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Princeton University Press
Chinese Tranformation of Buddhism

Chinese Tranformation of Buddhism

by Kenneth Kuan Sheng Ch'en


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ISBN-13: 9780691619248
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1351
Pages: 356
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Chinese Tranformation of Buddhism

By Kenneth K. S. Ch'en


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07187-9



At the Tercentenary Celebration of Harvard University in 1936, the late Dr. Hu Shih presented an address entitled, "The Indianization of China," in which he discussed the role played by Buddhism in Indianizing Chinese life and thought. Dr. Hu contended that the plain, simple religion developed by the ancient Chinese consisted primarily of worship of ancestors, of natural forces, and of T'ien or heaven; of belief in the efficacy of divination; and of some vague notions of rewards and retributions. After Buddhism was introduced into China, the simple, practical Chinese were confronted with a hierarchy of heavens peopled by deities, some of whom have forms, desires, and passions just like ordinary human beings, others with forms only but no desires for sensual pleasures, and still others with no forms but only consciousness. Parallel to these heavens were a series of hells, hot and cold, in which the torments became progressively more tortuous and terrifying. In place of the vague notions of rewards and retributions, the Chinese learned that there was an all-pervasive force called karma, which operated inexorably to reward good deeds with meritorious rebirths, and evil deeds with rebirth in one of the evil modes of existence. The Chinese were also told that the phenomenal world is illusory, like a mirage or shadow, that life is suffering and transitory, that sensual pleasures are undesirable and therefore ought to be suppressed or eradicated, that the ideal pattern of life was withdrawal from society and family to a life of celibacy and mendicancy. The Chinese also learned that because of rebirth, their ancestors could very well be reborn as animals, and hence it would be wise to follow a vegetarian diet.

Slowly but steadily, such Indian ideas spread among the Chinese and found acceptance as the Chinese embraced Buddhism. By the T'ang dynasty, such ideas had permeated all elements of Chinese society. India was looked upon as the fountainhead of religious truths, and generations of pious Chinese monks braved the trackless sands of the Central Asiatic deserts and the awesome peaks of the Himalayas to go to India to drink of the words of wisdom there.

With the coming of the Sung dynasty, a reaction set in. The rational philosophers who emerged then sought to revive the ancient Confucian philosophy as a counterforce against what they considered to be the antisocial, individualistic, and other-worldly philosophy of the Buddhists. To their immense satisfaction, they found that the ancient Confucian texts, with some slight reinterpretations, discussed the same problems of life and the universe that the Buddhist texts did, but with the bonus that this Confucian philosophy, unlike the Buddhist, was directed toward the ordering of the family, the state, and the world. Though professing to be anti-Buddhists, these rational philosophers, Dr. Hu contended, were in fact subtly influenced by exposure to the Buddhist tradition, and were reinterpreting their ancient systems in the light of that tradition. He concluded that what the rational philosophers did was to secularize Buddhist ideas and, by so doing, spread them beyond the Buddhist monasteries to the whole Chinese population.

As an example of such Indianization, Dr. Hu referred to the suppression of human emotions and sensual desires. In pre-Buddhist China, Dr. Hu contended that there was no prohibition against the remarriage of destitute widows. The Sung rational philosophers proclaimed, however, that death by starvation is a small matter, but violation of chastity is a very important matter. The acceptance of such an idea by the Chinese gave rise to countless stone tablets erected in honor of chaste widows. By their suppression of human emotions and desires, and the eradication of simple human joys and pleasures, the rational philosophers were considered by Hu Shih to have been the most effective agents for the Indianization of China. Because Buddhism was the vehicle of this Indianization, Dr. Hu had on more than one occasion condemned Buddhism as one of the greatest evils to have befallen China.

While Dr. Hu has presented a strong case in favor of this thesis of Indianization, one is inclined to think that he has not presented a balanced account of the development of Buddhism in China. It is true that the process of Indianization did take place, but it is also true that another process was going on, namely, the adaptation of Buddhism to Chinese conditions. While Indian ideas were gaining ground, the Chinese were also fashioning changes in the Indian ideas and practices, so that Buddhism became more and more Chinese and more acceptable to the Chinese. I call this process the Sinicization of Buddhism in China.

When Buddhism was introduced into Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand, it found ready acceptance among the people in those countries. There Buddhism was the civilizing influence. With little or no attainments in the arts, literature, and thought, the Ceylonese, Burmese, and Thai welcomed Buddhism in the hope that their own cultural levels would be elevated by the superior civilization brought in with the religion. In China, however, the situation was different. Already possessed of a high level of civilization when Buddhism was introduced about the beginning of the Christian era, the Chinese were not totally overwhelmed by the new religion. It is true that for a few centuries, the Chinese were captivated by the overpowering religious panorama brought in with Buddhism, but in time, what some scholars call the basic personality or the local genius of the Chinese began manifesting itself. By this local genius or national character is meant the sum total of the cultural traits which the vast majority of the Chinese adhered to, traits that had been developed by them during their long history. It was through the manifestation of this local genius that they were able to choose ideas from the Indian religion and modify them to fit the Chinese situation.

