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Transformation of Buddhism in China by Wing-Tsit Chan

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THE CHINESE TRANSFORMATION Of Buddhism has been a long and complicated process, but it can be summed up in one sentence, namely, "from an Indian religion of non-ego, it has become in China a humanistic religion."

When Buddhism arrived in China shortly before the Christian era,[1] humanism had been strongly established there. Confucianism had enjoyed supremacy for over a hundred years. The movement to make Confucius (551-479 B.C.) a god had died out. The teachings of Lao Tzu (6th century B.C.) and Chuang Tzu (between 399 and 295 B.C.) were going on strong in both the philosophical and the religious spheres, the latter within the Yellow Emperor-Lao Tzu cult. Taoism is not ordinarily described as humanistic. It is often thought of as opposing Nature to man. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu both taught people to follow Nature, and Chuang Tzu, especially, admonished "not to assist Nature with man."[2] And yet, Taoism is essentially humanistic, for, like Confucianism, its ideal person is the sage, who brings about social order and good government. The Tao-te ching and the Chuang Tzu[3] are both chiefly concerned with how to live in this world and how to govern. It was in this intensely humanistic atmosphere that Buddhism entered China and thrived. Consequently, from the very beginning the Buddha was understood in human terms. In the well-known treatise, "The Dis-position of Error" (Li-huo lun) by Mou Tzu (2nd century A.D.), perhaps the first Chinese treatise on Buddhism, there is repeated emphasis on the Buddha as a man of metal achievements, saying that he "accumulated many virtues," "aimed at virtue," "was the progenitor of virtue," etc.[4] The Chinese translation for the Buddha's name, `Saakyamuni, was Neng-jen, literally "ability to be good." Temples dedicated to him were called "jen-tzu" or "Temples of goodness." Now, jen, variously translated as goodness, manhood, and humanity, is the fundamental moral concept in Confucianism.[5] We do not have to remind ourselves that according to The Doctrine of the Mean and The Book of Mencius "to be jen is to be a man."[6] In Taoism, too, jen is a cardinal virtue. On the surface, the Chinese term for the Buddha, fo, consisting of one part meaning "man" and another meaning "not," may suggest that the Buddha was understood as not man. But the word has no such meaning in ancient texts. In The Book of Poetry it means "great"and in The Analects it is part of a proper name.[7] The early Buddhists used it simply for its ancient pronunciation, boot.

To be sure, the Buddha has been worshipped in China as a deity. In fact, the Chinese people worship three Buddhas, or, rather, the Buddha in Three Bodies or three aspects. But the most popular Buddhist deity in China has been Avalokite`svara or Kuan-yin, and Kuan-yin has been humanized. In India, from the third to the twelfth century, and in Japan today, he retains his transcendental and heavenly features, but in China he has been devoid of these qualities and has become a human figure, and, from the Tang period (618-907) on, a woman, or Goddess of Mercy, "mother" to millions of devotees. In pictorial representations, the Indian rosaries are still present, but mote often than not they are carried by a crane, a Chinese symbol for longevity. The Indian dish to collect dew from heaven has been changed to a flower vase from which Kuan-yin pours blessings over the entire human race. And these blessings are not, a world transcending our own, but such human blessings as health, wealth, long life, and, most important of all, children. Instead of sitting in the high heavens looking upon man with compassion, she is likely to be sitting by a bamboo grove, carrying a baby or holding a fish basket. A story was invented in the eleventh century that she was originally a girl who became a goddess because of her filial piety. The humanization of Kuan-yin is complete.


It may be objected that this Kuan-yin is a popular version and that Avalokite`svara is still found in some Buddhist temples with heavenly features. This is true, but, as against the popular version, such an Avalokite`svara is strictly academic and an exception that proves the rule.

Evidences of humanism in Chinese Buddhism can be found in many places, but we shall concentrate on the three most important and most Chinese of Buddhist developments, namely, the growth of the Pure Land School, the propagation of the doctrine of universal salvation, and the emergence of Chan or the Chinese Meditation School (Zen in Japanese).

