Chinese Philosophy: Buddhism
CHINESE PHILOSOPHY: BUDDHISM
In India, Buddhism was a heterodox religious movement against the authority of the Vedas, the Bible of orthodox Hinduism. Gautama Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 BCE) dismissed the extreme ascetic way of life often adopted by Indian religious believers and taught the middle way. While Hindu philosophers asserted the existence of atman (I, self, ego, or soul) as the innermost essence of a human being and ontologically identified this essence with Brahma, the absolute reality of the universe, the Buddha repudiated the ideas of atman and Brahma, and proclaimed that everything is causally conditioned and nothing is absolute, permanent, and eternal.
All Buddhists have accepted the Buddha's teaching of anatman (nonself), but have apprehended his philosophical message differently. For the early, conservative Hinayana Buddhists, the Buddha's denial of ātman implies and even entails the existence of dharmas (divine laws), changing realities of the universe, and impermanent constituents of human beings. But later, progressive Mahayana Buddhists contended that the concept of dharma is as unintelligible as that of ātman. Both monistic absolutism and pluralistic realism are extreme views and should be eradicated. The true teaching of the Buddha is that all things are empty (sunya ).
Both conservative and progressive Buddhist teachings had been introduced to China by the first century CE. The Chinese preferred Mahayana and revered Nāgārjuna (c. 163–263) as the father of Mahayana Buddhism. The first Mahayana school founded by Nāgārjuna in India was named Mādhyamika, a name derived from the Sanskrit noun madhyamā, meaning middle or neutral. The Mahayana philosophy of emptiness as the middle way had laid a fine foundation for the development of Buddhism in China. The creation of new Chinese Buddhist schools—such as Tiantai, Huayan, Chan, and Pure Land—was directly or indirectly related to Nāgārjuna's philosophy.
The Sanlun Philosophy of Emptiness
In China, Indian Mādhyamika Buddhism is called the Sanlun (three-treatises) School. Nāgārjuna's Madhya-makārikā (Middle way treatise), Dvādaśanikāyaśāstra (Twelve Gate Treatise ), and Śataśāstra (Hundred verse treatise), with the main verses by Āryadeva (third cent.), are devoted to the philosophy of emptiness and have been emphasized by Chinese Sanlun Buddhists. For Chinese Sanlun Buddhists, the notions of anatman, the middle way, and emptiness are synonymous in the Buddha's philosophy. Thus, the Sanlun school is also known as the middle-way school (Zhongdao Zong ) and the emptiness school (Kong Zong ).
More than any other Chinese philosophers, the Sanlun masters had a great interest in logical analysis and logical argument. They analyzed the dynamic and static worldviews, and they critically examined the nature and function of language and basic linguistic units such as subject, predicate, and predication. They questioned the essence and use of truth, knowledge, and logic, and they investigated various logical concepts and constructs such as right and wrong, negation and affirmation, and the meaning of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in rational reasoning and conceptual disputes.
Usually people accept motion or change as an undeniable fact of experience. Even the Buddha, as well as the Yijing (Book of changes), seems to teach that all things are in a constant state of flux. Laozi's Daodejing (Way and power classic) also proclaims that "reversing" is the Dao (Way) of heaven. But under the influence of Indian Mahayana philosophy, Sengzhao (373–414), a brilliant Sanlun philosopher, wrote the famous essay Wu buqian lun (Things do not shift), arguing that motion is empty. He analyzed motion and pointed out that so-called motion consists of a part that has already passed (yiqu ), a part that has yet to pass (weiqu ), and a part that is passing (qushi ). Change cannot be found in the part already passed, since it is already gone. Nor can it be found in the part yet to pass, since it is not yet. Nor can it be apprehended in the part that is passing, since passing makes sense if and only if there is an act of passing. But in examining whether there is an act of passing, we cannot use the act of passing to establish an act of passing without begging the question. So motion is impossible.
Zeno, a Greek philosopher, was well known for his argument that motion is impossible. Unlike Zeno, the Chinese Sanlun denial of motion does not entail the affirmation of rest. For Sanlun Mādhyamika, the concept of rest cannot be established either. Rest is the cessation of motion. If it is real, it must happen at some place and time. Does rest occur where something has already past, or where something has yet to pass, or where something is passing? None of these can be established. Therefore there can be no rest, or cessation of motion. For Sanlun masters, motion and rest are both empty, devoid of definite nature or essence, and hence not real. So one cannot maintain that reality is either permanent or impermanent. Therefore, any substantive or dynamic metaphysics must be repudiated.
According to Chinese Sanlun Mādhyamikas, philosophers appear to be very intelligent, but actually have often been fooled by language. Both Hindu and traditional Buddhist metaphysicians have failed to see the emptiness of words and names. Laozi understood the inadequacy of human language, as can be seen in the opening to his Daodejing, where he wrote, "The way that can be stated is not the real Way; Names that can be named are not real names." However, Laozi and later Daoists did not logically analyze language and did not present discursive arguments to substantiate their philosophy. Following Nāgārjuna's philosophy, Chinese Sanlun masters did logically analyze language, arguing that language is a conceptual game (xilun ).
