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).

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.

Great Buddha in Japan

Translators from Chinese into English often comment on the "ambiguity" of the Chinese language, how one character can have many meanings which can only be inferred from its relationship to other characters within a sentence. When, as in our time, ideas from a more intuitive language (Chinese) are introduced into a culture dominated by a more rational language (English), a rich amplification of consciousness can occur. People find new ways of looking at old problems and expand the circle of their thought processes. Just such an enrichment of consciousness occurred in reverse in China when Buddhist thought, conveyed through the logical-specific language of Indian Sanskrit (the root of Western language and abstract thought), entered its intuitive mental culture.

Indian and Chinese thought and culture were divided by more than language. Language mirrors and expresses the ideas, attitudes and even social conventions of a people. In the down-to-earth pictographs of the Chinese language, where every word-symbol has a highly specific and individualized meaning (e.g., a pictograph depicting a man standing in a house is the word-symbol for "man"), there is no place for metaphysical abstractions. Because the Chinese lived (philosophically) in the here and now and had little concern with ideas focused on the possible hereafter, their language developed with a singular shortage of word-symbols to express ideas of existence beyond the reality perceived through the senses. The most highly esteemed early Indian thinkers (anonymous sages who speculated within a religious consciousness), however, expressed the opinion that life was suffering and a sort of test or ironic game of Brahma. Like the extreme Christian fundamentalist of today, they thought and believed that life truly begins with death and that the senses are deceivers which mislead people into a path leading to the Indian version of hell (eternal rebirth into the world of sorrows until enlightenment frees them from their torments). This attitude shaped the development of the Sanskrit and related Indian tongues with the result that Indian language teems with words dealing with philosophical and religious abstractions Even today, yoga students use such classical Indian terms as samsara, maya, atman and many others, simply because they connote these abstractions better than any other language.

Another difference between Indian and Chinese language lies in the way ideas are expressed. Nakamura states that Indians are more likely to make abstract ideas the subject of a sentence or entire essay. The Chinese, on the other hand, usually make man the subject. (This provides an interesting contrast with Chinese art, where man is portrayed as only a very small part of a larger natural context; however, he is always conspicuous even if his presence is small--or perhaps because he is small--and, in this sense, may be said to be the subject of the artwork as well). Chinese would translate the Indian phrase, "Therefore, the sufferings accompany him," as, "Therefore, he endured various sufferings."3 While the Indian original employs the passive voice, the Chinese uses the active. The Indian sees man's role within the context of a larger, abstract whole; the Chinese interprets everything from a personal point of view. "Influenced by this way of considering all things anthropocentrically, most Chinese were apt to be utilitarian and pragmatic," wrote Nakamara. "In this respect their way of thinking has been different from that of most European scholastic and idealistic philosophers"4 who owe their language and philosophical method to Indian roots.

Indian and Chinese thought also divide in their use of logic, one of the most highly esteemed tools of philosophy in the West. Despite the intensity of popular, fundamentalist religious practices, major Indian thinkers did not consider sacred scriptures, sutras by famous men and traditions a reliable source of truth. Hsuan-tsang introduced one of the later schools of Indian logical thought (new Hetu-vidya) into China. This school accepted reason alone as the only authority, and acknowledged only the processes of inference (anumana ) and sense (pratyaksa ) as the basis for forming knowledge.5 However, this approach did not take root in China because of the high regard its thinkers had for traditional knowledge and known authorities.

The differences between Indian and Chinese culture and methods of thinking and communicating also extend to visual symbols. In Indian and Greek thought, the sphere--a three-dimensional embodiment of harmony--was the preferred symbol for the perfect expression of reality.6 According to Vaisesika philosophy, the building blocks of the universe ("atoms") were believed to be globular. Indian thinkers also considered the wheel to be a symbol of perfect reality, which accounts for the creation of huge stone juggernauts rolled ominously and symbolically through villages and cities. Here, the idea of motion was inherent in the symbolism of the wheel. Life was a wheel, in a sense, as human life rolls from birth to death to rebirth over countless incarnations. >


Chinese thinkers, however, once again revealed a different dimensionality in their thought processes. While the Indian symbol of perfect reality is three-dimensional and kinetic, the Chinese symbol, the circle, appears flat and stationary to the casual observer. Once Buddhism was imported into sections of China, the famous oxherding pictures developed, symbolizing man's evolution from unenlightened being (the farmer who does not have his ox) to the enlightened sage (man who has successfully searched for and found his ox). In this series of pictures, a circle is the final image, signifying perfect emptiness (not in the Western sense of barrenness, but rather to suggest ineffability). The circle appears throughout Chinese culture in many important contexts, such as the unit of the yin/yang icon.

