The Buddhist Transformation of China...
...or a Chinese Transformation of Buddhism?

Indian Foundations
The Four Noble Truths
[cf. MOF, 115]
I. Life involves “suffering or
unsatisfactoriness” (dukkha)

II. Suffering/unsatisfactoriness is
caused by attachment and desire

III. When attachment and desire cease,
so too will suffering/unsatisfactoriness

IV. The Eightfold Noble Path leads to the
cessation of suffering/unsatisfactoriness

The Rise of Buddhism in China
In 311, the previously unthinkable occurred. The Xiongnu, the northern people who had defeated the Han dynasty, conquered the former capital, Luoyang, in what was easily the most dramatic political event of the time. Like the sacking of Rome in 410, the loss of Luoyang shocked its residents, who saw themselves as the center of civilization. ...
The ruler who conquered Luoyang, Shi Le (274-333) belonged to one of the tribes in the Xiongnu confederation. ... In 310, just as his followers were about to take Luoyang, one of his generals introduced him to the Buddhist missionary Fotudeng (d. 349).
       Shi Le asked the missionary about the miracles of Buddhism. The monk’s biographer, writing in the early sixth century on the basis of earlier materials, explains that Fotudeng realized that the ruler would not understand the complexity of Buddhist doctrine:
Thereupon he took his begging bowl, filled it with water, burned incense, and said a spell over it.

In a moment there sprang up blue lotus flowers whose brightness and color dazzled the eyes.
The ruler was impressed, and he subsequently granted the Buddhists the right to build monasteries, a decision that allowed them to gain an important foothold in the north. ... Buddhism offered non-Chinese rulers an alternative to Confucianism, which empowered literate Chinese officials. Many non-Chinese rulers like Shi Le were drawn to Buddhism simply because the religion did not originate in China. [OE, 145-6]

Fotudeng attracted students of both sexes to the clergy. ... When the girl, named An Lingshou, explained that she did not want to marry, her father, like many other fathers, objected: “You ought to marry. How can you be like this?” She explained, “My mind is concentrated on the work of religion, and my thought dwells exclusively on spiritual matters. ... Why must I submit thrice to father, husband, and son, before I am considered a woman of propriety?” Her response has a curiously modern ring, for she objects to the three submissions all women were asked to perform: to their father and elder brothers when young, to their husbands in middle age, and to their sons when elderly.
This dialogue, which must have taken place in homes all over China, rehearses the main themes of the conflict between the individual’s obligation to the family and the Buddhist call for salvation. An Lingshou denies any selfish motivation by arguing that she seeks to bring salvation to all, including her parents. She became a nun. The Buddhist doctrine of the transfer of merit, by which someone could give merit he or she had accumulated to someone else, underlay An Lingshou’s argument. A monk or a nun could transfer the merit they accrued by joining the clergy to their families, while their families could accrue merit by supporting the clergy. [OE, 147]

The different cultural assumptions of the two societies posed a different challenge to translators. ... Buddhist texts used an overwhelming number of new terms, all crucial to an understanding of Buddhist teaching. Because early translators feared that a Chinese readership would not be able to understand such unfamiliar teachings, they opted instead to translate an unfamiliar Buddhist term into a familiar Daoist term.
Nirvana literally meant extinction or the dying out of a fire in Sanskrit, but in Buddhism it took on the specific meaning of gaining enlightenment, as the Buddha did when he died surrounded by his disciples. The early translators thought the nearest Chinese equivalent was wuwei (“letting things follow their own natural course,” the most important teaching of the Daoist text, The Way and Integrity Classic), yet the word wuwei hardly conveyed the difficult concept of nirvana.

Another concept that proved difficult to translate was karma. ... Early Buddhist teachings held that each individual was constantly in flux. ... One is the ceaselessly changing product of all of one’s actions. As one changes from day to day, one’s essence changes on death as well. Depending on what one had done in the course of one’s life — and all of one’s previous existences — one could be reborn as an animal or as a person. This view of a soul constantly in flux ran directly counter to the traditional Chinese view that one’s self remained constant, even after death. Although early Buddhist teachers tried to teach this subtle idea of karma, the Chinese tenaciously clung to their view of an underworld to which one traveled in one’s own body. [OE, 148]

Chan (J: Zen) Buddhism
In the final, fully developed version of the transmission of the Chan teaching, it was supposed to have begun when the Buddha himself silently held up a flower. Only one disciple smiled, and it was that disciple who transmitted this knowledge beyond words to his disciple, and so on through more than twenty generations until a monk named Bodhidharma brought the teaching to China in the early 500s. ... When a disciple told him he had not found peace of mind, Bodhidharma told him to bring him his mind and he would pacify it for him. The disciple thought for a long time and then admitted that he could not find his mind. “There,” said Bodhidharma, “I have pacified it for you.” He summarized Chan teaching in this way:
“A special transmission outside the scriptures; no reliance upon words and letters; direct pointing to the very mind; seeing into one’s own nature [one becomes a Buddha].”
When he assembled his disciples to test their attainment and see which would succeed him as patriarch of Chan, he was much impressed by the wisdom of several replies but bestowed his robe, symbolic of the transmission of the true teaching, on a disciple who simply bowed to him silently. [MOF, 118-9]
Hui Neng (638-713)
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch
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]
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]

...and what about this guy?
...and how about him?