February 23 ,2017 , 07:39 PM
The localization of Buddhism in China
Prem Kumari Pant


Buddhism is one of the greatest religions in the globe, and widely accepted as a way of life featured with advanced philosophy.

It has also aligned itself to a variety of social systems in an agile fashion. To put it honestly, Buddhism and Buddhist culture are today practiced in various countries where it reached in the ancient times and faced various ups and downs to develop and thrive.

Buddhism that prevails in the far eastern region is the Mahayana tradition, which is gravitated towards specific aspects of philosophical tradition and the literary components. Han Buddhism is also prominent while Tibetan Buddhism became the most influential Buddhist heritage having Tibetan Buddhism which became independent from religion and gave rise to very rich religion, literature and culture of profound impact in the adjoining regions. 

Lord Buddha, who propounded Buddhism, is widely revered for guiding the entire human society towards the path of peace, compassion, non-violence and disciplined life. It accentuates individual practice with special emphasis on ethics. Remarkably, Buddhism has co-existed with other religious systems.

  The Buddhism also characterized the cultural relations between Nepal and China, which have been in existence for the last two thousand years. The intensity of religious and cultural interactions and exchanges between the two sides is simply high. This has contributed positively to the rich cultural and artistic heritage of Nepal, and also to the religious and cultural harmony between the two neighbouring nations.  Similarly, Buddhism has proved pivotal to continue to add new cultural dimensions to the bilateral ties between the two countries.

As Buddhism gradually gained ground in China, prominent Chinese Buddhist Masters felt it necessary to own Buddhist scriptures. Consequently, they started to visit the Western World to obtain authentic Buddhist texts. It proved a milestone in establishing cultural relations between China and various regions in the western world.  Of course, one of the most significant events in the history of Nepal-China cultural relations was the introduction of Buddhism in China.  Seng Tsai, a Buddhist monk from Tsin dynasty (265-420 CE) visited Nepal and wrote the account entitled Wuo Kuo-shih (Matters Concerning the Foreign Kingdoms). Some portions of his work are incorporated in the Shu Ching-chu (The Commentary on Water Classics).

Fa-xian, a famous monk to eastern Jin Dynasty also came to Nepal on a pilgrimage. He visited the Buddha's ruined birth place Lumbini,  Kapilvastu and Ramagrama. He stated, in his book 'Record of Buddhist Kingdom", that Kapilvastu had neither king nor citizens, and looked completely deserted, for here lived only some monks and a few dozen families of the laity. After ten years of Fa-xian's visit, another Chinese monk Zhi-mong paid visit to Kapilvastu. At the time of Faxian's visit, one of the eminent monks from Kapilvastu named Buddhabhadra went to China. He was born in the Sakhya family of Kapilvastu. He arrived at Ch’an-an, the capital of Tang China in 406 CE via Vietnam. His mission was to preach Mädhayamika philosophy of Nargajuna.

In 419 CE, he collaborated with Fa-xian to conduct a translation project and annotation of Vinaya. He translated and compiled a large number of scriptures and Sutras, such as Mahaparinirvaea Sutra and Avtaeaska Sutra. Buddhabhadra had completed 107 fascicles, and 15 other works.

In 633, Xuan-zang visited the holy places of Kapilvastu and Ramangrama and found that those places were thoroughly deserted. He, in his Record of the Western Kingdom, states that Buddhism under the rule of Aàsuvarmä was thriving in the Kathmandu valley. He divulged that there were 2000 monks and nuns who gathered in many Mahaviharas. Some of them belonged to the Mahayana sect and others to Hinayana.

In the 7th century, both the Nepalese and Chinese Buddhism grew and flourished simultaneously in Tibet. Srong Tsang-Gampo, the king of Tibet, tied nuptial knots with Nepalese princess Bhrikuti, who had played a lead role in introducing Mahayana Buddhism (and Trantrism) in Tibet. The cohesion between the Nepalese and Chinese Buddhism not only promoted the friendly relationships between Nepal and China's Tibet region, but also formed a new road from Changan through Tibet to Kathmandu (the so-called Tibet-Nepal old Road). This also impelled Chinese missions, diplomats, tradesmen, Buddhists such as Liyibiao, Wang Xuan-se, Xuan-zhao, Daoxi Matisanaha to use this route to reach Nepal and India.

