The Origins of Chinese Buddhism

Buddha's head

By Frank Simons

In this lecture, we will consider the process of transformation that took place as the first few generations of Chinese Buddhists struggled to understand the significance of this foreign tradition and adapt it to the distinctive needs of the Chinese culture and Chinese people.

Buddhism, Part 19, “The Origins of Chinese Buddhism”
Thu, Apr 21, 5:30pm
The Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Donations are gratefully accepted

The first Buddhist monks began to appear in China during the second century CE, the end of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), which was stable and prosperous, a time of optimism and luxury. The ideological synthesis known as Han Confucianism prevailed. The Han prosperity began to fall apart in the second century CE, as rival factions undermined the ruler and the peasantry suffered alienation and oppression. China was ripe for a new way.

Taoism was comparable in antiquity to the tradition of Confucianism, and Chinese intellectuals had turned to it during the disintegration of the Han dynasty. In contrast to the active, public virtues of Confucianism, Taoism advocated a strategy of inactivity and contemplation. The Taoist Way, or “Tao,” was down to earth, natural, harmonious and inexpressible in words. Buddhist monks brought ideas already familiar to Chinese audiences open to Tao. The bodhisattva Vimalakirti became a model of a sage who maintained his loyalty to the family while pursuing the path of the Buddha.

We can get a taste of Taoist teaching and begin to sense the kinship between it and Buddhism from a few passages in the Tao-te Ching, one of the two fundamental texts of the Taoist tradition. When Tao can be told of it is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth. The Named is the mother of all things.

Taoist skepticism of any attempt to express ultimate reality in conceptual terms fits very well with Buddhist attitudes toward Emptiness. Taoism presents an image of human perfection. Wu-wei or “no action,” seems quite similar to the Buddhist ideal of renunciation. The Taoist teacher is best who gets himself out of the way and creates space for the student to learn for himself.

Following the fall of the Han dynasty, Taoism offered an effective survival strategy, but it also offered a rich body of words and ideas to express Buddhism in a Chinese way. The earliest Buddhist translations had a strong Taoist flavor. The word dharma was translated as Tao. The word nirvana was translated by the Taoist word wu-wei, or “no action,” Chinese Buddhism reflects this combination of Taoist and Buddhist values. Taoism made Buddhism much more pragmatic and down-to-earth, more respectful of natural ways of living. As a result, Buddhism became much more amenable to the possibility of sudden enlightenment.


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