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Exploring Buddhism and Zen
By Nan Huai-Chin
Samuel Weiser, Inc.Copyright © 1997 Nan Huai-Chin
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Buddhism and the Culture of India
THE DEVELOPMENT OF INDIAN CULTURE
The formation and growth of any religion is sure to have a cultural background. As is common knowledge, in the present-day world, if we speak of civilizations with a long history and cultural tradition, there are only China and India in the East, and Egypt and Greece in the West. These are called the world's four great ancient civilizations.
The glorious history of Greece is already a thing of the past, but its cultural legacy has mixed with other elements and spread, contributing to the formation of the modern civilization of Europe and America. Egyptian civilization is already remote and hidden in the mists, and only some fragments of its grandeur remain. Indian civilization, especially the Buddhist civilization which has made such an impact on the world and has shone brightly from ancient to modern times, has already been completely assimilated in the territory of Chinese civilization, through a process that lasted from the end of the Han dynasty through the Song dynasty.
Greek civilization represents the West. It developed first from a religion to a philosophy; from a philosophy it evolved into science, bringing about the modern Western culture. Thus one can say that it has many flourishing offshoots.
If people in today's world want to inquire into the source of the various great religious civilizations, they soon find that, ultimately, all these civilizations had their origins in the East. This is particularly true of Buddhist civilization, which long ago became interconnected with Chinese civilization to form a single whole. Its widespread influence thus goes without saying. But when we trace the source and seek the background of the sudden rise of Buddhism in India, and examine its development into a great stream radiating in all directions after its transmission to China, we are sure to uncover a definite sequence of cause and effect. Therefore, to understand the birth of Buddhist civilization and its gestation in the civilization of the preceding period, we must first have some elementary knowledge of traditional Indian civilization.
The Background of Indian Culture
Humans are born between heaven and earth, and it is unavoidable that both climate and geographical circumstances are important factors in shaping a people's civilization. India is a peninsula in southern Asia, and its geography and climate have obvious differences from lands in other regions. Southern India extends into the tropics, while northern India is next to the Himalaya Mountains and central India has a temperate climate. For the people of ancient India, the yearly cycle, in accord with the climate, was divided into three seasons of four months each. Because of India's location between the temperate and the tropical zones, the physical and mental activity of its people, and, generally speaking, their way of thinking, was very lively. This is particularly true of the southern regions, which were even richer in mystical imagination.
From ancient times until today, the cultures and languages of India have never been unified. In ancient India, there were more than fifty or sixty writing systems. These are generally lumped together under the single term Sanskrit for all forms of Indian written language, but in reality, Sanskrit is just one of the many written languages of India. There are still several dozen languages current in India today. China was able to unify its weights and measures and its written language because of the great unification it underwent in the Qin and Han dynasties (c. 220 B.C.-A.D. 200). But such was not the case for India. Though from ancient times until now it has always been called one country, in reality, India is still divided into various ethnic groups, each occupying its own area. Hence Indian culture has never really been unified.
During the period from the Zhou dynasty to the Qin dynasty in Chinese history (c. eleventh to third centuries B.C.), India was divided into various small states, just as China was. There were two or three hundred small principalities, each occupying its own territory and each having its own ruler. During this period, many schools of learning were established. The various schools of thought all claimed to teach the truth, although in just a single region there were more than a hundred different schools. In the cultural life of the people, there was one special characteristic: class divisions were very strict, and so noble and humble were sharply separated into castes and received very different treatment. This outlook remains deep-rooted and strong, despite all the attacks of 20th-century ideas of freedom and equality. Concerning this, we can only quote the proverbial observation: Something that has been so since ancient times will not change now.
The Indian system of four castes creates four traditional classes of people. First, the brahmans were hereditary specialists in rituals and sacrifices. They were the heart of instruction in religion and culture and ranked the highest of the castes. Hence of all the castes, they merited the highest respect. They were the upper stratum, functioning as spiritual and intellectual leaders. All military and political affairs were influenced by them. Second were the kshatriyas, the royal officers and warriors. They gathered together military and political power in a single lineage and became hereditary rulers. Third, came the vaisyas, the class of merchants, who possessed wealth and controlled trade, while the fourth class, the sudras, were a class of peasants who worked tilling and planting the land.