1. The growth of the Pure Land School. It sounds strange to say that the Pure Land School is humanistic, for to pray to be reborn in Paradise Means to get away from the human world. Nevertheless, man occupies a central position in this movement. Technically speaking, the school is not indigenous to China, for the doctrine was taught in India and the basic texts are Indian.[8] But in spirit and character it is truly Chinese, and it exists no-where else but in China and Japan, in both of which it is the most popular Buddhist sect. While in India rebirth in the Pure Land meant a complete break with earthly life, which was considered a life of suffering, in the Chinese Pure Land School it means an extension of earthly living. There is no deprecation of mundane life. Human relations are continued in the Pure Land. This is why one should transfer his merits to his ancestors, and to the Buddhists this act is considered one of the most meritorious. One cannot help hearing here the ring of a Confucian note.

The growth of the Pure Land doctrine must be traced to the very beginning of Buddhism in China. When it entered China, it was immediately merged with the Yellow Emperor-Lao Tzu cult, which was dedicated to the search for man's everlasting life on earth. The Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu were worshipped in temples because it was believed they had the secret to immortality. In A. D. 65 the Buddha was worshipped in a temple, presumably for the same reason.[9] About 165 he was worshipped together with Lao Tzu in a temple inside a palace.[10] In these hundred years Lao Tzu and the Buddha were always mentioned together. This shows the extent to which Buddhism and Taoism were interfused. In this way Buddhism came to possess the same goal as the Yellow Emperor-Lao Tzu cult, namely, everlasting life on earth.

When Hui-yuan[l] (334-416) founded the Pure Land School, he did so on the basis of two fundamental tenets, the belief in the indestructibility of the soul and the belief in retribution.[11] Both tenets had been prominent in China for centuries and constituted the philosophical and ethical bases for the search for everlasting life on earth. Hui-yuan himself was greatly interested in such life. So was the greatest expounder of the Pure Land doctrine, Tan-luan[m] (475-542). He was deeply influenced by the Taoist religion and was a follower of the cult of immortals and occult science. He even wrote an essay on breathing, a common Taoist technique for prolonging life.[12] Taking all this into consideration, we are justified in saying that the hope for rebirth in the Pure Land is an extension of the Chinese search for everlasting life on earth. The central objective is not the termination of human existence but, rather, its continuation.


2. The propagation of the doctrine of universal salvation. Like the Pure Land doctrine, the gospel of universal salvation is not exclusively Chinese. It is implicit in the Indian Mahaayaana concept of Amitaabha, whose great compassion will save all sentient beings. But, like the Pure Land doctrine, in spirit and in actual historical development the teaching of universal salvation is Chinese. It came in a very dramatic way, in the person of the great monk Tao-sheng (d. 434). He violently opposed the icchantika idea contained in the Chinese translation of the Indian text, the six-chapter Suutra, to the effect that this class of people can never become Buddhas. He maintained that Buddha-nature was all-pervading and therefore even the icchantika possessed it and could attain Buddhahood. His radical idea so shocked and enraged his fellow Buddhists that he was driven away. Later his theory was upheld by the Ma, Suutra subsequently introduced from India, and his theory became the foundation of the Mahaayaana doctrine of salvation for all.

Tao-sheng's revolutionary idea was a logical outcome of his own interpretation of He held that was above the distinction of life and death, and was the True State or the Dharma-body (Law-body) of the Buddha. It was everywhere and the True Nature of all beings. Consequently, it was unreasonable to suppose that some beings could have been devoid of Buddha-nature. But was Tao-sheng thinking in a vacuum? How can we ignore the Confucian and Taoist environment in which he lived? We have already indicated that the Confucian and Taoist ideal person was the sage. It is hardly necessary to add that both schools insisted that every man could become a sage. As Mencius (371-289 B.C.?) said, "All people can be Yao and Shun [sage-emperors]."[13] At the time Tao-sheng pronounced his radical doctrine, the Taoist philosopher Ko Hung (253-333?) was expressing the opinion that all people could attain immortality through the cultivation and nourishment of their nature.[14]

The question of human nature had occupied the closest attention of both Confucians and Taoists for centuries. The Taoists had gone far in discussing the nourishment of human nature as the most important way to sagehood, according to the Taoist philosophy, or to everlasting life on earth, according to the Taoist religion. The Confucians had debated at length on the question of the original goodness of human nature. Opinions differed, but the general conclusion was that man's nature is good and that through the development of human nature all people can become sages. Tao-sheng could not have been completely unaffected by this strong tradition. It may have influenced him through Hui-yuan, who was his friend or perhaps his teacher.

