History, features and inspiration of Chinese Buddhism - speech at the Meeting of Israel-Asia Faith Leaders

From:Voice of Longquan      Author:Ven. Master Xue cheng      Time:2016-12-27 16:08:34
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Alongside advances of globalization, modernization and steps toward a future-shared world, religion continues to be an important factor in influencing people's lives and international relations. Religion also has a growing need to cope with, in appropriate manner, the new challenges brought by contemporary social, scientific and technological development.


History, Features and Inspiration of Chinese Buddhism

- Speech at the Meeting of Israel-Asia Faith Leaders


Sept. 12, 2016, by Xuecheng

Dear friends and fellow delegates,

It is a great opportunity to meet you all here in Jerusalem, a holy land in both ancient and modern times, to attend the meeting on religious dialogues with the theme: “Ancient Traditions, Contemporary Realities.”

Alongside advances of globalization, modernization and steps toward a future-shared world, religion continues to be an important factor in influencing people's lives and international relations. Religion also has a growing need to cope with, in appropriate manner, the new challenges brought by contemporary social, scientific and technological development. The harmonious coexistence and peaceful development of a diversified civilization relies on equal and open communication and mutual learning among religions. As a representative of Chinese Buddhist circles, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation for the launch of this meeting, and discuss briefly the history and development of Chinese Buddhism.

Buddhism started and flourished in the 6th century BC in India. It spread gradually to the southern, southeastern, central and eastern Asia countries, giving rise to the three families of Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Among them, the development of Chinese Buddhism was significantly influenced by the philosophies of indigenous Confucianism and Daoism. It has exerted considerable influence on the development of the Chinese civilization and later spread to the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Vietnam, and adjacent areas.

The rise of Chinese Buddhism can be traced back to the 7th year of Yongping Era (AD 64) in the reign of Emperor Ming in the Eastern Han Dynasty. At that time when the Buddhist scriptures were not accurate and enough in the course of studying Buddhist classics, the emperor sent envoys to western regions (now known as Xinjiang and Central Asia) in quest of originals. Three years later, the envoys returned to the capital city of Luoyang with two senior Indian monks. They also brought back many scriptures and statues of the Buddha. From then on activities such as Buddhist scriptural translation, doctrinal study, and the Dharma cultivation and fulfilment were gradually initiated. The development of Chinese Buddhism reached its peak in the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-805). Various sects began to emerge, displaying distinctive characteristics that added to each other’s splendor. The eight main sects included: Faxing (the Three Sastras Sect), Faxiang (the Yogacara Sect), Tiantai, Xianshou (the Avatansaka Sect), Chan (the Dhyana Sect), the Pure Land, the Vinaya, and the Esoteric (the Tantra Sect). Of them, Chan Buddhism thrived and became a sect unique to Chinese Buddhism which showcases the highly creative thinking and keen awareness of the localization of ancient Chinese patriarchs and eminent monks. 

Many venerables renounced home life to become monks at a very young age. They devoted their lives to the study and cultivation of Buddhist doctrines, drawing on the successful experience of their predecessors and giving birth to new and distinctive thoughts.

A major innovation of Chinese Buddhism and which has contributed greatly to Indian Buddhism is the compilation of Tripitaka. The Tripitaka, which consists of more than twenty editions, each of which contains thousands of volumes compiled over the past dynasties, is a priceless treasure of Chinese culture and of great cultural significance in the history of the Chinese and world cultures. The compilation of Tripitaka provides the basis for a full understanding of the scriptures of Chinese Buddhism and its different sects. Since the Buddhist texts in Chinese have yet to be translated into western languages, western societies lack a comprehensive understanding of Chinese Buddhist scriptures and its sects, resulting in many misunderstandings. For example, quite a few people in the West think that Chinese Buddhism equates to meditation. But in reality meditation is just one of its practices. By delving into the voluminous Chinese Buddhist texts you will find the profound and extensive theoretical backing behind a multitude of Dharma practices. 

In modern times, thanks to the renewed compilation of Chinese Buddhist scriptures, the restoration of monastic rituals and regulations, and the cultivation of talented Buddhist personnel, Chinese Buddhism has witnessed a revival. Since the second half of the 20th century, Buddhist circles in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese mainland have been committed to carrying forward the concept of "Humanistic Buddhism." They focused on improving social undertakings, promoting peace, and establishing an earthly pure land; They advocated dissolving conflicts and eliminating disputes with compassion and wisdom, calling for the joint efforts of different countries, ethnicities, and religions to work towards a harmonious world with lasting peace and common prosperity. These Buddhist circles also emphasized the importance of recognizing and integrating the thoughts and measures of other religions, calling on mutual learning and exchanges among various Buddhist traditions to promote dialogue and exchange with other religions, advocate religious tolerance, and strengthen mutual understanding and respect. They have endeavored to adapt to the developments of the time, responding to various issues in modern society and strengthening interaction between Buddhism and modern science and technology, providing spiritual resources for the progress of human civilization. Most recently, with the successful convening of international Buddhist conferences such as the World Buddhist Forum, the philosophic thoughts advocated and practiced by Chinese Buddhism has achieved worldwide recognition and understanding.

