After the inception of Buddhism in India, its ideas presented in scriptures and treatises started spreading to China and then to other countries of East Asia including Japan and Korea. The process of adopting the Indic Buddhist philosophy was marked by the exchange of values between the two cultures which significantly influenced the further development of the whole East Asian civilization before its interaction with the West. The unique Chinese Buddhist tradition was formed under the impact of the long-established worldview of the Chinese culture on the original ideas of Buddhism. The fundamental values and the perception of the world introduced by Buddhists were very different from the traditional Chinese philosophy represented by Taoism and Confucianism. That is why, as a result of the cultural adaptation that lasted for centuries, Buddhism underwent a series of substantial transformations and became an integral part of the Chinese tradition. It ultimately changed into a specific Buddhist affiliation within the Mahayana tradition.
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Sinification as the process of Buddhism formation in China justifies the great influence of this country on the spread of Buddhist ideas in East Asia. Therefore, the paper claims that China is not overdetermined as a decisive agent in the adoption of Indic Buddhism because the rich Chinese tradition was powerful enough to absorb and transform a new confession. To support the claim, the historical overview of the era of the emergence of Buddhism in East Asia, as well as the description of Chinese translations of doctrinal texts, will be presented. Also, three main Chinese Buddhist schools’ ideas will be articulated to determine the extent of transformations the religious tradition underwent in Japan and Korea. Finally, many philosophical, institutional, and cultural factors will be exemplified to underline the inevitability of the process of Sinification.
Historical Background of the Spread of Buddhism in East Asia
Buddhism appeared in China at the beginning of the Christian era. Its emergence in this country was connected with the close trade relations with India where Buddhism had formed as a prominent religious and philosophical doctrine. Being a part of the commercial interactions via silk routes, China and India exchanged much more than goods. With the help of these connections, the first Buddhist scriptures entered the Chinese lands and triggered the inception of a long history of Buddhism development in East Asia. During the 3-5th centuries, the Chinese emperors repeatedly invited some prominent Indian monks to preach their doctrine to the Chinese people. Soon after it spread all over the territory of China, it started influencing other regions of East Asia. Such a process was correlated to the fact that China was geographically situated on the trade crossroads between different countries. Inevitably, the exchange of ideas, worldview perspectives, and scriptures made an impact on the philosophies and religions of such countries as Korea and Japan.
China was even more authoritative in the process of Buddhism emergence in East Asia than India was. This fact finds its explanation in the geographical positioning of these countries. Indeed, the Indic Buddhist ideas entered China from central Asia and then from China further to the East, to Japan, Korea, and other countries. Each territory had its own indigenous beliefs and traditions which could not remain subordinate and caused the following changes.
However, the Chinese version of Buddhism appeared as a transformation of Indic Buddhism under the influence of Confucianism and Taoism that had been dominant doctrines in the country. These religions were very different from what Buddhism claimed to be the essence of life. That is why the history of the new religion in China is marked with controversy between the traditional beliefs and the new invading religious paradigm. The Chinese philosophers who followed Confucianism refused to adopt Buddhism. They tried to fight it claiming that it was “the antisocial, individualistic, and other-worldly philosophy.” Thus, the Buddhist teachings in their pure form could not exist on the territory of a country with such powerful traditions and philosophies. The transformations were made at the earliest stages of the new doctrine’s entering into China when the first translations of Indic scriptures on Buddhism were made.
Chinese Translations of Indic Buddhist Texts
The first Indic texts started being translated into the Chinese language in the early 2nd century. According to Gethin, the first center of Buddhism in China was in Lo-yang where foreign monks, such as An Shih-Kao and Lokaksema worked on the translations of the original scriptures. These texts included meditation-related works, for example, “non-Mahayana “Anapana-smrti Sutra” or “Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing” and proto-Mahayana “Pratyutpanna-buddha-sammukhavasthita-samadhi Sutra” or “Discourse on the Samadhi of Direct Encounter with the Buddhas of the Present. Besides, during this period, the translation of The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines was also made. Although these works were called translations, the emergence of a specific Chinese Buddhist canon was caused by the character of the interpretations of original ideas presented in Indic texts.
The basics of the religion never reached people in their original form because the monks transformed the texts significantly changing the messages. The scripts were never translated into the Chinese language “en bloc,” which is explained by the long period of work on translation and the influence of Chinese literacy. Several generations of monks spent centuries completing the translations of scripture. As Gethin notes, about a thousand years were spent to translate “Great Treasury of Sutras” (“Ta-Tsang-ching”). During such a long period, people who worked on the translation, as well as the development of language and culture, made a significant impact on both the character of narration and the content. Therefore, the Chinese Tripitaka is not a single text but rather a collection of canonical texts. It contains “the Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras and sastras made over the centuries, as well as a variety of indigenous Chinese treatises relating to Buddhism.” Indeed, the scope of Indic texts was enriched by the original works of the Chinese Buddhists.