History suggests that a large number of pilgrims returning from India also opted for this road. For example, Xuanzaho returned from India to Loyang via this route.  . In the early days of Tsong Dynasty, the Chinese court sent 138 monks to study Buddhism in India. Those monks returned to China via the same route. Due to the close geographical ties between Tibet and Nepal, the Nepalese Buddhism significantly influenced the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and tantric practices. Historical data mentions that a large number of Indian monks came to Nepal after the decline of Buddhism in India and in the adjoining countries like Afghanistan during the period between the tenth to thirteenth centuries.

 Those monks used to deliver speeches on Tantrism in Nepal and Tibet. For instance, Guru Padmasambhava, the Mahacharya of Tantrism as well as the founder of Tibet’s ancient Nyingma-pa sect, was born in the Uddayana of Swat Valley in Pakistan. He visited Nepal and dwelled in Pharping, 25 kilometers south of Kathmandu to practice mediation.  His tutors were Nepalese Buddhist Masters and his meditation was said to have been lasted for about three decades. A famous poet and a Buddhist practitioner Milarepa, who is next to Padmasambhava, was born in the Dolakha district of Nepal.

It is really worth mentioning here that Medieval China learned many things from Nepal especially Buddhist arts and architectures. A string of well-known monasteries or temples, and famous Buddhist statues were built by Nepalese craftsmen. Among them, the well-known craftsman was Araniko, who went to the Tibet region as a member of a team of eighty craftsmen. King Jaya Bhima Deva Malla sent this team upon the request of the state protector and chief of the Shakya Monastery to build a monastery known as Golden Stupa there. Later, he went to Beijing and was appointed as the supervisor-in-chief of artisans of the Yuan court by Emperor Kublai Khan. In 1271, Kubalai Khan asked him to build the White Stupa in Beijing. This Stupa, completed in 1277, beautifully symbolized the vibrant cultural friendship between Nepal and China. In addition, he constructed a number of temples and buildings in other parts of China.

In the 1st millennium, Lumbini, the birth place of the Buddha, and Changan, a international centre for Buddhism and also the old capital of China, had not only played a big role in establishing spiritual and cultural linkages with the Buddhist monks, scholars and artists of central, south and eastern Asia, but also their positive impacts had spread far and wide. The arrival of Buddhism in China was followed by the contacts between Lumbini and Changan informing the Chinese people about Lumbini as the birthplace of the Buddha. This helped both the Chinese and Nepalese people to proceed ahead with their spiritual relationships.   

All the evidences, both literary and archaeological, unequivocally indicate that Buddhism reached China via Central Asia in the first century CE. However, the time and the route of transmission are, by no means, coincidental.

At its eastern end, the Han Empire ruled over most of what is now China. At times, it also ventured into exercising a kind of military protectorate over the Oasis Kingdom along the old Silk Road. On the other side, Indo-Scythians had spread their influence over a large part of Western Central Asia to Northern India and Afghanistan. As such, Central Asia was exposed to domination and cultural influence from both the sides as well as the small kingdoms along the branches of the old Silk Road. One may assume that the expansion of Buddhism throughout Central Asia was a gradual process that did not encounter great obstacles. The states were small, and their geographical position had made them vulnerable to foreign influence. However, this situation did not affect Buddhism as it had crossed the pass of the 'Jade Gate' at the Western end of the Great Wall. After the colourful diversity of Central Asia, it was confronted with an unfriendly colossal empire dominated by very clearly defined political and social ideas and norms that had taken shape in the course of centuries. This millenarian civilization was ruled by educated elites in which the feelings of cultural identity and superiority were very firmly established.

