By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯
All forms of Buddhism should welcome historical study as relevant and useful I think that acts to broaden one‘s understanding on how to engage ancient conical text in light of how the 21 century has come to recognize the universe in scientific realities. Buddhist teachings have always told us that impermanence is a great, unalterable fact of our experience and that it is crucial for us to become comfortable with that truth. History is simply the study of how things change and develop, which is to say that history studies changing cultural institutions and ideas in order to know where we have been as a human race and hoping to find a validating and clear path to were we are to go. Recent Western historical scholarship of the core Buddhist principles has specifically focused on the major concepts including the notion of impermanence, including the impermanent characteristic of Buddhist practices, philosophical thought, and the human spiritual narrative. This directed study may be a result of some curiosity of a different way of seeing the world around us from how our Western philosophical and theological thought sees it has having key components that are considered a permanent part of the created universe. Buddhism is often studied with some sense of natural human curiosity because it represents something different. Yet, some practitioners claim that historical knowledge is irrelevant to them because they only want to meditate. And that’s fine on a narrow ledge of awareness. But without knowledge of Buddhism’s rich and diverse history, it is difficult for any of us to commit to any particular tradition’s approach to the practice of the Dharma, that also must integrate into our individual worldview. In other words, we must relate.
I would like to give you a brief historical perspective that engendered the development of the practice of Buddhism in our contemporary world from one that I have been contemplating for some time. We often refer to Buddhism’s past as Eastern, and its modern development as Western. Although we have little choice but to consider Buddhism from a Western perspective, I have come to consider this view as incomplete. Instead of thinking in terms of “East” and “West,” we should at least think in terms of three cultures: those of India, China, and Europe. Buddhism is not an institution, or an entity into itself. It is first and foremost a philosophy with psychology overtones, one that when applied to our daily lives, can promote harmony and happiness. You many hear me say that the Buddha was a philosopher, not a theologian. However, as Buddhism began to flourish in some cultures, and merged with pre-Buddhist indigenous beliefs, it developed into a religious practice as well. The Tibetan tradition is a good example of this. We also see in some Asian countries that Buddhism has been taken as the state religion. And even in the West, Buddhism is classified as a religion more often than not. I think that most of us would say that Buddhism is a religion, simply because it is identified as a world religion. To ignore this would be silly, or worst delusional. But this debate as to how to classify Buddhism is not what I wish to focuses on this time. Although this debate is beginning to heat up, if the number of articles and books on the subject is any indication. But I want to bring to you, for your serious consideration, how our contemporary Buddhist practice came to be. At lease, from my own study and worldview. This will be a brief introduction, as the topic has broad academic dimensions, as you can imagine.
During the early years of the Common Era, Buddhism moved again from India along the trading routes of Central Asia to China. During the centuries that followed it established itself there and came to exert a powerful and enduring influence on numerous aspects of Chinese life. This is an historical example of Buddhism successfully moving between two countries separated by cultural differences as great as those between Europe and any country in Asia. When introduced into China, Buddhism encountered a sophisticated civilization with a long and independent history, as distinct from the less developed cultures it met in most other Asian countries and Indo-China. For these reasons, the assimilation and development of Buddhism in China provides the most relevant historical parallel to the current phenomenon of Buddhism’s entry into the West. Much scholarship has focused on this aspect of transmigration of ideas over the past few decades.
We know that Buddhism found fertile soil in the China of the second and third centuries because it spoke to the needs of a society in the midst of political and spiritual crisis. Prior to Buddhism arriving on the scene, China was in turmoil, with it’s cultural and governmental structures reduced to near ciaos. It was a period of warring tribal conquest; more along racial lines than conflict of ideas. As a result, a keen sense of loss of value and meaning in one’s life must have been experienced as the shock of a stable social structure in place over centuries was being destroyed, also bringing a degree of spiritual loss as well, I’m sure. These events exposed the failure of a system of thought and practice that had sustained the Chinese culture, one of the most sophisticated the world had know to date. Remember, that Chinese culture had yet to be introduced in any significant way to Europe at this time.
Now fast forward almost 2000 years later, as Buddhism again finds itself in an alien culture confronted with a spiritual crisis of sorts. The loss of value and meaning experienced in the West these days has arisen from a number of causes, a principal one being the breakdown of the ancestral religious structures of Christianity’s and Judaism’s moral and ethical imperative and it’s cultural significance, and the aftermath of two world wars and a decade of another warring conflict. Individuals find themselves in a spiritual vacuum and may not even know it, but sense a kind of disconnect with the past but not quite know how to express it. The traditional symbols and doctrines of their religion dismissed by a scientific and technological worldview incapable of providing a satisfactory meaning to the human spiritual dimension is perhaps another example of this spiritual alienation. As in fourth century China, we are experiencing a divided world, externally split by conflicting ideologies and internally torn apart by doubt and uncertainty. The current conflict in the Middle East is a concrete example I think. The fragmentation, alienation, and the stress of global economic crisis of our times, is mirroring the confusion of fourth century China in many ways, and provides equally fertile soil for the advent of a foreign belief system such as Buddhism. While Buddhism in the West arrived decades ago and took root, it is now beginning to emerge and flower in ways that our early Buddhist leaders may not have contemplated.
