CHINA: A NATION WITH A DISTINCT BUDDHIST CHARACTER
Posted on May 30th, 2013

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

China is the largest Buddhist country on earth in terms of its size and associated 1,070,893,447 Buddhist population. China accounts for 67% of the 1.6 billion total Buddhist population in the world. About 80% of China’s total population is Buddhists (http: //thedhamma.com/buddhists_in_the_world.htm.). The magnitude of the Chinese Buddhist population is evident when compared to Japan which has the second highest Buddhist population of 122,022,837 which is 7.6% of the world’s total Buddhist population and about 11% of the Chinese Buddhist population. For purposes of comparison, the estimated Buddhist population of Sri Lanka is 14.9 million (70% of her population) which is a mere 1.4% of the Chinese Buddhist population and less than 1% of the world’s total Buddhist population. There are more than 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns in China and about 16,000 Buddhist temples.

China is a nation entrenched with a distinct Buddhist character and identity and represents all schools and shades of Buddhism. It is the depository of the largest collection of historic Buddhist scriptures and documents in the world. Buddhism was the primary source of inspiration for the exceptional cultural achievements, the exceptional intuitive, innovative and imaginative powers, spiritual disposition and the outstanding creativity of the Chinese people. This is reflected vividly in the exceedingly rich tangible and intangible aspects of Chinese culture, social norms and values. The largest collection Buddhist sites, temples and structures in the world, are to be found in China. The direct impact of Buddhism is reflected in its unique visual arts and culture evident in its architecture, sculpture, engineering, performing arts, music, dance, drama, poetry and literature.

 IMPACT OF THE SILK ROAD

 From very early times, there had been some trade in exotic articles such as Chinese silk products, between China and India through the historic Silk Road. The Silk Road stretched from Japan to the Mediterranean, crisscrossing Eurasia from the first millennium BCE through the middle of the second millennium CE. The intersections among people from diverse cultures along the way promoted an unprecedented sharing of knowledge, skills, ideas, innovations and commodities. The Silk Road made a great contribution to the political, economic and cultural exchange between China and Central Asia, West Asia, India, Roman and Europe.

The total length of the trade route was about 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles), of which approximately 3,000 kilometers or about 30% ran within the China’s territory. The Silk Road originated from the historic capital Chang’an (present Xian), and developed during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE).  Dunhuang being famous for its Mogao Caves and other cultural relics was a key point of the route, where the trade road divided into three main routes: the Southern, Central and Northern.

The Southern Route wandered west along the northern foot of the Kunlun Mountains crossing the snow-covered Pamir mountains   reaching present day India, Kashmir and Pakistan and extended to reach Europe through Islamabad, Kabul, Mashhad, Baghdad and Damascus. The Central Route ran west along the southern foot of Tianshan Mountains, and finally joining the Southern Route. The Northern Route went west along the northern foot of Tianshan Mountains to reach areas near the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

 ARRIVAL OF BUDDHISTS IN CHINA

 Rapid movement of people and ideas between China and the Indian region started with the introduction and spread of Buddhism to China. Indisputably, Buddhism was responsible for the phenomenal growth of civilizational ties between India and China for a period of nearly 1500 years. The earliest Indian Buddhist scholars who made contact with China through the Silk Road was in 217 BCE, during the Qin dynasty which was the first ruling dynasty of Imperial China, lasting from 221 to 206 BCE. It was followed by the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE. (The Great Wall of China was built during the Qin dynasty).

 THE HAN DYNASTY   

 There was a significant presence of Indian Buddhist community in China during its period under the Han dynasty which was the second imperial dynasty of China. Spanning over four centuries – 206 BCE to 220 CE, this period is considered as the Golden Age in Chinese history. It was marked by   economic prosperity. A vast Silk Road trade network was opened up during this time reaching places as far as the Mediterranean world.

 The beginning of effective introduction and expansion of Buddhism to China from India took place in the first century CE. It soon became a strong source of influence with far reaching impacts. In 67 CE, on the invitation of Emperor Ming Di of the Han dynasty, two Indian Buddhist monks Dharma Raksha and Kashyapa Matanga visited China bringing Buddhist scriptures and relics of the Buddha. China played host to Indian Buddhist monks without any hesitation and the latter played a key role in paving the way for the establishment of Buddhism in China, a country already nurturing indigenous philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. In 68 CE, a monastery was built for the Indian Buddhist monks at Luoyang in the Western Henan province. Thereafter, until about the eleventh century, many Indian monks visited China including hundreds of scholars and translators who produced Chinese versions of thousands of Sanskrit documents pertaining to Buddhism. During the period 982 to 1011 CE, over two hundred Sanskrit volumes were translated into Chinese.

