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,
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
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
paradise, Nichiren's followers recited the mantra Namu myo
kyo meaning 'Honour to the Lotus Sutra of the True Dharma'. It
felt that by focusing on these words with faith and devotion, all
one's goals — material and spiritual — could be attained.
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.
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
that enlightenment occurs in a moment of intuitive awakening
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
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.
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)