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(13 pages total)

Page 10 - From India to China: Transformations in Buddhist Philosophy


This may have been a natural way of edification. Chinese ethics was written and taught for the use of those who could read, the literate few who were the potential leaders of the people. The common people, being illiterate, were expected to follow the practices of the literate; hence if morality was taught to the literates, it would spread through the society.16 Statue of Buddha in Southern China

Chinese Buddhists criticized this "trickle-down" approach to situational ethics and proposed a generic ethos in which people could retain their individuality while assuming responsibility for others in society. In the understandably fragmented world of medieval China, this philosophy encouraged much-needed stability and improved the lot of individuals and families by improving society as a whole. What started out in India as an abstract concept, in China took root because it was an idea with practical consequences. From the first century onward, Buddhist ideas about man's responsibility to others resulted in the growth of relief measures to aid the poor, medical treatment even for the indigent and education offered through the temple. According to Nakamura, Chinese Buddhists performed these acts not out of individual concern for others, but rather "to identify with others" in the sense that one should achieve oneness with the Tao and identity with all sentient beings. This may be only partly true and to a certain extent contradicts his depiction of the extreme individualism celebrated by many intellectuals, especially in the artistically rich T'ang Dynasty. The concept of achieving unity with the Ultimate Principle in Taoism is really quite different from attaining a sense of literal oneness with one's fellow man, something the Chinese mind would find "too impractical" to carry out. The T'ien-t'ai sect (the most logical of Chinese Buddhist schools, active in the Sui and T'ang Dynasties) accepted "non-duality of self with other" as the fundamental principle inspiring altruistic and practical activities.17 However, this sect was not the predominant nor most typical Buddhist expression in China. The practice of Buddhist moral precepts, combined with the tangible, positive results of their implementation in society, may have been responsible for the growth of altruistic activity, rather than any idea of salvation through selfless service.


Zen and Chinese Thought

As alluded to earlier, Bodhidharma is credited with introducing Zen (Ch'an ) in the sixth century C.E. to a China which already had proven fertile ground for the development of Buddhism. Zen traces its origins back to the Buddha himself, who once held up a flower before a group of disciples. Seeing this, the disciple Mahakashyapa smiled in a special way, suggesting he had instantly attained enlightenment. Legend has it that in that nonverbal smile and the Buddha's subsequent approval of his disciple's insight that the tradition of Zen Buddhism was born.

In part, because of the popularity of Zen in the West, opposing intellectual camps are eager to claim Zen as their own. Saddhatissa claims that Zen, with its emphasis on personal salvation and sitting meditation, is more like Theravada than any other school of Buddhism. Other writers, like Robert Linssen, align it with the Chinese tradition of practicality and common sense and claim it is a philosophy-religion uniquely suited to modern times because of its matter-of-factness. Some critics extol its no-nonsense approach to direct living; others either approve or castigate its emphasis on introspection as a path to knowledge. There is no doubt, however, no matter which perspective is taken, that once the path of nonverbal, direct awareness entered the Chinese consciousness, profound changes occurred. To many observers, the convergence of Buddhism and Taoism in China and its later refinement in Japan produced the philosophy we know today as Zen.


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