, at least as it pertains to Mahayana. Zen, on the other hand, is paradoxically the most and least mystical of religion-philosophies; most, if by mysticism you mean focus on the inner life and cultivation of insight; least, to the extent that Zen teaches that there is no other reality than everyday life....it is only our inability to see that is the problem. China was, after all, the home of Taoism, one of the premier mystical traditions of the world. Taoism, most noted in the West for its colorful rituals and magic, has as its foundation a profound tradition of introspection whose goal is understanding of the essential elements of life, as expressed through nature and beauty (this is not so different from the goal of many Western philosophers, though the methodology varies dramatically).

Although they often disagree, Suzuki, the great protagonist of Chinese Mahayana13, and Nakamura are united in their view that the Chinese have always been utilitarian, down-to-earth people, more concerned with creature comforts and practicality than the abstract concepts addressed by Buddhism. If this were so, however, would Buddhism have made any inroads at all? It may have been this hunger for intellectual satisfaction, as well as the universal need to imagine a meaningful afterlife and to discover that there is a purpose to living, which led many Chinese to embrace the new system of thought and morality encroaching from the south. The Chinese hunger for ideas, as opposed to a specific religious "solution", led to the unique symbiosis of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism in China through modern times--a situation where worldly people and intellectuals alike combined elements of all three philosophies in constructing their own, individual perspectives.

This emphasis on individualism also is a Chinese characteristic which shaded its approach to Buddhism. While the Theravada practitioners were more likely to live in rigid conformity as monastics, Mahayanists in China reflected the high value the Chinese placed on individuality. In fact, among the strongest criticisms leveled against Buddhists in the early years (when it was more closely associated with monasticism) was that it was "unnatural14 and other-worldly; clearly, it had to adapt to the Chinese view of the "real world" in order to succeed. This emphasis on the particular and personal, which is consonant with the limitations of the Chinese language, as mentioned earlier, underlies all aspects of Chinese culture and the formulation and expression of ideas. As Buddhism became more "human" in China, it also had something to contribute to Chinese ideas about man and his place in society. Apart from the strict social codes of Confucianism, there was little in Chinese ethical thought relating to the obligations of the individual to others not in his family15. One of the ways in which Buddhist ideas freshened stale patterns of thought and enriched the moral texture of the nation was through the introduction of altruism and the concept of the bodhisattva mentioned above. Nakamura paints the following portrait of pre-Buddhist ethics in China:

"...the Chinese always regarded themselves as confined to life around such limited human relations as the family, which provides the most intimate of personal relations. In ethics, for example, moral relations among only certain individuals, such as father and son, sovereign and subject, wife and husband, were considered important, so that the Chinese people tended to pay little attention to any international principles of morality or laws valid for society in all countries (such as the jus gentium ).


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