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(13 pages total)

From India to China: Transformatons in Buddhist Philosophy

In a sense, Buddhism never was accepted in China. At least not in its purely Indian form. Legends abound about Indians such as Bodhidharma introducing various forms of Buddhism to China, but these tales tell us little about the gradual textural changes which result when the yeast of a foreign view of being penetrates and permeates the life of a nation as already rich and diversified as medieval China.

Buddhism didn't march into China with the entourage of the 28th Patriarch, but rather trickled in--the way most ideologies with staying power latch themselves to the minds and imaginations of a people. Much of this trickling occurred during the time of Emperor Mind (68-75 C.E.). By 200 A.D., Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures were beginning to appear.1

There are certain characteristics of Indian Buddhism, moreover, which were abhorrent, or at least incomprehensible, to the practical Chinese mind. With its tradition of asceticism inherited from Hindu thought, the Indian Buddhist could easily embrace the kind of deferred gratification prescribed in meditation (meditate and fast moderately now; attain Nirvana later). Brushstroke The Chinese, immersed in a tradition which celebrated hard work and a satisfying life of the senses--including the sense of humor--undoubtedly chuckled at this and other attitudes and practices which seemed other-worldly and irrelevant to day-to-day life. But being a practical people, many also could see some compelling ideas and qualities in Buddhism with value for their lives as individuals and a society.

Cultural Differences Between China and India

Until the 20th century, Buddhism was the only religion assimilated into Chinese civilization. Chinese philosophy--before and since the advent of Buddhism--crystallized between 250 and 600 A.D. in Confucianism and Taoism, with their emphasis on practical matters, such as family, civic duty, harmoniousness and concord with the natural order. One of the factors shaping the formulation of Chinese thought before Buddhism was the nature and structure of the Chinese language.

As the characteristics of the Greek language gave Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the tools to think in terms of general philosophical concepts ("the Good," for example) and dialectical technique, so the qualities of ancient Chinese, with its emphasis on the particular rather than the general and its conduciveness to harmonious resolution rather than debate, helped shape the kinds of thinking which took place in China thousands of years ago up until our time. Nakamura demonstrates the concreteness of Chinese language by pointing out that Chinese for universe or cosmos is expressed as shan, ho, ta-ti, "mountains, rivers and the great earth." The expression for human ego, ts'ao-yuan i-ti-shui , literally is translated as "the wind and light of one's native place."2 Abstract thought dealing with generalities and overall concepts does not come readily to those whose vocabulary is so individualized and particular.

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