Living in the Chinese Cosmos | Asia for Educators

Buddhism: The "Imported" Tradition*


Buddhism is an interesting form of Chinese religion for many reasons, not least because it was the first major religious tradition in China that was “imported” from abroad. (Other forms of Buddhism from Tibet and Mongolia, Christianity in different guises, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam would follow later.) Long after Buddhism had become a natural part of the Chinese religious landscape, many Chinese — Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike — still pondered the significance of the foreign origin of the religion.

First of all, although the historical Buddha was believed to have been a prince, thus placing him high on the scale of social respectability, in Chinese eyes he was, ultimately, a foreigner. His doctrine was preached using words that, to the Chinese ear, sounded foreign. The Buddha’s teachings were part and parcel of the early Indian worldview, which often differed from the early Chinese cosmology. And Buddhism brought to China a new form of social organization that  stood at odds with the traditional Chinese social structure: the institution of a celibate priesthood (Buddhist monks and nuns) supported by a lay community.

Many of these differences between Indian and Chinese cultures can be magnified in theory, and one can construct an ahistorical picture of radical difference between two imaginary, monolithic cultures represented by early Indian Buddhism and Chinese religion. It is important to question these handy but misleading stereotypes — which were sometimes used by a minority of anti-Buddhist critics in China. Most Buddhists in China had no independent access to Indian Buddhism, and the Buddhism they learned was already fully consistent with the rest of their social and religious world. The history of Chinese Buddhism consists of the interpretation and reinterpretation of the many strands of religious conception — some native to China and some translated from Indian texts — available to Chinese Buddhists. 


The propositions of Buddhism were articulated originally in the context of traditional Indian cosmology in the first several centuries BCE, and as Buddhism began to trickle haphazardly into China in the first centuries of the common era (CE), Buddhist teachers were faced with a dilemma. To make their teachings about the Buddha understood to a non-Indian audience, Buddhist teachers often began by explaining the understanding of human existence — the problem, as it were — to which Buddhism provided the answer.

Reincarnation and the Forms of Life. The basic elements of the early Indian worldview are worth reviewing here. In that conception, all human beings are destined to be reborn in other forms, human and nonhuman, over vast stretches of space and time; the process of reincarnation is without beginning or end; and life takes six forms, listed here in hierarchical order: 1) gods; 2) demigods; 3) human beings; 4) animals; 5) hungry ghosts, who wander in search of food and water yet are unable to eat or drink; and 6) hell beings — denizens of the various hells suffering a battery of tortures but who will all eventually die and be reborn again.

Gods of Buddhism. Like the gods of ancient Greece, the gods of Buddhism reside in the heavens and lead lives of immense worldly pleasure. Unlike their Greek counterparts, however, they are without exception mortal, and at the end of a very long life they are invariably reborn lower in the cosmic scale.

Karma. The logic that determines where one will be reborn is the idea of karma. Strictly speaking the Sanskrit word karma means “deed” or “action.” In its relevant sense here it means that every deed has a result: morally good acts lead to good consequences, and the commission of evil has a bad result. Applied to the life of the individual, the law of karma means that the circumstances an individual faces are the result of prior actions. Karma is the regulating idea of a wide range of good works and other Buddhist practices.

The Cycle of Existence. The wisdom to which buddhas awaken is to see that this cycle of existence (sasāra in Sanskrit, comprising birth, death, and rebirth) is marked by 1) impermanence — because all things, whether physical objects, psychological states, or philosophical ideas, undergo change; they are brought into existence by preceding conditions at a particular point in time, and they eventually will become extinct.; 2) unsatisfactoriness — in the sense that not only do sentient beings experience physical pain, they also face continual disappointment when the people and things they wish to maintain invariably change; and 3) lack of a permanent self (or “no self”), which has a long and complicated history of exegesis in Buddhism. In China the idea of “no-self” (Sanskrit: anātman) was often placed in creative tension with the concept of repeated rebirth.(1)

The Buddha provided an analysis of the ills of human existence and a prescription for curing them. Those ills were caused by the tendency of sentient beings to grasp, to cling to evanescent things in the vain hope that they remain permanent. In this view, the very act of clinging contributes to the perpetuation of desires from one incarnation to the next. Grasping, then, is both a cause and a result of being committed to a permanent self.

The Path to Salvation. Traditional formulations of Buddhist practice describe a path to salvation that begins with the observance of morality. Lay followers pledged to abstain from the taking of life, stealing, lying, drinking intoxicating beverages, and engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. Further injunctions applied to householders who could observe a more demanding lifestyle of purity, and the lives of monks and nuns were regulated in even greater detail. With morality as a basis, the ideal path also included the cultivation of pure states of mind through the practice of meditation and the achieving of wisdom rivaling that of a buddha. 


