The Buddhist Transformation of China...
...or a Chinese Transformation of Buddhism?
Guanyin of the Southern Sea (11th/12th Century, China)
Dharma Wheel
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life involves “suffering or unsatisfactoriness”
"DISsatisfaction" (pun on the Rolling Stones classic)
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2. Suffering/unsatisfactoriness is ultimately due to attachment and desire
Tanha (desire): "leggo my ego"
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3. Suffering/unsatisfactoriness can only be stopped by the cessation of attachment and desire
Cover of the Nirvana album "Nevermind"
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4. There is an “Eightfold Path” that leads to the cessation of suffering/unsatisfactoriness
The Eightfold Noble Path

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Map showing the transmission of Buddhism from India to China
The Rise of Buddhism in China
Tales of Buddha had first reached China during the Han dynasty after the regime’s expansion into the Western Regions, which brought it into direct contact with Buddhist city-states, Indian traders and missionaries. One Han emperor had dreamt of a “golden man,” leading ... one of his followers to interpret it as a vision of a man in Indian who had “achieved the Dao,” who could fly in the air, and whose body had the brilliance of the sun. These words already demonstrate one of the recurring problems that Buddhism would face in its first few centuries in China — the constant trend among the Chinese to translate it using local terms. Buddha was hence described as a man who had “achieved the Dao,” like some immortal sorcerer. Early translations of Buddhist sutras recklessly substituted Chinese terms that were only tenuously related, leading to several later waves of translation reformers — such as Buddhabhadra (359-429), Kumarajiva (344-413), and Bodhidharma (5th century, although stories about him seem to date from the early to mid-6th). Chinese Buddhism went through multiple schisms, as newly translated sutras completely reversed previous assumptions. ...
Map showing Northern and Southern Dynasties period
"Pure Talk" (Qingtan) in the Southern Dynasties
Much of the sudden, vibrant expansion of Buddhism in China during the Dark Ages can be attributed not only to its converts among the Han people, but also among the nomad tribes who would form several of the aristocracies in the north. It was, ironically, attacks on Buddhism by Chinese traditionalists that caused China’s native religion, Daoism, to first be codified into a recognizable canon. Essays on the Barbarians and the Chinese (Yi-Xia-Lun), written in 467, catalogues everything that was apparently wrong with Buddhism — including that it was an Indian religion which had no place in China, that its scriptures were infamously confused and contradictory, and that its priests unforgivably shaved their heads: an insult to the wholeness of the body inherited from [one’s] parents. In particular, the Buddhists lacked filiality — in concentrating on the perfection of the self, they allegedly ignored the societal obligations of the civilized world. Buddhist authors soon responded in kind, lampooning Daoism as unclear and ephemeral, and adding insult to injury by claiming that many recent Daoist texts had been inspired by or even plagiarized from Buddhist scriptures.
Daoist hells (influenced by Buddhism)
Detail of Daoist Hell
Daoist hells (influenced by Buddhism)
Although Daoists and Buddhists were often at odds, the former bragging that their beliefs were fully and truly all-Chinese, whereas Buddhism was a foreign latecomer, the two religions still cross-pollinated each other. The Chinese afterlife, only rarely discussed in anything but the vaguest of terms, gained an entire hierarchy of hells inspired by Buddhist iconography, as well as a set of paradises with more levels that a loyalty scheme. This in turn, invested Buddhist priests with a new authority to deal with the dead, or at least to help smooth the passage of loved ones into a better world. Nobody could say for sure whether reincarnation or an afterlife waited after death, but just to be safe, it was worth paying a Buddhist priest to say some prayers. From this humble beginning, an entire religious industry began to escalate. (BHC, 111-3)
Monks chanting sutras at a Buddhist funeral
Dharma Wheel
Emperor Wu of Liang
Emperor Wu (464-549 CE), founder of the Liang dynasty, surely knew that his domain was rickety and unstable. He did not show it, throwing himself into creating the best possible place for the devout and the good. ... Confucius had once said that there could not be two suns in the sky, but there were now several men in China who called themselves emperors. A former general in the wars against the Northern Wei, and a former governor of a province, Emperor Wu had been born into a regime that itself had barely lasted fifty years. His own Liang dynasty was fated to sputter out only six years after his death, before a general would depose his grandson and proclaim another dynasty that would itself only last a generation.
Confucius, Laozi and Budai (Buddha)
But Emperor Wu would cling on as best he could. ... In my youth, he wrote, “I emulated the Duke of Zhou and Confucius.” He avidly read the ancient classics, and idolized the uncle-regent of the first Zhou king, and the great sage himself. In middle age, he turned to Daoism, exercising a more hands-off approach on government, prizing secret acts of goodness. As his hair turned gray, he found a new, foreign philosophy that would stay with him for the rest of his life. ... Emperor Wu became a zealous convert to Buddhism, vastly increasing public funding for translation and cataloguing of sacred scrolls from India. Obscure sutras in Sanskrit were suddenly rendered comprehensible, and non-monks gained access to glosses, compendia and biographies of Buddhist celebrities. By 511, he had decided that loopholes allowing Buddhists to eat meat were dishonest, and that he would henceforth be a vegetarian. By 514, he had given up sexual intercourse. He started to lecture monks about their own lifestyles, telling them that fish was still meat, and that drinking alcohol was definitely wrong, no matter what certain abbots might allow. By 517, he had forbidden the use of animal sacrifices in all ceremonies, and even the imperial rituals now only offered fruit and vegetables to the ancestors and spirits. ...
Emperor Wu of Liang with Bodhidharma
So of course he wanted to meet Bodhidharma, that shaven-headed mystic from south India, said to be a hundred years old, who had walked across China, some said from the Western Regions, others up from the southern ports.
          Bodhidharma was ushered into the throne room, a short, brown-skinned man, clad in simple robes, walking with a staff but not leaning on it. His eyes bulged noticeably, and when he spoke, his teeth looked broken and half-gone, but his age was indeterminate. Severe ascetics did terrible things to their bodies — fasting and pilgrimages, and the ravages of untold diseases could mean he was any age over forty.
          It wasn’t clear to Emperor Wu how long Bodhidharma had been in China. When he spoke, his Chinese was accented but clear, if a little blunt, as if he were not used to the niceties of polite conversation.
Portrait of Bodhidharma
Emperor Wu asked about the dharma — the teachings of Buddha were so varied, the sutras sometimes so contradictory, he appreciated any chance to talk to a true Indian monk about what it all really meant. What was Bodhidharma here to teach?
          “Nothing,” said Bodhidharma. “The teachings are empty.”
          Emperor Wu asked the monk about merit. He was, after all, himself famously devout, and he had caused thousands of copies to be made of sacred books. He had personally arranged for the translation of previously unknown sutras. He had founded and funded monasteries, and he was curious as to how much merit that was worth.
          Bodhidharma stared at him impassively.
          “No merit at all,” he said.
          It was not an answer that Emperor Wu was expecting, but it had admittedly been a little selfish to make everything about his own charitable acts. Maybe he would get a better response from this man if he asked him something about scripture. There were, he knew, Four Noble Truths — related to the unquenchable desire for satisfaction, and the suffering created by craving: the craving that causes endless cycles of rebirth and death. But he was wondering: which was the greatest and most profound of the noble truths.
          Bodhidharma stared back at the emperor like he was an unruly child.
          “Nothing,” he replied. “There’s nothing noble about them, anyway.”
          Emperor Wu’s face reddened. His courtiers did not meet his gaze.
          “Who do you think you are...?” he growled.
          “I have no idea,” replied the monk.
          Emperor Wu curtly dismissed him, and the brown-skinned man left.
          “Who was that idiot...?” he muttered.
          The courtiers waited in silence, and he stormed off to his chambers, where he read a sutra by candlelight and tried to get to sleep.
          But he was still awake in the dead of night. He could not stop thinking about the monk’s odd words.
          Before dawn, he ordered his heralds to chase after Bodhidharma and bring him back, but he never saw him again. (BHC, 104-7)
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Buddha holding a flower, Mahakasyapa smiling
The World-Honored One spoke: “I possess the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, the Subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakasyapa.” (Zen Buddhism: A History, 9; cf. MOF, 118)
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Chinese text of the "special transmission"
Bodhidharma (c. 470-543)
The Twenty-Eighth (Indian)/First (Chinese) Patriarch

