Buddhist philosophy, Chinese
When Buddhism first entered China from India and Central Asia two thousand years ago, Chinese favourably disposed towards it tended to view it as a part or companion school of the native Chinese Huang–Lao Daoist tradition, a form of Daoism rooted in texts and practices attributed to Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) and Laozi. Others, less accepting of this ‘foreign’ incursion from the ‘barbarous’ Western Countries, viewed Buddhism as an exotic and dangerous challenge to the social and ethical Chinese civil order. For several centuries, these two attitudes formed the crucible within which the Chinese understanding of Buddhism was fashioned, even as more and more missionaries arrived (predominantly from Central Asia) bringing additional texts, concepts, rituals, meditative disciplines and other practices. Buddhists and Daoists borrowed ideas, terminology, disciplines, cosmologies, institutional structures, literary genres and soteric models from each other, sometimes so profusely that today it can be difficult if not impossible at times to determine who was first to introduce a certain idea. Simultaneously, polemical and political attacks from hostile Chinese quarters forced Buddhists to respond with apologia and ultimately reshape Buddhism into something the Chinese would find not only inoffensive, but attractive.
In the fifth century ad, Buddhism began to extricate itself from its quasi-Daoist pigeonhole by clarifying definitive differences between Buddhist and Daoist thought, shedding Daoist vocabulary and literary styles while developing new distinctively Buddhist terminology and genres. Curiously, despite the fact that Mahāyāna Buddhism had few adherents in Central Asia and was outnumbered by other Buddhist schools in India as well, in China Mahāyāna became the dominant form of Buddhism, so much so that few pejoratives were as stinging to a fellow Buddhist as labelling him ‘Hīnayāna’ (literally ‘Little Vehicle,’ a polemical term for non-Mahāyānic forms of Buddhism). By the sixth century, the Chinese had been introduced to a vast array of Buddhist theories and practices representing a wide range of Indian Buddhist schools. As the Chinese struggled to master these doctrines it became evident that, despite the fact that these schools were all supposed to express the One Dharma (Buddha’s Teaching), their teachings were not homogenous, and were frequently incommensurate.
By the end of the sixth century, the most pressing issue facing Chinese Buddhists was how to harmonize the disparities between the various teachings. Responses to this issue produced the Sinitic Mahāyāna schools, that is, Buddhist schools that originated in China rather than India. The four Sinitic schools are Tiantai, Huayan, Chan and Pure Land (Jingtu). Issues these schools share in common include Buddha-nature, mind, emptiness, tathāgatagarbha, expedient means (upāya), overcoming birth and death (saṃsāra), and enlightenment.
1 Historical overview
The development of Chinese Buddhist philosophy can be divided roughly into four periods: (1) the early introduction of Indian and Central Asian Buddhism (first–fourth centuries ad); (2) the formative development of Chinese versions of Indian and Central Asian Schools (fifth–seventh centuries); (3) the emergence of distinctively Sinitic Buddhist schools (seventh–twelfth centuries); and (4) the continuance of Chinese Buddhism into the present day (thirteenth century onwards).
From the fourth through the seventh centuries, Buddhists periodically realized that the positions being engendered in China were at variance with their Indian antecedents, and attempted to correct the problem, either through the introduction of additional translations or by clarifying differences between Buddhist and native Chinese ideas. By the eighth century, the Chinese had apparently become satisfied with the types of Buddhism they had developed, since from then on they lost interest in Indian commentaries and treatises and instead turned their attention toward Chinese commentaries on the Buddhist scriptures – such as the Lotus Sutra and Huayan Sutra – that had assumed importance for Chinese Buddhist traditions. Moreover, even though missionaries continued to arrive in China and new translations continued to be produced through the thirteenth century, none of the significant developments in Indian Buddhism (such as Buddhist syllogistic logic) from the seventh century onwards had any lasting impact on Chinese Buddhism, and many important texts and thinkers (for example, Dharmakīrti, Candrakīrti, Śāntarakṣita) remained virtually unknown in East Asia until modern times (see Buddhist philosophy, Indian).
2 Earliest developments
The first undisputed reference to Buddhism in China is an edict by Emperor Ming to Liu Ying, king of Qu, in the year ad 65, which mentions sacrifices performed by the king to Buddha as well as favourable treatment for Buddhist monks and laymen; the edict also identifies King Liu Ying as a follower of Huang–Lao Daoism. For the next few centuries, the Chinese continued to view Buddhist texts and practices as a part of or supplement to Daoism. Buddhism seemed to share important issues with the types of Daoism practised in this period, including the metaphysical primacy of emptiness, meditation techniques, dietary and behavioural disciplines, afterlife theories connected to moral and behavioural discipline, expansive pantheons and cosmologies, striving for the soteriological transformation of the ordinary human condition, rigorous and subtle intellectual traditions, and magical and yogic powers. These affinities, however, were more apparent than real, since the Buddhist approaches to these issues usually differed sharply from their Daoist counterparts, though Buddhists did not assert their distinctiveness until the fifth century.
Buddhist monks and businessmen representing a variety of Buddhist schools and disciplines continued to arrive in China, establishing Buddhist communities in Loyang and elsewhere. It took several centuries for the Chinese to notice how disparate the various forms of Buddhism really were. Initially the Chinese were most interested in Buddhist meditation techniques, including chanting and visualizations, which they adopted as supplements to Daoistic techniques. Daoism held out the promise that one could become a sage or perfected person, or even an immortal, but the exact details of how to accomplish this transformation remained elusive and vague. In comparison to many of the Daoist texts which were esoteric, hard to find, and frequently obscure in presentation, Buddhist texts seemed systematic and detailed, providing step-by-step procedures for practitioners.
