Asian Philosophy 5: Buddhism in Tibet, China & Japan
For this lecture, please read the first ten (short) chapters of the Diamond Sutra.
Buddhism in Tibet
Tibetan culture was radically transformed by the arrival of Buddhism, from India, Afghanistan and China shortly after 600 CE. Mahayana Buddhism became Tibet’s official religion, as well as its social structure, art and architecture as well, mixing with local, native shamanic traditions which also survive in Tibet today. Unbeknownst to many, Afghanistan was once one of the major Buddhist centers of the world, which is sadly why there were huge Buddhist statues that were blown up by Taliban affiliated Islamic extremists, the sort we trained to fight against the Soviet Union in the 80s.
The characters of Tibetan writing were created to translate Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language. Many Mahayana texts, including Nagarjuna’s, survived in Tibet as Islam took over much of India. To the right are the characters for Om mani padme hum, a very popular mantra (chant) used for meditation that means Jewel-Lotus (mani padme), another name for the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, surrounded by the sound Om in front and behind, a sound associated with peace, tranquility and the vastness of the cosmos. The mantra is often chanted repeatedly without a break between the first and last Om, such that it cycles as an unbroken loop of sound. Much Tibetan jewellery bears this mantra. Here is twelve hours of it:
Tibetans claim that Buddhism arrived centuries earlier, when the Buddha himself and other Buddhas came to Tibet to teach, over a thousand years before modern scholars say Buddhism arrived. One amusing story has Buddha asking about Tibet before journeying there, and he is told that the Tibetans are the nicest people ever. Buddha worries that if the Tibetans are so extraordinarily nice, he will lose his finely tuned ability to deal with jerks, so he takes along a terrible tea servant who constantly mocks the Buddha and plays tricks on him.
Buddhism developed into many competing schools of thought in Tibet as it had in India and did in China, Japan and throughout Asia. Tibetan Buddhism is known for its elaborate rituals, tantric practices, meditation exercises, and systems of symbols, deities and demons. Tibetans believe that many demons were converted to Buddhism by great teachers, much as Ravana became a devotee of Shiva in the Ramayana, and so much artwork features demons who are protectors of Buddhism, its teachings and the community. Gazing at these demons, and similarly at skull bowls of blood, decapitated heads and other horrifying images is thought to purify the self of obstructions and identify with the lowest and most horrifying levels of the self and mind.
Soon after Tibetan Buddhism was established, there was an influx of Chinese Chan (Zen, in the Japanese). Controversy arose between those who supported the elaborate Buddhist practices and those, including many nobles, who supported the simplicity of Zen, which taught that enlightenment could be achieved suddenly and without elaborate ceremonies and practices. Zen Buddhists do traditionally believe in deities and practice ceremonies, but meditation and enlightenment became the primary and simple focus.
As mentioned last time, legend has it that after a debate in 794 CE between Kamalashila, a monk from India, and Moheyan, a monk from China, at the Samye monastery in Tibet, judged by the Tibetan King. The Chinese and their school were expelled from the country and the King officially pronounced the Indian Nagarjuna to be affixed as patriarch of Tibetan Buddhism in opposition to Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Zen who is believed to have traveled from India to China, bringing Zen with him. Interestingly, here in the Bay Area the Beatniks loved Zen and its stark black and white imagery, while Hippies, many who did embrace Zen, were drawn to the colorful and elaborately beautiful art and practices of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Hinduism.
Between 1200 and 1500, many schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose in debate with each other over the vast store of Indian texts which survived only in Tibet. Education in Tibetan Buddhism largely consists of the memorization of texts and debate with others about various understandings of the texts and their teachings. Good debaters would achieve fame and following, much like athletes and celebrities today. Many debates revolved around the controversial concepts of emptiness and buddha-nature. As untranslated texts were being translated, schools based on the new texts (Gsar-ma) entered into debate with older schools based on the earlier translated and established texts (Rnin-ma).