Tao-sheng lived for seven years in Lushan, where Hui-yuan founded his famous White Lotus Society and preached the Pure Land gospel. He had close contact with him.. Hui-yuan was known as a scholar. He lectured on The Book of Poetry and on The Classic of Funeral Costumes.[15] In his discussions on Dharma-nature, he said that the indestructible spirit is found in all beings, whether sages or ordinary mortals, and that through enlightenment Dharma-nature could be realized.[16] This sounds very much like Mencius' saying that "Yao and Shun are the same as all men."[17] Tao-sheng rejected the theory of the indestructibility of the spirit, but, so far as man's nature is concerned, he agreed with Hui-yuan and by inference with the Confucian and Taoist tradition. In any case, the doctrine of universal salvation is an inevitable outcome of the belief in the goodness of nature in all men. Once more, man has triumphed.

3. The emergence of the Chinese Meditation School, Chan. If the doctrine of universal salvation is revolutionary, Chinese Chan is even more so. It discarded all church authority, scriptures, and the belief in the Pure Land, even in meditation as such. According to Hui-neng (638-713), the central figure in this revolution, there was no need for the Pure Land because it is in one's own mind, and there was no use for sitting in meditation because seeing one's own nature is meditation. According to him, all Dharmas (laws) are in one's own nature. When one sees his own nature, Thusness or the True State, the Dharma-body, will be found there. Consequently, studying scriptures, building temples, practicing charity, reciting the name of the Buddha, etc., are all futile. The only way to freedom is to look into one's own mind and see Buddha-nature there.[18] This is what later Buddhists called "directly pointing to the human mind and becoming a Buddha by seeing one's own nature." The total effect of ch'an is to abandon the entire Buddhist organization, creed, and literature and to reduce Buddhism to concern with man himself. Salvation is to be achieved by man himself. It is to be achieved here and now. What is most interesting, it is to be achieved "in this very body." This is a far cry from the original Indian idea that the body is a hindrance to freedom. One cannot help recalling that the Confucians have always regarded the body as a gift from parents and as such it is a sacred trust and therefore is to be well taken care of, and that for centuries the Taoist religion had tried many ways, including medicine, diets, exercise, and breath control, to make the body suitable for everlasting life on earth.

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But the most important element of ch'an is the mind. The mind must be sharpened and sensitized before it can intuitively and instantaneously see one's nature. For this purpose, the Meditation School developed various techniques. One is travel. Travel broadens one's perspective and deepens one's insight. When one's experience is enriched, one day one will suddenly intuit truth at the singing of a bird, the blooming of a flower, or a drop of rain. This technique presupposes a fundamental Chinese transformation of Indian philosophy. As developed in the T'ien-tai School, which is purely Chinese, the various realms of truth are so interwoven, interpenetrating, and interrelated that All is One and One is All. "Every color or fragrance," says the School, "is none other than the Middle Path."[19] This is in sharp contrast with the Indian position that the phenomenal world is maayaa. Maayaa may not be mere illusion. But, even as appearance, it still falls short of reality. In China, on the other hand, the phenomenal world is "none other than the Middle Path." The difference is clear. It was this school that absorbed the School, which interpreted not in terms of non-ego as in Hiinayaana but in terms of "permanence, bliss, ego, and purity." Significantly this philosophy has become the philosophical foundation of Chinese Buddhism in general.

Another technique of the Chan School is the "lightning" method--shouting at the pupil, kicking him, or even cutting off his finger. All this is neither madness nor dramatics but an unorthodox way of shocking the pupil our of his outmoded mental habits and preconceived opinions so that his mind will be pure, clear, and thoroughly awakened.

The most interesting and perhaps the most misunderstood technique is the koan, literally "public case," which consists of a question and often a very enigmatic answer. It is often believed that such answers are due to the belief on the part of the Chan people that truth is so mysterious, irrational, or paradoxical that only an illogical answer can reveal it. Nothing is further from the truth. When a pupil asked, "Whenever there is any question, one's mind is confused. What is wrong?" and the answer was, "Kill! Kill!" this may sound absurd.[20] But when a pupil asked where the Three Buddhist Treasures were, and the Master answered, "Rice, wheat, and bean," it is not as silly as one may think.[21] An alert mind will immediately understand that the Buddhist Treasures are everywhere. I share the opinion of Hu Shih that "this methodology with all its mad techniques is not so illogical and irrational as it has often been described ... beneath all the apparent madness and confusion there is a conscious and rational method which may be described as a method of education by the hard way, by letting the individual find out things through his own effort and through his own ever-widening life-experience."[22] This technique is utterly Chinese; there has never been any counterpart of it in India. This type of meditation is diametrically opposed to Indian meditation. In Indian meditation, the mind tries to avoid the external world, ignores outside influence, aims at intellectual understanding, and seeks to unite with the Infinite. Instead, Chinese meditation works with the aid of external influence, operates in this world, emphasizes quick wit and insight, and aims at self-realization.