Along with meditation manuals, the earliest Buddhist texts to become popular in China were Āvadana materials (legends of the Buddha and Buddhist heroes) and the Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures (Prajñāpāramitā Sutras). About half a dozen schools formed around varying interpretations of the Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures, mixing ideas found in these and other Buddhist texts with concepts prominent among Chinese intelligentsia. One Prajñāschool, called the Original Nothingness school (Benwu), adopted a neo-Daoist cosmology: everything has emerged from a primordial, original emptiness, and everything returns to that void. This was a thorough misconstrual of Buddhist emptiness (see Buddhist concept of emptiness). Another school, called the Mind Empty school (Xinwu), equated the primordial Nothing with the nature of mind (see Zhi Dun). Each of the Prajñāschools managed either to promote a metaphysical substantialized emptiness which they opposed to form, or smuggle an eternal self or spirit into their formulations, despite Buddhism’s emphatic rejection of the notion of permanent selfhood.
Dao’an (ad 312–85) criticized the Prajñāschools, challenging their faithfulness to authentic Buddhist positions as well as the translation methodologies behind the texts they and other Chinese Buddhists had come to rely on. In particular, he criticized the practice of ‘matching the meanings’ (geyi), by which translators seeking Chinese equivalents for Indian Buddhist technical terms and concepts borrowed heavily from Daoist literature. This ‘matching of meanings’ was a mixed blessing. Packaging Buddhist ideas in familiar terms made them amenable and understandable, but the ‘matches’ were often less than perfect, distorting or misrepresenting Buddhism. For instance, early translators chose a well-known Daoist and Confucian term, wuwei (nondeliberative activity), to translate nirvāṇa. Arguably, wuwei and nirvāṇa represent the teloi of Daoism and Buddhism, respectively, but it is not obvious that they denote the same telos (see Daoist philosophy §6; Nirvāṇa). Later, to emphasize the uniqueness of Buddhist nirvāṇa, translators dropped wuwei in favour of a transliteration, niepan. Wuwei was retained to render another important Buddhist notion, asaṃskṛta (unconditioned). The semantic connotations of Daoist wuwei and Buddhist wuwei, while possibly overlapping in some senses, were nonetheless quite distinct: for Daoists it meant a mode of interacting effortlessly and naturally with the world, while for Buddhists it denoted something unaffected by causes and conditions, that neither arose nor ceased. Chinese readers inevitably came to conflate the semantic ranges of such terms, which over the centuries led to some distinctively Chinese Buddhist concepts. After Dao’an, Chinese Buddhism asserted its distinctiveness from native Chinese traditions and Buddhists adopted increasingly critical hermeneutic approaches to translation.
3 Indian transplants: Madhyamaka and icchantikas
In the critical environment that followed Dao’an, two sets of events moved Chinese Buddhism in new directions. First, Kumārajīva, a Mahāyāna Buddhist from Kucha in Central Asia, was brought to Changan, the Chinese capital, in 401. Under the auspices of the ruler, he began translating numerous important works with the help of hundreds of assistants, including some of the brightest minds of his day. Some works, such as the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakīrti Sutra and Diamond Sutra, quickly became popular classics. He also introduced the emptiness philosophy of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka thought (see Buddhism, Mādhyamika: India and Tibet; Nāgārjuna), which in China came to be called the Three Treatise School (Sanlun) after the three Madhyamaka texts he translated: the Madhyamaka-kārikās, the Twelve Gate Treatise and Āryadeva’s One Hundred Verse Treatise. In a series of famous letters exchanged with a disciple of Dao’an, Huiyuan (344–416), who had mastered most of the Buddhist theory and practice known in China up to that time, Kumārajīva attacked the shortcomings of the current Chinese Buddhist theories and argued persuasively for the preeminence of Madhyamaka in matters of both theory and practice. His leading disciple, Seng Zhao (384–414), further popularized Madhyamaka thought by packaging it in an exquisite adoption of the literary style of Laozi (see Daodejing) and Zhuangzi, both of whom were extremely popular amongst literati at that time. Sanlun thought continued to spread through the fifth through seventh centuries, greatly influencing other Buddhist schools. After Jizang (549–623), who attempted to synthesize Madhyamakan emptiness with the Buddha-nature and tathāgatagarbha thought gaining prominence at his time, the Sanlun school declined, its most important ideas absorbed by other schools.
Second, in 418 Faxian (the first Chinese monk successfully to return to China with scriptures from pilgrimage to India) and Buddhabhadra produced a partial translation of the Mahāyāna Nirvāṇa Sutra. One of the topics it discusses is the icchantika, incorrigible beings lacking the requisites for achieving enlightenment. Daosheng (c.360–434), a disciple of Huiyuan, convinced that all beings, including icchantikas, must possess Buddha-nature and hence are capable of enlightenment, insisted that the Nirvāṇa Sutra be understood in that light. Since that violated the obvious meaning of the text, Daosheng was unanimously rebuked, whereupon he left the capital in disgrace. In ad 421, a new translation by Dharmakṣema of the Nirvāṇa Sutra based on a Central Asian original appeared containing sections absent from the previous version. The twenty-third chapter of Dharmakṣema’s version contained passages declaring that Buddha-nature was indeed universal, and that even icchantikas possessed it and could thus reach the goal. Daosheng’s detractors in the capital were humbled, suddenly impressed at his prescience. The lesson was never forgotten, so that two centuries later, when Xuan Zang (600–64) translated Indian texts that once again declared that icchantikas lacked the requisite qualities to attain enlightenment, his school was attacked from all quarters as promoting a less than ‘Mahāyānic’ doctrine. However, it should be noted that there is no clear precedent or term in Indian Buddhism for ‘Buddha-nature’; the notion probably either arose in China through a certain degree of license taken by translators when rendering terms like buddhatva (‘Buddhahood’, an accomplishment, not a primordial ontological ground), or it developed from nascent forms of the theory possibly constructed in Central Asia. However, from this moment on, Buddha-nature become one of the foundational tenets of virtually all forms of East Asian Buddhism.