 TRANSLATION OF BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES       

 Foreign monks and their Chinese disciples formed the earliest Buddhist communities at Dunhuang in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Many Buddhist sutras were translated at Dunhuang and then distributed into central China. Monk Zhu Fahu, a famous translator of Buddhist texts, organized his translation team at Dunhuang and became known as “The Bodhisattva of Dunhuang.” The over 50,000 sutras, ancient documents, embroideries and portraits discovered here in 1900. The manuscripts are dated to belong to the period 406 to 1002 CE.

 The first Dunhuang cave was built by Indian Buddhist monks in 366 CE, to store Buddhist scriptures. The Dunhuang Caves consists of over 1000 caves were cut out of cliffs between the 4th and 14th centuries. Today 492 caves remains in the 1600-meter-long cliff face. As the westernmost Chinese station on the Silk route, Dunhuang became the ideal place for foreign monks to learn the Chinese language and culture before entering central China. Also, there was large scale development of Buddhist places of worship in China during this time, including thousands of cave temples associated with Dunhuang.

ARRIVAL OF KUMARAJIVA

 The famous monk KumƒÆ’-¾rajƒÆ’-¾«va (344 CE– 413 CE) revolutionized Chinese Buddhism with his high quality translations of Buddhist texts. KumƒÆ’-¾rajƒÆ’-¾«va was a Kuchean Buddhist monk, scholar, and translator. Kucha or Kuche was an ancient Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin and south of the Muzat River. KumƒÆ’-¾rajƒÆ’-¾«va’s father was Indian Brahamin and mother was a Buddhist Chinese princess. Due to his efforts Buddhism in China became not only recognized for its practice methods, but also as high philosophy and religion.  He is remembered for the prolific translation of Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit to Chinese he carried out during his later life.

 He first studied teachings of the Sarvastivada also called Vaibhashika a school of early Buddhism in India which is  one of the several schools of Theravada Buddhism that developed during the first four or five centuries after the Buddha’s death. The Sarvastivada school was particularly influential in northwestern India and parts of Southeast Asia. He later studied under BuddhasvƒÆ’-¾min who was a Kuchean  Sarvastivadan Buddhist monk and great scholar who presided over all of Kucha‘s Buddhist temples and nunneries during part of the fourth century.

He finally became a MahƒÆ’-¾yƒÆ’-¾na adherent, studying the Madhyamaka doctrine of Nagarjuna. NƒÆ’-¾gƒÆ’-¾rjuna (150″”…”250 CE) was an Indian philosopher who founded the Madhyamaka school of MahƒÆ’-¾yƒÆ’-¾na Buddhism. His writings are the basis for the formation of the Madhyamaka school, which was transmitted to China under the name of the Three Treatise (Sanlun) School. He is credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita sutras, and was closely associated with the Buddhist university of Nalanda. In the Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism, he is considered the First Patriarch.  According to the MƒÆ’-¾dhyamikas, all phenomena are empty of “substance” or “essence” (Sanskrit: svabhƒÆ’-¾va), meaning that they have no intrinsic, independent reality apart from the causes and conditions from which they arose.

In 379 CE, KumƒÆ’-¾rajƒÆ’-¾«va’s fame reached China. Upon his arrival in the capital of Chang’an he was introduced to the emperor Yao Xing, the court, and the Buddhist leaders. He was hailed as a great master from the Western regions, and immediately took up a very high position in Chinese Buddhist circles of the time, being given the title of National Teacher. KumƒÆ’-¾rajƒÆ’-¾«va translated many sutras into Chinese. Among the most important texts translated by KumƒÆ’-¾rajƒÆ’-¾«va are the Diamond Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, MƒÆ’-¦«lamadhyamakakƒÆ’-¾rikƒÆ’-¾, AƒÆ’‚¡¹£ƒÆ’‚¡¹­asƒÆ’-¾hasrikƒÆ’-¾ PrajƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾pƒÆ’-¾ramitƒÆ’-¾ SƒÆ’-¦«tra, MahƒÆ’-¾prajƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾pƒÆ’-¾ramitƒÆ’-¾ UpadeƒÆ’-¦”‚ºa which was a commentary (attributed to Nagarjuna) on the PaƒÆ’†’±caviƒÆ’‚¡¹ƒ” -â„¢ƒÆ’-¦”‚ºatisƒÆ’-¾hasrikƒÆ’-¾ PrajƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾pƒÆ’-¾ramitƒÆ’-¾ SƒÆ’-¦«tra.