Examples of such modifications may be seen in the concept and image of the bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Maitreya. In Buddhism there are two traditions concerning Avalokitesvara. According to the first, found in Chapter Twenty-four of the Lotus Sutra, Avalokitesvara is the epitome of mercy and compassion. He is ever on the lookout for people who are suffering, but he is specially concerned for those who are endangered by fire, water, demons, fetters, and sword. The second tradition is found in the Pure Land Sutra, which teaches that the Buddha Amitabha presides over a Western Paradise or Pure Land where all beings who have absolute faith in him will be reborn. When such beings die, they will be escorted to the Pure Land by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the chief helper of Amitabha. Amitabha does not leave his heavenly abode — he remains there forever — and so he has to rely on Avalokitesvara to rescue beings in the human world.

In Indian Buddhism, the bodhisattva appears in iconography in the male form, and after introduction into China there was no change, as his numerous images in Yün-kang and Lung-men bear testimony. Even paintings found in Tunhuang and dated as late as the latter half of the tenth century portray Avalokitesvara with a moustache. There is no question then that within the Buddhist tradition Avalokitesvara was regarded as a male deity.

With popular Buddhism, however, there is a different tradition which presents the bodhisattva in the delicate, beautiful, and slender female form so universally admired not only in East Asia but also throughout the art world of the West. In this popular form the deity is commonly referred to in the West as the Chinese Madonna, in the East as Sung-tzu Kuanyin, or Kuan-yin, the Giver of children. How and when such a metamorphosis took place is still a point of controversy among scholars. Eduard Erkes studied a stele dated in the sixth century which he claims contains a female representation of the deity, but this identification is by no means certain. It is more likely that the change was brought about under the influence of Tantric Buddhism, which became prominent in China during the eighth century through the translations and activities of the Tantric masters Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra. In Tantric Buddhism, the female element assumes a prominent position, and all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are said to have female consorts. The female consort of Avalokitesvara is called the White Tara, or in Sanskrit, Pandaravasini, Clad in white. In Chinese art of the T'ang dynasty may be found paintings of a female deity called Pai-i Kuan-yin, Kuan-yin, Clad in white. As for the Sung-tzu Kuan-yin, it is possible that this was developed out of the tradition in the Lotus Sutra that Avalokitesvara has the power to grant children to any woman who prays to him. It is also possible that the development grew out of the connection in Tantric Buddhism of PandaravasinI with the mandala Garbhakosadhatu, or Womb-Element Treasury. This connection with the womb could have led the Chinese to evolve the concept of the deity as the giver of children. A woman who was without child and desired one would have her wishes fulfilled if she went to the temple and paid her respects to the bodhisattva.

Maitreya likewise underwent a transformation in China. Very early in the Pali tradition Maitreya appears as the future Buddha waiting to be reborn on earth to purify the religion in some distant future. In the meantime he is a bodhisattva living in Tushita Heaven. On the whole he does not play an important role in Indian Buddhism. Only after he was introduced into China did he become an important figure. By the fourth century A.D., there was a Maitreya cult in which the devotees vowed to be reborn in Tushita Heaven in order to see Maitreya face to face. The popularity of the cult may be evidenced by the large number of Maitreya images in Yün-kang and Lung-men during the fifth and sixth centuries. In these early images there are no particular features to distinguish them from other images. After the seventh century the cult declined, to be replaced by the cult devoted to Amitabha and Avalokitesvara. When Maitreya reappeared in the thirteenth century, he took the form of a fat, laughing image, and he was referred to as the Pot-Bellied Maitreya or the Laughing Buddha. It appears that this image of Maitreya was based on legends surrounding the life of a tenth century Chinese monk with a wrinkled forehead and a mountainous belly. Apparently this monk was very popular with the ordinary people, who regarded him as a barometer for the weather. Whenever they saw him sleeping on the market bridge, they could expect good weather, but when they saw him scurrying for cover, they could expect rain.

At present this image of the pot-bellied and laughing Maitreya greets the visitor as soon as he enters a Chinese temple. Often he has a bevy of children climbing all over him. These features of Maitreya are very likely responsible for his popularity among the Chinese, who see in them representations of the life ideals of the Chinese. The fat belly denotes prosperity, for only a rich person can afford to eat sumptuously. The children denote a large family with many offspring, another ideal sought after by the Chinese.

The metamorphosis of these important Mahayana bodhisattvas took place in China, not in India or Central Asia, and through these changes the bodhisattvas became much more closely identified with Chinese life ideals and therefore more acceptable to the Chinese.