4 Indian transplants: tathāgatagarbha and Yogācāra
A dispute at the start of the sixth century presaged a conflict that would take the Chinese Buddhists more than two centuries to settle. Two Indian monks collaborated on a translation of Vasubandhu’s Daśabhūmikasūutra śāstra (Treatise on the Ten Stages Sutra; in Chinese, Shidijing lun, or Dilun for short). The Dilun described the ten stages through which a bodhisattva proceeded on the way to nirvāṇa, and Vasubandhu’s exposition of it highlighted aspects most in accord with the tenets of the Yogācāra school (see Buddhism, Yogācāra school of; Vasubandhu). While translating, an irreconcilable difference of interpretation broke out between the two translators, Bodhiruci and Ratnamati. Bodhiruci’s reading followed a relatively orthodox Yogācāra line, while Ratnamati’s interpretation leaned heavily toward a Buddhist ideology only beginning to receive attention in China, tathāgatagarbha thought. Bodhiruci went on to translate roughly forty additional texts, and was later embraced by both the Huayan and Pure Land traditions as one of their early influences (see §§8, 10). Ratnamati later collaborated with several other translators on a number of other texts. Both sides attempted to ground their positions on interpretations of key texts, especially the Dilun. The Yogācāra versus Yogācāra-tathāgatagarbha conflict became one of the critical debates amongst sixth and seventh century Chinese Buddhists.
Yogācāra focused on the mind and distinguished eight types of consciousness: five sensory consciousnesses; an empirical organizer of sensory data (mano-vijñāna); a self-absorbed, appropriative consciousness (manas); and the eighth, a warehouse consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) that retained the karmic impressions of past experiences and coloured new experiences on the basis of that previous conditioning. The eighth consciousness was also the fundamental consciousness. Each individual is constituted by the karmic stream of one’s own ālaya-vijñāna, that is, one’s karmic conditioning. Since, like a stream, the ālaya-vijñāna is reconfigured each moment in response to constantly changing conditions, it is not a permanent self, although, being nothing more than a sequential chain of causes and effects, it provides sufficient stability for an individual to maintain a sense of continuity. According to classical Yogācāra texts, the mind (that is, ālaya-vijñāna and the mental events associated with it) is the problem, and enlightenment results from bringing this consciousness to an end, replacing it with the Great Mirror Cognition (ādarśa-jñāna); instead of discriminating consciousness, one has direct immediate cognition of things just as they are, as impartially and comprehensively as a mirror. This type of enlightenment occurs during the eighth stage according to the Dilun and other texts.
The term tathāgatagarbha (in Chinese, rulaizang) derives from two words: tathāgata (Chinese, rulai) is an epithet of the Buddha, meaning either ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’; garbha means embryo, womb or matrix, and was translated into Chinese as zang, meaning ‘repository’. In its earliest appearances in Buddhist texts, tathāgatagarbha (repository of buddhahood) signified the inherent capacity of humans (and sometimes other sentient beings) to achieve buddhahood. Over time the concept expanded and came to signify the original pristine pure ontological Buddha-ness intrinsic in all things, a pure nature that is obscured or covered over by defilements (Sanskrit, kleśa; Chinese fannao), that is, mental, cognitive, psychological, moral and emotional obstructions. It was treated as a synonym for Buddha-nature, though Buddha-nature dynamically understood as engaged in a struggle against defilements and impurities. In Chinese Buddhism especially, the soteriological goal consisted in a return to or recovering of that original nature by overcoming or eliminating the defilements. The battle between the pure and impure, light and dark, enlightenment and ignorance, good and evil and so on, took on such epic proportions in Chinese Buddhist literature that some scholars have compared it to Zoroastrian or Manichean themes, though evidence for the influence of those religions on Buddhist thought has been more suggestive than definitive (see Manicheism; Zoroastrianism).
In their classical formulations the ālaya-vijñāna and tathāgatagarbha were distinct items differing from each other in important ways – for instance, enlightenment entailed bringing the ālaya-vijñāna to an end, while it meant actualizing the tathāgatagarbha; the ālaya-vijñāna functioned as the karmic mechanism par excellence, while tathāgatagarbha was considered the antipode to all karmic defilements. Nonetheless some Buddhist texts, such as the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, conflated the two. Those identifying the two argued that the ālaya-vijñāna, like tathāgatagarbha, was pure and its purity became permanently established after enlightenment. Those opposing the conflation countered that the ālaya-vijñāna was itself defiled and needed to be eliminated in order to reach enlightenment. For the conflators, tathāgatagarbha was identified with Buddha-nature and with mind (xin) (see Xin). Mind was considered pure, eternal, and the ontological ground of reality (Dharma-dhātu), while defiled thought-instants (nian) that engaged in delusionary false discriminations had to be eliminated. Once nian were eliminated, the true, pure nature of the mind would brilliantly shine forth, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.
A third view was added when Paramārtha, another Indian translator with his own unique interpretation of Yogācāra, arrived in the middle of the sixth century. For his followers the most important of his translations was the She dasheng lun (Sanskrit title, Mahāyānasaṃgraha), or Shelun, a quasi-systematic exposition of Yogācāra theory by one its founders, Asaṅga. In some of his translations he added a ninth consciousness beyond the usual eight, a ‘pure consciousness’ that would pervade unhindered once the defiled ālaya-vijñāna was destroyed. His translations, which sometimes took liberties with the Sanskrit originals, offered a more sophisticated version of the conflation theory.
5 The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna
These debates and their ramifications dominated Chinese Buddhist thought in the sixth century. On one side was a substantialistic nondual metaphysic whose eternalistic ground was variously called Buddha-nature, mind, tathāgatagarbha, Dharma-dhātu and suchness (tathatā; in Chinese, rulai). On the other side was an anti-substantialist critique that eschewed any form of metaphysical reification, emphasizing emptiness as the absence of permanent selfhood or independent essence in anything. To the anti-substantialists the tathāgatagarbha position sounded dangerously close to the notion of eternalistic, reified selfhood that Buddha had rejected. Mahāyāna texts had declared that there were four conceptual perversions or reversals behind human delusion: (1) seeing a self in what lacks self; (2) seeing permanence in the impermanent; (3) seeing happiness in what is suffering; and (4) seeing purity in the impure. Yet starting with the earliest tathāgatagarbha texts – such as The Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmāla – tathāgatagarbha was brazenly defined as ‘self, eternal, happiness and pure’. In the face of these and other disparities, the Chinese asked how, if there is only one dharma (teaching), there can be such incommensurate variety.