BUDDHIST ART, MUSIC,  ARCHITECTURE      

The influence of the artistic styles and techniques of India, Greece and other Middle East countries can also be traced. The numerous murals are priceless both academically and artistically. The Mogao caves are one of the best preserved and most extensive collections of Buddhist paintings and sculptures in the world. Foreign merchants and monks from the West as well as officials and soldiers from central China brought their own cultures to Dunhuang and made the trading center a cultural “melting pot.”

 Buddhism had a determining influence on classical Chinese works of art. As a treasure house of the ancient artistic carving, the Dunghuang, Yungang and Longmen Grottos were created and developed with Chinese characteristics after absorbing something from the ancient Indian art, especially the art of Gandara. The Mogaoku of Dunhuang Grottos, an artistic palace erected in the desert reflects the organic synthesis of arts between India, Central Asia and China. The Buddhist Jataka stories were common themes for  ancient Chinese artists. The freehand brushwork in traditional Chinese painting is said to have been influenced by Zen Buddhism.

In addition, a large volume of Tang Dynasty Buddhist musical compositions was uncovered in the Dunhuang caves. These show the emergence of a style of symbols employed by the monastic’s of hundreds of years ago to describe and teach the chanting of Buddhist doctrines. Chinese literature was deeply influenced by Buddhism.   The process of translation of the Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese had given impetus to a new development of the Chinese poem, prose and novel.

The architectural style of the Buddhist temples and pagodas in China shows the strong influence of Buddhist culture. The Brick Pagoda of Songshan Songyue Temple of China’s Henan Province, the Wood Pagoda of Yingxian of Shanxi Province and the Stone Pagoda of Kaiyuan Temple of Fujian Province, all of these have served as the valuable objects for the study of history of the ancient Chinese architecture.

From mid 4th century CE to mid10th century CE Buddhist architecture saw great development in both numbers and size of temples and by the end of the Northern Wei Dynasty, there were over 1400 temples in Luoyang the capital city and over 40,000 throughout the country. Temple architects began to use sophisticated courtyard complex in their temples and the layout of different buildings employed a systematic arrangement similar to the symmetrical palace structure rather than the early pagoda-centered form. In fact, the layout of the Chinese Buddhist temple observed the layout of traditional Chinese palace architecture. It usually has a group of courtyards and with side rooms flanked symmetrically on each side.

THE TANG DYNASTY    

 Spanning from 618 to 907 CE, the Tang Dynasty is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization, equal to or according to some, surpassing the earlier Han Dynasty. It had its capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) which was the most populous city in the world at the time with an estimated population of above 50 million. Chinese culture matured and flourished during the Tang era and Buddhism became a major influence in Chinese culture, with native Chinese sects gaining prominence. The Tang exerted a powerful cultural influence over neighboring states of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

 BODHISATVA CONCEPT

 The economic, military, political and cultural activities which took place at these cross-roads provided the basis for the flourishing of one of China’s earliest Buddhist centers. MahƒÆ’-¾yƒÆ’-¾na Buddhism which developed in China is based principally upon the path of a bodhisattva where everyone is encouraged to become bodhisattvas working for the complete enlightenment of all beings. In the 4th century CE, Bodhisatvas or enlightened beings of Mahayana Buddhism, in particular Manjusri and Avalokitesvara became popular in China.

 Due to the wide proliferation of Buddhist texts available in Chinese and the large number of foreign monks who came to teach Buddhism in China, various new and independent traditions emerged. Among the most influential of these was the practice of Pure Land Buddhism established by Hui Yuan, which focused on AmitƒÆ’-¾bha Buddha and his western pure land. Another major early tradition was the Tiantai school, founded by Zhiyi, which is based upon the primacy of the Lotus Sutra, along with supplementary sƒÆ’-¦«tras and commentaries. Zhiyi wrote several works that become important and widely read meditation manuals in China.

PRINTING OF BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES

 Among the many notable innovations during the Tang era was the development of woodblock printing. Yhe development of printing in China opened new possibilities for public communication and had enormous consequences for social and political life in China and elsewhere. The first printed book in the world was the Chinese translation of an Indian Sanskrit treatise, the so-called Diamond Sutra, which was printed in China in 868 CE. This is the oldest surviving printed book. Printing is considered as one of the greatest inventions of ancient China. The original form of printing invented in China is referred to as block printing. Here individual sheets of paper were pressed against wooden blocks with the text and illustrations carved into them. This method was first recorded in China in the Tang Dynasty. Woodblock was used to print Buddhist scripture during the Zhenguan years (627~649 A.D.). The oldest known surviving printed work is a woodblock-printed Buddhist scripture in Chinese of Wu Zetian period (684~705 A.D.), discovered in Tubofan, Xinjiang province, China in 1906, it is now stored in a calligraphy museum in Tokyo, Japan.