The row between Buddhism and the Chinese dominant Confucian tradition of socio-political thought took place at an institutional level. Notably, the conflict between the Buddhist Sangha and the Confucian state is a very dominating factor in the whole history of Buddhism in China. When the Han Empire collapsed in 220 CE, Buddhism had existed in the Chinese soil for at least one and a half century albeit marginally. But its transformation into a powerful religious movement took place in the period of disunity (311-589 CE), when the empire had disintegrated and the large parts of Chinese territory were ruled by weak and unstable barbarians. Buddhism gained a new vitality in the context of political chaos when the official ideology failed to deliver its commitment. When the empire was unified (589 CE), the most important formative phase of Chinese Buddhism had been completed spiritually, economically and even politically.

Even at the time of national disintegration, the basic ideals and norms of traditional Chinese political theology and the moral principles derived from Confucian ideals were kept alive by a large majority of the cultured elites. The Confucian utopia was based on a very old and universally accepted myth. The authority of the imperial government is, in principle, unlimited, and it embraces the whole public and, if necessary, also the private life of all its subjects. The basic values pertained to stability, hierarchical order, harmony in human relation and painstaking observance of the ritual rules of behaviours, to be inculcated by persuasion and moral education and, if necessary, by force.

Of course, Buddhism, by its very nature, was sure to come into conflict with this prevailing ideology. In fact, the traditional Chinese world view was essentially pragmatic and secular and its ideals were to be fulfilled in this life. The doctrines are generally appreciated according to their practical applicability and socio-political effectiveness rather than for their metaphysical qualities. In essence, Buddhism is gravitated towards metaphysical order and enlightenment. Because of its abstract and impracticable nature, Buddhism could hardly meet with approval in Confucian circles. Above all, the tensions were strikingly evident at the institutional level since the very beginning of Buddhism. Buddhism as such is connected with a monastic ideal of rejection of all the social ties and obligations related to family life. Buddha's monastic ideal was inevitably bound to contradict and clash with the most fundamental principles of Chinese social ethics, according to which, the first duty of a man consisted of engendering the offspring needed to continue the family line.

In light of the importance attached to productive labour and, consequently, social stigmatization of beggars, vagrants etc, the Chinese traditional system was hardly prepared to accept the existence of a clerical community, which was supposed to wander and earn livelihood by begging. On top of all this, the fact that the Buddhist Saìgha regarded itself as an unworldly body, free from the obligation due to secular powers, exempted from military services and not liable to government supervision, ran counter to the Chinese conception of government authority which in principle was all inclusive. The tensions between Buddhism and indigenous Chinese ideology eventually resulted in a precarious co-existence, in which Buddhism was allowed to come with certain limits. Buddhism was accepted by the authorities as a useful or even venerable addition to the Chinese culture and a kind of metaphysical complement to the social and political teachings of Confucianism. It was at all times valued as a magical protection for the dynasty, the state and society. Even at the time when Buddhism reached its zenith during Sui and early Ta’ng dynasties, China was never recognised a Buddhist country. Buddhism always had to develop in the shadow of the Chinese traditions. However, it was able to deeply influence and enrich the entire Chinese civilization.

Buddhism also entered into China along the southern route via sea from Sri Lanka and Indo-China to Canton from there overland via Changsha or to the lower Yangtse in the third century. There was the influx of missionaries, with their scriptures and icons, along the old Silk Road that connected Northern China with the Buddhist centres such as Kashgar, Kuca, Turfan and Khotan. This geographical situation has deeply influenced the development of Chinese Buddhism particularly during the formative phase, when the entire northern China was ruled by non-Chinese dynasties. In the north, there was a greater awareness of the foreign origin of the creed. This fact might have contributed to the conversion of the non-Chinese rulers and, consequently, led to the close relations between court and monastic. It was also in the north that most of the translations of Buddhist scriptures were done. The southern half of China was ruled by the Chinese dynasties where we can find the development of a much more Sinicized form of Buddhism which is indirectly influenced by Central Asia and India. Over the period of a thousand years, it was successively exposed to the influence of different Buddhist schools or movements that had developed in India. Buddhist doctrines and philosophical systems and traditions travelled like waves over the Asian continent finally to be absorbed by Chinese Buddhism. The diversity within Buddhism did not enter into China from one region, but from many great centres. Both movements that of the indigenous scholastic schools and that of Ch’an contributed to the impressive crystallization of Chinese Buddhism.

Sunday, Dec 25, 2016 4:31 pm

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