The Buddha. It is important to consider what kind of a religious figure a buddha is thought to be. One can distinguish two separate but related understandings of what a buddha is. In the first understanding the Buddha (represented in English with a capital B) was an unusual human born into a royal family in ancient India in the sixth or fifth century BCE. He renounced his birthright, followed established religious teachers, and then achieved enlightenment after striking out on his own. He gathered lay and monastic disciples around him and preached throughout the Indian subcontinent for almost fifty years, and he achieved final “extinction” (the root meaning of the Sanskrit word nirvāa) from the woes of existence.

This unique being was called Gautama (family name) Siddhārtha (personal name) during his lifetime, and later tradition refers to him with a variety of names, including Śākyamuni (literally “Sage of the Śākya clan”) and Tathāgata (“Thus-Come One”). Followers living after his death lack direct access to him because, as the word “extinction” implies, his release was permanent and complete. His influence can be felt, though, through his traces — through gods who encountered him and are still alive, through long-lived disciples, through the places he touched that can be visited by pilgrims, and through his physical remains and the shrines (stūpa) erected over them.

buddhas. In the second understanding a buddha (with a lowercase b) is a generic label for any enlightened being, of whom Śākyamuni was simply one among many. Other buddhas preceded Śākyamuni’s appearance in the world, and others will follow him, notably Maitreya (Chinese: Mile), who is thought to reside now in a heavenly realm close to the surface of the Earth. Buddhas are also dispersed over space: they exist in all directions, and one in particular, Amitāyus (or Amitābha, Chinese: Emituo), presides over a land of happiness in the West.

bodhisattvas. Related to this second genre of buddha is another kind of figure, a bodhisattva (literally “one who is intent on enlightenment,” Chinese: pusa). Bodhisattvas are found in most forms of Buddhism, but their role was particularly emphasized in the many traditions claiming the polemical title of Mahāyāna (“Greater Vehicle,” in opposition to Hīnayāna, “Smaller Vehicle”) that began to develop in the first century BCE. Technically speaking, bodhisattvas are not as advanced as buddhas on the path to enlightenment. While buddhas appear to some followers as remote and all-powerful, bodhisattvas often serve as mediating figures whose compassionate involvement in the impurities of this world makes them more approachable. Like buddhas in the second sense of any enlightened being, bodhisattvas function both as models for followers to emulate and as saviors who intervene actively in the lives of their devotees. Bodhisattvas particularly popular in China include Avalokiteśvara (Chinese: Guanyin, Guanshiyin, or Guanzizai); Bhaiajyaguru (Chinese: Yaoshiwang); Ks̩̩itigarbha (Chinese: Dizang); Mañjuśrī (Chinese: Wenshu); and Samantabhadra (Chinese: Puxian). 


In addition to the word “Buddhism” (Fojiao), Chinese Buddhists have represented the tradition by the formulation of the “three jewels” (Sanskrit: triratna, Chinese: sanbao). Coined in India, the three terms carried both a traditional sense as well as a more worldly reference that is clear in Chinese sources.(2)

The first jewel is buddha, the traditional meaning of which has been discussed above. In China the term refers not only to enlightened beings, but also to the materials through which buddhas are made present, including statues, the buildings that house statues, relics and their containers, and all the finances needed to build and sustain devotion to buddha images.

The second jewel is the dharma (Chinese: fa), meaning “truth” or “law.” The dharma includes the doctrines taught by the Buddha and passed down in oral and written form, thought to be equivalent to the universal cosmic law. Many of these teachings are expressed in numerical form, like the three marks of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self, discussed above); the four noble truths (unsatisfactoriness, cause, cessation, path); and so on.

As a literary tradition the dharma also comprises many different genres, the most important of which is called sūtra in Sanskrit.(3) Sūtras usually begin with the words “Thus have I heard. Once, when the Buddha dwelled at ... ” That phrase is attributed to the Buddha’s closest disciple, Ānanda, who according to tradition was able to recite all of the Buddha’s sermons from memory at the first convocation of monks held after the Buddha died. In its material sense the dharma referred to all media for the Buddha’s law in China, including sermons and the platforms on which sermons were delivered, Buddhist rituals that included preaching, and the thousands of books — first handwritten scrolls, then booklets printed with wooden blocks — in which the truth was inscribed.

The third jewel is sagha (Chinese: sengqie or zhong), meaning “assembly.” Some sources offer a broad interpretation of the term, which comprises the four sub-orders of 1) monks; 2) nuns; 3) lay men; and 4) lay women. Other sources use the term in a stricter sense to include only monks and nuns, that is, those who have left home, renounced family life, accepted vows of celibacy, and undertaken other austerities to devote themselves full-time to the practice of religion.

