Manifestation in China

            Throughout the semester we have discussed the vast impact
that Buddhism has had on East Asia in its entirety, however, its specific effect
on China is a particularly interesting one. It arrived in the first century and
brought with it new doctrines that would ultimately become consistent in
Chinese culture thanks to the widespread popularity they received. The
integration between pre-Buddhist Chinese values and existing Buddhist doctrines
spurred economic and socio-political reforms of which the effects can still be
felt in China today. However, when it first arrived in China via missionaries,
China was in a state of religious uncertainty. In efforts to ensure stability
for Buddhism, socioeconomic conditions adapted. It is in this era of
cultivation, during the early years of Buddhism (4th-9thcentury)
in China,that had the most dramatic and long-lasting impact not only on China
but on Chinese Buddhism as well. As I will explain in this paper, this period
best exemplifies the Chinese Buddhism account in a way that emphasizes the decision-making
processes that are involved in Buddhism’s journey throughout China. The
importation of Buddhism in China not only challenged the social norms also the
time but also called the balance of power between Buddhism and the state into
question. Furthermore, the consequences of Buddhism’s early years in China
effected government decision making moving forward.

fully uncover the impact of Buddhism on China, one must first analyze its
entrance and recognition. Coincidentally, a large part of Buddhism’s introduction
came via trade routes on the Silk Road. The starting point began in the Han
Dynasty, when Emperor Wu began to implement policies that focused on
comprehensive expansion (Indiana University, p. 4). He was unprecedented in
that he forced Chinese armies throughout Central Asia, which subsequently intermingled
his people with the natives, who were relatively unknown prior. As soon this road
connecting China to Central Asia was available, the potential for new levels of
trade all across Asia was born, and thus the Silk Road began to form. Through
these new connects, dedicated Buddhist missionaries could spread their
practice, integrating their foreign ideas and Buddhist Sutras. However, the circumstances
in which these missionaries arrived were not ideal, as the ideological state was
relatively stable and an the public was overwhelmingly illiterate. Moreover, due
to the overwhelming popularity of Confucian doctrine, it seemed as if Chinese
cultural practices and societal norms would not allow the integration of Buddhism
at first. The combination of these things created very unfavorable conditions
for the integration of Buddhist doctrine into China.

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However, In the second
century the prior state of stability and social order dissipated as the state
became divided between the Warring Kingdoms. Uncertainty fell upon the mass populace
and Confucian doctrine, as well as religion altogether, was subsequently
questioned. In response, members of society who were particularly elite sought
remedy for this state. In response, hey began working with Buddhist monks to
translate the sutras in a way that would be received well by the indigenous
population. This is where the native practice of Daoism really gains its
relevance.  “During the third century,
many of these people found the ideology they were looking for in the thought of
Zhuangzi, whose descriptions of the boundless Dao and of unconventional heroes
possessing quirky skills appealed very much to the jaded tastes of the
privileged class” (Indiana University, p. 6). Elite members of society produced
several works that focused on social counter convention and ultimately became
known as “Neo-Daoists” (Indiana University, p.6). It was these people that
first began to receive the teaching of the foreign Buddhist monks who had been arriving
via the silk road. “Neo-Daoists” and these missionary Buddhist monks began to
work on the translation of the sutras that the monks brought along.  It becomes clear in these translations, that
the Buddhist monks made a concerted effort to express the text in Daoist
language specifically, so that it would be more appealing to the natives. These
translations however, were deprived so much so that ” a widely accepted
“historical fact” of the time was that the Buddha was actually Laozi, who, it
appeared, towards the close of his (fictional) life, wandered off westwards
with  his Dao de Jing in hand in order to
“convert the barbarians,” who apparently mistook him for a North Indian prince”
(Indiana University, p.7) These, albeit poorly translated, versions of the
sutras almost immediately gained popularity, especially in southern China, where
conflicts over the social class system had left many formerly wealthy Chinese families
as displaced migrants. It would be logical to say that this adaption of the
sutras was an attempt by both the elite Chinese intellectuals and the Buddhist
monks to remedy the state of chaos that resulted from the religious uncertainty
the nation faced.

