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The Flower of Chinese Buddhism
By Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson
Middleway PressCopyright © 2009 Soka Gakkai
All rights reserved.
FROM INDIA TO CHINA
Buddhism as a World Religion
In The Living Buddha, I discussed the life of Shakyamuni, the founder of the Buddhist religion, and in the sequel, Buddhism, the First Millennium, I outlined the history of that religion as it developed in India during the first thousand years following Shakyamuni's death. In this, the third volume in the Soka Gakkai History of Buddhism series, I would like to describe the process by which this remarkable religion expanded beyond the borders of India, the country of its birth, spread across Central Asia, and entered China, where it underwent new developments that permitted its transmission to Korea and Japan.
As I have already pointed out in the preceding volumes, the Buddhism of Shakyamuni was destined not simply to remain a religion of the Indian people alone. Rather, it possessed characteristics of universal appeal that permitted it to transcend national and racial boundaries and present itself as a religion for all humankind. I would like here to focus on the process by which it spread beyond the country of its origin and was received in China, a country with a wholly different cultural background, and see just how that process functioned.
Indian Buddhism falls into two major categories. One is Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes referred to as Northern Buddhism because it spread to the countries to the north and east of India. The other is Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism, sometimes called southern Buddhism, as it spread to the countries south and east of India such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. Southern Buddhism was also known to some extent in the Greek and Roman worlds to the west of India. Here I propose to concentrate attention on the northern type, or Mahayana Buddhism.
There are several reasons for this decision. First of all, Japan is heir to the Mahayana tradition, and since I am writing from the standpoint of a Japanese Buddhist believer, I would like to throw light on the nature of this Buddhism that has been transmitted to Japan. In order to understand Mahayana Buddhism, we must observe the manner in which it was transmitted from India to China and the changes that it underwent in China before being further transmitted to Japan. In addition, I believe that by noting the way in which this religion moved from India, the country of its origin, and spread throughout countries of quite different cultural backgrounds such as China and Japan, we can perceive some of the characteristics that qualify Buddhism as a world religion.
When it was transmitted from India to other countries with very different languages and cultures, the religion of Shakyamuni naturally did not remain unchanged. Though the philosophical core of the religion stayed the same, various adaptations in matters of custom and procedure, along with significant shifts of doctrinal emphasis, took place as Buddhism was introduced to new environments so that in time China, for example, developed its own distinctive form of Buddhism, and the same process was repeated later in Japan.
In this respect, Mahayana Buddhism may be said to differ from the Theravada Buddhism of the southern tradition. Theravada Buddhism, as it developed in India and Southeast Asia, is generally perceived by its adherents as essentially an extension of the original Buddhism of India. But Mahayana Buddhism, because of the numerous elements introduced into it in the lands to the north and east to which it spread, came to differ so much from Indian Buddhism that it may almost be said to constitute a whole new religion.
My concern here, however, will be not so much with these later elements that were introduced into Mahayana Buddhism as with the fundamental elements that underlie Buddhism of all types — the universals of the religion, as it were. Shortly after Shakyamuni attained enlightenment sitting under the pipal called the bodhi tree in Buddhagaya, he determined not to keep his enlightenment to himself but to share it with others. Already, in that moment of decision, Buddhism may be said to have started on its path of development as a world religion.
Because this religion addressed itself to the problems of birth, aging, sickness, and death — problems that face every living person — it is in my opinion by no means destined to remain a religion of the East Asian and Southeast Asian peoples alone. Today, we see Buddhism spreading to the continents of Australia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America, and I am confident that this process will continue. The purpose of the present volume is to examine how Buddhism spread to China, and in that way come to understand something about the way it spreads from place to place, adapting itself to the needs of new cultures while at the same time preserving the living core of its basic teachings, that vital spark that enables it to go on living and growing more than twenty-five centuries after its initial founding.
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The Introduction of Buddhism to China
In the past, the commonly accepted account of the introduction of Buddhism to China placed that event in the tenth year of the Yongping era of the reign of Emperor Ming of the Later Han dynasty (25-220 CE), a date that corresponds to 67 CE by the Western calendar. Though there are different theories concerning the dates of Shakyamuni's birth and death, if we assume that he died around 486 BCE, the religion he founded was introduced to China about five hundred years after his passing.