Sanlun masters critically examined the nature and the structure of conceptual and verbal statements, and argued that the relationship between two basic linguistic units, the subject (kexiang ) and the predicate (xiang ), cannot be rationally well formed, and that predication in our ordinary use of language is really not intelligible. They studied the precise relationship between the subject and the predicate, examining whether they are identical or different from one another. On the one hand, if two are identical, they are one, and it makes no sense to call one a subject and the other a predicate. Logically, the sentence is then a tautology and does not say anything about the world. Hence, in this case, predication is doing no real work. On the other hand, if the subject and the predicate differ, predication is again unintelligible, since being (the similarity of subject and predicate) and not being (the difference between subject and predicate) cannot be at the same place at the same time. Hence it is absurd to unite what is different to form one sentence describing the same thing. Since every logical or conceptual statement consists of a subject and predicate, reality cannot be intelligently described. Therefore, so-called logic is in essence illogical.
In the view of the Sanlun masters, language and logic are empty. They are conventional and do not have a priori or absolute validity. Words have no definite meaning in themselves. The meaning of a term is not the object for which it stands, but depends on conditions and circumstances. If conditions change, the meaning of the word changes and might even be lost.
For the Sanlun masters, conceptualization, like a fish trap, has no intrinsic value and reality by itself, though it does have a practical use and can be employed to attract unenlightened persons to Buddhism. Yet the true message of the Buddha's teachings can be properly apprehended only if people comprehend the emptiness of words and discard conceptualization. Jizang (549–623), the most eminent Sanlun master, stated, "It is not that language is given in order to have Dharma [the Buddha's truth or teachings], but rather that Dharma is presented in order to eliminate language (Jizang 1854, p. 94c; Cheng 1984, p. 119).
According to Jizang, without practical benefits, truth and logic would lose their meaning. In ordinary life, humans have all sorts of emotional and intellectual attachments; they are attached to some view and stick to some law or principle. To free them from attachment, the Buddha preached a certain truth and followed a certain logic. To avoid the substantive or static view of the universe, he taught that everything is in flux, and to repudiate the dynamic view of the universe, he claimed that existence is real. Actually, terms such as "being" and "nonbeing," "permanent" and "impermanent," "to be" and "not to be," "real" and "unreal" are all empty. The Buddha's message can be regarded as the truth insofar as it helps dispel ignorance and illusion.
Ultimately, all conceptualizations should be discarded, and one should be silent. Such silence is not a form of absolutism or nihilism, but the manifestation of prajñā (wisdom). For ordinary people, to know is to know something; epistemology assumes objects to be known, acts of knowing, and a knower. In the ordinary way of thinking, an assertion of knowledge implies an ontological commitment. Prajñā is not to know something, but rather to apprehend that reality is empty, and so to be freed from attachments. In his essay Boruo wuzhi (Prajñā as nonknowing), Sengzhao (384–414) stated, "Real prajñā is as pure as empty space, without knowing, without seeing, without acting, and without objects. Thus knowledge is in itself without knowing, and does not depend on anything in order to be without knowing (Sengzhao 1858, p. 153; Cheng 1984a, p. 105).
To apprehend the empty logic of prajñā, one should understand, according to Jizang's Sanlun xuanyi (Profound meaning of the three treatises), that the refutation of erroneous views is the illumination of the right view (poxie xianzheng ). In ordinary or even Aristotelian logic, negation and affirmation differ. Negation is usually asserted with the aim of affirming, establishing a thesis: Not P implies something other than P ; the denial of a thesis entails the affirmation of an antithesis. For Chinese Sanlun masters, enlightened persons are empty-minded, free from affirmation and negation. Negation is used merely to repudiate erroneous views or to affirm negation itself. Not P means only the absence of P. Prajñā is the absence of any view, and is not a view in itself. The refutation of erroneous views and the affirmation of right views are not separate acts but the same. If a right view is held in place of an erroneous view, it becomes a new erroneous view and requires refutation. For Jizang, "Originally there was nothing to affirm and now there is nothing to negate (Jizang 1852, p. 6; Cheng 1984a, p. 47). An attachment to some view is a sickness (bing ), and the logic of emptiness is the medicine (yao ) to cure this intellectual sickness.
The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, according to Chinese Sanlun masters, is not a metaphysical view. Rather, it is the doctrine that one should repudiate all metaphysical views, and to do so requires not the presentation of another metaphysical view, but simply the abolition of all metaphysics.
Emptiness (śūnyatā ) is essentially a soteriological device. It is merely an instrument for eliminating extreme views. If there is no extreme to be removed, there need be no affirmation or negation. The so-called right view is really just as empty as the wrong view, and it is cited as right "only when there is neither affirmation nor negation." If possible, one should not use such terms as "right" and "wrong." For Jizang, "we are forced to use the word 'right' in order to put an end to wrong. Once wrong has been ended, then right no longer remains. Then the mind is attached to nothing." Even emptiness is empty. Jizang contended, "If one still clings to emptiness, then there is no medicine that can eliminate the disease (Jizang 1852, p. 7).
The Sanlun philosophy was brilliant and authentically derived from Indian Mādhyamika thought. But the philosophy was too abstract and too Indian for the Chinese. Consequently, the Sanlun School declined in China after the death of Jizang in 623. However, its teachings inspired various Chinese Buddhists to develop new Buddhist movements in China.