 The Chinese Canon is called the Ta-ts’ang-ching or “Great Scripture Store.” The first complete printing of the “Three Baskets” or Tripitaka was completed in 983 C.E., and known as the Shu-pen or Szechuan edition. It included 1076 texts in 480 cases. A number of other editions of the modern Chinese Canon were made thereafter. It is significant to note that nearly every attempt at early printing in China, Korea, and Japan was undertaken by Buddhists.

The Tang dynasty was in decline by the 9th century, although art and culture continued to flourish. Between 960 and 1279 CE, Buddhism began its process of localization, where Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, the three major philosophic schools flowed together taking on a new aspect in the Chinese society. Confucianism had absorbed a lot from Buddhism and given birth to Neo-Confucianism. Taoism had done the same and also paved a way for the new sects such as Quan Zheng Jiao and Taiyi Jiao. Buddhism had finally completed its localization and become a major part of the Chinese traditional culture. Neo-Confucianism was deeply influenced by Buddhism.

CHAN OR ZEN BUDDHISM

Chan or Zen Buddhist practices or “ƒ”¹…”dhyana’ in Sanskrit were introduced to China from India in the early 5th century CE by the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma who since become a legendary figure. Zen is a school of MahƒÆ’-¾yƒÆ’-¾na Buddhism. The Japanese word Zen is derived from the Chinese word ChƒÆ’†’¡n, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyƒÆ’-¾na, which means “meditation” or “meditative state”. The emergence of Zen as a distinct school of Buddhism was first documented in China in the 7th century CE. From China, Zen spread south to Vietnam, and east to Korea and Japan. Zen emphasizes experiential prajƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾ in the attainment of enlightenment. It de-emphasizes theoretical knowledge in favor of direct realization through meditation and dhamma practice. The principal teachings and teaching methods of ChƒÆ’†’¡n were later often known for the use of the PrajƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾pƒÆ’-¾ramitƒÆ’-¾ sƒÆ’-¦«tras. The LaƒÆ’‚¡¹”‚¦kƒÆ’-¾vatƒÆ’-¾ra SƒÆ’-¦«tra and the Diamond SƒÆ’-¦«tra (VajracchedikƒÆ’-¾ PrajƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾pƒÆ’-¾ramitƒÆ’-¾ SƒÆ’-¦«tra) are the principle texts of the ChƒÆ’†’¡n School. The Zen teaching was a separate transmission outside the scriptural teachings that did not posit any written texts as sacred. Zen pointed directly to the human mind to enable people to see their real nature and become Buddha’s. Through Zen there developed a way which concentrated on direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Wisdom was passed, not through words, but through a lineage of one-to-one direct transmission of thought from teacher to student. It is commonly taught that such lineage continued all the way from the Buddha’s time.

CHINESE BUDDHIST TRAVELERS

 Fa Hien (Fa Xian) (399-412 CE) is one of the best known first Chinese travelers to India in the fifth century and left elaborate records of his observations and experiences in his ten years of extensive travels in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. He was a Buddhist scholar monk and his mission was to acquire Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures from India with the intention of making them available in Chinese translations. His travelogue is filled with accounts of early Buddhism and also of the geography and history of many countries along the Silk Road.

Fa-Hien sojourned in Sri Lanka in 413 AD. His journey to Sri Lanka was by way of Tibet crossing the Himalayas near the river Indus, subsequently sailing on the Hooghly on a vessel bound for  the island of ‘Sihaladvip’ as  Sri Lanka was referred to in his writings.  Fa-Hien gives a fascinating detailed description of Anuradhapura and the king’s palace and the Abayagiri monastery where five thousand monks resided at the time of his visit. Fa-Hien’s writings and those of Xuanzang as well as other ancient Chinese records referred to Sri Lanka as the land of Sinhalas. The different Chinese names Shizi guo, Sit Tio, Si Tiao, She Tiao, Seng-Kia-lo denoted the same meaning – Simhala, Sinhaladipa or Kingdom of the Lions.

Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) is by far the most famous visitor to India from China, who traveled there in the seventh century (629-664 CE). Xuanzang was essentially Confucian but at a young age Xuanzang expressed interest in becoming a Buddhist monk and was ordained as one at the age of twenty. The myriad contradictions and discrepancies in the texts at that time prompted Xuanzang to decide to go to India and study in the cradle of Buddhism.  At Chang’an he studied foreign languages and began his mastery of Sanskrit . This great Buddhist scholar monk was a prolific translator and traveler associated with the early Tang period. In his autobiography, Xuanzang records in detail his 17 year trip to India.

He toured the Indian sub continent and neighboring areas most extensively for sixteen years.  He spent two years at Nalanda, the great Buddhist university of Bihar where he was in the company of several thousand scholar-monks. At Nalanda, in addition to his exposure to the Yogacara school of Buddhism, he studied philosophy, logic, Sanskrit, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and grammar. Xuanzang met the venerable Silabhadra, the monastery’s superior, his omniscient master and incomparable metaphysician who made known to him the ultimate secrets of the idealist systems…the founders of Mahayana idealism, Asanga and Vasubandhu.

During his travels he studied with many Buddhist masters, especially at the famous center of Buddhist learning at NƒÆ’-¾landa University. When he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor’s support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. His strongest personal interest in Buddhism was in the field of YogƒÆ’-¾cƒÆ’-¾ra. YogƒÆ’-¾cƒÆ’-¾ra (Sanskrit; literally: “yoga practice”)  was an influential school of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing phenomenology  ontology through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. It developed within Indian MahƒÆ’-¾yƒÆ’-¾na Buddhism in about the 4th century CE. YogƒÆ’-¾cƒÆ’-¾ra discourse is founded on the existential truth of the human condition: there is nothing that human’s experience that is not mediated by mind.

On his return to the capital Chang’an in 645 CE, Xuanzang was greeted with much honour. Refusing all high civil appointments offered by Emperor Taizong of Tang he retired to a monastery and devoted his energy to translating Buddhist texts until his death in 664 CE. Xuanzang was known for his extensive but careful translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts to Chinese, which have enabled subsequent recoveries of lost Indian Buddhist texts from the translated Chinese copies. He is credited with writing or compiling the Cheng Weishi Lun as a commentary on these texts. His translation of the Heart Sutra became and remains the standard in all East Asian Buddhist sects.

In 646, under the Emperor’s request, Xuanzang completed his book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions  which has become one of the primary sources for the study of medieval Central Asia and India. It remains the longest and most detailed account of the countries of Central and South Asia that has been bestowed upon posterity by a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim. Xuanzang obtained and translated 657 Sanskrit Buddhist works. He received the best education on Buddhism he could find throughout India. His version of the Heart Sutra is the basis for all Chinese commentaries on the sutra, and recitations throughout China, Korea and Japan.

Yi Jing, who came to India shortly after Xuanzang’s visit, also studied in Nalanda, combining his work on Buddhism with studies of medicine, public health care and mathematics.  He was a Buddhist monk, fluent in Sanskrit and was familiar with the Indian literature on mathematics. Yi Jing’s translation of Buddhist works included texts by practitioners of Tantrism, whose esoteric traditions placed a strong emphasis on meditation. Being well exposed to Tantrism, with his mathematical tendencies, he dealt with a variety of analytical and computational problems. Tantrism became a major force in China in the seventh and eighth centuries, and since many Tantric scholars had a strong interest in mathematics (perhaps connected, at least initially, with the Tantric fascination with numbers). Yi Jing was in India for over two decades in the late 7th century CE.

The benefits to India and China through Buddhism need to be seen under a two way process. The spiritual advantages gained by China through Indian Buddhism, have been very important for the enrichment of Chinese civilization. The Chinese society’s attraction to Buddhism was also due to the Buddhist revelation of a new spiritual world, which the traditional Confucianism and Taoism could not offer. Moreover, China was able to blend and synthesize Buddhism, with Confucian and Taoist thoughts.

 SECULAR IMPACTS

 Along with the strong impact of Buddhism felt in China, there were also wide ranging secular impacts between the two countries with exchanges of ideas in areas such as Linguistics, Literature, Architecture, Science, Mathematics, Medicine and Music. Many Indian scholars including astronomers and mathematicians and other professionals visited China particularly in the 7th and 8th centuries. It is reported that in the 8th century, an Indian astronomer names Gautama Siddhartha became the President of the Board of Astronomy in China. Buddhism had contributed much and influenced China’s astronomy and medicine. It is reported that there were many medicine and pharmacy books that were translated from Indian languages into Chinese.