These differences are best illustrated by two stories, one Indian and the other Chinese, chosen to show the difference between Indian meditation and Chinese meditation by Hu, a great authority on Chinese Buddhism who has thrown much light on the development of Chan in China and has contributed much in original research to the understanding of Chinese Buddhism.[23] According to the Indian story, an Indian prince would appoint as his Prime Minister the person who could hold a tray full of oil and go from the north city gate to the south gate without spilling it, on the penalty of death for failure. One aspirant accepted the dangerous challenge. On his way, he successively saw his parents, wife, and children crying; met the most beautiful women; faced a mad elephant which frightened people away; saw the palace on fire, from which wasps came to attack him; and encountered thunder and lightning. None of these disturbed him; and he succeeded in becoming the Prime Minister.[24] This is Indian meditation.

Shifu Yan Zi 00.jpg

According to the Chinese story, a successful thief was getting on in years. His son asked him about his method of making a living. The thief led the boy to a rich man's mansion, broke through the wall, opened a large wardrobe, told the boy to get in, locked him there, loudly gave an alarm, and fled home. The residents searched the house but decided that the thief had escaped through the hole in the wall. All this time the son inside the wardrobe was worried and angry. Suddenly a brilliant idea flashed upon him. He imitated the sound of a rat gnawing in the wardrobe. The family told the maid to light a lamp and examine the wardrobe. Thereupon, the boy leaped out, blew out the lamp, and quickly made his way out. To mislead his pursuers, he threw a rock into the well. When he got home, he found the old thief waiting. As he protested to his father about what had happened, the old man said, "From now on, my son, you need not worry about having enough rice to eat."[25] In short, meditation is no longer a religious discipline, as it was in India. Rather, it was intended to train the mind to meet and solve critical problems.

Chan is certainly revolutionary. But it did not come out of a clear sky. The answer to the question about the Three Treasures is not much different from Chuang Tzu's answer to the question "Where is Tao?" "It is in the ant," he said, "in a tare, in a posherd, in the ordure!"[26] The question-and-answer style goes back to The Analects, and witty and shocking answers are found in the Chuang Tzu and the Shih-shuo hsin-yu or "New Discourse on the Talk of the Times," to mention only two well-known examples. It was popular with the Pure Conversationalists of the third and fourth centuries, and Buddhists mingled freely with the Pure Conversationalists. As to the Chinese concept of meditation itself, it goes back to the very early days of Buddhism in China. From the very beginning, as we already noted, Buddhism was mixed up with the Yellow Emperor-Lao Tzu cult. As a result, meditation was not understood in the Indian sense of concentration but in the Taoist sense of conserving vital energy, breathing, reducing desire, conserving nature, etc. This was the meditation taught by early Buddhist Masters like Ah Shih-kao[t] (c. 150 A.D.), Kumaarajiiva (344-413), Tao-an[u] (312- 385), and Hui-yuan, and it became a major tradition in Chinese Buddhism. Throughput history, then, meditation in China was intended for practical purposes, this-worldly, and humanistic. In such meditation, man has come to his own.

The effect of such strong emphasis on man has been tremendous on Chinese Buddhism. Briefly, it has contributed to the shift in outlook from other--worldliness to this-worldliness, in objective from individual salvation to universal salvation, in philosophy from extreme doctrines to synthesis, in methods of freedom from religious discipline and philosophical understanding to pietism and practical insight, and in authority from the clergy to the layman himself. It is also this stress on man that has enabled Buddhism to join with Confucianism and Taoism so that the Chinese can follow all of them at the same time instead of following one religion or another separately as is the practice in India and Southeast Asia.[27]

