Sunday, June 05, 2005

Question 8: How did Buddhism come to China and what where the circumstances it had to face? What schools of Buddhism flourished in China? (600 words)

Buddhism was taken to China by Buddhist silk merchants who traded along the Silk Road which ran from north-west India to China from the second century BC. These Indian traders were often accompanied by Buddhist monks who helped spread the religion. Unlike other parts of Asia, China already had an ancient literary culture in Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism stressed the importance of the family, respect for parents and ancestors and harmony in social relationships. Taoism was about acting naturally, effortlessly and spontaneously and, like Confucianism, sought harmony. But Taoism differed from Confucianism in that it didn’t share the same formality and structure that was such a crucial part of Confucianism. By the first century AD, both Mahayana and Sarvastivada Buddhism were the prevalent forms of Buddhism.

In Buddhism, monasticism is of great importance and this requirement for celibacy clashed with the Chinese ideal of continuing the family line (which allowed the continuation of worship to the ancestors) and living a life bound to the home and family. Chinese society also saw a productive life as essential and a monk surviving on charity alone was viewed as being a financial drain on society. Confucianism was a rationalistic system and did not agree with the Buddhist ideas on rebirth, not killing animals or even karma. Confucianists believed that the individual’s fate depended on the will of Heaven not on the individual’s actions or karma. Another major difficulty was the matter of social hierarchy and class difference which, while crucial in Confucianism, were considered unimportant in Buddhist thought.

Although Buddhism faced many differences with existing religio-philosophical systems in China, when the Han dynasty faltered and began to break down, there was considerable uncertainty about the effectiveness of the Confucianist value system. Because Buddhism had both a philosophy (as did Tao) and an ethic (as did Confucianism), it was able to fill the void left by the collapse of the Han dynasty. Buddhism became popular partly because it considered that all people possessed the Buddha-nature and were worthy of compassion. This idea was quite new to a society that saw the nobly born as being specially chosen. Most importantly though, Buddhism was a tolerant faith and adapted itself to what China needed. The Sangha itself began to function as a family with dead Abbots worshipped as the Sanghas ancestors, and the monks were expected to respect their teachers as they would their parents.

After the fifth century, different schools of Buddhist thought had begun to emerge and were know as tsung (or clans). Three of these schools, the San-lun (or Three Treatise) school, the Fa-hsiang (or Characteristics of Dharmas) school and the Zhen Yan (Chen Yen) school were imported straight from India. Two schools that originated in China, the T’ien-t’ai school (named after Mount “Heavenly Terrace”) and the Hua-yen school, strived to be all-inclusive and emphasised the importance of much study and range of practices. But some schools focussed their energy on a small range of texts and practices and influenced later schools that developed. The two most successful practice-orientated schools were the Ch’ing-t’u (or Pure Land) school and the Ch’an (or Mediation) school.

The Pure Land school went onto to become a popular form of Buddhism, particularly with the laity, in China. The school was started by a former Taoist, Hui-yuan, in the early fifth century and he was regarded as the schools first patriarch. There were two more eventual patriarchs but by the ninth century it was popular enough on its own. The Ch’an school eventually became most popular with scholars, intellectuals and artists. The Ch’an school emphasised the importance of mediation as the method for attaining enlightenment and the idea that insight can be transmitted by mind-to-mind transmission from teacher to student.


Blogger L said...

interesting... I never know what I'm going to learn when I browse the blogs :)

1:33 pm  

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