According to one account, Emperor Ming dreamed of a golden man of unusual height flying in the air in front of his palace. Questioning his ministers as to the meaning of the dream, he was told that the golden man was the Buddha. He thereupon dispatched envoys to the regions west of China to seek knowledge of the Buddhist religion. The account goes on to state that the envoys dispatched by Emperor Ming eventually reached the land of people the Chinese referred to as the Yuezhi in northern India, where they encountered two Buddhist monks referred to in the account as Jiashe Moteng and Zhu Falan. From them, the envoys obtained Buddhist images and sutras running to six hundred thousand words, which they loaded on a white horse. Then, with the Buddhist monks accompanying them, they returned to the Han capital at Luoyang and settled down in a government office outside the western gate, in buildings that in time came to be known as the White Horse Temple. The Buddhist images are symbolic of the Buddha, the sutras of the Law, or dharma, and the two monks of the Order, and thus, according to this account, the three treasures of Buddhism — the Buddha; the dharma, or Law; and the sangha, or Buddhist Order — were officially introduced to China.
This story, which appears in slightly different form in a number of early Chinese works, has been subjected to vigorous attack. Scholars have pointed out numerous anachronisms and inconsistencies in it and have concluded that it is purely legendary in nature and cannot be accepted as historical fact. I am not as interested, however, in discovering just when the Buddhist religion was formally introduced to the Chinese ruler and his court — be it Emperor Ming or some other sovereign — as in learning when its teachings first reached the masses of people in China and brought to them a message of salvation from the pains of sickness, aging, and death.
Because of the enormous prestige of the imperial institution in China and the role played by the government in fostering the writing of history and the keeping of official records, the written accounts preserved from early China tend to focus principally on the lives and actions of the emperor and the ruling class and to take little notice of the lot of the common people. Therefore, we must be content with what information can be gleaned from such records, while surmising what we can about the manner in which the teachings of Buddhism spread among the Chinese populace as a whole.
In this connection, there is evidence to indicate that Prince Ying of Chu, a younger half-brother of Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty, paid honor to the Buddhist religion. According to his biography in The History of the Later Han, in his youth he was fond of wandering knights and adventurers and entertained a number of guests and visitors at his residence. It is probable that among the latter were monks or merchants from foreign countries who brought him news of the Buddhist religion. In his later years, he displayed a great fondness for the study of the Taoist doctrine of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi and "made offerings and paid honor to Fotuo," this latter term being a Chinese phonetic transcription of the word Buddha.
In the eighth year of the Yongping era (65 CE), Emperor Ming issued an edict permitting persons who had been accused of crimes calling for the death penalty to ransom themselves by payment of a certain number of rolls of silk to the government. Prince Ying of Chu, apparently suffering from an uneasy conscience because of something he had done, submitted thirty roles of silk to the throne, claiming that he had committed numerous faults and evil deeds in the past. The emperor, however, issued a statement saying that there was no need for such a payment and praising his younger brother for, among other things, "honoring the benevolent altars of the Buddha and fasting and purifying himself for a period of three months." He accordingly returned the ransom, instructing that it be used to prepare sumptuous feasts for the Buddhist laity and monks in the region.
This brief episode, recorded in the prince's biography in the official history of the dynasty, The History of the Later Han, not only tells us that a younger brother of the emperor paid homage to Buddhist images, but that there were Buddhist monks and lay believers residing in his territory, all of this before the year 67 CE, when the legend of Emperor Ming and the golden man says that Buddhism was first introduced to China. The region of Chu, the fief assigned to Prince Ying, was situated southeast of Luoyang, with its capital at Pengcheng. Prince Ying was enfeoffed as nominal ruler of the region in 52 CE, having previously lived in the capital, Luoyang. It is quite possible that he had already learned about Buddhism while he was in Luoyang and had begun his worship of Buddhist images at that time. If not, then we must suppose that Buddhism, after entering China from the west, had already spread as far as the region of Chu, where the prince became acquainted with it after going there in 52 CE.
Another important point to note in this account of Prince Ying is the fact that the emperor, in his proclamation concerning the matter, expresses open approval of the worshipping of Buddhist images and the giving of alms and support to followers of Buddhism. If the document is to be believed, then already in the time of Emperor Ming, the ruling house of China accorded open sanction to the practices of Buddhism.
In Chapter 108 of The History of the Later Han, "The Account of the Western Regions," the section on India relates the story of Emperor Ming's dream of the golden man and states: "The emperor thereupon dispatched envoys to India to inquire about the Way of the Buddha, and in time [Buddhist] images were painted in China. Prince Ying of Chu was the first to place his belief in its teachings, and thereafter in China there were many persons who honored its doctrines." This passage, too, seems to confirm the assumption that the Buddhist faith first took root in China in the time of Emperor Ming.
Given that The History of the Later Han was written by Fan Ye (398 — 445), who lived some three or four hundred years after the events that he described, it is not surprising that it should show the influence of popular legends. And yet, even though they are perhaps not entirely reliable as history, such legends seem to indicate that Emperor Ming showed considerable appreciation for the teachings of Buddhism, and it is probably no accident that the introduction of Buddhism has traditionally come to be associated with the name of that ruler.