The round Teaching of Tiantai
Tiantai Buddhism, a sect of Mahayana Buddhism, had no Indian counterpart and was founded in China in the sixth century. It was initiated by Huiwen (550–577) and was well established by Zhiyi, also known as Zhikai (538–597), the greatest Tiantai master. Zhiyi lived and taught in the area of Mt. Tiantai in Zhejiang province, and hence the school came to be called the Tiantai School (Tendai in Japanese). Tiantai masters examined the Buddhist scriptures and held that the text Saddharma-puṇḍarīka (Lotus of the wonderful law) contains the best and most perfect doctrinal teaching of the Buddha, and consequently this school is also known as the Lotus (huafang ) School.
Since ancient times Chinese have tended to think holistically or inclusively. Confucians and Daoists tended to observe things as they are and, with increasing ontological penetration, to see differences. The wonder of the universe, for Confucianism and Daoism, is a harmony among diversities and even opposites. According to the Yin-Yang School, the Yijing (Book of changes), and the Daodejing (Way and power classic), the universe is a united whole. It is composed of pairs of opposites: yin and yang, positive and negative, male and female, right and wrong. The interaction of yin and yang produces all things and all kinds of movement. Following this vein of thinking, Tiantai masters adopted the yuanjiao (round approach, doctrine, or teaching) and developed a philosophy of all in one and one in all.
Tiantai Buddhism disliked the analytic approach. For Tiantai masters, the analytic approach is a deductive and exclusive way of thinking that may reduce a complex world to one single reality, as seen in Hinduism, or a few simple fixed entities, as seen in Theravada Buddhism. Such thinking is one-sided and extreme, and hence should be eradicated. To avoid extremes, Tiantai Buddhists maintained that the Buddha's dharma is the direct observation, and pure and total description, of what is immediately given. Buddhism, for Tiantai masters, seeks to describe or to see things as they present themselves. "What the Buddha has accomplished is the teaching foremost, rare and inconceivable. Only the Buddhas can realize the true nature of all things; that is to say, all things are thus-formed, thus-natured, thus-substantiated, thus-caused, thus-forced, thus-activated, thus-circumstanced, thus-effected, thus-enumerated and thus-beginning-ending-completing (Saddharma-pundarika [The wonderful law of lotus], chapter 2).
Tiantai Buddhists held that Hindu and other Buddhist philosophers had distorted the original or true state of the things and polluted our comprehension of the universe. Tiantai philosophy sought to return to things themselves, that is, to penetrate to original, pure phenomena as they present themselves before any con-ceptualization or analytic judgment. "Thus-formed, thus-natured," in Tiantai teaching, indicates things as they present themselves. The Buddha's dharma, for Tiantai masters, seeks to penetrate to the fundamental or original data, to return to reality (rushi ), as they appear to us in immediate experience. One should return to things themselves by means of direct awareness. For Tiantai masters, whoever sees things in this way sees what they called the original or true state of things (zhufa shixiang ).
According to Tiantai masters, secular and even Buddhist philosophers have often ignored the richness of the universe and chopped complex, concrete, living facts into one absolute reality or a few simple elements. Tiantai Buddhists dismissed such philosophies as discriminative doctrines (biejiao ). They did not divide the harmonious world into noumenon (li ) and phenomena (shi ). Nor did they reduce one concrete thing to another or give up any assertion; instead, they attempted to describe each fact in its fullness. They called their attitude and approach to the world the yuanjiao (round teaching, doctrine, or approach).
According to the round approach, all things, absolute and relative, are a united whole; noumenon is phenomena, and phenomena are noumenon. The relationship between the one and the many is like that of the ocean and waves. One ocean cannot be an ocean without many waves, and many waves cannot occur outside the one ocean. Thus, all is one, and one is all.
The Tiantai round approach is also used to apprehend Buddhist truth. Nāgārjuna is said to have taught, "Emptiness is called the middle way. For it is a provisionary name for causality (Nāgārjuna, "Zhong Lun" [The middle treatise], 18). For Huiwen and his followers, Nāgārjuna's statement taught that causality (yinyuan, dependent coarising) indicates lack of permanence and hence emptiness (kong ), and thus it can serve as a substitute name (jiaming ) for the middle way (zhongdao ). This awakened Huiwen to perceive the triple truth of emptiness, of temporariness, and of the mean. For Tiantai Buddhists, all things are empty because they are causally conditioned and hence are devoid of self-nature, but they do have temporary existence. Things by nature are empty and temporary; this principle constitutes the mean. These three—emptiness, temporariness, and the mean—penetrate one another and are found perfectly harmonized and united. A thing is empty but exists temporarily. It is temporary because it is empty. The fact that everything is empty and at the same time temporary constitutes the middle truth. One should consider the three truths not as separate but as a perfectly harmonious threefold truth.
In reality, the three truths, according to Tiantai Buddhism, are three in one and one in three. The principle is one, but its explanation is threefold, and each of the three truths has the value of all. From the perspective of emptiness, we may deny the existence of the temporary and the middle, for we consider emptiness as transcending all. The three principles would be empty. The same is the case from the perspective of temporariness or the mean. So when one principle is empty, all will be empty; when one is temporary, all will be temporary; when one is middle, all will be middle. These three principles are otherwise called identical emptiness, identical temporariness, and identical mean, and also the absolute threefold truth.