The teachings of Buddhism attracted the disaffected and well educated in China in several ways. Instead of emphasizing the correct ordering of society on earth, as Confucianism had done, Buddhism stressed the importance of the individual’s quest for liberation from an unsatisfactory life determined by our own intentional actions. The moral value of an action was decided not by the effect it had on contributing to or undermining the harmony of social relationships, but by the consequences it would have on the quality of an individual life. Buddhism introduced the Chinese to the notion of the endurance of an individual destiny within this world with infinite possibilities, in contrast to a short lived life within unreliable social and political structures. Ironically, the philosophy renowned for its doctrine of no-self provided the Chinese for the first time with a coherent philosophy of an individual self that was able to rise out of the ashes of the socially centered teachings of Confucianism. The Chinese, like many in the West today, found it very difficult to reconcile the notion of a no-self (no-soul) along with how karma played out in one’s daily life. This is in contrast with Indian Buddhist culture that was influenced by the traditional Hindu mind-set, that had no problem with the apparent conflict of understanding a notion of no-self, but also accepting the notion of rebirth. This whole aspect of Buddhist thought confounded the Chinese. The Chinese were use to not considering an idea of a self, and the thought of rebirth and karma was unheard of. What the Chinese sought was not a further loss to add to their already profound sense of sacrifice, but the affirmation of something real and enduring.
The Buddhist attitude to the self is equally baffling for many of us in the West today. On the one hand for those who see the doctrine of no-self not only as a strong remedy against the over inflated ego that dominates the arrogant, aggressive, and selfish Western psyche, but also as a simple loss of self that offers nothing further. On the other hand are those who, often appealing to Mahayana and Chinese sources, talk of a self that is revealed once the obstructions of the ego are eliminated; or they simply elevate the idea of Buddha nature to the status of a substitute soul. One strange feature of our own spiritual crisis is that we are simultaneously in search of knowing a self and desirous of its elimination at the same time. We are looking for a soul in the midst of a soulless world it seems, while at the same time dissatisfied with the contemporary substitutes of an alienated or frustrated ego.
Ultimately, the way Buddhism offers a way out of the apparent self/no-self dilemma is not a philosophical construct, but a practical and physiological one, it seems to me. The sanest and most enduring insights into the nature of who we are were reached by the Chinese through meditation rather than theory, remember. Yet it took Buddhism more than five hundred years of absorption into Chinese culture before it was sufficiently integrated to produce a truly Chinese form of Buddhism – the Ch‘an or Zen form. This should serve as a sobering reminder to those of us who are already seeking to define the nature of a Western Buddhism. Or even confirming the necessity of a Buddhist reformation. Although our highly advanced communication technology many enable us to get a grasp on creating cultural authority much faster than the Chinese, the time it takes for a spiritual tradition to take root and flower in a foreign culture can never be greatly speeded up. We only need to look at history to teach us this lesson. Just because we better understand the principles, does not mean we have a better chance to influence an entrenched Christian/Judaic culture.
As in the West today, Buddhism started in China among small, relatively isolated groups and had only a marginal effect on the life of society as a whole. Taoist were drawn to Buddhism because of the apparent similarities it bore with their own doctrines and practices. Lay intellectuals were attracted by its original and challenging philosophy and founded small circles who would meet, often with a learned Buddhist monk or priest, to discuss the implications of these new ideas. Monastic centers were developed for supporting the travelers coming from India, and later expanded their social influence in order to serve indigenous communities of Chinese Buddhists. A small number of Indian and Chinese monks traveled between India and China, the former to teach and help translate texts, the latter to study Buddhism in its country of origin and return to impart their knowledge to their follow countrymen. The parallels with our present situation are so obvious as to require no further comment. It will be interesting to see whether within a comparable period of time the speed of development will be similar.
Buddhism expanded rapidly in China as soon as it was adopted by the ruling classes. In the northern provinces it was used by the foreign rulers because it was non-Chinese in origin, hence weakening the attachment of the people to their previous way of thinking, and because of its effectiveness for bring change which facilitated the establishment of a functioning State. The main reason Buddhism was able to make the transition from a fringe phenomenon to a significant force in society was because of its adoption by the ruling class and subsequently imposed upon the citizens. Such imposition of a religion is not only highly unlikely but actually undesirable in the kind of secular democracy we live in today. Not to mention the recent dominance of a subset of evangelical Christians that want to redefine social structures according to their own narrow view of universal realities. If Buddhism is to have more than a marginal influence in contemporary Western societies, especially American, it will have to enter the cultural mainstream in unprecedented and unpredictable ways.