Another difference in graphic expression of intellectual concepts lies in the realm of didactic diagrams. With a subtle Sanskrit vocabulary deftly dealing with abstractions, India had no need of the precise, particular visual aids which Chinese thinkers used to communicate ideas. Chinese thinkers traditionally relied on diagrams to both express and teach, such as the use of the circle of eight trigrams which form the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching (a Taoist sourcebook which has absorbed the attention of Chinese thinkers through the present day, and was adapted to a Buddhist interpretation shortly after the new philosophy penetrated China). Other examples of the use of didactic diagrams and illustrations are the Zen ox-herding pictures and the use of white and black-filled circles (and a complex network of interconnecting symbols and ideographs) to describe polarities in the philosophical writings of Feng-kuei Tsung-mi (780-841), a scholar who attempted to explain what he saw as the relationships between pure and impure mind (cited by Nakamura).

All of this points to the importance of concrete examples, particularity and individualism in Chinese thought and culture, as contrasted with the Indian model. This is important in our consideration of the way Buddhism changed Chinese thought, but also in the way that Chinese interpretation of Buddhist ideas and symbols changed some of the concepts of Buddhism.

Buddhist Ideas in India

As it developed in India, Buddhism was a rational evolution emerging from the context of Hindu (Vedantist) religion-philosophy. On the religious level, Buddhism accepted the Vedic posture that sense-based life is suffering and must be transcended to experience a higher state of realization, one's "own true nature," as it is frequently referred to in scriptures of both traditions. It differed from Hinduism, however, on a number of important points, some religious (use of rites, moral precepts, definition of God), and some philosophical.

Despite the highly charged emotionality of much that we associate with Hinduism (colorful festivals, charismatic fakirs and gurus, ecstasies and spectacular mortifications), a rational process of abstract thought, articulated by philosophers within the Vedic context, underpins this rich and ancient tradition. Brahman, the essence of being, is synonymous with atman, the inner light or "god-within." Men and women are suppressed in the material world of samsara and destined to journey through an eternity of rebirths via the law of karma unless they can achieve samadhi (enlightenment). One who would transcend the world of pain, pleasure and distraction to experience total identity with the Absolute must follow a rational program of meditation, austerities and good works. Within the tradition, there was ample room for redefinition of ideas, debate and the development of schools of thought as well as the emergence of individual thinkers such as Patanjali and Shankara.

As Hinduism became enmeshed with the cultural life of India, however, even its most esoteric protagonists became distracted from its original concepts and their subsequent development, according to some critics of the time. Ritual de-evolved into magic shows, and austerities undertaken to remove distractions from the spiritual and intellectual quest became in themselves distractions, as renunciants became fixated on states of discomfort and starvation. It was during a period of calm reflection away from these mortifications that the monk Gautama Siddharta became flooded with insight and developed a less colorful, but more intellectual approach to the pursuit of truth which we call Buddhism.

One of the most appealing premises of Buddhism to Western thinkers is its emphasis on individual exploration, deliberation, debate and practice. According to the Buddha himself, enlightenment (however we choose to interpret it--whether a high state of understanding or a genuine mystical experience of ultimate reality) cannot be reached by a team effort. Ultimately, it is one man or woman working alone who can uncover the path to truth. Buddha reportedly said, "Accept my words only after you have examined them for yourselves; do not accept them simply because of the reverence you have for me."7 It was just this emphasis on individual action and practical rewards in the here and now which greatly appealed to many Chinese once the philosophy crossed their borders. This idiosyncratic quality was developed in China (where it became the Mahayana school) far beyond the direction it took in Southern climates (the Theravada school).

The philosophy of Buddhism developed in various forms in India in accordance with certain basic tenets, most notably the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path.