Mahayana Buddhism in Asia

From the outset Buddhism was a missionary religion. The Buddha travelled over a large area spreading his teachings, and explicitly charged his disciples to do likewise with the words: 'Go, monks, and wander for the good and welfare of the multitudes.' While Buddhism eventually died out in India, it had by that time spread throughout Asia. While Theravdan Buddhism predominated in southern Asia, in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, the Mahayana became the predominant Northern Buddhism, flourishing throughout central Asia, and in Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea.

This excerpt from Damien Keown's Buddhism:A Very Short Introduction looks briefly at the main developments in China, Japan, and Tibet.


Buddhism spread north from India into Central Asia and reached China by the middle of the first century. At this time the later Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) had consolidated Chinese power in Central Asia, and Buddhist monks travelled with caravans which traversed the silk route, the primary artery for the transmission of luxury items from China to the West. To the pragmatic Chinese, Buddhism was both strange and fascinating. The dominant ideology in China was Confucianism, a system of socio-ethical principles deriving from the teachings of the sage K'ung fu-tzu, or Confucius (55o-470 BC). On certain matters Buddhism seemed in conflict with Confucian values. Confucianism regarded the family as the foundation of society, and the Buddhist invitation to sons and daughters to leave their families and renounce the world caused it to be seen with the same suspicion as certain cults today. The Buddhist Sohgho, moreover, as a corporation of renunciates, seemed like a state within a state, a challenge to the power of the emperor and a threat to the seamless fabric of social life which was the Confucian ideal. Monks also refused to bow before the emperor, since in India monks were deferred to by laymen. Cultural differences of this kind gave rise to conflict and misunderstanding, and fuelled hostility towards the new religion.

On the other hand there was much about Buddhism that attracted the Chinese. It seemed to take up where Confucianism left off, and described an unseen world about which Confucianism had little to say. A disciple of Confucius once asked, "Master, how should we treat the spirits and divinities?" The reply was, "You cannot treat the spirits and divinities properly before you learn to treat your fellow men properly." When the questioner enquired about death, Confucius gave a similar answer: "You cannot know about death before you know about life" (Analects, xi. 12). In relegating the supernatural to second place, Confucianism left unanswered questions about which many Chinese were curious. Buddhism seemed to have answers to these questions, especially those concerning death and the afterlife, a subject which was of particular interest to the Chinese in view of the deep respect in which ancestors were held. Thus while many Chinese accepted Confucianism as the authoritative guide to this world, they turned to Buddhism for guidance about the next.

Buddhism shared certain similarities with another Chinese philosophy, Taoism, a form of nature-mysticism founded by the legendary sage Lao-tzu (b. 6o4 8c). The goal of Taoism is to live in harmony with nature by learning to balance the complementary forces of Yin and Yang which are believed to pervade the universe. Yin is the female principle which finds expression in softness and passivity, while Yang is the male principle which manifests itself in hardness and strength. Both these qualities are present in individuals and all phenomena in varying degrees, and the interaction of these forces is what gives rise to change in the world. The sage is one who knows how to keep Yin and Yang in equilibrium and to live in harmony with the changing circumstances of life. A person who could integrate these forces in his own person was thought to gain deep spiritual peace as well as magical powers and longevity. The classic Tao-te-Ching or Bookof the Way and its Virtue, attributed to Lao-tzu, sets out the principles for leading this higher life.

In certain areas Buddhism and Taoism overlapped, and Buddhist meditation seemed geared to the same goal of inner stillness and 'actionless action' (wu-wei) sought by the Taoist sage. A school of Chinese Buddhism known as Ch'an (the ancestor of Japanese zen), was born from this interaction. Yet while Taoist teachings were unsystematic and emphasized quietism and inspiration, Buddhism offered a systematic philosophical framework and a tradition of textual scholarship. This aspect of Buddhism appealed to the Chinese gentry with their love of scholarship and learning, and in due course Buddhism was adopted as the third of the 'three religions' of China, although never quite managing to shake off its foreign associations. A number of Chinese monks made pilgrimages to India in search of manuscripts, notably Fa-hsien (399-413), Hsian-tsang (630-644) and I-tsing (671-695).

The fortunes of Buddhism in China have waxed and waned over the centuries. It reached its high point under the T'ang dynasty (618-907), although many Tantric masters flourished later during the Mongol period (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries). The arrival of Communism led to the suppression of Buddhism and other forms of religion in the Cultural Revolution of 1966. However, there are now signs of a revival in the People's Republic of China, and Buddhism has remained strong in Taiwan.