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded on words and letters.
Directly pointing to a person’s mind,
One sees one’s nature and becomes a Buddha.
(Translated by Brian Hoffert;
cf. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 221
Shaolin monk in a martial arts pose
Bodhidharma's cave at the Shaolin Temple
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Huike standing outside of Bodhidharma's Cave
Bodhidharma sat in zazen facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, who had been standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciples mind is not yet at peace. I beg you, my teacher, please give it peace.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring the mind to me, and I will set it at rest.” The Second Patriarch said, “I have searched for the mind, and it is finally unattainable.” Bodhidharma said, “I have thoroughly set it at rest for you.” (Zen Buddhism: A History, 92)
Painting of Huike after cutting off his arm
What just happened here???
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How does this approach differ from those of previous forms of Buddhism?

Zhuangzi with the Chinese character for the "Way" (dao) animated butterfly
Hui Neng tearing up a sutra
Hui Neng (638-713)
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch
Hong Ren: Fifth Patriarch of Chan BuddhismOne day the Fifth Patriarch assembled his disciples and told them, “You disciples make offerings all day long and seek only blessings in the next life, but you do not seek to escape from the bitter sea of birth and death.  Your own self-nature obscures the gateway to blessings; how can you be saved?  All of you return to your rooms and look into yourselves.  Men of wisdom will of themselves grasp the original nature of their spiritual insight.  Each of you write a verse and bring it to me.  I will read your verses, and if there is one who is awakened to the cardinal meaning, I will give him the robe and the Teaching and make him the Sixth Patriarch.  Hurry!  Hurry!” (MOF, 121)
Shen Xiu’s Poem
Our body is the bodhi tree,
Our mind a mirror bright.
Always strive to polish it,
And let no dust alight.

Hui Neng’s Poem
Originally no bodhi tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since neither of these things exist,
Where can the dust alight.
(translated by Brian Hoffert; cf. MOF, 121-2)
GIF of a flowing stream
Hui Neng’s Admonition
Dao must be something that circulates freely; why should he [the deluded person] impede it? If the mind does not abide in things, the Dao circulates freely; if the mind abides in things, it becomes entangled. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 500)
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... and what about him?
Amitabha Buddha in his Pure Land
... and him?
Budai, the Laughing Buddha