According to modern scholarship, some of both the old and the new texts were never original Indian texts at all, but were written in Tibet and “discovered” by various figures at various times. Similar “discoveries” occurred in China and Japan with the development of Buddhism there. New schools would arise, and a member would “discover” a text hidden in a log or a cave that just happened to support their doctrines and argue against the doctrines of competing schools. Tibetans view Buddhism as evolving in India into the final form of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school, and then each Tibetan school views this tradition as evolving in Tibet into their own position. This is very similar to Zen, each school viewing itself as the final evolution. As mentioned, this ‘final form’ takes drastically different forms in various places.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) has attracted a following in Europe and America, first among enthusiasts such as the Theosophists, then scholars such as the psychoanalyst Karl Jung, who noted the similarities with the Egyptian Book of the Dead in his search for the primordial archetypes of the common human psyche, and then later with Timothy Leary and hippies who viewed psychedelic experiences as a death and rebirth. The text is to be read to the dying and then to the corpse in the days after death to help it be released from rebirth and achieve nirvana. Again and again, the text implores the dead to embrace the clear light from above which appears bright and frightening to the ignorant, who prefer the dull light from below. Embracing the clear light, which they are now ‘set face to face’ with, results in liberation, while running into the softer dim light means being reborn in the world of suffering and desire.
In the series of talks in 2010 already mentioned, the Dalai Lama spoke to an audience on the need for compassion and discipline across religious and secular lines, and then teaches from Nagarjuna’s central texts. We have already discussed Nagarjuna, and his importance for Tibetan Buddhism as well as Mahayana Buddhism across North East Asia. He says that the golden age of ancient Indian thought should be a model of how many religions and philosophies can coexist together. He says that he believes that only Buddhism truly believes in anatman, the absence of a permanent self, but he will ask Jain leaders if Jains also hold this view at a Jain ceremony and series of dialogues he is going to attend in a month. He also mentions that some Jains attend these conferences completely naked, and giggles for awhile about it. He says that religions such as Christianity and Islam which believe in heaven do believe in a permanent self, but neither he nor they know what this is for sure.
Teaching from the Nagarjuna texts, he says that the true self has no self particular to itself at all, and that through study, critical reflection, and meditation, one can come to a greater and greater realization of this deepest level of reality. He follows Nagarjuna who criticizes the Yogachara or Mind Only school for maintaining a duality between mental conceptions and mind, saying that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Rather than ridding the mind of mental conceptions, we become not only the mental conceptions but the conceptions they oppose to realize mind. Realizing interdependence means maintaining distinctions while simultaneously overcoming them. This is the true cleansing of realization. Just as Buddha criticized Jains for trying to get rid of the self as a conception, Nagarjuna criticizes the Yogachara for trying to get rid of conception, including the self. Negation of concepts is not their annihilation, but accepting the things that they negate. Overcoming the self is not annihilation of the self, but acceptance of the other as the self through compassion.
On a political note, Tibet is currently occupied and claimed by China. While the Tibetan nobility did not treat the common people very well, a major factor that allowed the Communists to invade and take over, the Tibetans begged the Americans to help them and arm them against China, but American CIA agents evaluated the situation and did not see much value in protecting the vast Tibetan desert lands, allowing Tibet to fall to China. Two years later, the world’s largest deposit of uranium was discovered in the Tibetan and Khazakstani mountains, putting this in Soviet Russian and Communist Chinese control. If those deposits had been discovered two years earlier, it is likely that America would have protected the Tibetans and Tibet would be free today.
Buddhism in China & Japan
We will cover the Period of the Hundred Schools (600-200 BCE) and the Han unification of China (220 BCE – 200 CE) at the beginning of the second half of the class before we cover Confucianism, Moism, and Daoism. The short story, to introduce Buddhism in China here, is that many schools of thought flourished in the warring period before the Han unification of China, and that with the arrival of the Han dynasty came royal patronage and support for Confucianism and Daoism. In the latter half of the Han dynasty, between 65 and 200 CE, the third most prominent school of Chinese thought, Buddhism, began to spread and settle in China, arriving from India and central Asia.