The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna, a Chinese composition purporting to be a translation by Parāmartha of an Indian text, became an instant classic by offering a masterly synthesis of Buddhist teachings that seemed to resolve many of the disparities (see Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna). Its central tenet is that there is one Mind that has two aspects. One aspect is suchness and the other is saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, arising and ceasing. Suchness also has two aspects, emptiness and non-empty. Emptiness in this text means suchness is beyond predication, neither one nor many, neither the same nor different. Non-empty means it is endowed with all the marvellous qualities and merits of a Buddha, ‘as numerous as the sands along the banks of the Ganges’. The link between suchness and the realm of arising and ceasing is tathāgatagarbha in association with the ālaya-vijñāna. Ignorance, enlightenment and pursuit of the Path are all on the arising and ceasing side.
In a pivotal passage that would become foundational for most forms of Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhism, the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna states that on the basis of Original Enlightenment there is non-enlightenment; on the basis of non-enlightenment there is initial enlightenment; and on the basis of initial enlightenment there is final enlightenment, which is the full realization of original enlightenment. Beyond the problem of theodicy that it raises (the text does not offer a clear explanation for why or how non-enlightenment arises), several issues emerge. First, suddenly there is no longer simply one enlightenment that is achieved at the culmination of a spiritual path, but instead several enlightenments, one of which (original enlightenment) precedes even entering the path. What the text calls initial enlightenment had been termed bodhicitta or cittotpāda (arousing the aspiration for enlightenment) in previous Buddhist literature. Arousing this aspiration is what the title Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna signifies. Now, rather than marking a singular, ultimate achievement, the term ‘enlightenment’ referred to several things: an atemporal originary ground upon which everything else plays out, including non-enlightenment; one’s initial resolve or insight that leads one to begin pursuing the path; the final achievement at the end of the path, an achievement that is not only anticlimactic, but is little more than an unravelling of the intersection of original and initial enlightenment. This reinforced the conviction of Chinese Buddhists that the conflationist approach, with its emphasis on Buddha-nature or mind as ground, was the correct view.
One of the first to recognize the importance of the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna was a Korean monk named Wônhyo. He wrote a commentary on the text that reached China, where it influenced Fazang, a foundational thinker of the Huayan school, who used its ideas as a major cornerstone for his thinking. Since the Dilun, originally an independent text, had eventually been incorporated into the Huayan Sutra as one of its chapters, and that scripture became the basic text of the Huayan school, many of the issues that had emerged from the debates on the Dilun were absorbed and reconfigured by the Huayan thinkers. In a sense, it was ultimately Ratnamati’s interpretation that prevailed after two centuries of debate. The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna became pivotal for Chinese Buddhism, is still one of the foundations of Korean Buddhism and, though it has been eclipsed in Japan by other texts such as the Lotus Sutra, many of its ideas, such as the idea of original enlightenment (hongaku), still exert a profound influence. This text set the stage for the development of distinctively East Asian forms of Buddhism.
6 The Chinese Buddhist Schools
Although the ideas and literature of many different forms of Buddhism reached China – including Sarvāstivāda, Mahīśāsika, Saṃmitīya, Dharmaguptaka, Sautrāntika and others – only Madhyamaka and Yogācāra developed Chinese schools and lineages. Madhyamaka disappeared as an independent school after Jizang, but its influence and the preeminence of Nāgārjuna never abated. The sixth century was basically a battleground of competing Yogācāric theories.
In the seventh century the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (600–64) spent sixteen years travelling in Central Asia and India. He returned to China in 645 and translated seventy-four works. Due in part to his accomplishments as a traveller and translator, and in part to the eminent favour bestowed on him by the Chinese emperor upon his return, Xuanzang became the most prominent East Asian Buddhist of his generation. He promoted an orthodox form of Yogācāra as it was then being practised in India, and students flocked to him from Japan and Korea as well as China. Not everyone was enamoured of the Buddhist ideology he had brought back. Zhiyan (602–68), who would later be considered one of the patriarchs of the Huayan school, was openly critical of Xuanzang’s teachings, and Fazang had joined Xuanzang’s translation committee late in Xuanzang’s life, only to quit in disgust at Xuanzang’s ‘distorted’ views. While in India, Xuanzang had discovered how far Chinese Buddhism had deviated from its Indian source, and his translations and teachings were deliberate attempts to bring Chinese Buddhism back in line with Indian teachings. The ideas he opposed (primarily but not exclusively those that had been promoted by Paramārtha’s school) were already deeply entrenched in Chinese Buddhist thinking. While he was alive his pre-eminence made him unassailable, but once he died his detractors attacked his successor, Kuiji (632–82), and successfully returned Chinese and East Asian Buddhism to the trajectory established by the conflationists. (Wônch’ūk, a Korean student of Xuanzang, was a rival of Kuiji who fared better with the revivalists since he attempted to harmonize the teachings of Paramārtha and Xuanzang.) The underlying ideology of this resurgence, which reached its intellectual apex over the course of the Tang and Song Dynasties (sixth–twelfth centuries), was neatly summarized by the label ‘dharma-nature’ (faxing), that is, the metaphysical ground of Buddha-nature qua dharma-dhātu qua mind-nature qua tathāgatagarbha. Fazang argued that orthodox Yogācāra only understood dharma characteristics (faxiang), that is, phenomenal appearances, but not the deeper underlying metaphysical reality, ‘dharma-nature’. After Fazang, all the Sinitic Buddhist schools considered themselves dharma-nature schools; Yogācāra and sometimes Sanlun were considered merely dharma characteristics schools.
Four dharma-nature schools emerged. Each school eventually compiled a list of its patriarchs through whom its teachings were believed to have been transmitted. Modern scholarship in Japan and the West has shown that these lineages were usually forged long after the fact, and frequently were erroneous or distorted the actual historical events. For instance, while Huiyuan was an active promoter of the Sarvāstivādin teachings introduced during his time by Sanghadeva and Buddhabhadra, the later Pure Land schools dubbed him their initial Chinese patriarch on the basis of his alleged participation in Amitābha rituals, allegations that were probably first concocted during the Tang Dynasty. Similarly, the lineage of six Chan patriarchs from Bodhidharma to Huineng is unlikely; the Huayan lineage (Du Shun to Zhiyan to Fazang to Chengguan) was largely an invention of the ‘fourth’ patriarch, Chengguan: his predecessors were unaware that they were starting a new lineage and rather thought that they were reviving the true old-time religion of Paramārtha. It was also during the Tang dynasty that Tantra briefly passed through China, from whence it was brought to Japan and became firmly established as the Shingon school.