Further examples of such Sinicization may be cited here. One is the classification of the Buddhist sutras according to chronological periods, which may be attributed to the Chinese predilection for history. During the centuries after the introduction of Buddhism into China, a tremendous body of literature, conveying the widest assortment of doctrines and ideas, was translated into Chinese. This huge body of literature must have been a constant source of amazement to the Chinese, for how could one individual preach such a variety of teachings during his brief span of life? Moreover, how could one explain the numerous doctrinal differences taught in the Hinayana and Mahayana sutras? These problems led the Chinese Buddhists to undertake the task of organizing and classifying the entire corpus of literature according to periods and doctrines. By classifying the sutras according to chronological periods, the Chinese succeeded in bringing some order out of chaos. They accepted the tradition that all the sutras were preached by one person, but they claimed that the different sutras were preached by the Buddha during different periods of his life. The differences in doctrines were explained by the theory that the Buddha was preaching to different audiences during the different periods, hence he had to adjust his teachings to the intellectual capacities and the spiritual attainments of his listeners.

The T'ien-t'ai School founded by Chih-i (538-597) was the first to perfect this theory of classification by periods. According to Chih-i, the Buddha immediately after enlightenment preached the Avatamsakasutra. However, the abstruse doctrines and ideas contained in this sutra were far too advanced for his listeners, and the Buddha felt obliged to shift his emphasis. This inaugurated the second period of his ministry, during which he preached the simple Hinayana sutras, stressing such easy to understand doctrines as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and dependent origination. After twelve years of such preachings, the Master now felt that his followers were ready for something more advanced, so in the third period, which lasted eight years, he preached the elementary Mahayana sutras, which stressed the superiority of the bodhisattva ideal over that of the arhat. With this preparation out of the way, the Buddha next preached those advanced Mahayana sutras known as the Wisdom Sutras, which taught the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness, according to which all phenomenal existence is empty and illusory, and only the Absolute remains, unconditional, undefinable, and eternal. This period lasted twenty-two years. Finally in the last period, which took up the last eight years of his life, the Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra, which stressed the absolute identity of the contrasts, as opposed to the nonexistence of the contrasts taught in the fourth period.

Besides classifying the sutras according to periods, the T'ien-t'ai School also worked out a scheme according to the methods of teaching, and another according to the nature of the teachings.

The T'ien-t'ai School with its classification represented the Chinese attempt to establish an all-embracing school of Buddhism that could include all the manifold and diverse teachings of the master. The Chinese genius for organization and classification and the emphasis on history may be said to be the forces behind this comprehensive and encyclopedic venture.

Likewise, the Chinese genius may also be behind the establishment of the Ch'an School during the T'ang dynasty. By that time, besides the enormous body of literature translated, magnificent temples and monasteries had been constructed throughout the empire, and within them were beautifully decorated images of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, all serving as objects of worship and fervent adoration by the faithful. The translations of sacred texts, the construction of imposing temples, and the ritualistic adoration of images were all performed for the sake of merits which the performer hoped to reap as a reward for his deeds. For example, during the first half of the sixth century, Liang Wu-ti, one of the most avid supporters of Buddhism ever to sit on the Chinese throne, was reported to have said, "Ever since the beginning of my reign, I have built so many temples, copied so many sutras, and fed so many monks. What do you think my merits should be?" Also, excessive reliance was placed on the written word. Many of the Buddhist schools in China seized upon one text and regarded that as the authoritative word of the Buddha, thus giving rise to what might be called sutra-dogmatism. The T'ien-t'ai School placed its reliance on the Lotus Sutra, the Hua-yen on the Avatasaka, and the Pure Land on the Pure Land Sutra.

During the seventh century, some Chinese monks began to protest against this excessive reliance on the external paraphernalia of the religion and argued that the true essence of the religion was an inner experience. These protesting monks condemned the sutra-dogmatism that regarded one sutra as the norm of truth, and instead sought to return to that which was prior to the sutras. Accordingly they coined the following slogans: "Not relying on words or letters"; "An independent transmission outside of the teaching"; "Directly pointing to man's mind"; "Seeing his original nature and becoming the Buddha."


Excerpted from Chinese Tranformation of Buddhism by Kenneth K. S. Ch'en. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Acknowledgements, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. ix
  • List of Abbreviations, pg. 1
  • One. Introduction, pg. 3
  • Two. Ethical Life, pg. 14
  • Three. Political Life, pg. 65
  • Four. Economic Life, pg. 125
  • Five. Literary Life, pg. 179
  • Six. Educational and Social Life, pg. 240
  • Bibliography, pg. 305
  • List of Chinese and Japanese Words, pg. 315
  • Index, pg. 331

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