The differences and interdependencies between householders and monastics were rarely absent in any Buddhist civilization. In China those differences found expression in both the spiritual powers popularly attributed to monks and nuns and the hostility sometimes voiced toward their way of life, which seemed to threaten the core values of the Chinese family system. The interdependent nature of the relationship between lay people and the professionally religious is seen in such phenomena as the use of kinship terminology — an attempt to re-create family — among monks and nuns and the collaboration between lay donors and monastic officiants in a wide range of rituals designed to bring comfort to the ancestors.

“Sagha” in China also referred to all of the phenomena considered to belong to the Buddhist establishment. Everything and everyone needed to sustain monastic life, in a very concrete sense, was included: the living quarters of monks; the lands deeded to temples for occupancy and profit; the tenant families and slaves who worked on the farm land and served the sagha; and even the animals attached to the monastery farms. 


Many overviews of Chinese Buddhist history are organized by the template of Chinese dynasties. In this perspective, Buddhism began to enter China as a religion of non-Chinese merchants in the later years of the Han dynasty. It was during the following four centuries of disunion, including a division between non-Chinese rulers in the north and native (“Han”) governments in the south as well as warfare and social upheaval, that Buddhism allegedly took root in China. Magic and meditation ostensibly appealed to the “barbarian” rulers in the north, while the dominant style of religion pursued by the southerners was philosophical.

During the period of disunion, the general consensus suggests, Buddhist translators wrestled with the problem of conveying Indian ideas in a language their Chinese audience could understand; after many false starts Chinese philosophers were finally able to comprehend common Buddhist terms as well as the complexities of the doctrine of emptiness.

Most textbooks treat the Tang dynasty as the apogee or mature period of Buddhism in China. During the Tang dynasty Buddhism was finally “Sinicized” or made fully Chinese. The Tang saw unprecedented numbers of ordinations into the ranks of the Buddhist order; the flourishing of new, allegedly “Chinese” schools of thought; and lavish support from the state.

After the Tang, it is thought, Buddhism entered into a thousand-year period of decline. Some monks were able to break free of tradition and write innovative commentaries on older texts or reshape received liturgies, some patrons managed to build significant temples or sponsor the printing of the Buddhist canon on a large scale, and the occasional highly placed monk found a way to purge debased monks and nuns from the ranks of the saṅgha and revive moral vigor, but on the whole the stretch of dynasties after the Tang is treated as a long slide into intellectual, ethical, and material poverty.

Stated in this caricatured a fashion, the shortcomings of this approach are not hard to discern. This approach accentuates those episodes in the history of Buddhism that intersect with important moments in a political chronology, the validity of which scholars in Chinese studies increasingly doubt. The problem is not so much that the older, dynastic-driven history of China is wrong as that it is limited and one-sided. While traditional history tends to have been written from the top down, more recent attempts argue from the bottom up. Historians in the past forty years have begun to discern otherwise unseen patterns in the development of Chinese economy, society, and political institutions. Their conclusions, which increasingly take Buddhism into account, suggest that cycles of rise and fall in population shifts, economy, family fortunes, and the like often have little to do with dynastic history — the implication being that the history of Buddhism and other Chinese traditions can no longer be pegged simply to a particular dynasty.

Similarly, closer scrutiny of the documents and a greater appreciation of their biases and gaps have shown how little we know of what really transpired in the process of the control of Buddhism by the state. The Buddhist church was always, it seems, dependent on the support of the landowning classes in medieval China . And it appears that the condition of Buddhist institutions was tied closely to the occasional, decentralized support of the lower classes, which is even harder to document than support by the gentry. The very notion of rise and fall is a teleological, often theological, one, and it has often been linked to an obsession with one particular criterion -- accurate translation of texts, or correct understanding of doctrine -- to the exclusion of all others.

The Translation of Buddhist Texts. The translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and other Indic and Central Asian languages into Chinese constitutes a large area of study. Although written largely in classical Chinese in the context of a premodern civilization in which relatively few people could read, Buddhist sūtras were known far and wide in China. To mention just three examples: 1) The seemingly magical spell (Sanskrit: dhāraṇī) from the Heart Sūtra was known by many; 2) stories from the Lotus Sūtra were painted on the walls of popular temples; and 3) religious preachers, popular storytellers, and low-class dramatists alike drew on the rich trove of mythology provided by Buddhist narrative.