7 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Tiantai
Though considered its third patriarch, the intellectual founder of the Tiantai school was Zhiyi (538–97). Responding to the proliferation of different Buddhist theories and practices, he proposed a masterly, detailed synthesis that definitively set Chinese Buddhism in its own direction. To the question of why there was an abundance of incommensurate teachings despite the fact that there could only be one dharma, Zhiyi replied that all the different vehicles of Buddhism were ultimately one vehicle (eka-yāna), an idea championed by the Lotus Sutra. More specifically, he offered a panjiao, or classificatory scheme of teachings, to explain the discrepancies. His panjiao was complex and brilliant (and further refined much later by Chegwan, a Korean Tiantai monk in China), but in simple form it can be summarized as follows.
Buddha offered different teachings to different audiences based on the differing capacities of audiences to comprehend what he preached. According to the basic narrative, which became the way all Chinese Buddhists thought of Buddha’s teaching career, upon reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, Buddha, enraptured by his new vision, began to describe that vision in immediate and exuberant terms. This became the Huayan Sutra. (In reality, this ‘sutra’ is a collection of disparate texts – none probably composed earlier than the third century ad – that were gradually compiled together over several more centuries.) When he finished (it took two or three weeks) he realized that no one had understood the sublime meaning of his words, and immediately began to teach a simplified, preparatory teaching which became the Hīnayāna teachings. After twenty years of preparatory teachings, he introduced the next level, beginners’ Mahāyāna (basically Yogācāra and Madhyamaka). In the next period he introduced advanced Mahāyāna (the Vaipūlya Sutras), and finally in his last days, having now trained many advanced students, he preached the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvāṇa Sutra. In effect this panjiao asserts that the two highest sutras offered by Buddha were the Huayan and Lotus; but whereas the Huayan was too sublime to be understood by any save the most advanced or enlightened students, the Lotus represented Buddha’s most comprehensive, cumulative, mature and accessible teaching, every bit as sublime as the Huayan, but now presented in a pedagogically effective manner. For that reason, Zhiyi made the Lotus Sutra the foundational text of Tiantai. As for the remaining teachings, as the Lotus itself explains, different ‘truths’ can be superseded once they have served their task of raising one to a higher level where a different ‘truth’ holds sway. Buddhism, according to the Lotus and Tiantai, is a system of expedient means (upāya) leading one with partial truths to ever greater, more comprehensive truths. Tiantai teachings are ‘Round Teachings’, meaning that they encircle or encompass everything and, lacking sharp edges, are therefore Perfect. Other forms of Buddhism are not ‘wrong’, but are only partial visions of the One Vehicle that Tiantai most perfectly and completely embodies.
Zhiyi, based on an exhaustive exposition of a verse from Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka-kārikās (24: 18), devised a theory of three truths: provisional, empty and middle. The first two are mirror images of each other, two ways of speaking about causes and conditions. A table can provisionally be called a table, since its perceptible form has arisen through causes and conditions, and it only exists provisionally on the basis of those temporary conditions. The table is empty because, being the product of causes and conditions, it lacks its own intrinsic, independent nature. It is ‘middle’ because neither the provisional nor the empty truth about the table fully captures its reality. It is both provisional and empty, and simultaneously neither provisional nor empty. As Zhiyi put it, ‘wondrous being is identical to true emptiness’. Zhiyi sought many ways to express the nondual middle truth. For instance, rejecting the obvious dualism of the distinction most of his contemporaries made between pure mind (xin) and deluded thought-instants (nian), Zhiyi declared that every deluded thought-instant was identical to three thousand chilicosms. The details of the formulas he used to arrive at the number three thousand is less important than fact that it is meant to encompass the full extent of Buddhist cosmological metaphysics. The whole universe in all its dimensions is entailed in every moment of thought. Rather than attempt to eliminate deluded thinking to reach a purified mind, Zhiyi claimed each moment of deluded thinking was already identical to enlightenment. One merely has to see the mind and its operations as they are. This idea was later taken over by the Chan (Zen) school, which expressed it in sayings such as ‘Zen mind is everyday mind’.
The middle approach is also evident in the Tiantai notion of three gates, or three methods of access to enlightened vision: the Buddha-gate, the gate of sentient beings and the mind-gate. The Buddha-gate was considered too difficult, too abstruse, too remote; one had to be a Buddha already to fully comprehend it. The sentient-being gate (the various methods taught and practised by any sort of being) was also too difficult because there are too many different types of sentient beings all with their own types of delusions, so that this gate is a confusing cacophony of disparate methods, some which may not be appropriate for some beings. The easiest and hence preferable gate was the mind-gate. It is no more remote than this very moment of cognition, its diversity can be observed in every thought-instant, and nothing could ever be more appropriately suited for an individual than to observe one’s own mind. Tiantai cultivated many types of meditation for that purpose.
8 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Huayan
Drawing on a panjiao similar to that of Zhiyi, the Huayan school chose the Huayan Sutra (Sanskrit title Avataṃsaka Sutra, Chinese Huayan jing) for its foundational scripture. What immediately differentiates Huayan from typically Indian approaches is that instead of concentrating on a diagnosis of the human problem, and exhorting and prescribing solutions for it, Huayan immediately begins from the point of view of enlightenment. In other words, its discourse represents a nirvanic perspective rather than a samsaric perspective. Instead of detailing the steps that would lead one from ignorance to enlightenment, Huayan immediately endeavours to describe how everything looks through enlightened eyes.