Huayan Buddhism and the Myriad Manifestations
Huayan Buddhism, another sect of Mahayana Buddhism, was founded in China in the seventh century. It is named after the title of its chief scripture Huayan jing (Avatamsaka sutra, Flower-wreath sutra). According to this school, the Buddhist dharma is like the seed of a fine plant. It was planted by the Buddha in India; it grew and produced branches and leaves; eventually it blossomed, bearing beautiful flowers. Early Buddhism, various Hinayana and Mahayana schools, are the branches and leaves of the dharma. Huayan Buddhism is the flower of the dharma, the highest and the most splendid outcome of the Buddha's dharma.
The Huayan School was initiated by Dushun, also known as Fashun (557–640), but Fazang (643–712) is usually considered the real founder of the school because he was responsible for the final systematization of its teachings. Like Tiantai Buddhists, Huayan Buddhists developed a philosophy of one in all and all in one, and they also called their way of conceptualizing things yuanjiao (round approach, teaching, or doctrine). They wanted to observe and describe all things, phenomenal and noumenal, as purely and as fully as possible. They first rejected ordinary empiricism, which cuts up things into simple sense data, and they questioned Indian scholastic Buddhism, which reduced complex phenomena to simple dharmas. For Huayan masters, genuine phenomena are not the same as sensory phenomena. Alleged empirical facts or sensory appearances are really constituted phenomena and do not represent the true state of things.
The denial that sensory appearances represent the true state of the things does not, however, imply that Huayan masters denied sensory appearance in the world. In his famous Jin shizi zhang (Essay on the gold lion), Fazang used a gold lion to illustrate the case. We do perceive sensory phenomena such as a gold lion, but the appearance of the gold lion is not of a real lion. The proper understanding of things is that the true essence of such things is something other than physical form.
Sensory phenomena are empty; they do appear to exist, but their state of existence is not genuine. In the strict sense, sense experience is the manifestation of illusion (huan ). To understand genuine being or genuine phenomena, one must contemplate things without qualities (wuxiang ) by suspending one's natural belief in the existence of sense qualities or sense data. For Fazang, "To contemplate the qualityless is [to contemplate] the fact that the qualities of the tiniest part of matter arise out of the evolution of mind …, lacking any inherent nature of their own. This fact is called that of the qualityless" (Fazang, Huayanjing yihaibaimen [The hundred gates on the meaning of the flower splendor scripture] 1875, p. 627).
The contemplation of things without qualities, according to Huayan Buddhism, leads one to apprehend li (principle, noumenon) and to know the essence of the world. Such contemplation is a kind of empty-minded, disinterested observation of things, both objective and subjective, in their fullest breadth and depth. Thus seeing things as they are and as they are not is a round approach. For Huayan masters, it would empty or open up one's mind to see that being and nonbeing produce each other, to see that qualities and the qualityless complement each other, and thus to be aware of the essential relationship between phenomena and noumenon. Fazang wrote, "Noumenon does not interfere with phenomenon, what is pure is ever mixed. [Likewise] phenomena ever comprise noumenon in its totality, for what is mixed is ever so.… There is no barrier between what is pure and what is mixed" (Fazang, Huayanjing yihaibaimen [The hundred gates on the meaning of the flower splendor scripture] 1875, p. 627).
Every event or fact is rich and complex. In describing the complex world, Huayan Buddhists claimed that a tiny particular thing involves and embraces all things in totality. Fazang wrote, "All things of the senses are revealed in their true essence and become merged into one great mass. Great functions arise, every one of which represents the Absolute. The myriad manifestations, despite their variety, harmonize and are not disparate. The all is the one, for all things equally have the nature of non-being. The one is the all, for cause and effect follow in an unbroken sequence. In their power and function, each implies the other and freely rolls up or spreads out. This is called the perfect teaching of the One Vehicle [the highest Buddhist truth]" (Fazang, Jinshizi Zhang [Essay on the gold lion], chapter 7).
In Huayan Buddhism, the universe is composed of an infinite number of possible differentiated worlds (dharmadhātu ). As a whole, the universe is to be regarded as fourfold: the world of phenomena (shifajie, the realm of facts), the world of noumenon (lifajie, the realm of principle), the world of phenomena and noumenon united (shiliwuaifajie ), and the world of phenomena united or interwoven with other phenomena (shishiwuaifajie ). For Huayan masters, the Tiantai round approach is not inclusive or comprehensive enough. It merely touches on the first three realms of the universe but fails to see the world of phenomena united with other phenomena. According to the Huayan School, Huayan Buddhism better and more fully investigates and describes things themselves than other teachings. From its preeminent doctrine of yuanjiao, one can see that all things form a harmonious whole by mutually penetrating (xiangru ) and mutually identifying (xiangji ), and that phenomena are "the fact and the world of fact perfectly harmonized" (shishiwuaifajie ) (Cheng 1984b, p. 222).
The distinct feature of Tiantai and Huayan Buddhism is their propagation of yuanjiao (round teaching, doctrine, or approach). In many ways, the Chinese round teaching in both Tiantai and Huayan philosophies is similar to Western phenomenology. Phenomenology can be seen as a purely descriptive study of any subject matter in which phenomena are described by means of direct awareness (Anschauung ). In phenomenology, phenomena are not identified with sense experience or sense data, and the truth and falsity of phenomenological statements do not depend on sensory observation. For phenomenologists, sensory observation is instituted and categorized under certain general concepts, and hence in the strict sense, sensory experience is already constituted or polluted. The ideal of phenomenology is to return "to the things themselves" (zu den Sachen selbst ). Actually, this is also the ideal of the round teaching that Tiantai and Huayan masters had tried to practice.