The Han was a prosperous time, when there was much new money and much interest in philosophy and patronizing the arts and temples. The old moneyed families, the new money families coming up, and the scholars were now competing and collaborating voices. By the later half of the Han, there were 30,000 students at the government funded state university, where primarily Confucianism and other classic texts were studied.
Unfortunately, Confucianism had become orthodoxy, and skeptical calls for revisions as well as the weakening of Han power had many scholars looking to Daoism, particularly the two main texts of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi we will study, as well as other systems such as the paradoxical Logicians and authoritarian Legalists for new solutions and understandings to old problems just as Buddhism was coming over the border.
The peasants, who were increasingly desperate, turned to Daoist religious communities of worship in large numbers and rebellions were common. The largest were the Yellow Turban rebellions of 184 and 189 CE which sought land and food distribution for the people. The Han triumphed and put down the rebellions, but infighting soon pulled the Han apart again once it was no longer unified against the Yellow Turbans. This power vacuum allowed Buddhism to take hold and thrive.
Daoism offered the strongest alternative to Confucianism for both the elite scholars and the common devotional communities. They centered on the ideals of a return to nature and the natural, the freedom of the community and individual from abuse of authority, and the absolute as mystical One. Buddhism increasingly offered an alternative also in line with these ideals. Some early Daoist tales sound much like later Buddhist koan stories. Liu Ling, a Daoist master, was often drunk and sometimes lay around completely naked, and when several men entered his house and saw him in this state, he replied, “Heaven and earth are my dwelling, and my house is my pants…What are you all doing in my pants?”. As uplifting as these stories were, the Daoists offered little structure for reordering society, with many retreating into nature, others ignoring local tyrants or turning to religious devotion and mysticism.
Buddhism was at first regarded as a strange foreign form of Daoism by the Chinese. The two religions fought and supported each other alternatively for centuries afterward. In spite of their profound similarities, centrally skepticism of human understandings and transcendence of attachment in the unification of all, Indian and Chinese language and culture had profound differences as well. Chinese language uses short terms, while Indian language strings incredibly long and complicated terms together. Similarly, Chinese philosophy values brevity and expresses itself in simple, concrete metaphors, while Indian philosophy values comprehensiveness and expresses itself in complex and abstract analysis.
A comparison of Daoist and Buddhist texts shows this immediately. Compare the metaphor of the well frog in the Zhuangzi with the middle length discourses of the Buddha on the categories of existence and how each is inherently empty. Consider that Buddhists would refer to ‘perfection’, while Daoists would refer to being ‘round’, Buddhists would refer to ‘one’s true nature’, while Daoists would refer to ‘one’s original face’, and Buddhists would refer to ‘essence’, while Daoists would refer to ‘the pupil of the eye’. This was the same situation when Buddhism arrived in Japan around 550 CE, Daoism and Confucianism having arrived long before. The Japanese also understood Buddhism in a Daoist natural world context.
Chinese and Indian Buddhist cultures were also at odds socially. Chinese society was familial, seeking value in the worldly prosperity of the family. Indian Buddhism valued the otherworldly, and advocated leaving the home in pursuit of enlightenment in the monastery. While Daoism did have its wandering and wilderness dwelling sages, this would be a sticking point for Buddhism for many centuries. Many competing Confucians and Daoists would routinely call for an expelling of the foreign culture that asked the young to abandon their families for the monastery. To overcome this, Buddhists, like Daoists, offered local communities support in education, medicine, and relief in times of crisis. Gradually, Daoism and Buddhism were interrelated, with the Buddhist Dharma (teaching) equated with the Dao (way), and Buddhist nirvana (liberation) equated with the Daoist wu-wei (non-action). These were crude equations, which were enriched over centuries of translation and scholarship.
