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China Philosophy & Religion (3)


Chinese Philosophies & Religions --- Buddhism

Although Buddhism first entered China from India during the Later Han, in the time of Han Ming Ti (AD 58-76), it did not become popular until the end of the 3rd century. The prevailing disorders, aggravated by barbarian invasions and the flight of northern Chinese to the south, heightened the attraction of Buddhism with its promise of personal salvation, despite its lack of affinity with the society-oriented thought of the Chinese. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, a prince of the Sakya kingdom on the borders of what are now India and Nepal and a contemporary of Confucius. Intent on finding relief for human suffering, he received a moment of enlightenment while meditating under a Bo tree. The Buddha taught that desires are the source of pain and that by overcoming desires, pain can be eliminated. To this end, he advocated meditation and pursuing the Eightfold Path, similar to the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. The objective was to reach Nirvana, the condition of serenity of spirit, where all cravings, strife and pain have been overcome, giving way to a merging of the spirit with eternal harmony.

At an early stage of its development, Buddhism split into two major trends, Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle). Hinayana remained closer to the original Buddhism and is still the religion of Southeast Asian countries. The Buddhism of China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and Vietnam, however, stems largely from Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism contained more popular elements, such as belief in repetitive prayers, heaven and deities--bodhisattvas--who would help people gain salvation. It also readily adapted to the land and people it converted. In China, it split into several schools, including Chan (Zen in Japan), Tian-tai (Tendai in Japan), and Pure Land.

Chinese Philosophies & Religions --- Zen Buddhism

Through his popular book `The Way of Zen' (1957), the British-born American philosopher Alan Watts introduced Americans to the Zen school of Buddhism, which has a long tradition of development in China and Japan. Zen (Chan in Chinese) is a Japanese term meaning "meditation”. It is a major school of Japanese Buddhism that claims to transmit the spirit of Buddhism, or the total enlightenment as achieved by the founder of the religion, the Buddha.

Zen has its basis in the conviction that the world and its components are not many things. They are, rather, one reality. The one is part of a larger wholeness to which some people assign the name of God. Reason, by analyzing the diversity of the world, obscures this oneness. It can be apprehended by the non-rational part of the mind--the intuition. Enlightenment about the nature of reality comes not by rational examination but through meditation.

Meditation has been an integral part of Buddhism from the beginning. Nevertheless, a school of meditation grew up in India and was taken to China by Bodhidharma about 520 AD. When the meditation school arrived in China, it had a strong foundation on which to build--Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion (See Taoism). This religion is based on the idea that there is one underlying reality called the Tao. Taoists, like the followers of the meditation school, exalted intuition over reason. This Taoist tradition was easily absorbed by the Chinese meditation school, the Ch'an.

Within two centuries, the meditation school had divided into two factions: Northern Chan and Southern Chan. The northern school, a short-lived affair, insisted on a doctrine of gradual enlightenment. The southern school, which became dominant, held to a doctrine of instantaneous enlightenment.

The southern school evolved under the powerful influence of Hui-neng (638-713), who is recognized as the sixth great patriarch of Zen and the founder of its modern interpretation. In a sermon recorded as the "Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch," he taught that all people possess the Buddha nature and that one's nature (before and after being born) is originally pure. Instead of undertaking a variety of religious obligations to seek salvation, one should discover one's own nature. The traditional way to do this, sitting in meditation, is useless. If one perceives one's own nature, enlightenment will follow suddenly.

The goal of adherents of the southern Chan is to gain transcendental, or highest, wisdom from the depths of one's unconscious where it lies dormant. Ch'an tries to attain enlightenment without the aid of common religious observances: study, scriptures, ceremonies or good deeds. Reaching the highest wisdom comes as a breakthrough in everyday logical thought. Followers are urged to find within themselves the answer to any question raised within because the answer is believed to be found where the question originates. Training in the methods of meditation leading to such an enlightenment is best transmitted from master to disciple.

Chan flourished in China during the T'ang and Song dynasties (960-1279) and its influences were strongly felt in literature and painting. Ch'an declined during the Ming era (1141-1215) when Ch'an masters took up the practice of trying to harmonize meditation with the study of traditional scriptures.

Meanwhile, sects of Zen had been transplanted to Japan. The Rinzai school was taken there in 1191 by the priest Enzai (1141-1215) and the Soto tradition arrived in 1227, taken there by Dogen (1200-53) the most revered figure in Japanese Zen. These schools had their origin in China during the 9th century, when Ch'an divided into five sects that differed from each other in minor ways.

Zen gained an enthusiastic following among the Samurai warrior class and became, in effect, the state religion in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the 16th century, Zen priests were diplomats and administrators and they enhanced cultural life as well. Under their influence, literature, art, the cult of the tea ceremony and the No drama developed.

The focal point of Zen is the monastery, where masters and pupils interact in the search for enlightenment. A newcomer arrives at a monastery with a certificate showing that he is a regularly ordained disciple of a priest. He is at first refused entry. Finally being admitted, he spends a few days of probation being interviewed by his master. When he is accepted, he is initiated into the community life of humility, labor, service, prayer and gratitude, and meditation.

Buddhism, which came to China from India as early as the 1st century AD, was a more conventional religion. Its followers attended occasional services, practiced rituals and supported a temple on a regular basis. It has been estimated that more than 68 million Chinese still consider themselves Buddhists though it is unlikely that they practice the religion regularly.


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