Buddhism comes to China sometime in the second century C.E. during the time of the Han dynasty and it comes via one of the most famous of ancient trade routes – the Silk Road –
One of the main features of the transfer of Buddhism to China was the translation of sacred texts. By the time Buddhism comes to China the corpus of work that constitutes Buddhist sacred texts – Theravada and Mahayana was vast – it took over a thousand years for all the texts to be translated.
One of the great translators of Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese language was an Indian monk called Kumarajiva who oversaw the translation of the PP sutras and nagarjunas writings.
The Chinese translators were not familiar with the previous history of Indian Buddhism and regarded all the scriptures as the Buddha’s words recorded by his disciples.
It becomes really difficult for Chinese converts to reconcile the many different sectarian interpretations and eventually this leads to the creation of a very distinct form of Buddhism with which the Chinese were comfortable.
One Chinese response to the sectarian differences, inconsistencies and contradictions was to harmonize them all—this is the approach of both the Tiantai and Hua-yen schools. The differences in Buddhist doctrine were explained as differences in the level of understanding.
One of the features that distinguished Indian Buddhism from East Asian forms was that in places like China and Japan, Buddhist schools developed around the study of various sutras – the text becomes an object of veneration.
In China and Japan, the most prominent of the Mahayana Buddhas came to be Amitabha whose name means ‘infinite light’ and whose paradise or pure land is called the Happy Land. The Pure Lands or paradises of the buddhas are associated with the cardinal directions so each direction is connected with a different Buddha and his paradise – the most popular is the western paradise of Amitabha – Omitofo in china and Amida in Japan. The pure land is the perfect place, the perfect conditions for attaining nirvana.
In Mahayana Buddhism the pure lands or paradises of the buddhas are the result of their vows or intentions – as a bodhisattva Amitabha vows to establish a heaven or a place where the absolute worst sinner can be reborn simply by calling on him with faith. This is the Buddhist version of salvation by grace. By simply having faith – i.e trust in the saving power of Amitabha Buddha one can be reborn in the Pure Land.
This approach requires nothing more than pure devotion and faith in the saving power of the Buddha. And in Pure land Buddhism, that faith is demonstrated by chanting the name of Amitabha – in Japanese – namu amida butsu – praise to Amida Buddha.
Along with Pure Land Buddhism and the worship of Amitabha Buddha the other most important form of Buddhism to arise in China was called Chan – both of these forms remained living expressions of Chinese Buddhism and spread outside of china to develop further in Korea and Japan.
Chan is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana – meditation – the discipline of calming the mind and turning completely inward.
Chan claims to be a direct teaching of the Buddha and their connection with the historical Buddha – Shakyamuni— is represented in a story in which the Buddha is giving a sermon surrounding by a large crowd of gods and humans, the Buddha uses no words, he simply holds up a lotus flower. The crowd waits for him to speak but his disciple Kashyapa understands – the Buddha smiles at him and hands him the flower. This wordless transmission of knowledge of the true nature of existence is the foundation of Chan/Zen.
In the early 6th century an Indian teacher/meditator by the name of Bodhidharma was said to come to china –his teaching is summed up in the words:
A special transmission outside of scriptures (doctrines)
No dependence on words or letters – not setting up the written word as authority
Direct pointing at the mind of man (human heart)
Seeing one’s nature and becoming a Buddha
With regard to the direct transmission of knowledge, in Chan Buddhism the successors of the Buddha are called patriarchs. Kashyapa was the first patriarch and bodhidharma the 28th counting from the Buddha, but the 1st patriarch of the Chan school.
The second most famous name in Chan history is Huineng – the 6th patriarch.
As the story goes, Huineng was a kitchen boy in the monastery assistant to a senior monk. The 5th patriarch announced a poetry competition to choose his successor. The verse that the senior monk writes on the wall emphasizes the need for discipline and meditation and practice as a preparation for enlightenment.
Huineng gets someone to write his own verse on the wall for him in the night.
Originally there is no tree of enlightenment
Nor is there a stand with a clear mirror
From the beginning not one thing exists
Where, then, is a grain of dust to cling?
Huineng’s insight and realization is recognized by the 5th patriarch who appoints him to be the 6th patriarch. However, his appointment is disputed by the others and Chan develops into many sects and schools with different emphasis on method and techniques.
The difference between the two verses represents a major difference in chan schools, those that consider enlightenment to be the fruit of gradual development and those that consider enlightenment to be a state that simply arises suddenly and immediately. The difference between sudden and gradual enlightenment.
After Huineng, two subsects of chan prospered – one was Caodao and Linji – better known by their Japanese names soto and rinzai. The soto sect emphasized silent sitting meditation known as zazen aimed at experiencing the enlightened mind – mind in its pure shining state – state of inner illumination. The rinzai sect objected that emphasis on this practice would simply bring the mind to a state of peaceful tranquillity but not to enlightenment. The rinzai methods were strikingly different – literally – the founder of this sect would strike his students hard with his staff, slap their faces, pull their noses really hard and shout –– so loud that one student said he couldn’t hear anything but ringing in his ears for 3 days.
The reason behind these methods - the goal of the zen master is to bring the student to the state of no-mind or without-thinking. The purpose of the shouting and the hitting is to bring the student to a realization of now – not the now that is between past and future, but the now that obliterates the three times.