Moreover, if, as the biography of Prince Ying indicates, there was already in the first century a member of the imperial family who placed faith in the Buddhist teachings, then it is only natural to suppose that the new religion had by this time won a certain number of converts among the populace as a whole. A knowledge of Buddhism was probably brought to China by merchants and travelers who journeyed to China over the Silk Road, the trade route linking China with Central Asia and the countries to the west. If this supposition is correct, then a knowledge of Buddhism must have reached the western portions of China first and from there spread to Luoyang and regions such as Chu to the east.
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Possible Earlier Contact with Buddhism
In addition to the accounts described above, there have been various legends or speculations that would push the date for the introduction of Buddhism to China back to an earlier period. The third century BCE Indian monarch King Ashoka, the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty, was an enthusiastic supporter of Buddhism and sent missionaries to the surrounding countries to spread its teachings. His reign corresponds roughly to that of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, the head of a feudal state who succeeded in uniting all China under his rule and in 221 BCE declared himself to be first emperor of the Qin dynasty, which lasted from 255 to 206 BCE. Under these powerful and dynamic monarchs, both India and China expanded their borders and reached out toward each other. It is not surprising, therefore, that Chinese Buddhists in later ages should have speculated that missionaries from King Ashoka's court reached China and introduced the Buddha's teachings. Traditional accounts of King Ashoka assert that he erected eighty-four thousand stupas to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. The Ming Fo Lun, a work by the Chinese scholar and painter Zong Bing (375-443), states that some of these stupas were discovered in the Shandong and Shansi regions of China and, when opened, were found to contain Buddhist relics.
According to another Chinese work, the Lidai Sanbao Ji by Fei Changfang, completed in 597, a party of foreign Buddhist monks reached China in the time of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, but the emperor had them thrown into prison. It also asserts that a monk known as Shi Lifang and a number of other worthy persons brought Buddhist sutras to China in the time of the first emperor. The emperor refused to listen to their teachings and eventually placed them in confinement, but they were freed by a miraculous being who appeared at night and broke open the prison walls. Because of the late date of the works in which these assertions appear and the supernatural elements mingled in them, it is difficult, however, to regard them as anything more than pious legends.
Other sources date the introduction of Buddhism to China to the time of another powerful Chinese ruler, Emperor Wu of the Former Han dynasty (206 BCE-25 CE), who reigned from 140 to 87 BCE. Emperor Wu dispatched an envoy named Zhang Qian to the regions west of China to learn what he could about the peoples living there. Zhang Qian returned to China in 126 BCE with eyewitness accounts of a number of states in Central Asia and reports of lands farther afield, such as India, Parthia, and the Roman Empire. The "Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism" in The History of the Wei by Wei Shou, compiled shortly after 520 CE, goes so far as to state that, as a result of Zhang Qian's mission, "The teachings of the Buddha were for the first time heard of." We may note, however, that the earlier accounts of Zhang Qian's mission in The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (around 145-90 BCE) or The History of the Former Han by Ban Gu (32-92 CE) make no mention of Buddhist teachings.
Shortly after the time of Zhang Qian's mission, in 121 BCE, Emperor Wu sent one of his most trusted generals, Huo Qubing, on an expedition against the Xiongnu, a nomadic people who lived in the desert regions north of China and from time to time plundered the Chinese border area. In the course of capturing or killing various Xiongnu leaders, Huo Qubing came into possession of a "golden man" that one of the Xiongnu leaders was said to have used in worshipping Heaven. This much of the story is recorded in the earlier and more reliable histories such as those mentioned above. The "Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism," however, goes on to state that Emperor Wu, regarding the image as that of a great deity, installed it in the Palace of Sweet Springs, where he burned incense before it and worshipped it. "This, then," says the "Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism," "was the modest beginning of the influx of the Way of the Buddha."
In view of the fact that a "golden man" figures in the famous legend of Emperor Ming's dream, it is understandable that Chinese Buddhists should have supposed that this earlier golden man of the Xiongnu leader likewise had some connection with Buddhism. Modern scholars, however, after examining the evidence, have concluded that the image captured from the Xiongnu could not have been Buddhist in nature.
All of this, of course, does not disprove the possibility that knowledge of Buddhism had reached China in the time of the first emperor of the Qin or of Emperor Wu of the Han; it merely shows that no reliable notice of that fact is to be found in the Chinese written records of the period. But there are several reasons why I believe that, even if Buddhist monks had actually reached China before the first century or reports of the Buddhist religion had been transmitted to the Chinese, it is unlikely that Buddhism could have attracted much attention or spread very widely in China at that time.
Excerpted from The Flower of Chinese Buddhism by Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson. Copyright © 2009 Soka Gakkai. Excerpted by permission of Middleway Press.
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