Although this adaptation
by the intellectuals and the monks may have only have been designed to solve the
short-term state of confusion, their expressed support of Buddhist monks is now
viewed as a pivotal turning point in the long-term development of early
Buddhism in China. This point represents one of the basic judgements of what we
have come to learn about the connection between China and Buddhism today: the intentional
reformation of pre-existing Buddhist doctrine as a means of securing power in
some form.

As time progresses, their
endorsement of Buddhism paired with the subsequent building of Buddhist monasteries
all across China brought forth an increasing influx of monks from the West, who
in turn attracted increasing numbers of educated Chinese youths. By the 4th and
5th Century, what began as small schools of thought had grown into a distinct
population of native Chinese monks within their own monastic communities who
practiced original doctrines that were best suited for the native people. This
marked the successful importation and domestication of Buddhism into Chinese
society, from where we can now explore the power Buddhism’s influence had on
China’s development. As far as Daoism goes, its influence on Chinese Buddhism
was most significant as an integration tool and, thus, was the basis in which
Buddhism began to take hold. However, after Buddhism rose to prominence, Daoism
started to dissipate.

The elite’s support for
the creation of Buddhist monasteries had a trickle-down effect where soon
monasteries became a source of adoration for those in power. From the 5th
Century onwards, rulers put substantial of amounts of money as well as recourses
into the construction of monasteries. “It was especially after 465, in Northern
China, that unrestrained expenditure for the benefit of Buddhism began to
assume proportions dangerous to Chinese society. Colossal proportions were in
fashion.” (Gernet, p. 15). Here, Gernet describes the extent to which rulers
spent money on monasteries being built and the effects that spending had. Human
capital and natural resources were being depleted at non-sustainable rates,
reflecting the growing economic stigma that coincides with the growing
popularity of Buddhism. Also, because Buddhism became so popular in the public
eye, rulers were hesitant to assert their authority over religious affairs because
they were scared it would be detrimental to their reputation. As a result,
Buddhist centers were allowed to gain enormous sums of wealth which the
government had no stake in.

As this trend continued,
and rulers’ monetary status dwindled, “governments became increasingly inclined
to force reductions in the scale of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries”
(Indiana, p. 8). The newfound wealth of religious organizations, which occurred
due to circumstances in which Buddhism could flourish, boomeranged in that it
was now effecting societal policies that would be implemented in the future. The
monk life was now viewed as lucrative career to many youths, who sought wealth
more than the prestige of working for the government. Talent and education were
now being leading people towards personal desire rather than common good, which
in turn made the ruling authority’s job that much harder. The outcome of this
came under the Tang dynasty (7-10th Century) where the government “suffered a
series of destabilizing blows that undermined its self-confidence… and took
drastic action against the Buddhist establishment” (Indiana, p. 8). From the
initial tax-exempt status of monasteries in the 3rd Century, due to government
officials facing alienation from the public if they expressed any non-Buddhist beliefs,
to the resulting government suppression 8 Centuries later, this narrative of
socio-economic reformation served as a warning and precedent for future
governments on the dangers of religion that is unchecked. In fact, the
beginning of Buddhism’s hold between the 5th and 9th Century serves as abundant
review on Chinese thought and psychology as well as  general power dynamics between political
organizations in China.

In Buddhism in Chinese
Society, Gernet explores these 5 Centuries in an attempt to articulate Buddhism’s
influence on China. Most importantly, Gernet brings to life certain underlying
insights that also contribute to the essence of what makes up current Chinese government
policy. For example, the integration of the Buddhist notion of karmic
attainment not only effected how individuals would act, but caused certain economic
principles to arise. The belief that donating or giving gifts was productive
for spiritual benefits “provided the justification and the model for the
putting out of wealth at interest, and this introduced into China the notion
and techniques of the productive use of capital” (Gernet p. 68-69). This
productive use principle resonates with certain qualities we attribute to
modern day capitalism, evident when sacred properties were managed together for
the common good which proved far more profitable than and individual landowner could
engage. Furthermore, this led to an even greater accumulation of land ownership
by the monasteries, which inevitably resulted in lesser holdings of other
establishments. Smaller organizations and the government grew weaker in
relation to the Buddhist institutions, which ultimately described the rule
during the Sung and Tuan dynasties (Gernet, p. 138). At this point, Buddhism
became superior to the government in all matters of leveragability, and the
state then, became very vulnerable. This time thus shows the consequence of an
unmitigated religious force in society, its pervasive effects on the fiscal
state, and the dilution of state power.