Buddhist sutras continued to arrive from India, carried by both Indian and Chinese Buddhist monks on pilgrimages to spread the dharma. In architecture, the Indian stupa became the Chinese pagoda, one of the most common and recognizable forms of Chinese architecture. Chinese artists began portraying the Buddha and bodhisattvas in Chinese form. The Mahayana Completion of Wisdom sutras (Prajnaparamita sutras) were introduced, becoming the central texts of the most popular forms of Buddhism today, Chinese and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, which focus on devotional chanting to bodhisattvas for good fortune and protection.
While Pure Land traditions were popular among common people and traditional noble families, the Chan (Chinese) or Zen (Japanese) tradition became popular among scholars and nobles who pursued philosophy, literature and the arts. The Pure Land tradition feeds off the faith practices of the Tiantai school, and the Chan/Zen feeds off the wisdom tradition of the Huayan school. Both teach the oneness of all things, but the Tiantai would say there are demons in the heavens and buddhas in the hell-worlds, while the Huayan say that One is All and All is One. Next week, we will exclusively study the Chan/Zen literature and the koan stories, some of my favorite philosophy texts. The history of Buddhism in Korea and Japan is also dominated by the duality of the Pure Land devotional traditions and the Chan/Zen meditation and koan practice.
In Japan, Amida (from the Indian Amitabha) worship reached a radical and popular form that bears interesting resemblances to Protestant Christianity. Shinran (1173-1262) founded one of the most popular forms of Japanese Buddhism, Jodoshinshu, which taught that other than the most dedicated sages human beings are too sinful to gain enlightenment, so the best way for all people to gain entrance to higher existence was to rely entirely on the grace and power of Amida who could bring both the good and the bad to heavenly realms or pure lands. It is only in turning away from self accomplishment and entirely towards the salvation of all by grace that the most people could be saved from hell worlds. Shinran decided that no vow of celibacy would make much difference, and so he married and told priests to marry, for which he was persecuted for the rest of his life.
As texts arrived and were translated, the Chinese noticed that the Theravada and Mahayana had two different ideas of how one achieves enlightenment already mentioned. The Theravada teach that progress is gradual, much like the Confucians do, and that it is only study within the institution that brings slow and steady progress. The Mahayana teach that buddha-nature is already within, and that sudden breakthroughs and transcendent states are achievable by anyone, much like the Daoists do, and that this can occur either inside or outside of the institution. This dual understanding became complimentary but also developed into a conflict, the central conflict of the two schools of Zen and later a conflict within Neo-Daoism and Neo-Confucianism which had both subsumed much of Buddhism in later centuries.
All of this resulted in a vast expansion of Buddhism, among common devotional worshipers who sought refuge in new divinities, practices and communities, among scholars who found new philosophical concepts and texts to study and re-read, and among the wealthy who gave immense amounts for new temples, monasteries and monuments with new designs and appeal to secure their own fortune not only with the deities but with the populace. Buddhist priests served communities and noble families, providing relief for the suffering of both the poor through charity and the rich through consolation. Buddhist organizations funded hospitals, low cost hostels for travelers, bridges, and trees planted beside popular roads.
Unfortunately, this allowed many Buddhist monasteries to become extraordinarily wealthy, which attracted unwanted attention from competing systems and rulers who were wary of rivals. It was not lost on the ruling powers that Buddhism, like Daoism, served as a popular center of power that could, and sometimes did, result in rebellion. Mahayana Buddhism in particular had teachings that could be interpreted as supporting rebellion, especially by those in the suffering countryside. In the last age, when the buddha Maitreya was expected foretold by signs, no government was legitimate and the world was soon to be reformed and reborn. Many rebellions used the color white, the color associated with Maitreya, as a symbol for their movements.
In some periods, Buddhism or Daoism was persecuted depending on patronage, while in other periods each received vast contributions and thrived. This is similar to Catholic monasteries in Europe, who not only fought amongst themselves (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits) after becoming wealthy civic centers of education, medicine and technology, but had to survive persecution of rulers who wanted their wealth as well. In later dynasties, after Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism were the three established schools of Chinese thought and were interwoven in official rituals and popular culture, rulers worked hard to work with Buddhist leadership, who had considerable sway over much of the population, while also making sure that they did not acquire too much unchecked power.