The traditional Chinese attention to detail and need for explanations led to the creation of some components that, in the opinion of the translators, were lacking from the original. These changes in the scriptures subsequently formed a new canon that was significantly different from the one that existed in India. Overall, the Chinese Buddhist tradition was based on “Mahayana” and “Hinayana” and existed in three divisions, including Sutra, Vinaya, and Treatise. These canonical texts were created by Indian and Chinese monks and became the basis for the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
The Transformation of Indian Buddhism in Chinese Buddhist Schools
As it was stated earlier, the significant number of translations of the primary scriptures led to interpretations and changes in the original ideas. The two countries, China and India, had their own distinct and rich histories, traditions, philosophies, languages, and their particular features of a worldview that had been forming for a long period of their development. The difference in mentality marked the overall understanding of the principal characteristics. According to Ch’en, the ancient Chinese religious system was formed based on simple ideas, such as the existence of heaven, the importance of worshiping the ancestors, and respect for natural forces. In contrast, Buddhism introduced a complicated hierarchical system of heavens and hells, claimed that life is illusory and is all about suffering. When encountering the Buddhist beliefs for the first time, the Chinese found out about karma which enabled rewarding good deeds by rebirth into good existence, and evil deeds into evil existence. Thus, many canonical ideas brought to China from India were contradictory to the existing tradition.
However, Buddhism found some similarities with the dominant Chinese religious beliefs. The general questions that people asked in both countries were the same. For example, Buddhism broadly utilized the traditions of meditation, the texts on which were translated initially. This idea was widespread in China, too, and exemplified the similarity in the attitudes to religious practices between India and China. Thus, the new religion managed to conform to the environment and, despite some changes, survived and became dominant. Similar transformations took place in other countries and territories of East Asia and allowed for the formation of unique Buddhist schools. Since Buddhism spread to East Asia through China, the Sinified version of the doctrine reached Japan and Korea. Nevertheless, the scholars identify two main groups of Chinese Buddhist teachings, including those having a “direct Indian counterpart” and the ones “native to China.” The Korean and Japanese Buddhist systems “derive directly from the Chinese forms and schools” and need to be analyzed as examples of the Buddhist transformations.
One of the prominent forms of Buddhism that emerged as a result of the Chinese influence on Buddhism was Ch’an. This school originated around the idea of “the attainment of a deep state of peace through calm meditation.” The adherents of this stream followed the teachings of the Indian monk Bodhidharma who initiated the transferring of the knowledge from teacher to pupil. During the existence of Ch’an, some principal ideas were changed thus forming a new perspective on the awakening and the experience of four noble truths. Indeed, Ch’an monk Shen-hui introduced the concept of sudden awakening as a new approach as opposed to the gradual awakening that was preached originally. According to the new teaching, the notion of awakening is closely related to the understanding of four noble truths. Shen-hui thought that one cannot absorb the truth in pieces but should either learn it instantly as a whole or not understand it at all. Thus, there cannot be any gradual awakening as traditional Buddhism claimed, but there is a sudden awakening that one can reach with the help of meditations.
Pure Land Buddhism
Another significant Chinese school of Buddhism was Pure Land Buddhism. It consisted of the perception of the personality of Buddha. According to Gethin, early Buddhist teachings did not view the Buddha as a “directly accessible” being, and “devotion to the Buddha centered on the worship of his relics.” However, upon the Chinese influence of Mahayana on these early ideas, the belief that different buddhas existed in other divisions of the universe. These other places where buddhas were able to foster their teachings in the most favorable ways were called “pure lands” or “Buddha fields.” Such pure lands were regarded as sacred places to which one might be reborn. This idea was dominant in Pure Land Buddhism and was articulated in such sutras as “Vision of the Realm of Happiness” and “Meditation on the Buddha of Boundless Life.” Gethin states that the first one (consisting of two smaller sutras) was originally from India when the last one was composed in East Asia and probably in China. This underlines the influence of the Sinified version of Buddhism.
Tien-t’ai and Hua-yen
The third form of Buddhism that emerged under the influence of China embraces Tien-t’ai and Hua-yen. These teachings emerged based on the contradictory Buddhist texts that had been translated into the Chinese language. To organize them in a whole system, it was claimed that “the Buddha adapted his teachings according to the ability of his hearers to understand.” Thus, different concepts covered in various translations found their common interpretation in Tien-t’ai and Hua-yen. The idea of “interpenetration of all phenomena” unifies these two schools. This idea means that everything is engaged in a threefold truth – it is empty of existence, temporary, and is between existence and non-existence.
Therefore, the transformations that the Buddhist teachings encountered as the result of the Chinese influence were significant. Separate schools emerged as distinct doctrines, each interpreting the values and laws articulated by Indian Buddhism in their ways. The Sinified versions of the teachings were marked by traditional views of the countries or the lack of plausible explanation of some notions. Such changes had particular reasons which need to be examined closer.
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Factors Influencing the Sinification
It is essential to note that the collision of two dominant cultures with a long history of development could not pass without changes for both of them. Indeed, even though it is claimed that Buddhism was Sinified thus showing that the Chinese tradition overpowered the Indian one, the original Buddhist ideas changed the Chinese worldview, too. The transformations in the doctrine that took place in China were influenced by philosophical, institutional, and cultural factors.