The object of phenomenological research includes whatever can conceivably be experienced, even what occurs in wild dreams. Phenomenologists do not neglect any aspect of our experience and seek to describe all things in their full possible concreteness. Tiantai and Huayan Buddhists had a similar objective in their round approach. Like phenomenologists, they aimed to investigate things, both subject and object, in their fullest breadth and depth. This is why Huayan masters taught the fourfold dharmadhātu as a way of exploring the infinite number of possible differentiated worlds, and claimed that their philosophy was "more round," "more complete," better, and higher than Tiantai and other Buddhist teachings. This is also why Huayan Buddhism is said to be the most splendid flower of the Buddha's dharma.
The phenomenological approach has negative and positive aspects, involving, as it does, turning away from something and turning toward something else. Negatively, it avoids preconceptions and brackets constituted phenomena. Positively, it turns to the things themselves and describes them as purely and as fully as possible. The negative aspect has a positive function: to facilitate genuine intuition of the given. In a similar way, the Buddhist round approach has a double character: zhi (cessation, stoppage, or stillness) and guan (observation, contemplation, awareness, or examination). Zhi is like Husserl's epochē, the suspension of all natural belief in the objects of experience. This is not to deny the world, but to become a disinterested spectator who can rediscover what has previously been lost. By means of guan, one can penetrate to the essence of things and obtain the unattached insight of true reality.
The phenomenological method is said to involve a change of attitude. One must look at the world with new eyes. The result is said to be a change in one's experience. The method of zhiguan in the Buddhist round approach also involves a change of attitude. One transforms from an attached way of life to an enlightened one, experiencing a sense of peace and transcendence: "How calm, still and pure! How deep, stable, and quiet! How pure and clear the inner silence! It functions without the character of functioning, and acts without the character of acting" (Fazang, Dasheng Zhiguan Famen [The Mahayana method of zhiquan], chapter 4.) Through this transformation, the true state of all things is apprehended, and the universe is seen as the manifestation of an absolute mind, known as zhenru (true reality) or rulaizang (tathāgatagarbha ).
It is interesting to see that the final outcome of the method of zhiguan is similar to that of Husserl's transcendental deduction, namely, the discovery of transcendental consciousness or mind. This is not subjective idealism, because subject and object, as well as the absolute and the relative, are seen to be interdependent, mutually penetrating, and even mutually identifying.
Unlike Tiantai and Huayan Buddhism, the Chan School (Zen in Japanese), founded in China in the sixth century, does not aim to establish a round doctrine or to fully describe the universe. Chan Buddhism was claimed not to be a doctrine at all but a way of avoiding systematic views. Chan stories repeatedly teach that Chan Buddhism is not a body of fixed truths; instead, it is the abandonment of all views.
Although Chan masters did not develop theories, Chan Buddhism has some philosophical foundations found in Western philosophy: critical inquiry, autonomy, intellectual freedom, and creativity. Socrates is well known for saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. For him and many others, the philosophical enterprise consisted of inquiry rather than an accumulation of final truths. In the West, philosophy has often been regarded as the highest form of inquiry because, unlike other sciences, it alone does not involve presuppositions. True philosophers take nothing for granted. Similarly, Chan masters took nothing for granted.
Chan Buddhism has been critical of Buddhism viewed as a religion. Often a religion presupposes the authority or divinity of its founder and the infallibility of his words, but Chan Buddhism invoked no such presuppositions. Chan masters often rejected any special status for Gautama Buddha and repudiated the certainty of Buddhist scriptures. When the Buddha was born, he is alleged to have proclaimed, "Above the earth and below the heavens, I alone am the Honored One!" Chan master Yunmen (864–949) commented on this saying, "If I had been with him at the moment of his uttering this, I would surely have struck him dead with one blow and thrown the corpse into the maw of a hungry dog" (Suzuki 1964, p. 40). Chan masters would not subscribe to the views of a religious leader. One must enlighten oneself. Enlightenment (wu ) must occur within and be done personally. In fact, according to Chan masters, any person who obtains enlightenment is a Buddha.
For Socrates, the autonomous activity of philosophy was integral to being genuinely human. For Chan Buddhism, to live genuinely is to live the life of enlightenment, and to live the life of enlightenment is to live autonomously. Simply following the Buddha faithfully and practicing the dharma diligently does not engender an enlightened outlook. Rather, one must be autonomous (zizhu ). In the Chan lifestyle, a true Buddhist conducts his life freely and leisurely (ziyou zizai ).
The main message of Chan Buddhism, believed to have been composed by Bodhidharma (470–543), is succinctly stated thus:
A special transmission outside scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at human mind;
Seeing into one's own nature to attain Buddhahood (Dumoulin 1988, p. 85).
Chan masters repudiate any blind acceptance of scriptures, for "the entire scriptures from beginning to end are nothing but deceitful words" (Chung-yuan 1971, p.143). The so-called holy scriptures of Buddhism have often been set aside, thrown away, and even burned by Chan masters.