Around 1100 CE, Neo-Confucianism attempted to revive Confucianism to return it to its central place in society. While Zhu Xi, the greatest teacher of Neo-Confucianism, saw Buddhism as the enemy, he could not help but reincorporate Buddhist teachings such as the metaphors of the sun behind the clouds and the pearl at the bottom of the muddy pond, each implying that through study, as well as meditation, the inner truth and nature can be realized. While originally the term ‘li’ meant human order and tradition, in Neo-Confucianism Li became cosmic order, more like the Dharma of Buddhism and Dao of Daoism after being intertwined with Buddhism over centuries.
While Confucius taught that one should benefit one’s own family as well as humankind, Neo-Confucians taught that one should benefit all conscious beings like Mahayana bodhisattvas. Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529 CE), one of the great Neo-Confucians we will study, was called a Buddhist in disguise, a crypto-Buddhist by his opponents for teaching Buddhist metaphors that were part of popular culture and sudden achievement of new understanding. Neo-Confucianism supported state funded hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and public cemeteries.
In the last two centuries, as China encountered Europeans, there were new favorable and unfavorable interpretations of Buddhism used to understand China’s relationship with the new foreigners. Some attempted to show that there was nothing new in European thought that could not be found in Buddhism, such as rationalism, humanism, democracy, dialectic, evolution, and later communism and existentialism. Others argued that Indian Buddhism and its transcendent visions had held China back such that it had not modernized as fast as Europe. Later, Chinese communists such as Mao would both condemn Buddhism as superstition of a past age as well as celebrate it as a common bond with Asia that transcended nationalism and demonstrated that Asia and the world could one day share a common culture.
Tiantai & The Lotus Sutra
The Tiantai school of Buddhism, named for the mountain on which it was based, is also known as the Lotus School as they revere the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching in Buddhism. Nagarjuna is considered the first patriarch and Tiantai Buddhism focuses on Nagarjuna’s interpretation of the Lotus Sutra, both from India, but the school was founded in China by Huiwen (6th c. CE), the second patriarch, who experienced a blissful awakening after studying the work of Nagarjuna. Scholars consider the school to be a Chinese attempt to make syncretic sense of many conflicting teachings and practices of Mahayana schools in India finding their ways into China. After the third patriarch Nanyue Huisi (515 – 577 CE), a Chan master who apparently converted, the fourth patriarch Zhiyi (538 – 597 CE) systematized the work of the first three patriarchs and based the Tiantai school on Mount Tiantai.
Zhiyi studied both Indian and Chinese Mahayana texts and concluded that the Buddha taught his teachings in five stages, saving the best and most developed teachings for last and for those who developed enough to hear them. Ironically, this means that the texts likely written in China long after the Buddha’s death were the best according to Zhiyi, particularly the Lotus Sutra, taught just before the Buddha died according to itself. Zhiyi taught that in the first two periods of the Buddhist teachings, just after Buddha was enlightened, he preached “Hinayana” (Theravada) doctrines, but in the third period he taught Mahayana sutras, in the fourth the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras, and then in the fifth and final the Lotus Sutra. As Mahayanas, they teach devotional practices to bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who feels the pain of all beings and rescues the faithful from suffering according to the Lotus Sutra. The Tiantai also teach the study of scriptures and meditation practices to observe the mind.
During the Tang dynasty the Tiantai school was supported by royal and wealthy patrons and became one of the most popular sects of Buddhism in China, with followings in the millions. The school was brought from China in 805 CE to Japan by the Japanese monk Saicho (767 – 822 CE), where it is known as Tendai, and it became one of the most popular schools with royal support as it had been in China just as the capital was established in Kyoto. Kyoto remains the city in Japan with the oldest historic buildings that were thankfully not destroyed in WWII, unlike Tokyo and many other cities. Dogen started out as a monk in the Tiantai school before traveling to China and then founding the Soto school of Zen in Japan when he returned. Tiantai and Chan (Tendai and Zen) have been rivals and collaborators for over a thousand years.