Like Tiantai, Huayan offers a totalistic, encompassing ‘round’ view. A lived world as constituted through a form of life experience is called a dharma-dhātu. Chengguan, the ‘fourth’ Huayan patriarch, described four types of dharma-dhātus, each successively encompassing its predecessors. The first is shi, which means ‘event’, ‘affair’ or ‘thing’. This is the realm where things are experienced as discrete individual items. The second is called li (principle), which in Chinese usage usually implies the principal metaphysical order that subtends events as well as the rational principles that explicate that order. Often li is used by Buddhists as a synonym for emptiness. The first sustained analysis based on the relation of li and shi was undertaken by the Korean monk Wônhyo in his commentary on the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna, which influenced early Huayan thinkers like Fazang. The li–shi model went on to become an important analytic tool for all sorts of East Asian philosophers, not just Buddhists. In the realm of li, one clearly sees the principles that relate shi to each other, but the principles are more important than the individual events. In the third realm, one sees the mutual interpenetration or ‘non-obstruction’ of li and shi (lishi wu’ai). Rather than seeing events while being oblivious to principle, or concentrating on principle while ignoring events, in this realm events are seen as instantiations of principle, and principle is nothing more than the order by which events relate to each other.
In the fourth and culminating dharma-dhātu, one sees the mutual interpenetration and non-obstruction of all events (shishi wu’ai). In this realm, everything is causally related to everything else. Huayan illustrates this with the image of Indra’s net, a vast net that encompasses the universe. A special jewel is found at the intersection of every horizontal and vertical weave in the net, special because each jewel reflects every other jewel in the net, so that looking into any one jewel, one sees them all. Every event or thing can disclose the whole universe because all mutually interpenetrate each other without barriers or obstruction.
This form of nondualism is not monistic because shishi wu’ai does not obliterate the distinctions between things, but rather insists that everything is connected to everything else without losing distinctiveness. Identity and difference, in this view, are merely two sides of the same coin, which, though a single coin, still has two distinct sides that should not be confused for each other. Mutual interpenetration is temporal as well as spatial; past, present and future mutually interpenetrate. Hence according to Huayan, to enter the path towards final enlightenment is, in an important sense, to have already arrived at that destination.
9 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Chan
Better known in the West by its Japanese pronunciation, Zen, Chan emerged as a reaction against the increasing scholastic complexities of the Tiantai and Huayan schools and their voluminous, hairsplitting literature, which, some Chan practitioners believed, could be more of an obstacle than an aid to enlightenment. The Pāli term for meditative absorption, jhāna (Sanskrit, dhyāna), was transliterated into Chinese as Channa, and then shortened to Chan. Until the early Tang Dynasty, chanshi (Chan master) meant a monk adept at meditation, though it did not specify what sorts of meditation he was practising. Some monks were called dharma masters (fashi), some were called scriptural masters (zangshi), some were called disciplinary masters (lushi) and some were meditation masters. These titles could be applied to a monk (or nun) of any school, since they denoted one’s methodological focus rather than one’s ideological leanings.
Chan begins to denote a specific doctrinal and meditative ideology around the time of Huineng (638–713). Although Chan tradition describes a transmission by five patriarchs culminating in Huineng as the sixth patriarch, as noted above, that transmission is more fiction than fact. Huineng’s followers established the Southern School of Chan, which unleashed a polemical tirade against the Northern School. Since the Northern School disappeared about a thousand years ago, our only source of information on these schools was the prejudiced accounts of the Southern School, until the discovery at Dunhuang early this century of Northern School documents. We now know that many different versions of lineage histories were circulated, and, more importantly, that the positions attributed to the Northerners by their Southern rivals were grossly inaccurate and unfair. In fact, the Northern School had initially been the more successful of the two, but its success led to its ultimate ruin, since its growing dependence on Imperial patronage made it a vulnerable target during times of Imperial persecution of Buddhism. The Southern School, because it had taken root in remote areas less affected by actions of the Central government, survived the persecutions relatively intact.
Huineng is depicted in the Platform Sutra (authored by his leading follower and promoter, Shenhui) as an illiterate seller of firewood who experiences sudden enlightenment while overhearing someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. He joins a monastery where, without any official training in scriptures or meditation, he demonstrates that his enlightenment is more profound than all the monks who had been practising for years. Hence sudden enlightenment is one of the main tenets of the Platform Sutra (and subsequently for all forms of Chan). Another is ‘direct pointing at mind’, which, similar to the Tiantai approach, means that what is important is to observe one’s own mind, to recognize that the nature of one’s mind is Buddha-nature itself (see Platform Sutra).
While some Buddhists had argued that the goal was wisdom, and meditation was merely a means to that goal, Huineng argued for the inseparability of meditation and wisdom. Using an analytic device probably introduced by the so-called neo-Daoist Wang Bi (226–49), the tiyong model (see Ti and yong), Huineng claimed that meditation is the essence (ti) of wisdom, and wisdom is the function (yong) of meditation. Wisdom does not produce meditation, nor does meditation produce wisdom; nor are meditation and wisdom different from each other. He drew an analogy to a lamp: the lamp is the ti, while its light is the yong. Wherever there is a (lit) lamp, there is light; wherever there is lamplight, there is a lamp. Lamp and light are different in name but identical in substance (ti), hence nondual.
Huineng’s style of Chan was still sober, calm, rational, and rooted in commonly accepted Buddhist tenets. New and more radical elements were soon incorporated into Chan, some iconoclastically renouncing meditation and practice as well as scholasticism, and others trying earnestly to work out a rational system by which Chan could be syncretized with the other schools. Zongmi (780–841) considered a patriarch of both the Chan and Huayan schools, attempted just such a synthesis, but his sober approach was soon overshadowed in China by more abrupt, startling forms of Chan.
Of the ‘Five Houses of Chan’, only the Linji school survives today in China, Taiwan and Korea. Based on the teachings of Linji (d. 867), this school possibly provided Buddhism with its most ‘Chinese’ voice. Chan literature of the Linji and related schools were among the first texts ever written in vernacular as opposed to classical Chinese. Daoist elements also began to appear prominently. Zhuangzi’s ‘true man’ becomes Linji’s ‘true man of no rank’ who is going in and out of each person’s face this very moment, and is always right here before one. The anecdotal humour associated with Zhuangzi’s stories and the irreverent exploits of the Bamboo Sages of the Six Dynasties period clearly infused the style of Chan anecdotes. Rather than indulge in elaborate, complicated theoretical abstractions, Chan focused on experience as lived, in terms familiar to anyone immersed in Chinese culture (though often exotic to Western students, which has led to the common misconception that Chan is nonsensical or obscurantist).