An even more popular method to bring the student to satori or enlightenment moment is the koan – a kind of riddle or question that the zen master puts to the student and that the student is to use as the focus for meditation until he realizes the meaning of the koan. The koan can sound very nonsensical and impossible to answer – such as show me your original face before you were born – what is the sound of one hand clapping. Or simply the zen master might hold up something very simple like an orange or a rice cake and ask what is this?
The master is looking for an expression of the student’s understanding, a demonstration of insight. The purpose is to bring about a no-mind response by closing off normal intellectual routes. The content is not important - there are books of koans with the answers. The importance of the koan is the source of the response - the no-mind.
ZEN IN JAPAN
In the 6th century, Buddhism was welcomed in Japan, welcomed and protected by the ruling class as another aspect of civilization drawn from their contact with China.
In its early development in Japan Buddhism was a religion of the elite, the scholars and the ruling class. It only really began to become popular during the 12th century and between the 12 and 13th centuries 3 schools of Japanese Buddhism became firmly established—Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, and Zen.
Pure land, called Jodo, was popularised by the monk Honen – and as we remember this was a path of faith – salvation through repeating the name of amida Buddha – namu amida butsu. One of the more famous names in the Pure land tradition of Japan was Shinran (1173-1262) – his doctrine was one of pure grace – for shinran there was nothing that anyone could do to attain salvation. Salvation was entirely dependent on the grace of Amida Buddha. His school was called Jodo Shin – the True Pure land.
Nichiren Buddhism was another sect devoted to the idea of salvation by faith. It was a school founded by a monk called Nichiren who was a charismatic reformer. He believed that he was a reincarnation of one of the bodhisattvas in the Lotus sutra and therefore he alone could impart the true meaning of the sutra. He felt that all other schools of Buddhism were completely evil and heretical and that the only true way was the worship of the lotus sutra as he expounded it. Nichiren’s followers repeated the name of the Lotus sutra – namu myoho renge kyo – homage to the lotus sutra with a belief in its effectiveness in assuring material prosperity, earthly happiness and eventually salvation for all. His aim was to transform all of Japan into a Pure land on earth. These ideals are taken up in the more modern sect of the Soka Gakkai (value-creation society) which is also known for the chanting of the name of the lotus sutra as a means of attaining happiness and prosperity in this life.
The sudden enlightenment school - rinzai - was introduced to japan by the monk Eisai (1141-1215) and zen becomes the favoured tradition of the samurai, the warrior nobility.
The way of the warrior was called bushido – this code of conduct defined a samurai fighter. The teachings of zen that emphasize simplicity, modesty, self-discipline, self-reliance were very much admired by the samurai and the practices of zen such as the strenuous meditative practices and mental training leading to a state of complete focus and concentration were practices that could benefit the warrior in his art. The rinzai monasteries, then, as your text points out, became the training grounds for the samurai warriors and were therefore generously supported by the ruling class. Zen became the religion of the elite and Pure Land the religion of the masses.
One of the most famous names in zen history is Dogen (b. 1200 C.E.), He established the second most prominent zen school in Japan, the Soto school.
For Dogen the emphasis on zazen resolved a great doubt and difficulty that he had. Zen teaching is that everyone is inherently Buddha, all beings possess Buddha nature. His question was: if I am already a Buddha, then why do I have to train so hard to become a Buddha? How can zazen be said to lead to the state of being a Buddha when Buddha is already who I am. His answer to this is that practicing zazen does not lead to Buddhahood, practicing zazen is being Buddha, is fulfilling one’s buddhanature. Just as one does not become a doctor by practicing medicine – being a doctor means practicing medicine. One’s own ordinary nature is Buddha-nature – there is nothing to be acquired in meditation. For Dogen one did not practice zen to become enlightened, practicing zen was the process of enlightenment.
Dogen also came to have a deeper understanding of zen from an old cook who taught him that zen can be practiced through any of the ordinary things we do in life, like chopping wood and carrying water. Dogen returned to Japan and established his school there, which was known for its rigorous meditation discipline, where practitioners would sit for hours on end with mind focused on awareness of the moment - devoid of thoughts. This practice is called shikan-taza – just sitting. Exceptionally long periods of meditation were called sesshin.
Because of Dogen’s understanding that zen was to be practiced also in the ordinary activities of life, his school was much more welcoming to the common people and Dogen’s monks were active in the community helping out with all the various manual labour jobs required in a farming or peasant society. Soto zen continues to be a more popular movement than rinzai zen which was always more associated with the elite.
Hakuin ( b. 1685) was another great name in zen history. He was a rinzai zen master who was a nature mystic. For Hakuin, the sound of rain, the sight of newfallen snow, the song of a bird – all these constitute gateways to kensho – a moment of seeing into one’s true nature. Sometimes kensho and satori are used as synonyms for awakening but kensho more often means a brief moment of awakening, whereas satori has a more complete sense to it. The difference between when you glimpse something and when you have a good look at it.
As a rinzai master, Hakuin refined and promoted the use of the koan that cuts off all the ordinary paths of the mind leaving nowhere for the person to stand no identity for them to claim – you become a no-person – in zen thought this can be a fearful state, one in which a person can be overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression – this is called zen sickness or the great doubt.
The mind eventually reaches a state of complete impasse – there is no resolution to be found – the mind is as it were in a completely frozen state, the ego cannot move and then it shatters. This is called the great dying or the great death. In the words of Hakuin. “If you wish to know the true self beyond ego, you must be prepared to let go your hold as if hanging from a sheer precipice, to die and to return to life again”
This shattering death of the ego is however recognized by an experience of great joy – the joy of freedom from the shackles of the self.