The Lotus Sutra
The Lotus text was written in stages between 100 BCE and 150 CE. It was translated into Chinese three times, around 300, 400 and 600 CE, and into English for the first time in 1884. In the text, Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, the highest of Buddhist virtues, announces that the Buddha is about to teach his ultimate teaching. The Buddha says that the purpose of all the Buddhas, unknown by many until now, is to cause all conscious beings to obtain the insight and enter the way of the Buddhas, and that there is only one Buddhist vehicle in spite of there appearing to be many schools, one monsoon rain that waters all sorts of plants.
The text tells many allegorical tales that illustrate Mahayana teachings. There is the story of the man who falls asleep drunk with jewels sewn into his coat who wakes and doesn’t know that he’s actually rich and carrying his riches around with him. This story teaches Buddha Nature, that we are already enlightened and pure but forget this and do not recognize it.
Manjushri tells the story of Longnu, the daughter of the naga (snake-god) king in the original Indian version, who in China is called a dragon princess. After hearing the Buddha’s teachings and becoming enlightened, she goes to have her enlightenment confirmed by the Buddha’s followers, but they tell her that she cannot be, so she goes to the highest heaven realm and gives the Buddha a pearl in thanks. This story shows that even women and snake-dragons can be as enlightened as male humans, part of the egalitarianism of the Mahayana teachings.
At one point in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says that six thousand nuns present will become buddhas. He also teaches that evil people and animals can become buddhas, including the story of Devadatta, a murderer who became one of the Buddha’s original devoted followers. The Buddha says that he is eternal and omniscient, and speaks of all sorts of bodhisattvas with magical powers, and says that chanting the Lotus Sutra itself, the talk he is currently giving, can cure disease and bring good karma.
Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism reached Japan at least by 552 CE, arriving with a Chinese missionary group of monks and nuns carrying texts and ritual objects with them, though some Chinese scholars argue that it spread earlier. Just as in Tibet, Buddhism arrived as Japanese culture was gathering itself into a coherent whole, receiving much in addition to Buddhism from China and Korea. As in Tibet, older shamanic traditions blended together with Buddhist culture to create Japanese culture as it was just beginning to be written down and given a stable form.
The first empress of Japan, Empress Suiko, ruled from 593-628 CE. Already a Buddhist, one of the first Buddhist rulers of Japan as well as it’s first (historically recorded) female rulers, Suiko promoted Buddhism from the beginning. Suiko, much like Empress Wu from China, the only empress to rule without an emperor in Chinese history, promoted Buddhism to legitimate her reign. Empress Wu began her reign in 655 CE, twenty five years after Suiko’s death. For a female ruler, Buddhism was a much better alternative than Confucianism, which prescribed male rulers of households as well as empires as the well being of the state. Both empresses were important for the spread and popularity of Buddhism in their lands, the places where Buddhism thrived the most as one of the most popular forms of human thought in history.
Up until the establishment of the Shogun in 1185 CE, the central ruler who administered power through the samurai local lords, Buddhist monasteries became the central source of political power in Japan. In spite of the fact that the first of ten vows taken by monks and nuns is to refrain from killing, some monasteries and temples created armies of warrior monks, sohei, who fought in battles between rival factions as well as investigated supernatural phenomena. Many wore samurai armor and fought with a great variety of weapons. They also often wore, unlike samurai, a white or yellow cloth covering the face and head, an adaptation of monks’ robes.
One final modern Japanese figure to mention is Nishida Kitaro (1870-1966), a philosopher and Zen practitioner who founded the Kyoto School of philosophy in Japan by comparing Zen and the Buddhist tradition to German philosophy, particularly the existentialism of Nietzsche and Heidegger. In his book The Self Overcoming of Nihilism, Nishida argues that German and French existentialists have a preoccupation with the emptiness of existence as a negative, meaningless and frightening thing, and that Buddhism and Zen have gone beyond this to affirm the positive abundance and richness of the emptiness and void.