Teaching techniques began to overshadow doctrinal content. At the heart of Chan training are the exchanges between teacher and student. Records, called gongan, were compiled of classic encounters, and even these eventually became part of the teaching techniques, as they were presented to students as riddles to concentrate on during meditation. To disrupt the sort of idle or pernicious speculation that could prove a hindrance to enlightenment, abrupt and shocking techniques were employed, from radical statements such as, ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!’, to exchanges punctuated by blows and shouts (all the more startling in the subdued monastic atmosphere in which they would unexpectedly occur). Linji’s methods were designed to make students confront and overcome their mental and emotional habits and crutches, so as to become truly free and independent. Even dependency on Buddhism could be such a crutch. Linji summarized his teaching with the phrase: ‘Don’t be deceived.’
10 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Pure Land
All forms of Chinese Buddhism, including Chan, contain devotional elements and rituals, but for Pure Land Buddhists devotionalism is the essence. The origins of Pure Land Buddhism are somewhat unclear. While undoubtedly devotional practices were imported to China by monks and laity (and these were blended with native Chinese forms of devotionalism), there does not seem to be a distinct school in India devoted to rebirth in Amitābha’s Pure Land. As noted earlier, the traditional lineages are not very helpful for reconstructing the school’s history. According to tradition, early contributors to Pure Land thought and practice include Tanluan (476–542), Dao Chuo (562–645) and his student Shandao (613–81). The term ‘Pure Land’ (jingtu) may itself be largely a product of certain license taken by translators. The term jingtu appears in Kumārajīva’s translation of the Vimalakīrti Sutra where the Tibetan version simply has ‘Buddha lands’ (the Sanskrit version is no longer extant). Apparently, Xuanzang was the first explicitly to associate Sukhāvati (Amitābha’s Paradise) with the term ‘pure land’. The main scriptures for Pure Land practice were the Larger and Smaller Sukhāvati-vyuha Sutras and the Guan Wuliangshuofo jing.
At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, several forms of Buddhist devotionalism were popular, including cults devoted to Mañjuśrī(Bodhisattva of Wisdom), Guanyin (Bodhisattva of Compassion, at that time particularly popular as a patron saint and protector of travellers), Maitreya (the future Buddha) and Amita (a conflation of Amitābha and Amitāyus whose names mean ‘Infinite Light’ and ‘Infinite Life’ respectively, and are possibly deities of Central Asian origin). Arguably the most popular form of devotionalism was the Maitreya cult. The Empress Wu (r. 683–705), a great patron of Buddhism but generally reviled in Chinese history as an unscrupulous usurper, considered herself an incarnation of Maitreya. Due to her unpopularity once dethroned, people wanted to distance themselves from her and anything associated with her. Unfortunately this effectively extinguished Maitreya worship in China. Worshippers of Amita filled the void.
Pure Land theology maintained that people were living in the age of degenerate dharma, when study and personal effort were insufficient for making progress on the path to liberation. Relying on one’s own efforts was in fact deemed a form of self-theory, or the selfishness and arrogance that comes from erroneous views of self. Rather than indulge in egoistic fantasies, one ought to rely on the power and grace of Amita. Amita was a buddha (whether he was an earlier incarnation of the historical Buddha or another person altogether is answered differently by different Pure Land sources) who, while still a bodhisattva, vowed to help sentient beings once he became a buddha. He has the power to transfer to anyone he deems worthy sufficient merit to enable them to be born in his Pure Land, the Western Paradise. In the earliest forms of Pure Land devotionalism a variety of practices were cultivated, but these were eventually pared down to chanting the nianfo, literally ‘remembrance of Buddhas’ (in Sanskrit, buddhānusmṛti), which in Chinese is ‘Na-mu A-mi-to Fo’ (Hail Amita Buddha).
11 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts
Since the time of Mencius, the ultimate ontological issue in China was the question of human nature and mind (which Mencius and most Chinese thinkers treated as synonyms). Pre-Han Chinese philosophers had debated whether human nature was originally good, bad or neutral. The written Chinese character for ‘nature’, xing, consists of two parts: the left side means ‘mind’ and the right side means ‘birth’, which led Chinese thinkers to debate whether human nature was determined by what one is born with, namely appetites and desires, or whether it reflects the nature of one’s mind, which in Chinese thought invariably carried an onto-ethical rather than strictly cognitive connotation. The word xin literally means ‘heart’, indicating that – unlike Western conceptions that draw a sharp line between the head and the heart – for the Chinese, thinking and feeling originated in the same bodily locus. Feeling empathy or compassion as well as rationally abstracting principles and formulating ethical codes were all activities of xin, heart-and-mind (see Xin; Xing).
Indian Buddhism had little to say about human nature, with many forms of Buddhism rejecting the very concept of essential nature. Some of the early polemics against Buddhism in China explicitly attacked it for neglecting to address the question of human nature. The notion of Buddha-nature was developed, in part, to redress that failing. Since Indian Buddhists were deeply interested in the mind in terms of cognitive processes such as perception, thinking, attention and so on (see Mind, Indian philosophy of; Sense perception, Indian views of), it was a natural step for the Chinese to read these initially in the light of the Chinese discourse on mind, and to further develop interpretations of this material in line with Chinese concerns. Hence passages that in Sanskrit dealt primarily with epistemology or cognitive conditions often became, in their Chinese renderings, psycho-moral descriptions. The Sanskrit term ekacitta, a mind with singular focus (but literally meaning ‘one mind’) becomes the metaphysical one mind of the Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna. Similarly, Indian and Chinese philosophers had developed very different types of causal theories. Indian Buddhists accepted only efficient causes as real, while Chinese Buddhists tended to interpret Buddhist causal theories as examples of formal causes.