Another important center of Buddhism in the far east is Japan. Buddhism arrived there in the sixth century by way of Korea, but drew much of its inspiration from mainland China. The Heian period (794-1185) saw the development of schools such as the eclectic Tendai and the esoteric Shingon, both introduced from China. The Pure Land school — a distinctive form of Japanese Buddhism based on devotion to
 the Buddha Amida— also began to develop around this time and
 reached its apogee in the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

Nichiren (1222-82) reacted against what he saw as the complacency
 and escapism of the Pure Land School, and founded a new religious
 movement which made the Lotus Sutra the centre of cultic practice
 rather than the Buddha Amidao Instead of reciting the mantra Namu
 Amida Butsu or 'Homage to the Buddha Amida' to ensure rebirth in
 Amida's paradise, Nichiren's followers recited the mantra Namu myo
 renge kyo meaning 'Honour to the Lotus Sutra of the True Dharma'. It
 was felt that by focusing on these words with faith and devotion, all
 one's goals — material and spiritual — could be attained. Nichiren sought to institute a programme of socio-religious reform at a national level, and saw a great role for Japan as a centre from which his teachings would spread. To some extent his aims have been realized, and today
 ~ the words Namu myo renge kyo are recited daily as part of their
 religious practice by millions of followers of the Nichiren School, and its breakaway offshoot, Soka Gakkai International.
 In contrast to Indian Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism has a strong social
 orientation and emphasizes community and group values. Influential
 teachers such as Shinran (1173-1262) disapproved of monasticism and
 encouraged monks to marry and play a full part in social life (tradition
 has it that he practised what he preached, marrying a nun and having
 five children by her!).

Alongside the Pure Land and Nichiren schools, the third most important
 school of Japanese Buddhism is Zen, which came to Japan from China
 (where it was known as Ch'an) and Korea early in the thirteenth century.
 The word 'Zen' derives from the Sanskrit dhyana meaning
 'trance', and meditation plays a central role in Zen practice. Zen holds
 that enlightenment occurs in a moment of intuitive awakening that
 is beyond logical comprehension. It observes that these flashes of insight - to which it gives the name satori - are often triggered in the course of mundane activity when the mind is calm and relaxed, rather than when engaged in study or intellectual analysis. The experience is likened to the bottom dropping out of a bucket - it happens all of a sudden and quite unexpectedly. Zen compares the unenlightened mind to a pool of muddy water, and argues that the best way to make it clear is to let it be rather than stir it up through the study of doctrines. Zen has an iconoclastic tendency, and seems to regard the study of texts, doctrines, and dogmas as a potential hindrance to spiritual awakening. Instead, meditation is seen as the best way of achieving mental clarity. Zen also relies on humour, spontaneity, unconventionality, poetry, and other forms of artistic, expression to communicate the idea of enlightenment as a supra-rational awakening which can be transmitted from master to student, but which ultimately lies beyond mere 'words and letters'.

Of the two main branches of Zen, the Soto school believes that calming meditation is all that is necessary, while Rinzai Zen uses other techniques as a focus of meditation, most notably koans.


Due to the difficulties of gaining access to this mountainous region and the absence of established trade routes, Buddhism did not enter Tibet until the eighth century. The form of Buddhism which flourished there is known variously as Tantra, Vajrayana ('The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt'), or—because of the frequent use it makes of magical formulas and chants—Mantrayana.

The Vajrayana adopts Mahayana philosophy and cosmology and adds a rich symbolism and set of religious practices of its own. The core of the movement is a set of arcane treatises known as Tantras, composed in India in the latter part of the first millennium. The Tantras makes use of mystical diagrams (mandalas) and magic formulas (mantras), and are written in a mysterious 'twilight language' to which only initiates have the key. Initiation is given by a guru (Tibetan: lama) who then teaches the esoteric meaning of the words and symbols to his students. In its external forms Tantra resembles Western schools of ritual magic which make use of magic circles, pentagrams, spells, and charms. Based on the view that nirvana and samsara are not different, the Tantras teach that anything—even desire—can profitably be used as a means to liberation. The passions come to be regarded not as inherently wicked but simply as a powerful form of energy which—rather like electricity—can be used for many purposes. Sexual desire, in particular, formerly regarded as the greatest obstacle to religious progress for monks, came to be seen as a potent force which, if properly harnessed, could accelerate spiritual development.

The most influential school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa founded by Tsong-kha-pa in the fourteenth century, saw Tantra in the latter way as a vehicle for embodying profound spiritual truth rather than an invitation to people to overturn moral norms. The monks of this school, like their early Indian counterparts, hold strictly to the Monastic Rule which, amongst its many other requirements, insists on celibacy for monks. One school, the Nying-ma-pa ('the Ancients'), however, allows a form of married priesthood.

The Tibetan Dalai Lamas are members of the Gelugpa school. 'Dalai' is a Mongol word meaning 'ocean' (of wisdom), a title conferred by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan in the sixteenth century. The office of Dalai Lama encompasses both the religious and temporal domains. Tibet was ruled by a series of Dalai Lamas down to modern times, when the present encumbent - the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso - was forced to flee the country in 1959 as a result of Chinese invasion in 195o. Since that time he has resided in Dharamsala, in north-west India. Tibet, meanwhile, has been under Communist control, and a systematic and brutal programme of 'ethnic cleansing' has resulted in the exodus of over a million Tibetan refugees. Many great Buddhist monasteries, with their priceless manuscripts and works of art have been destroyed, although some limited rebuilding of religious sites has taken place from time to time.

Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press - 1996)