The first teachings to be imported into China were those associated with the Four Noble Truths, and instructions on meditation and the guidelines for ethical and moral behavior. These apparently were popular among Taoist groups and for some time Buddhism and Taoism remained mixed together. But once the Chinese were introduced to the Mahayana teachings, that offered a deeper and broader understanding of Buddhism, there was a final split between the two traditions. Although other forms of Buddhist practices where introduced in China, they did not find sufficient grounds to flourish. The exception is the tradition that emerged and flourished in the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan mountain range. The Mahayana appealed to the Chinese because of its willingness to explore philosophical issues such as the nature of emptiness, an idea which strongly resonated with the Taoist notion of a universal unity of all things; its offering of greater spiritual opportunities to the lay person, as exemplified by the bodhisattva model of sharing and engaging the dharma with others. This provided more scope for the stimulation of the Chinese imagination, and its greater flexibility in adapting Buddhism to Chinese literary and other cultural forms. It can not be over emphasized that another reason was that it was novel, and the Chinese gravitate to new and challenging situations. That is true then, and is true today.
In the West we are encountering various forms of Buddhism that have changed little over the centuries. In many respects it has been the spiritual vitality as well as the look and feel of these individual traditions, rather than any particular belief themselves, that has been responsible for the flourishing of a certain tradition. Just like establishing any type of human relationship, we rely on attraction to guide our choices. I am thinking of the Dalia Lama for example, and how often we see him and Tibetan Buddhist images in the media. This has had a great effect on the flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism in the West without doubt. We also can identify with what I call “celebrity Buddhist teachers and monks” that have risen to national and world attention, and are published in the major Buddhist journals as well as their many books, you know those I’m referring to. They attract vast interest, and therefore, build a large Sangha base. We are beginning to see native teachers now of comparable stature appear in the last decade or so. Again it must be emphasized that we are still at a very preliminary stage in the introduction of Buddhism to the West. In all other instances in the past it has required centuries of building a Buddhist sub-culture that was able to express itself in a mature Buddhist voice, and be accepted into the mainstream of the culture it will come to serve. This may be happening now as Zen alone shifts into a degree of acceptance in Western sub-cultural context. When I referred to the possible need for a Buddhist reformation in order to cloth Buddhism for the next century, I was not just theorizing. We have inherited a Buddhist canon and supporting text in a language that points to realities that are often in conflict with modern validated ones that adds to disqualifying Buddhism as a contemporary leaning spiritual based practice. The change to define Buddhism for the next century has already begun. The debate will no doubt be fears, because for many Buddhist leaders that preach the value of change, they themselves seem to not want to give up their hold on the past tools they have come to know and feel safe with.
I often wonder whether a similar process as occurred in China will characterize the history of Buddhism in the West. The idea that Buddhism may serve as a regenerative force in Western culture expressing itself in the concept of a second Renaissance is yet to be seen. In a wider respect Buddhism would also act as a carrier of Asian cultures; one of its most valuable contributions to the West could be as a principal vehicle from the East capable of enriching our culture not merely with Buddhist values but also with traditional Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Tibetan traditional values too, not just their cuisine. I only need to remind you of the impending impact on our worldview when China becomes the number one economy on this planet. And as China matures in world influence and governance, this notion is not very far off the mark. We will experience it this century.
In the final analysis there is no entity called “Buddhism” which travels from one culture to another. It is transmitted from teacher to student. There is an old Tibetan saying that just as every valley has its own language so every teacher has their own doctrine. This seems like a good indication of the diversity we find within Buddhism and the important role the teacher performs in adapting a tradition’s doctrinal foundations to the needs and personal transformation of the student‘s ability to develop their own worldview, and by doing so, practicing a harmonious lifestyle. It may not seem like it from a five thousand foot view, but when you get down to the ground level, this is the reality. In the stage of transmission today, it is too easy to be fooled that a tradition’s platform is implanted in whole. The insights and values of Buddhism are transmitted solely through their being realized, communicated, and finally adopted into the lives of individuals. And over time, watch the change. For Buddhism achieves its cultural expressions in a unpredictable way over many generations; in a way that no one of us can possibly foresee, and I will not see it in my life time now.
My hope is to pass my legacy wrapped in years of study, practice and insight on to my students and all those that are kind enough to listen to my sharing of the dharma. With these actions, the contingent-causal-chain that my teacher and all those legacy teachers of the past have manifest will continue and resonate into the future with a dharma that I may not recognize, but I will comprehend by it’s long historical shadow; and I will smile without doubt.