The lessons learned and
precedent set from this time period guided subsequent Chinese governments in all
socio-political issues that followed. Gernet depicts the rigorous policy that
ensued “all the major suppressions of Buddhism were efforts of officialdom to
get Buddhist economic and political power back under state control. These
measures are more intelligible when they are viewed not primarily as
expressions of religious or doctrinal bias but as manifestations of
time-honored state policies, of established political practices and methods of
government” (Gernet, p. 286-288). Even the principle characteristics of
Buddhism came to be under state authority. Because China didn’t have an
indigenous monastic tradition that preceded Buddhism’s arrival, disputes over
power arose. During the Golden Age, the government instituted state
examinations for entrance into the clergy and bureaucratized the Buddhist
hierarchy, now officially appointing monks (Wright, p. 410). This newfound
state authority over religion led to a variety of social disagreements. With their
newfound power, the government decided to divide the Chinese clergy into two theoretically,
but not actually, equal factions. The higher of the two was made up only of
government selected and ordained monks from organizations supported by the
state. In turn, these monks performed ceremonies that had imperial undertones
that acted as a legitimizing tool for the government. The lower of the two was
made up of improperly ordained village monks whose influence was limited to
peasant population. The state’s intention was to securely legitimize through a
facade of upper level monks whilst simultaneously ensuring domestic stability
through the peasantry monks (Gernet, p. 240-245). Additionally, the Vinaya was
consciously used by the state to mold the clergy so that the monastic way of
life was as ascetic and off-putting as possible. This is all done to assure
that being a monk didn’t entail a financial incentive as it had done prior.

Despite these exercises beginning
hundreds of years ago and resulting from experiences that are just as old, the thematic
lessons learned and resultant mindset have impacted the formation of Chinese
Dynasties that developed since. The adaptation and reformation of Buddhism to
secure state power has been one of the motifs of Buddhism’s contemporary
influence on China. The idea of Buddhism, used as a strategic political tool, is
not so farfetched today. A modern Chinese State publication writes: “Chinese
Buddhists have united with the people of the whole country to give active
support to China’s socialist construction and to protect world peace… To
propagate Buddha’s holy teachings and to safeguard world peace, Chinese
Buddhists are eager to strengthen their friendship and co-operation with the
Buddhists of other countries” (Peking, p. 5). Buddhism, in regards to the
state, is tolerated insofar that it acts as an efficient means to the goals of
the government. Here for example, Buddhism is being used as a diplomatic tool
to connect China to its neighboring countries.

Today, the Chinese
government holds authority over any religious organization to ensure political and
social stability (Albert). To do so, the internal officers maintain that party
members be atheist and that an atheist education must take precedent in scholastic
institutions as well as the mass media. This line of reasoning is strikingly similar
to the state mandated factions within the clergy that took place during the
Golden Age. This thinking also highlights the Chinese leadership’s affinity
towards what is tangible doctrines over subjunctive and abstract thought, which
is often manifested in the development of Chinese Buddhism. For instance, in
the Mahayan sutras the wu-chin tsang meant the “inexhaustible stores” of
certain qualities possessed by the Bodhisattva; in China, it became a building,
an “inexhaustible treasury.” (Wright, p. 411-412). This preference for the
concrete over the abstract can be retraced back to the damage Buddhism did to
the state in Ancient China.

Despite its manifest and
expansion as time progressed, the most prominent lasting effect that Buddhism
had on China would be its influence both on how leadership is approached as
well as its constant presence in many political decisions today. In Ancient
times, Buddhism served firstly as a stabilizing school of thought, but then
eventually acted as a means of destabilization through socio-political and
economic means. As result, the anecdotes and lessons learned from the 5-9th
Centuries in Chinese history shape leadership policy through this lens. Perhaps
the biggest theme of Buddhist in China that last today is its selective usage
as a strategic tool.



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