It is recorded that in 647 CE, a delegation of Buddhist scholars from China visited India. As it happens, India is the only country in the outside world to which scholars from ancient China went for their education and training. There are records of more than two hundred distinguished Chinese scholars who spent extensive periods of time in India in the second half of the first millennium. The Chinese primarily sought knowledge of Sanskrit and of Buddhist literature, but they were interested in other areas of knowledge as well. Chinese construction of temples and bridges was much influenced by ideas that came from India through Buddhism.

WUSHU – CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS

 Chinese martial arts referred to by the Mandarin Chinese term wushu  and popularly known as kung fu (Chinese pinyin: gƒÆ’-¦ngfu), are a number of fighting styles that have developed over the centuries in China. The need for self defense and preservation of life, hunting and military training in ancient China were the initial reasons for the origin of  Chinese martial arts. According to legend, Chinese martial arts originated during the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty more than 4,000 years ago. The ideas associated with Chinese martial arts changed with the evolution of Chinese society and over time acquired some philosophical bases.

 Asian martial arts are linked with religion and spirituality. Numerous systems are reputed to have been founded, disseminated, or practiced by monks or nuns. The Kshatriya caste of Hindus have an ancient martial art named Shastra vidhya. Japanese styles like aikido, have a strong philosophical belief of the flow of energy and peace. The foundation of modern Asian martial arts is likely a blend of early Chinese and Indian martial arts. During the Warring States period of Chinese history (480-221 BCE) extensive development in martial philosophy and strategy emerged, as described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War (c. 350 BCE). An early legend in martial arts tells the tale of an Indian prince turned monk named Bodhidharma, believed to have lived around 550 CE. Regarded as the founder of Zen Buddhism, the martial virtues of discipline, humility, restraint and respect are attributed to this philosophy. Thus the values of ethical conduct and self discipline have been intertwined with martial practice since the earliest times.

The Shaolin temple or the Shaolin Buddhist Monastery founded in the 5th century, was an important historic Mahayana Buddhist monastery,  known for its association with Chinese martial arts and particularly with Shaolin Kung Fu. The Shaolin style is regarded as amongst the first institutionalized Chinese martial arts. The oldest evidence of Shaolin participation in combat was the defense of the Shaolin Monastery from bandits around 610 CE. Between the 16th and 17th centuries the Buddhist monks of Shaolin practiced martial arts and martial practice had become an integral element of Shaolin monastic life.  References to martial arts practice in Shaolin appear in various literary genres of the late Ming: the epitaphs of Shaolin warrior monks, martial-arts manuals, military encyclopedias, historical writings, travelogues, fiction and poetry.

In many Chinese martial arts, meditation is considered to be an important component of basic training. Meditation can be used to develop focus, mental clarity and can act as a basis for training. Traditional Chinese schools of martial arts, such as Shaolin monks, often dealt with the study of martial arts not just as a means of self-defense or mental training, but as a system of ethics. Wude means martial morality, and is an important element of Chinese martial arts. The words “wu” which means martial, and “de” which means morality. Wude deals with two aspects; “morality of deed” and “morality of mind”. Morality of deed concerns social relations; morality of mind is meant to cultivate the inner harmony between the emotional mind and the wisdom mind (Hui). The ultimate goal is reaching “no extremity” (Wuji) (closely related to the Taoist concept of wu wei), where both wisdom and emotions are in harmony with each other. If a student is to attain a high level of skill, possession of Wude is considered essential. Morality of Deed consists of Humility, Respect, Righteousness, Trust and Loyalty and Morality of Mind consists of Will, Endeavour, Perseverance, Patience and Courage. Self-control, determination and concentration characterize the trainee, who always reacts productively and without stress when the circumstances demand it. Self-defense, then, and strong self-control result from serious training. Each individual learns about themselves, and not only do their capabilities improve, but also their sense of respect and justice.

CHALLENGES FACED BY BUDDHISM

 The spread of Indian Buddhism in China was however not smooth, mainly due to the attitude of the Confucianists at different stages considering Buddhism as a foreign religion which threatened their supremacy over matters of state. Buddhism was never accepted as a state religion in China despite the strong support it received from Chinese emperors in different periods.

 Initially, Buddhism in China faced a number of difficulties in becoming established. The concept of monasticism and the aversion to social affairs seemed to contradict the long-established norms and standards established in Chinese society. Some even declared that Buddhism was harmful to the authority of the state, that Buddhist monasteries contributed nothing to the economic prosperity of China. However, Buddhism was often associated with Taoism in its ascetic meditative tradition, and for this reason a concept-matching system was used by some early Indian translators, to adapt native Buddhist ideas onto Taoist ideas and terminology. Buddhism was of appeal to Chinese intellectuals and elites and later it gained imperial and courtly support.  Buddhism’s emphasis on morality and ritual appealed to Confucianists and the desire to cultivate inner wisdom appealed to Daoists.