The radical difference in the perception of the world that has already been addressed in this paper is reflected in the two opposing philosophical directions. The first one was represented by Confucianism and Taoism in China and the second one by Buddhism in India. The transformation of Buddhism in China was exposed to the influence of the existing philosophical doctrines. The changes were based on several distinctions between the two philosophies.
Firstly, Buddhist doctrines are oriented on the notion of karma and the process of rebirth. The essence of life is viewed as suffering from the attachments to earthly things and the everlasting willingness of living beings to eliminate the suffering and experience awakening. Buddhists, therefore, idealized the universe and interpreted it as a place of several forms of existence. On the contrary, traditional Chinese philosophy did not view the universe as an ideal. It perceived the world without the notion of karma or cessation of suffering. According to the Chinese beliefs, all phenomena exist either on earth on in heaven, and there cannot be any form that one could be reborn into.
Secondly, the Buddhist attitude to the world and life is characterized by a psychological approach. The learning of the four noble truths and the gradual awakening was viewed by Indians as separate stages of human development. The understanding of the difference between conscious and unconscious is also a significant feature of Indian Buddhism. However, the Chinese worldview was utterly naturalistic and was not characterized by psychological patterns. The Chinese did not attribute suffering as the essence of life but mostly perceived the world as a combination of natural forces. Thus, the distinction in such ideas allows for describing Indian Buddhism as a pessimistic doctrine and Chinese philosophy as optimistic teaching. Consequently, it led to the transformation of what was the cessation from suffering (as in Indian philosophy) into the cessation for the enlightening in Chinese Buddhism. Therefore, the differences in core philosophical ideas between India and China became a significant factor in changing the Buddhist teachings according to the requirements of the Chinese world with its rich tradition.
The institutional factors concern the principles of the organization of the society and the structural perception of the world and people in it. The traditional system of interaction in China was formed by Confucianism and Taoism. These teachings consisted in the ordering of the family, the state, and the world. The subordination was explicit, and people perceived their existence in close relations with others. On the contrary, according to Buddhism in India, the ideal way of life is not being a part of a family or community but being separated from them. Any attachments, in Buddhists’ point of view, lead to suffering. Therefore, it is important to withdraw from society and live in abstention and “mendicancy.” Such a significant distinction had to be addressed to adopt a new perspective to the existing institutional paradigms.
The traditional Chinese doctrine viewed an emperor as a significant influencer of people’s lives. The organization of the society was subordinate to the emperor as the one who has the power. The diminished role of a monarch or an emperor in the society that Buddhism proclaimed was one of the reasons why the dominant doctrines suppressed the development of Indian religion in China. Therefore, the followers of Confucianism were eager to revive this religion as the main one trying to eliminate Buddhism. Thus, the opposing attitudes to the institutionalization of the world became a basis for the following Sinification of Buddhism.
India and China were different not only from the point of view of their philosophies of the organization of society. They also had different languages, literary traditions, and ethics. Therefore, cultural factors also played a significant role in the transformation of Indian doctrine according to the specific features of the Chinese world. Language and literacy in China were very well-developed by the time Buddhism entered its territories. It is essential to note that the differences in the description of the theological vision were marked by the structure of language. Indeed, when translating the scripts from Indian into Chinese, there were many difficulties because the ideas articulated in Indian sometimes could not be accurately rendered in the Chinese language. Ultimately, the translated texts were marked with the influence of the Chinese language and had to be transformed under the requirements of the local culture.
Overall, the description of the factors that impacted the changes in Buddhism shows that the Chinese influence was more significant. The impact of the Indian tradition on the Chinese culture was strong. Buddhism caused some significant shifts in the paradigm of world perception that was long established by Confucianism and Taoism. However, the extent to which the prosperous Chinese culture changed Buddhist doctrine was much more evident. The Indian variant of this religion failed to live as long as the Chinese version did. On the contrary, Sinified Buddhism flourished for centuries. It became the basis for consecutive canonical interpretations on the territories of East Asia. The Buddhist teachings of such countries as Japan or Korea and marked by the Chinese culture more than by the Indian one.
To summarize the discussion, Buddhism as a powerful philosophical doctrine emerged in India and spread to China in the 1st century. Due to the collision of two rich cultures, the exchange of ideas and philosophical views inevitably influenced both parties. Buddhism as the original religion of India brought particular features of world perception to the Chinese world. However, the process of Sinification as the attribution of traditional Chinese ideas to Buddhism emerged as a stronger issue. Philosophical, institutional, and cultural factors played an essential role in the transformation of the overall pessimistic doctrine of India into Chinese Buddhism marked by Confucianism and Taoism. The new canon was acceptable for the Chinese people and helped to expand the theological system of world perception on the bordering territories. Indeed, the Chinese interpretations enabled the spread of Buddhism to East Asia and provided an opportunity for the inception of different schools of Chinese Buddhism. The popularization of the Sinified version of Buddhism allowed for the rapid advancement of the civilization on the territories of Japan, Korea, and other countries of Asia.
- Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Ch’en, Kenneth K. S. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015.