12 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: emptiness
Before Buddhism entered China Daoists had already embraced a notion of emptiness which it took Buddhists several centuries to realize was significantly different from their own (see Daoist philosophy). Laozi had contrasted the empty or open (xu) with the solid. What made a wheel functional was its empty hub; what made a vessel or room functional was its open space. Hence emptiness (or openness) is not worthless but rather the key to functionality and usefulness (see Daodejing). Later Daoists contrasted existents (you) with nonexistence (wu), and claimed that all existence emerges from nonexistence and ultimately returns to nonexistence (see You–wu). Some Chinese metaphysicians, such as Wang Bi, wrote about primordial nonexistence (yuan wu, benwu) as the metaphysical source, destination and substratum for all existent things. Thus form and emptiness were opposed, contrasting poles, and emptiness had primacy.
Some early Chinese Buddhists interpreted Buddhist emptiness in the same fashion, especially in the Prajñāschools. Eventually Buddhists realized, as the Heart Sutra says, that form and emptiness are not opposed to each other, but that ‘form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself is form, form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form.’ In other words, Buddhist ‘emptiness’ did not mean ‘open’ or ‘nonexistence’. Emptiness (śūnyatā) signified the absence of an eternal, independent, self-causing, invariant, essential self-nature (svabhāva) or selfhood (ātman) in any thing or person. Whatever existed did so by virtue of a perpetually changing web of causes and conditions that themselves were products of other causes and conditions. Stated simplistically, emptiness does not mean that a table is unreal or nonexistent, or that its solid texture or colour are unreal; it does mean that the concept of tableness is unreal, and that the abstractions ‘solidity’ and ‘colour’ are unreal apart from the discrete and particular sensations one has at specific moments due to specific causes and conditions. Buddhist emptiness is not a primal void, but the absence of self-essence (see Buddhist concept of emptiness). To avoid being confused with Daoist concepts of emptiness, the Buddhists eventually chose a new term, kong, to render their ‘emptiness’.
Emptiness is neither the origin nor terminus for forms; forms themselves at any moment are emptiness. Since everything is causally connected with everything else, and there are no independent identities beyond or behind such causes and conditions, everything, according to Huayan, mutually interpenetrates and conditions everything else. Every thing defines and is defined by every other thing.
13 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: suffering and ignorance
For all forms of Indian Buddhism, the fundamental fact with which Buddhism begins, and the problem it attempts to solve, is the problem of suffering (duḥkha). The first of the Four Noble Truths is: ‘All is suffering.’ Suffering does not mean simply pain. Buddhism does not deny joy, pleasure, delight and so on; but it claims that all is impermanent, so that whatever the source of a particular pleasure, that pleasure can never be permanent. The more pleasure one feels, the greater becomes one’s attachment to the presumed source. The greater the attachment, the greater the pain at the loss of that pleasure. Since everything is impermanent, such loss is inevitable. So, ironically, pleasure itself is ‘suffering’. Suffering is the affective reaction to impermanence. According to general Buddhist causal analysis, the causes of suffering are desire and ignorance. We desire permanent pleasures because we are ignorant of the fact that all is impermanent, empty of eternal selfhood. As the Four Noble Truths state, these causes of suffering can be eliminated, and Buddhism is the method or path for eliminating those causes. The purpose of Buddhism, then, is the elimination of suffering.
Chinese Buddhist texts do occasionally mention suffering, but usually in passing. Instead the root problem became ignorance. Discussions of the dialectical conflict between ignorance and enlightenment grew so pervasive that suffering was all but forgotten. This shift helped reinforce the emphasis on mind and mind-nature. Enlightenment was no longer defined as awakening to the causes of suffering, but instead denoted seeing the nature of the mind itself (see Suffering, Buddhist views of origination of).
14 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: is Buddha-nature good or evil?
References and further reading
References and further reading
Buswell, R. (ed.) (1990) Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press. (An important collection of essays detailing the impact of apocryphal texts – Chinese creations purporting to represent Indian originals – on the development of Chinese Buddhism.)
Ch’en, K. (1964) Buddhism in China, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Though somewhat dated, still a classic overview of the early history of Buddhism in China.)
Ch’en, K. (1973) The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Another dated classic.)
Cook, F. (1977) Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. (A good introduction to basic Huayan doctrine.)
Gimello, R. (1976) ‘Chih-yen (602–668) and the Foundations of Hua-yen Buddhism’, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University. (Though unpublished, this remains the best historical analysis available in English of Chinese Buddhism in the sixth and seventh centuries.)
Gregory, P. (1995) Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity: An Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi’s Yüan-jen lun with a Modern Commentary, Honolulu, HI: Kuroda Institute and University of Hawaii Press. (A translation of an important Chinese text, richly annotated by Gregory, who intends this book as a survey and primer of Chinese Buddhist thought for intermediate students.)
Hurvitz, L. (1960–2) Chih-I (538–597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk, Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques vol. 12. (A thorough overview of the foundational Tiantai thinker, Zhiyi.)
Liu Ming-wood (1994) Madhyamaka Thought in China, Leiden: Brill. (Useful discussion of the key developments in Chinese Madhyamaka, especially Liu’s treatment of Jizang.)
Robinson, R. (1967) Early Mādhyamika in India and China, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. (Classic work, detailing the efforts of Kumārajīva and his contemporaries.)
Swanson, P. (1989) The Philosophy of T’ien-t’ai, Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press. (Important historical overview of the texts and issues that lead to Zhiyi’s distinctive philosophy, with a partial translation of one of Zhiyi’s discussions of the Lotus Sutra that serves as a good example of the dense textual style of this form of Buddhism.)
Wright, A. (1990) Studies in Chinese Buddhism, ed. R. Somers, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Essays dealing with important people and issues during the formative years of Buddhism in China.)
Yampolsky, P. (1967) The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, New York: Columbia University Press. (Yampolsky’s translation of this Chan sutra is somewhat problematic, but his introductory essays demonstrate the importance of critical historical methods for approaching this material.)
Zürcher, E. (1959) The Buddhist Conquest of China, Leiden: Brill, 2 vols. (Another classic, dealing with the formative periods of Chinese Buddhism.) (^)
Source: LUSTHAUS, DAN (1998). Buddhist philosophy, Chinese. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved June 09, 2003, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/G002SECT14