MODERN CHINESE BUDDHISM

The most popular form of Buddhism in both mainland China and Taiwan is the Pure Land Buddhism, also known as Amidism. It is a branch of mainstream Mahayana Buddhism and currently is the most popular school of Buddhism in Asia as a whole. Pure Land Buddhism is based upon the Pure Land sutras first brought to China circa 150, which describe Amitabha, an ancient Buddha. This concept, personified or otherwise, can be translated variously but is usually shortened to “Amituo” or “Amitofo” (in Chinese Mandarin language) “Amida” in Japanese and “Amito” in Korean. Today Pure Land is the dominant form of Buddhism in Japan.

Contemporary Pure Land traditions see the Buddha Amitabha preaching the Dharma in his Buddha-field called the “Pure Land”  or “Western heaven” (a region offering respite from karmic transmigration. In such traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of nirvana. In fact, the main idea behind Pure Land Buddhism is that nirvana is no longer practical nor possible to attain in our present day. Instead, devotion to Amitabha will gain one enough karmic merit to go to the Pure Land (reminiscent of Heaven) from which Nirvana will be easier to attain, because in this paradise there are no negative experiences so no new negative karma is created. Existing negative karma would disappear. Some Pure Land Buddhists have taught that in order for a devotee to be reborn in Amitabha’s Western Paradise, they should chant or repeat a mantra or prayer to Amitabha as often as possible to reinforce a proper and sincere state of mind. This fairly simple form of veneration has contributed greatly to its popularity. Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism exist in the southwest and the north.

INFLUENCE OF BUDDHISM AND RECENT TRENDS

 Long after Buddhism ceased to be a major force in India, it continued to influence the development of material culture in China. A recent publication by John Kieschnick titled The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, enumerates the diverse ways in which Buddhism and material culture interacted in China. It shows how Buddhism had a profound effect on the material world of the Chinese.  Buddhism has profoundly affected Chinese culture, politics, literature and philosophy. China also had a great effect upon Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism is a very distinct entity from its Indian roots.

 The 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion with some restrictions. There are all signs that Buddhism is making a comeback in China after the set back during the Cultural Revolution. Buddhism and Taoism are being supported as an integral part of Chinese culture. Since the mid-1990s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

In recent decades the Chinese government has given more support to Buddhism than other faiths. This has permitted the rise of a string of outward-looking and ambitious temples in recent years, the most prominent among them being the Guangxiao Temple in Guangdong Province, which claims to be the oldest and biggest temple in south China. China now has about 16,000 Buddhist temples and about 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns, according to the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The number is believed to be rising. China has many of the world’s highest Buddha statutes and statutes of deities. Most of them built in the 2000’s. The world’s tallest Buddha statute is the Spring temple statue located in Henan, and the world’s tallest stupa (pagoda) (148 metres high) was built in China in 2007. It is the Femen temple of Shaanxi Province of Northwest China. (View on Youtube Chinese Buddhist Cave Shrines)

These are holy days based on the Chinese lunar calendar when Chinese Buddhists celebrate by visiting temples to make offerings of prayers, incense, fruits, flowers and donations. On such days they observe the moral precepts very strictly as well as a full day’s vegetarian diet, a practice that is said to have originated in China.

In April 2006 China hosted the World Buddhist Forum, in which Buddhist scholars and monks from many countries were present.  It was sponsored by China’s Buddhist Association and Religious Culture Communication Association and was the first international Buddhist conference since the founding of the People’s Republic China in 1949.  Over 1,000 Buddhist monks and experts in Buddhism from 37 countries and regions attended the forum, giving speeches or participating in discussions under the theme of “A harmonious world begins in the mind.” The Forum was held in the Zhejiang Province.

In fact, Chinese Buddhism is re-emerging as a major global force. The World Buddhist Forum held in 2006 shows that China has embarked upon a new role of promoting Buddhism internationally.  The Chinese leadership sees in Buddhism a noble path for the evolution of Chinese society. Ye Xiaowen, the Director of State Administration for Religious Affairs, said recently that Buddhism can reduce social divisions in China better than Islam and Christianity, adding Buddhism can help believers cope with fast-changing society plagued by wealth gap and social unrest. As Senaka Weeraratna says quite justifiably, China may well claim the leadership of the Buddhist world to better project its image and Chinese culture, which is rooted in Buddhism, and in addition effectively counter American led aggressive evangelism in many parts of the world.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane,   CANADA          

5 Responses to “CHINA: A NATION WITH A DISTINCT BUDDHIST CHARACTER”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Very informative.