Besides these four, there was also a class of hereditary slaves and debased people who performed lowly occupations like butchering animals and so on. Their position was the lowest of all and their lives were very difficult and full of suffering. This ancient Indian system of four castes has remained solid and unbreakable for over three thousand years. The remnants of this way of thinking have still not been totally obliterated.
The brahman class controlled cultural education and, relying on the four Vedas, upheld the concepts of Brahman (the absolute) and Atman (the true self). This formed the Brahmanical religion that was the center of historical Indian civilization. This gradually spread out and influenced the thinking and consciousness of the three upper castes, the brahmans, kshatriyas, and vaisyas, toward the way of life of the shramana who leaves home to cultivate the path to self-realization.
For them, the ideal course of a person's life was divided into four periods. The first was a period of pure conduct, a period of life devoted to a young person's education. When they reached a certain age, young people would leave home to study the Vedas and other branches of learning. (For the disciples of brahmans, this was from age 8 to 16; for the disciples of kshatriyas, from 11-20; for the disciples of vaisyas, from age 12-24.) These disciples would spend a set period of time studying, for example, a term of twelve years, or twenty-four years, or thirty-six years, or forty-eight years. Only when the term was completed and their studies accomplished, could they return home to ordinary life.
The second period, the period of living as a householder, was one of maturity, when a person would marry and have children, undertaking the responsibilities of family life and fulfilling the duties of heading a household.
The third was a period of living in the forests. This was the period of middle age, when a person would live in seclusion in the forest, a period of life when the person concentrated on cultivating the path. Having already completed their obligations as householders during their mature years, from this point on people would live in seclusion to devote themselves to higher pursuits, diligently cultivate ascetic practices, and learn various methods of meditative concentration and contemplation, in order to seek the sublimation of the Atman to reach union with Brahman.
Fourth, came a period of withdrawal from the world. By means of cultivating practice in their middle years, when people entered their years of old age and decline, their life of cultivating practice would have reached a conclusion. Their bodies and minds would be absolutely purified, and they would have already perfected the fruits of the path. From this point on, they would seclude themselves in the forests, free from sensory entanglements and no longer participating in the affairs of the world.
This ideal human life was advocated and experienced not only by the brahmans themselves; the kshatriyas and vaisyas could also emulate it. But the sudras, the menial class, never had any way to share in it. This kind of religious life was thus fundamentally restricted. For this reason, there was a reaction among the kshatriyas, who gradually became dissatisfied with the old norms of thinking that placed the brahmans in the lead. The kshatriyas began to assert themselves and provided the impetus for new trends of thought in such fields as religion, philosophy, culture, and education. Thenceforth, they began to investigate the real truth about the world, to seek the ultimate of the Atman spirit, and to delve into the basic source of the myriad forms in the universe. Thus, as soon as the books of profound meaning called the Upanishads began to appear within Indian culture, they were pitted against the traditional spirit of the brahmans. But the position of the brahmans remained as preeminent as ever. Brahmanical thought had deeply penetrated Indian culture and was hard to change.
From the foregoing introduction, we can understand the source of the thought of the people of ancient India and their cultural background. Due to the specifics of their geographical circumstances and the natural climate, the ancient Indians liked contemplative pursuits and enjoyed setting their wills on lofty, far-reaching goals. Moreover, they already had the deeply rooted religion of Brahmanism and a pervasive system of religious thought. From the beginning of their history, the Indians tended toward the idea of leaving the world in order to seek to purify body and mind, and they considered living in retreat in the forest as the greatest enjoyment in human life. Thus their thought system was preoccupied with lofty concerns and tended toward empty imaginings. But most of all, returning from the lofty concept of Atman to ordinary human life, the intermediate level, a humanistic system of thought, was lacking. This contributed to the extremely rigid caste divisions and the extreme inequality of status between high and low. Even religious beliefs in ancient India could not arrive at concepts of equality and liberty.
Shakyamuni Buddha arose in response to these conditions. With his great vow of compassion, he founded the Buddhist religion, balancing out inequalities, keeping the good points from the preexisting culture and doing away with its shortcomings. He taught in response to what was good and beautiful in the human spirit, summing up a hundred generations of cultural tradition. He refuted the concept that humankind was divided into classes by nature, and pointed out how to elevate, refine, and perfect human nature.
The Religion and Philosophy of Ancient Indian Civilization
With the particular form and the rich contents of its thought systems, Indian civilization truly occupied an extremely important and preeminent position in world cultural history for about three thousand years, from roughly 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1000.
