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Buddhism and Its Sinification


The Buddha (Gautama Siddartha), a Nepalese prince living in the 6th century BCE, was concerned with ending life's suffering, which he believed was caused by humankind's incessant craving for life's pleasures (of the mind and body) and its inability to accept life for what it is, an impermanent existence. After he meditated for a while (some say six months under a bodhi tree in northeast India), he achieved Nirvana (Enlightenment or complete Awakening/Awareness), and then, out of compassion for others' suffering, began to teach not only about the causes of such suffering, but also that the realization that suffering could end. If people followed certain "paths," which included correct ways speaking, acting, concentrating and so on, and if they led lives of moderation, they could cultivate a blissful state of equanimity and ultimately discover their own Buddha natures.


The Buddha was essentially speaking to his celibate followers who embraced a livelihood focused on meditation in monasteries. But when Buddhism began to spread into China, how would such a monkish tradition be accepted by a society whose foremost social and cultural institution was the family? And whereas Buddhism was more individualistic and egalitarian, the dominant social and political ideology, Confucianism, privileged the group and social and gender inequality. One might imagine that Buddhist missionaries themselves suspected such challenges in diffusing their religion into China and the rest of East Asia. And by propagating the idea that one did not have to become a monk (or nun) for life, that there were other effective routes to Enlightenment than just meditating, and that anyone of any status could achieve salvation in the after-life, Buddhists found appeal among both the aristocracy and the commoners in Chinese society, especially in times of social disruption after the decline of the Han dynasty. (3rd century CE)


Perhaps cultural syncretism might best describe the interaction between Buddhism and Chinese society. Early translations of Buddhist texts reveal a gradual Sinification of the religion. For example, the Buddhist phrase, "Husband supports wife" became "The husband controls his wife," and "The wife comforts the husband" became "The wife reveres her husband."* Buddhism was also influenced by Daoism. For example, the Chinese character "dao" (the way), already used by Daoists and Confucianists, might be used for the Buddhist idea of enlightenment.* The process of Sinification continued and during the early Tang dynasty (7th-8th centuries), emperors were completely enamored of the religion, and monasteries proliferated. Every aspect of culture, art, literature, architecture, etc. was influenced by Buddhism. 

*(John King Fairbank & Merle Goldman, China: A New History, 2nd ed. (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006)


Note the Greco-Roman influences (especially facial features) in this Gandharan Buddha (1st-2nd century CE)



Now note how Sinified (again especially facial features) this Tang Buddha is below:



In both images, note as well the presence of certain physical features (elongated ear lobes and cranial protuberance) that help to distinguish the Buddha from ordinary mortals. In addition observe the hands. These are symbolic gestures called mudras. In the Gandharan image, the gesture signifies meditation; in the Tang image, it symbolizes the Buddha's teaching of the "law" and his first sermon.


Buddhism did provide a kind of ethical universalism to mitigate against Confucian ethical particularism.** Salvation in the next world was open to all, regardless of gender, status, or education. Many Chinese would make donations to monasteries to have Buddhist sutras (scripture) copied to gain religious merit for themselves and deceased relatives, hoping to go to the Pure Land (the Western Paradise, a kind of heaven) or not be reborn as a hungry ghost! Indeed, it was believed that if one were to recite the name of the Buddha of the Western Paradise, Amitabha, 300,000 times, he or she would make it to the Pure Land!

**(Arthur Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History. (Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1959), 75.))


The Buddha Amitabha (Chinese: Omitofo; Japanese: Amida) of the Western Paradise (Pure Land)



The mass printing of Buddhist sacred texts help to spread the "word" throughout China. For the illiterate, however, artistic representations helped to convert them to the new religion, and in particular to "saviors" known as Bodhisattvas, to whom they prayed. Bodhisattvas were beings who had reached the point of enlightenment but then generously devote themselves to helping others in their suffering. Perhaps the most well known in China (and throughout South and East Asia) was Guanyin, the Lord of Compassion (literally "Perceiver of the World's Sounds"). Guanyin's early depictions revealed a more masculine figure but later images are more feminine looking. After all, Guanyin helped to make women procreate more male children!


The first image of Guanyin below is taken from the Sui dynasty (589-618) and the second from the Ming (1368-1644). Note in each headdress the presence of the Buddha of the Western Paradise.


Sui dynasty image: http://www.corbisimages.com/Enlargement/BE086736.html

Ming dynasty image: http://teachartwiki.wikispaces.com/Bodhisattva+of+compassion,+Guanyin--a+14th+Century+wood+carving


In the 9th century, some Confucian scholar-bureaucrats and intellectuals, however, became concerned that Buddhism was causing the Chinese to forget their heritage and the cultural roots of their society, based on Confucian values and beliefs (not to mention the fact the monks and nuns did not have to pay taxes!). One writer, Han Yu, wrote a forceful polemic against Buddhism to the Tang Emperor in the 9th century. Here is part of that diatribe:


"Now the Buddha was of barbarian origin. His language differed from Chinese speech; his clothes were of a different cut; his mouth did not pronounce the prescribed words of the Former Kings, nor was he clad in garments prescribed by the Former Kings. He did not recognize the relationship between prince and subject, nor the sentiments of father and son."*** 

***(Andres & Overfield, eds. The Human Record: Sources of Global History. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 297-301.

Though the impudent Han Yu was banished to the frontier, a generation later the Emperor would proclaim that Buddhist monasteries be destroyed.


"Wasting human labor in building, plundering the people's purse by golden decorations, neglecting both husband and wife by their vigil-keeping, no teaching is more harmful than this Buddhism. In breaking the laws of the country and injuring, none can surpass this Buddhism. Moreover, if a farmer neglects his field, many suffer the pangs of starvation from his negligence; if a woman neglects her silk-worm culture, many suffer the calamity of being frozen to death through her negligence. Now there are at present so many monks and nuns that to count them is almost impossible. They all depend on farming for their food, and upon silk-worms for their clothing!"***



A few centuries later, Buddhist ideas emphasizing compassion and morality would be co-opted by a new synthesis of Confucianism. Many Chinese today belong to a Buddhist sect of some kind.

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