The radical approach of Chan Buddhism created a refreshing Buddhist epistemology that emphasized opening up the mind to the serious issue of what truth is. For some Buddhists, truth is objective and can be spoken and written about. In this view, the Buddha and the patriarchs transmitted truth, and the scriptures contain their messages, often identified with the dharma. But for Chan Buddhism, truth is not something objective, nor can it be spoken and written about. The Buddhist dharma is not conveyed by ink marks on the pages of scripture. Huineng (638–713), the sixth patriarch, was said to be illiterate, and yet was a Chan master. When Fada, a devout monk, studied the Lotus Sutra three thousand times and still could not understand it, he came to ask Huineng for instruction. The master said, "The Dharma is quite clear; it is only your mind that is not clear. Whether Sutra-reciting can enlighten you or not all depends on yourself. … If the mind is deluded, the Lotus [Sutra ] turns you around, if the mind is enlightened, you turn around the Lotus [Sutra ]" (Huineng 1952, p. 24).
Truth, for Chan Buddhism, is something living and personal. To equate truth with a proposition is to objectify and conceptualize it, to make it static and dead. For Chan masters, "The real truth is nothing else but one's own mind. Thus … the real teaching must be transmitted directly from one mind to another" (Chung-yuan 1971, p. 86). Genuine spiritual education occurs in personal communication between Chan master and disciple. This mind-to-mind transmission resembles what Martin Buber, the great twentieth-century thinker, described as an I-thou relationship, rather than an I-it relationship. To see the truth as an object and to conceptualize it is to shift from a personal I-thou point of view to an impersonal I-it understanding.
True meditation, a central Chan practice, does not refer to sitting in a certain posture with legs crossed, but to "the brightening up of the mind-works" (Suzuki 1956, p. 85). Mazu (709–788) used to sit diligently and frequently in meditation. Master Huairang (677–744) asked him, "Virtuous one, why are you sitting in meditation?" Mazu replied, "I want to become a Buddha." Thereupon the master picked up a tile and rubbed it repeatedly in front of the hermitage. Mazu asked, "What is the master doing?" Huairang answered, "I am polishing the tile to make a mirror." Mazu exclaimed, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" The master responded, "How can you make a Buddha by practicing sitting meditation?" (Jingde Chuandeng Lu, Vol. 5). The monk was said to be enlightened immediately, and later became a great Chan master.
The personal experience of the dharma, according to Chan masters, is not remote, abstract, or transcendent. It occurs in one's present daily life. Zhaozhou (778–897) asked Master Nanquan (748–834), "What is the Dao [the Way]?" The master replied, "Everyday-mindedness is Dao." In another instance, after attaining great enlightenment under Mazu, Pangyun stated, "I am an ordinary man who fulfills his daily tasks. How plain are the Buddhist teachings!" According to the Chan School, "In the carrying of water and the chopping of wood—therein lies Dao" (Chung-yuan 1971, p. 145).
An enlightened person does not live outside samsara, or this world of rebirth, and he should not ignore karma, or cause and effect. He should treasure this life and value the virtues of labor in daily affairs. Baizhang (720–814), who founded the Chan monastic order, was said to live by the principle "A day without work—a day without eating" (Dumoulin 1988, p. 103). When he was old and his disciples hid his tools, he refused to eat until he could work again. Chan practitioners do not adhere to rigid moral precepts, but practice a work ethic in daily life.
Chan philosophy has similarities with contemporary ordinary-language philosophy in that both favor the ordinary use of language. For Chan Buddhism, however, any concrete fact or lived experience is rich and complex. Things may appear to be simple and ordinary, yet are really quite complicated and extraordinary. Chan Buddhists have sometimes used metaphysical statements to convey their understanding, and have also expressed themselves through strange words and strange acts (qiyan qixing ). Consequently, the Chan literature abounds with irrational statements and absurd actions.
The use of strange words and strange acts in Chan Buddhism actually accords with the Mādhyamika practice of revealing the truth of emptiness and the middle way. According to Nāgārjuna, the Buddha's dharma was given, and hence should be understood, by means of twofold truth, a convenient term for the perspectives of conventional and ultimate truth. The former sees things from a viewpoint deluded by attachment, while the latter sees things without attachment.
Following Nāgārjuna's philosophy, Chan masters often expressed themselves through twofold truth, and hence their teachings and practices may be apprehended from two standpoints. Ordinary sentient beings do not see the emptiness of all things. So, to comply with conventional usage, Chan masters may say, "I see" or "you should see" the objects of right knowledge. But from a higher, unattached standpoint, all things are empty, and so the same master may also state, "I do not see" or "one should not see" any right object; on the contrary, one should see the emptiness of all things. For instance, once Shenhui asked Huineng, "Do you see or not?" The master replied, "I both see and also do not see." The puzzled disciple asked, "How can you see and also not see?" The master instructed, "If your mind is attached, you do not see; if your mind is without attachment, you see." The seemingly inconsistent expressions of Chan Buddhism were delivered with twofold truth in mind. Understood in this light, they are not as illogical as they might appear.
Although Chan Buddhism is a Mahayana practice, in many ways it strongly reflects Chinese thinking and feeling. Such Chan ideas as xing (nature, essence, own nature), xin (mind, human mind), foxing (Buddha nature), foxin (Buddha mind), and the key message that everyone has a Buddha nature are more like Chinese Confucian thought than Indian Mahayana Buddhism.