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1. Before the "official" introduction of Buddhism into China in A.D. 67, Buddhism had been known there. According to the Wei shu ("History of the Wei Period"), chap. 114, a Chinese scholar at court was instructed in a Buddhist scripture by an envoy from Yueh-chih. According to the Hou Han shu ("History of the Later Han Period"), chap. 72, three Buddhist terms, Buddha, upaasaka (Buddhist followers), and (monk), appeared in an official document in A.D. 65.
2. Chuang Tzu, chap. 6. See English translation by Fung Yu-lan, Chuang Tzu: a New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1933), p. 113, or by Herbert A. Giles, Chuang Tzu, Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer (2nd ed. rev., Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1926), p. 70.
3. For English translation of the Tao-te ching, see The Way and Its Power, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1935), or Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue, J. J. L. Duyvendak, trans. (London: John Murray, 1954).
4. In Hung-ming chi ("Essays Elucidating the Doctrine"), Seng-yu, ed., Ssu-pu pei-yao edition (Shanghai: Chung-hua Co., 1927), 1/1b,2a.
5. For the development of the concept jen, see my "The Evolution of the Confucian Concept Jen," Philosophy East and West, IV, No. 4 (Jan., 1955), 295-319.
6. The Doctrine of the Mean, chap. 20, and The Book of Mencius, VIIB/16. For English translation, see James Legge, "The Doctrine of the Mean," in The Chinese Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), Vol. I, and The Works of Mencius, ibid., Vol. II, 1895.
7. The She King, James Legge, trans., The Chinese Classics, Vol. IV (London: Henry Frowde, 1871), Pt. IV, Bk. I, Ode 3, and The Analects of Confucius, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1938), Bk. XVII, chap. 6.
8. For the three major texts, see F. Max Muller, trans., The Land of Bliss and The Smaller Sukhaavatiivyuuha, and J. Takakusu, trans., The Suutra of the Meditation on Amitaayus, all in Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XLIX (London: Oxford University Press, 1894), Pt. II, pp. 1-72, 89-103, and 161-201, respectively.
9. Hou Han shu ("History of the Later Han Period"), chap. 72.
10. Ibid., chap. 60B, "Biography of Hsiang Kai, and also chap. 6.
11. Hung-ming chi, 5/9a-10a, 5/13a-16a.
12. Tan-luan Fa-shih fu-chi fa ("Master Tan-luan's Breathing Technique"), in Yun-chi chi chien ("seven Bamboo Tablets of Cloudy Satchel"), Ssu-pu tsung-kan edition. (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1929), chap. 59.
13. The Book of Mencius, VIB/2.
14. Ko Hung, Pao-pu Tzu ("The Philosopher Who Embraces Simplicity"), Ssu-pu tsung kan edition (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1929), 4/1a, 5/2a.
15. According to Tang Yung-tung, Han Wei Liang-Chin Nan-pei Chao Fo-chiao shih ("History of Chinese Buddhism from 206 B.C. to A.D. 589") (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1938), pp. 359-360. Tang thinks Hui-yuan was not Tao-sheng's teacher.
16. Hung-ming chi 5/7b-8a, 9b-10a.
17. The Book of Mencius, IVB/32.
18. Lu-tsu tan-ching. See Taisho daizokyo ("The Taisho Edition of the Buddhist Cannon"), Vol. 48, pp. 340-341.
19. For a summary of the philosophy of this school, see Junjiro Takakusu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, Wing-tsit Chan and Charles A. Moore, eds. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1947), pp. 126-141; and Wing-tsit Chan, Religious Trends in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), pp. 63-64, note 19.
20. Tsao-shan Pen-chi chan-shih yu-lu ("Recorded Sayings of Chan Master Pen-chi"), Taisho daizokyo, Vol. 47, p. 539.
21. Ching-te chuan-teng lu ("Transmission of the Lamp"), Ssu-pu tsung-kan edition (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1936), 19/14b.
22. HU Shih, "Chan (Zen) Buddhism in China: Its History and Method," Philosophy East and West, III, No. 1 (April, 1953), 21.
23. HU Shih, "The Development of Chinese Chan" (in Chinese), Shih-ta yueh-kan ("Normal College Monthly"), No. 18 (April, 1935), 9.
24. From the Chinese translation of the Hsiu-hsing tao-ti ching. ("The Scripture on the Stages of Spiritual Cultivation"), Taisho daizokyo, Vol. 15, p. 198.
25. From Tsung-men wu-ku ("The Armory of the Chan School"), by Tsung-kao (1084-1158). See Taisho daizokyo, Vol. 47, p. 956.
26. Chuang Tsu, chap. 22. See translation by Herbert Giles, op. cit., p. 286.
27. For further discussion on differences between Chinese Buddhism, on the one hind, and Indian, and Japanese Buddhism. on the other, see Chan, Religious , Trends in Modern China, chaps. 2-3.