The following were major components of the thought of the ancient civilization of India:
The Vedas: Ancient Indian civilization is commonly called Vedic civilization. This was the period when the brahmanical religion was the center of culture. The education propagated by the brahmans determined the people's cultural consciousness. They relied totally on the Vedas for their central ideas. Veda means "treatise on wisdom" or "treatise of explanation." In other words, treatises which seek knowledge of the universe and of human life. They include three main sections: verses of praise and collections of mantras; books on pure conduct called Brahmanas, books of the brahmans, and books of spiritual learning; and books of abstruse meaning, called Upanishads, which are books of esoteric philosophy. There are four collections of verses of praise, called the four Vedas-, the Rig-Veda, containing elegies and chants; the Yajur-Veda, describing sacrifices; the Sama-Veda, containing songs; and the AtharvaVeda, containing prayers.
The Vedic elegies and explanations are the fount of Indian religion and philosophy. They pay homage to a multitude of gods and spirits. They offer worship and make songs of praise to Heaven and Earth, the Sun and Moon, the wind and clouds, the thunder and rain, and myriad natural phenomena, such as mountains and rivers and animals. Hence, the early Vedic religion can be called a primitive culture's pantheism. In their religious and philosophical message, the Vedas do not talk of hell and do not talk of the past. They do not contain the concept of cause and effect, nor of karmic rewards and punishments. However, they do hold that the human soul does not perish. Their idea is that, after the body dies, the soul returns to Yama's heaven. The Vedas teach that, in all matters relating to sacrificing to the gods and spirits, and all prayers to avoid calamities and attract blessings, the people can get a response by chanting the verses of the Vedas. This is quite similar to the prayers and incantations of the religious specialists in ancient Chinese culture. It is also like the primitive religious consciousness found among all the world's ethnic groups at a certain point in their history.
Gradually, in order to satisfy metaphysical needs, from this primitive religious belief there eventually arose accounts of the origin of humanity. The origin of humanity was due to a chief god who created everything. He was the supreme deity, the origin of the universe and of the human race. All the shapes and forms of myriad phenomena in the universe were also his creations along with humanity.
The books of pure conduct, called the Brahmanas, form the second section of the Vedas. As time moved forward, the philosophy of the Vedas could no longer fully meet people's needs. At this point, the books of pure conduct came into existence to spur on the brahman class and form a solidly constructed brahmanical religion. Most of the books of pure conduct still had as their essential message an affirmation of the sacrifices and songs that the Vedas used to offer praises to the gods and provide explanations of man and the world and formulas for praying to avert disasters and attract blessings.
As for their religious philosophy, the Brahmanas transformed the Vedic philosophy of a chief god who was the creator of all things and the origin of man. They revered a god who was the lord of creation, but held that this god was not apart from our true selves. This chief god was Brahman. The name "Brahman" means absolutely pure and perfectly real. The Brahmanas asserted that there is no duality between Atman, the true self of human beings, and the true self of Brahman. This is similar to the later Confucian idea of the unity of Heaven and mankind, and is similar to the message of other religions that God and mankind share the same essence.
Subsequently, this religious consciousness of Brahman, and the philosophy that there is no duality between Brahman and Atman, the true self of humans, became deeply implanted in Indian philosophical thought. This has endured all the way to the present day. The highest goal of modern Indian religion and its yogic techniques is still to reach the realm where Brahman and Atman are united as one.
Still, the brahmanical religion, based on revering and following the Brahmanas, the books of pure conduct, adhered at the same time to the Vedic traditions and paid homage to the grandeur of nature. It adopted the pervasive supernatural beings worshipped by the lower orders of society, namely the asuras, the rakshas, the evil spirits, and other spirits, and honored them all.
The only special point of the Brahmanas, compared to the brahmanical religion, is that they incorporated a religious philosophy of cause and effect and karmic reward and punishment. This is the theory that sentient beings revolve in the cycle of birth and death due to the force of karma. It explains that, because they planted different good and evil causal bases in their past lives, people receive different rewards of pleasure and suffering in their present lives. Based on this, there were also teachings concerning what they called "ascending to heaven" and "descending to hell." This is the original source of the teaching of karmic reward and punishment.
Excerpted from Basic Buddhism by Nan Huai-Chin. Copyright © 1997 Nan Huai-Chin. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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