Within the two millennia timespan after Buddhism was introduced to China from India, Chinese Buddhism has consistently merged with local Chinese culture including Confucianism and Daoism. Chinese Buddhism evolved in accordance with the social changes and developments of China, forming unique Mahayana thoughts and organizational management systems that drew from vast empirical experience and thoughts. Comprehending the picture in its full scope and profoundness has tremendous implications for the development of Chinese Buddhism in a contemporary context, and for the promotion of Buddhism from a traditional religion to a modern one.

Overtime Chinese Buddhism has evolved the spirit and tenets of compassion and wisdom, equality and interpretation, and the liberation of all beings from sufferings, which has its implications even to this day. First, it upholds the notion that all beings are equal and should equally benefit all other beings. Buddhism believes that “All beings can attain Buddhahood," and “Because of the existence of the Buddha-nature within them, all beings are viewed with equal eyes, and there is no difference.” Second, it upholds the notion that “All Dharmas are Buddha’s Dharmas,” and equally embraces all religions. Buddhism suggests that all worldly knowledge is  Buddhist wisdom manifested to suit all beings, that “All the sages and saints are distinguished by unconditioned Dharma” (Diamond Sutra). Third, it advocates that we have to fully appreciate the differences among regions and ethnicities and pay attention to the integration with local civilization. The Buddha made rules which could be adapted for particular circumstances and instructed hisdisciples to respect local customs. The Buddha said that:even if I have prohibited it, if it is not considered pure conduct in other lands, then none of it should be adopted. Even if it is not something I have prohibited, if something must be carried out in other lands, then it all must be carried out (Volume 22,The Mahīśāsaka Vitaya).


Moreover, the management of monasteries is unique to Chinese Buddhism. In ancient India, Buddhist monks had no fixed abode, and they had to travel around to collect alms. When Buddhism spread to China, such a way of living was not respected in Chinese traditions, so Chinese monks began building monasteries and supporting themselves. They established monasteries as places for practice and promotion of the Buddha Dharma to benefit all beings. With the change in the form of existence of Chinese Buddhism, the precepts prescribed by the Buddha could no longer perfectly accommodate the needs of Buddhism, so the ancient patriarchs established various monastic rules, best represented by Master Baizhang’s Monastic Codes, to manage monks and nuns using a blended application of Buddhist precepts and patriarchal regulations.

Throughout history, Buddhist monasteries have assumed multiple roles such as academic institutions, education venues, charitable organizations, libraries and cultural centers, where the monastics became heirs and disseminators of knowledge and culture. This type of collective living and practice adopted by Chinese Buddhist monks shows how Buddhism was promoted throughout China and also gave birth to a precious social form (namely, the Chinese monastic life of monks). This inspired reflection about the challenges of modern society and posed questions such as "how can religious lives accommodate modern styles of living?" and "how can religious systems integrate with secular modern management practices? Within the context of globalization, how should Chinese Buddhism evolve and innovate in terms of its social form, management mode, development model and interaction with society?"

Furthermore, in regards to the localization of Chinese Buddhism and its social ideologies, it is important to note that the most typical ideologies are: emphasis on merit and virtue, on repaying kindness, and on cultural assimilation. Indian Buddhism focuses on karmic cause and effect while Chinese Buddhism focuses more upon merit and virtue. In regards to Chinese people’s emphasis on positive attitudes towards personal realization and obtaining happiness in this life, Chinese Buddhism focuses on cultivating an altruistic mind and deed such as alms giving and donations. Chinese Buddhism’s emphasis on“merit and virtue”embodies the connotation of altruism and has provided a solid material foundation and social basis for the development of Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism advocates the doctrine of repaying four kindnesses: kindness of parents, kindness of the country, kindness of sentient beings, and kindness of the Three Jewels (Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels which are the Buddha, the teachings and the Sangha). That is to say, if Buddhists or Buddhism at large were to be sustained and developed, considerations must be given to the kindness granted by our parents, country, social beings and the Three Jewels at the same time. True actions must be taken to repay their kindness. In contemporary society, such demeanor helps to mend and correct new age maladies caused by ego-centralism, consumerism and empiricism, and helps to achieve social harmony and world peace.

Cultural assimilation is the most symbolic trait that reflects the wisdom of Chinese Buddhism. Since Buddhism was introduced to China some two thousand years ago, patriarchs and eminent monks facilitated cross-cultural communication and harmonious co-existence between Buddhist thoughts from India and Confucianism and Daoism that were local to China. It also became one with Chinese political, economic, social life, and folk customs with the aim of benefiting all sentient beings in accordance with causes and conditions. Today we live in a multicultural, open and mutually inclusive world. The approach we take to seek common ground while reserving difference as well as how to facilitate mutual communication and learning among different civilizations and religions can draw beneficial lessons from the Chinese experience.

If we look at the history of interactions among human civilizations, only by constant communication can we identify similarities and differences among religions and cultures, and hence transcend limitations and complement each other’s advantages. This progress will pave the way for peaceful co-existence and mutual-development among different religious sects and civilizations. In fact, world-wide frictions, tensions and even wars are all related to the dissimilarities and conflict of people’s thoughts and perceptions. The root cause is the lack of understanding and acceptance of each other’s culture, beliefs and traditions. Peaceful assimilation upheld by Chinese Buddhism, the flexible and practical attitude it promotes, and the working experience it has accumulated offer inspiration and hope for social progress.


Editor:Nina
Tags:Chinese Buddhism, Israel-Asia Faith Leaders

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