Scholars of Buddhism have tended to focus on the chronology and accuracy of translation. Since so many texts were translated (one eighth-century count of the extant number of canonical works is 1,124) (4), and the languages of Sanskrit and literary Chinese are so distant, the results of that study are foundational to the field. To understand the history of Chinese Buddhism, it is indispensable to know what texts were available when, how they were translated and by whom, how they were inscribed on paper and stone, approved or not approved, disseminated, and argued abouts. (5)

Schools of Buddhism in China. The projection of categories derived from European, American, and modern Japanese religious experience onto the quite different world of traditional Chinese religion is perhaps most apparent in the tendency of traditional scholarship to treat Chinese Buddhism primarily as a matter of distinct schools or sects. Monks and other literati did indeed make sense of their history by classifying the overwhelming number of texts and teachings they inherited under distinctive trends, and some members of the Buddhist elite claimed allegiance to certain ideals at the expense of others. But any clear-cut criterion of belief, like the Nicene Creed, or a declaration of faith like Martin Luther’s, is lacking in the history of Chinese Buddhism.

It may have been only in the fourteenth century that there developed any social reality even approximating Ernst Troeltsch’s definition of a sect as a voluntary religious association that people consciously choose to join and that excludes participation in other religious activities -- and even then, the type of sect that developed, the Teaching of the White Lotus (Bailian jiao), was only tenuously connected to the “schools” of Chinese Buddhist thought on which scholars usually focus.

Trends of thought and clearly identified philosophical issues are part of Chinese Buddhist history from the early centuries, and in the sixth through eighth centuries some figures identified themselves as concerned with one particular scripture: authors in the Tiantai school (named after Mount Tiantai) focused on the Lotus Sūtra, and figures of the Huayan school emphasized the comprehensive nature of the Huayan (“Flower Garland”) Sūtra. But the founders of these schools -- identified as such only by later generations -- and their followers never stopped reading broadly in a wide range of Buddhist texts.

Certain emphases also developed in Chinese Buddhist practice and Buddhology, foremost among them the invocation of the name of Amitāyus Buddha (nianfo, “keeping the Buddha in mind”), whose powers to assist those who chanted his name and whose resplendent paradise are described at length in scriptures affiliated with the Pure Land (Jingtu) school. In China, however -- in contrast to late medieval Japan -- dedication to Amitāyus Buddha was rarely viewed as a substitute for other forms of practice.

Esoteric forms of Buddhism, characterized by restricting the circulation of knowledge about rituals to a small circle of initiates who perform rituals for those who lack the expertise, were also a strong force in Chinese Buddhism. But here too, even as they performed rites on behalf of individuals or to benefit the state, the monks of the Zhenyan (Sanskrit: Mantra, “True Word”) school participated in other forms of Buddhist thought and practice as well.

Even the school of Chan (“Meditation”), known in Japanese as Zen, which claimed to be founded on an unbroken transmission from Śākyamuni through twenty-eight Indian disciples to the first Chinese disciple in the late fifth century, was far less exclusive than its rhetoric seems to allow. Claims about transmission, the naming of founders, and the identification of crucial figures in the drama of Chan history were always executed retroactively. The tradition, which claimed its own content to be a non-content, was not so much handed down from past to present as it was imagined in the present, a willful projection into the future, against the reality of a heterogeneous past. As a “school” in the sense of an establishment for teaching and learning with monastery buildings, daily schedule, and administrative structure, Chan came into existence only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and even then the social institution identified as “Chan” was nearly identical to institutions affiliated with other schools.

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Notes and References
(1) That is, on the one hand, Buddhist teachers tried to convince their audience that human existence did not end simply with a funeral service or memorial to the ancestors, that humans were reborn in another bodily form and could thus be related not only to other human beings but to animals, ghosts, and other species among the six modes of rebirth. To support that argument for rebirth, it was helpful to draw on metaphors of continuity, like a flame passed from one candle to the next and a spirit that moves from one lifetime to the next. On the other hand, the truth of impermanence entailed the argument that no permanent ego could possibly underlie the process of rebirth. What migrated from one lifetime to the next were not eternal elements of personhood but rather temporary aspects of psychophysical life that might endure for a few lifetimes -- or a few thousand -- but would eventually cease to exist.
(2) On the extended meaning of the three jewels in Chinese sources, see Jacques Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries, trans. Franciscus Verellen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 67.
(3) The Sanskrit word refers to the warp thread of a piece of cloth, the regulating or primary part of the doctrine (compare its Proto-Indo-European root, *syū, which appears in the English words suture, sew, and seam). The earliest Chinese translators of Buddhist Sanskrit texts chose a related loaded term to render the idea in Chinese: jing, which denotes the warp threads in the same manner as the Sanskrit, but which also has the virtue of being the generic name given to the classics of the Confucian and Daoist traditions.
(4) Kaiyuan shijiao lu, Zhisheng (669-740), T 2154, 55:572b.
(5) For more about issues concerning the translation of Buddhist texts, please see Stephen F. Teiser, “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” p. 17.

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