The central message that Bodhidharma brought from India to China in the sixth century also differs from the Indian Mahayana philosophy of emptiness. For Nāgārjuna, all things are causally conditioned and hence empty of any nature (xing ) of their own. So, whereas the Chan masters instruct one to see the nature of things (jianxing ), the Indian Mahayana scriptures teach the believer to reject this idea. Chan practice has to be regarded as a special transmission outside the scriptures. For Chan masters, one cannot and should not follow the ancient Indian scriptures literally; otherwise one will never be enlightened. Therefore, Chan Buddhism advises, "No dependence on words and letters."
The notion of the nature of things (xing ) was important in the minds of Chinese thinkers long before Buddhism was introduced to China. Both orthodox and less orthodox Confucianists accepted the view that things had natures. Confucius and Mencius are well known as saying that human nature is good. In their teachings, the mind (xin ) is the nature of a human. This human nature or mind is more important for its axiological value rather than for its ontological substance, in contrast with such notions as Hindu Brahma and atman, Theravada Buddhist svabhava (inborn nature), and Greek substratum. This notion of value makes humans valuable and endows them with a spiritual quality. Without this nature, a person would be merely a beast. With this nature, a person can become a sage. According to Mencius, Confucianism teaches that one should exhaust one's mind and know one's nature (jinxin zhixing ). One who practices this will be a gentleman and a sage.
Chan masters skillfully assimilated the Confucian sense of nature, mind, and sagehood into Buddhist thought. The result of this skillful measure (fangbian, upaya in Sanskrit) was the doctrine of "direct pointing at the human mind; seeing into nature to attain Buddhahood" (Dumoulin 1988, p. 85). Huineng opened his famous Platform Sutra with the same message: "Virtuous ones! The Bodhi-nature is originally pure. Making use of this mind alone, one can directly become a Buddha" (Huineng 1952, opening statement).
Inspired by Confucian thought, Chan masters transformed the traditional Buddhist doctrine of gradual enlightenment into the teaching and practice of abrupt or sudden enlightenment (dunwu ). In Indian Buddhist teachings, not everyone has a Buddha nature and can become a Buddha. But according to Confucius and Mencius, all human beings are alike in nature and become different owing to different external environments. In the original state, humans have innocent, fine minds that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. But this mind was lost. The aim of education is to recover what has been lost. Can we find the original mind? Mencius's answer was positive and optimistic. He wrote that the original mind is "all already complete in oneself," and that the truth "is not far to seek, but right by oneself." Following this positive, optimistic philosophy, Chan masters proclaimed that everyone has a Buddha nature, is able to become a Buddha, and can suddenly attain enlightenment.
Pure Land's Message of Hope
While most Buddhists took a positive view of human nature, Pure Land Buddhism (Jingtu, Jōdo in Japanese), also founded in China in the sixth century, acknowledged human weakness and was pessimistic about individual efforts to achieve nirvana. Reading scriptures, sitting in meditation, keeping moral precepts, understanding the dharma, and training for enlightenment are all fine, but really too much and too extreme for most. Pure Land Buddhism is a protest against, as well as a step away from, intellectual, scriptural, and disciplinary forms of Buddhism. The main message of Pure Land Buddhism is that one cannot and need not attain nirvana by effort, but may obtain it with the help and compassion of Amitabha Buddha.
The Pure Land message, according to this school, was the Buddha's original teaching, which was rediscovered by Nāgārjuna, later revered as the first patriarch of the Pure Land School. According to Pure Land masters, Nāgārjuna taught, "Although there are innumerable ways in the teachings of the Buddha, they can be classified roughly: the difficult way and the easy way." The difficult way is to approach Avaivartike (a state of no return to the world of delusion) by diligently following the eightfold path and practicing the six virtues of perfection (pāramitās ); the easy way teaches faith in Amitabha Buddha. The Mahayana doctrine of emptiness is the teaching of the easy way, for it teaches the emptiness of all our views and efforts.
Although Indian Mahayana teachings appear to differ from Pure Land Buddhism, Tanluan (476–524), the real founder of Pure Land Buddhism in China, is said to have been inspired by Nāgārjuna's philosophy of emptiness. He drew on Nāgārjuna's Dasabhumi-vibhastra (A commentary by Nagarjuna on the ten stages in bodhisattva wisdom) to advocate that, because humans have little spiritual capacity, they should not pursue the difficult path. Traditional religious life represents the difficult way, which, more properly speaking, according to Tanluan, is the teaching of enlightenment through one's own power (zili ). But the Mahayana way teaches salvation by relying on an external power (tali ). By relying on the Buddha's help and compassion, one can empty oneself and be awakened and saved by the Buddha's help and compassion.
Pure Land Buddhism shifted the focus of the Buddha's dharma from the discipline of observing moral precepts (vinaya ) and an emphasis on wisdom (prajñā ) to the spread of compassion (karuṇā ). Pure Land Buddhism is a religion of repentance, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. One obtains salvation by faith and devotion rather than by work or learning. Life, according to the Buddha's first noble truth, involves suffering. Yet formal religion has not made our lives more comfortable; on the contrary, it has frustrated and confused the minds of many clerics and laypeople because few can sustain the rigors of mastering Buddhist doctrine, either by practicing monastic discipline or by studying scriptures. An enlightened Buddha would see this state of suffering, have compassion, and be willing to help humans rise from the ocean of sufferings.