    We have to PRIORITISE relations with China ABOVE all else.

  2. Sirih Says:

    Daya, nice reading and appreciate the time you put into this article.

    I have been working in and out in China for almost 26 yrs and visited so many Buddhist temples including famous martial arts training temple area, and funded many temples since they did not have much funds from the central govt.. ( still true today about funding).

    Buddhism is a perfect religion for Chinese since coming out of communism , Chinese people have lost their values and important part is since Buddhism forbid central authority like vatican church, this fits perfectly with Chinese communist mentality.
    Do you know that even today influential Chinese industrialists and academic have to carry a card to identify being Buddhist? It is a compulsory order from the party.

    I think whole Buddhism went to back burner in China due to treacherous Tibetans upper class working with CIA in 50/60 trying to give yanks a foothold there. This was unfortunate and Chinese central guys still talk about this. I know Chinese federal ministers that are close friends and unfortunately they are closets Buddhist.

    In China, only old people follow Buddhism today and youngsters have completely forgotten about their religion… This is a sad fact.

  3. herman Says:

    The present chinese leadership can never claim respect of the Buddhist world especially with the atrocious treatment towards the Tibetean Buddhist monks and destructions of temples in Tibet, in the past and even now.

    Do not be fooled, if one looks beyond the newly constructed statutes / temples and the numbers of nuns / monks – its all superficial. The famous Shaolin Monastery is a good example, the chinese authorities recently had it commercialised thus forcing the monks to business !

    All Buddhist must be obligated and eternally grateful to the many great Chinese travellers and translators of the past that led to the spread of the Buddha Dhamma not only in china but the world over. It will be wistful thinking to aspect the present day chinese to spread the Buddha Dhamma as they did in the past.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Dr Hewapathirana has written an informative and interesting article for which we thank him.

    Buddhism is truly preserved in our Hearts, Minds and Actions, to enjoy life in Peace & Prosperity. The great Temples have been built to acknowledge the greatness of the Teachings which have to be put into practice in daily living.

    We wonder whether a ‘marriage’ of Theravada & Zen Buddhism is possible. After all, both sprang from the same Core Teachings.

    Why does religious glory or decay of any religion set in ? It is up to each human being to practice the Teachings, whatever the religion. When the actual practice of the true Core Teachings of any religion stops, decay sets in. The key is in the actual practice of the Core Teachings which are similar.

    However, every country must have Laws in place to protect itself from invaders or anti-Democratic take over from within. Through the Law, every citizen must be held accountable for the security, safety & welfare of the country. We ought not to depend on religion alone & deities to protect the country.

  5. Nalliah Thayabharan Says:

    China is a threat to current big powers. China is more and more present in Africa and they need natural resources. Obviously it’s an economic threat. China is seizing economic resources, it’s legitimate, there’s no problem about that. China in Africa can do whatever it wants with natural resources in exchange for services given to the population. What is positive is that at least there are services given to the population. This is a change from the western logic that we saw during colonization, with them taking advantage of Africa without benefiting to the locals. This is what explains that former colonial powers such as France or other countries intervene today in North Africa to take back some natural resources. This is the case of France in Mali where France is only the hands of the US in that story. This is also the case in all the northern African countries in the so-called Arab Spring. Those are not real revolutionary movements. It was directed from abroad and it’s always to put their hands on natural resources such as gas, uranium. This is a race. This is an economic war that we’re seeing now. Africa today is the attic of the world. It’s very difficult to imagine that Africa will one day be owned by Africans. It’s sad but it’s true. I prefer that they are partnerships where everybody is in a win-win relationship, than a unilateral exploitation. I can’t stand anymore to see Africans starving when under their ground is full of natural wealth which is crazy! All that wealth doesn’t bring anything to the local population. They just benefit industrial companies, to international companies and their managers.
    United Nations, European Union and NATO don’t bring peace, but they are war mongering institutions. These institutions don’t work in the interest of the population. They protect interest, they protect lobbies, financial interests. They are in the hands of big international companies and today citizens are forgotten.
    European Union put Greece, Spain and Portugal into trouble. There’s impoverishment of European populations and this is shocking to see to which extent it’s possible to reduce benefits and put a whole population into poverty. And all that because of a crisis that was created by financial interest.

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