Amitabha, a compassionate bodhisattva according to Pure Land Buddhism, saw the miserable condition of sentient beings and determined to extend his great mercy to them, making forty-eight vows to save them. Failing his vows, he would not become a Buddha. Thus, while people may not be smart enough to digest Buddhist scriptures and may not have time to sit in meditation, they may yet hope for salvation by calling on the name of Amitabha Buddha (Amituofo in Chinese). The recitation or invocation of Amitabha's name became the trademark of Pure Land Buddhism. This simple act was said to help people enter into the western paradise, or the Pure Land. In fact, it became the most common Buddhist practice in China, Korea, and Japan, and the most popular means for salvation by which millions have sought release from suffering. So Pure Land Buddhism transformed Buddhism into a popular religion by preaching the simple gospel of hope.
Pure Land masters equated chanting "Amituofo" with Buddhism. Daochuo (562–645), the second patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism, was said to repeat the name of Amitabha Buddha seventy thousand times per day. Chanting "Amituofo" was believed to enable a person to be reborn in the Pure Land. Here, religious language does not describe the universe nor analyze truth. Rather, it is a calling for help, a therapy to relieve anxiety, frustration, despair, and other sufferings in life. The sound of "Amituofo" seems to have a power to comfort people and pacify the mind. The ultimate cause of the effectiveness of the invocation, according to Pure Land masters, is Amitabha Buddha himself, who aspired to save all beings. It is really through the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows that mortals, by reciting his name, can be released from the hell fires that a life of sin and evil bring on.
The power of chanting "Amituofo" is good news, because even persons who have committed the most egregious sins can be saved if they recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. According to Shandao (613–681), an eminent Pure Land master, Pure Land Buddhism not only offers salvation to known sinners, but also leads good people to repent and confess their sins. Those who sincerely acknowledge and believe that they are sinful, lowly persons continually involved in error and shut off from salvation are enlightened Buddhists. If one can repent of sin, no matter how small the sin, one will gain a deep sense of release from suffering and can aspire to birth in the Pure Land through Amitabha Buddha's vows. Confession, repentance, humility, and forgiveness, rather than punishment and condemnation, are the virtues promoted and practiced by the Pure Land community.
Buddhism in Chinese Culture
From the sixth century, Indian Buddhism became sinicized. Divergent Chinese Buddhist philosophies and practices were assimilated and fitted into the Chinese tradition, and exercised a lasting influence on almost every aspect of Chinese life. By the eighth century, Chinese Buddhism became firmly established and triumphantly spread throughout China. Chinese culture became an aggregation and synthesis of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. However, this syncretism did not go easily and smoothly. There were three major persecutions of Buddhists in Chinese history. The most devastating one occurred in 845. After this, most Buddhist schools declined in China. Then the Chan and Pure Land schools became predominant over other Buddhist schools and practices.
From the Song dynasty (960–1279) onward, chanting "Amituofo" has been the major religious practice among devout Buddhists. Chan philosophy was attractive to and popular among Chinese intellectuals, and was a vital cultural force, especially in literature and the arts. In fact, it led Confucian scholars to reexamine classical Confucian philosophy and develop neo-Confucianism, even though neo-Confucian scholars frequently attacked Buddhism when defending their orthodox teachings. Like Chan Buddhists, neo-Confucian scholars cultivated the mind, and even used Buddhist terms, some equating li (principle, reason) with the Dao, and others with the mind. Like Tiantai and Huayan Buddhists, many Confucianists adopted the round approach to develop an all-in-one and one-in-all worldview. In many ways what was new in neo-Confucianism was quite Buddhist in spirit.
The influence of Buddhism can also be seen intwentieth-century new Confucianism, as in Feng Youlan's (1895–1988) famous book Xin lixue (A new study of principle). Like metaphysically minded Buddhists, Feng investigated the principles in and behind things with the aim of reaching the highest sphere of life, namely "forming one body with all things." Xiong Shili (1885–1968), the founder of twentieth-century new Confucianism, was obviously a Buddhist Confucian. He promoted the Mahayana philosophy of consciousness only (weishi ) and reinterpreted the Confucian metaphysics found in the Yijing (Book of changes) in the light of this doctrine. His eminent disciples, among them Tang Junyi (1909–1978) and Mou Zongsan (1909–1995), examined the round approach (yuanjiao ), and they debated whether Tiantai or Huayan philosophy represented the highest teaching. Mou Zongsan found the Tiantai School to be the best. To develop his moral metaphysics, he adopted Tiantai philosophy, especially the idea that phenomena are noumenon and noumenon is phenomena. Tang Junyi, Fang Dongmei (1899–1977), and many other twentieth-century Confucian scholars have contended that Huayan philosophy, rather than Tiantai philosophy, represented a fuller development of Buddhist thought.
Fang Dongmei, just before his death, made the following statement:
From emptiness I came.
To emptiness I return.
Emptying the emptiness without possessing any being
It is in nowhere that my heart will dwell (Shen 2003).
Thus, the latest approaches to Confucianism have been profoundly influenced by Buddhist thought. One cannot properly understand Chinese philosophy or the history of Chinese thought without knowing Buddhist philosophy.
See also Chinese Philosophy: Overview; Chinese Philosophy: Contemporary.
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