Buddhism in China
The Sinicization of Buddhism

Buddhism’s introduction into China met resistance from what was already a vigorous intellectual and cultural tradition based on Confucian classics and Daoist religion. Confucianists were not impressed with Buddhist monasticism, which they felt abandoned family and society, going against the responsibilities of filial piety. The Buddhist belief in rebirth was also incompatible with the veneration of ancestors. Daoists were disappointed that the Buddhists could not provide elixirs and practices that lead to the immortality they sought. On the other hand, as we shall see, early on, Buddhists used Daoist terms and concepts to convey their ideas. We will also see that in the process of its inculturation, Buddhism adapted to Chinese culture. For example, given the Daoist value of harmony and nature, Chinese Buddhism emphasized the experience of the interdependence of phenomena and the living out of that experience through simplicity and naturalness in daily life. Also given the Confucian values of human perfectability, sagehood, and social harmony, Chinese Buddhism emphasized the Bodhisattva Path, the universal ideal of Buddhahood, and contributing to the social good. (BIBE, 224)
The Indigenous Traditions
6th to 3rd Centuries BCE

Master You [You Ruo] said, “Among those who are filial sons and good brothers, few indeed are inclined to wrong their superiors. As for those who are disinclined to wrong their superiors, there have never been any who are inclined to create disorder. The Noble Person attends to the root, for it is by establishing the root that the Way [Tao/Dao] is born. To be filial and fraternal — is this not the root of humaneness?” (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 45 [Analects, 1:2])
The questioner said, “The Classic of Filiality says, ‘Our body, limbs, hair, and skin are all received from our fathers and mothers. We dare not injure them.’ When Zengzi was about to die, he bared his hands and feet [to show that he had preserved them from harm]. But now the monks shave their heads. How this violates the sayings of the sages and is out of keeping with the way of the filial!” (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 424)

The questioner said, “Now of felicities there is none greater than the continuation of one’s line, of unfilial conduct there is none worse than childlessness. The monks forsake wife and children, reject property and wealth. Some do not marry all their lives. How opposed this conduct is to felicity and filiality!” (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 424)
The questioner said, “Confucius said, ‘The barbarians with a ruler are not so good as the Chinese without one.’ Mencius criticized Chen Xiang for rejecting his own education to adopt the ways of [the foreign teacher] Xu Xing, saying ‘I have heard of using what is Chinese to change what is barbarian, but I have never heard of using what is barbarian to change what is Chinese.’ You, sir, at the age of twenty learned the Way of Yao, Shun, Confucius, and the Duke of Zhou. But now you have rejected them and instead have taken up the arts of the barbarians. Is this not a great error?” (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 425)
The Blessed One said: “If a child nurtures its parents by indulging their tastes for flavorful delicacies, by pleasing their ears with well-liked heavenly music, by dressing them splendidly in choice garments, by carrying them on their shoulders to the ends of the world, and repaying their kindness throughout their lives — can this be called filial piety?”
       The monks replied: “There is no greater model of filial piety than this.”
       But the Blessed One said: “This is not really filial piety! If parents are stubborn and ignorant and do not revere the Triple Gem [i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha], if they are malicious and tyrannical, if they steal with impunity, if they have illicit sexual relations, if they use false language in defiance of the Way, if they are addicted to riotous behavior, if they are against righteousness and truth, if they are wicked and feisty, then their child should strive to admonish them in order to enlighten them. And if this does not work and they still remain unenlightened, the child should take further steps to convert them. ... And if this still does not make them alter their ways, the child should wail and cry and stop taking food and drink. For the parents naturally love and feel tenderly toward their child, and although they do not understand, they would be anguished if it should die. In this way, they would be forced to capitulate and respect the Way. ...
       In a world without filial piety, only this can bring about filial piety. Only this is able to make parents leave evil behind and do good, so that they come to honor the five precepts and stick to the threefold refuge [of the Triple Gem]. ... If one is not successful in changing one’s parents’ ways by means of the Triple Gem, then even if one cultivates filial conduct, one would not truly be filial.” (The Experience of Buddhism, 290-1)

The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism
The transmission of the actual teachings of Buddhism into China necessitated the translation of Buddhist texts. These translations began to be made in earnest during the second century C.E. ... This early work of translating texts and preaching the Dharma continued into the third century. Thus, the ground was prepared for the great Dharmaraksa (born 230), a native of Dunhuang, who established intellectual respectability for Buddhism in north China from 266 to 308. ... With the loss of north China to the barbarians, many Buddhists from that region traveled to other parts of China, thus spreading Dharmaraksa’s intellectual and disciplined style of Buddhism. ...

During the fourth century, some of the more intellectual Buddhist monastics in the south of China were using Daoist and Neo-Daoists [sic] terms and concepts to aid in the translation of Buddhist texts and in the understanding of Buddhist ideas. For example, some Neo-Daoists held, based on original Daoist texts, that the world of phenomena is the “functioning” of the Dao, which is itself Ultimate Reality. All phenomena are the self-determinations of the Dao, formed by the Dao’s dynamic functioning. This means that the “essence” of all things is the Dao itself. The Neo-Daoists referred to the phenomena of the world as “being” and the ultimate and formless Dao that is the essence of all phenomena as “non-being.” Buddhist scholars used these distinctions in discussing the Mahayana notion of emptiness. Emptiness was understood to be, like the Dao, the causal source and formless essence of all phenomena. As essence, emptiness is non-being; but in its functioning of dependent arising, it takes form as being. (BIBE, 224-6)
A way that can be way
’d is not the Constant Way;
A name that can be named is not the Constant Name.
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
Thus be constantly without desire
in order to observe its subtlety,
Yet constantly have desire
in order to observe its manifestation.
These two arise together,
But differ in name.
Their unity is therefore called a mystery.
A mystery on top of a mystery—
The gateway of all subtleties!
(Daodejing, Chapter 1 [translated by Brian Hoffert])
In time, some Buddhist scholars came to realize that looking at Buddhism through a Daoist lens could be distorting the meaning of Buddhist texts. ... A number of popular sutras were retranslated, and new translations were completed. Kumarajiva’s translation of Madhyamika texts, the Perfection of Wisdom literature, the Lotus Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra sowed the seeds of a deeper understanding of Buddhism in China.This clearer understanding would later flower in a number of highly creative schools of Chinese Buddhist thought. In this way, the inculturation of Buddhism in China took a giant step forward. (BIBE, 226)

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee zip!  zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.
       “Ah, this is marvelous! said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now now I go at it by spirit (shen) and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
       A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
       “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
       “Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!” (Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 46-7)
Another notion that was of great interest to Chinese Buddhists at the time of Kumarajiva was Tathagata-garbha, a term the Chinese rendered as “Buddha-nature.” The Lotus Sutra, and later the Nirvana Sutra, introduced to China the notion that there is within us an innate Awakening that can develop through religious practice into the full Buddhahood. The early Chinese understanding of Buddha-nature was also influenced by Daoism. The Daoists believed that people have an inner spirit of light that manifests the power of the Dao, the creative source of the universe. Dao Sheng (fl. 397-432), another student of Kumarajiva, argued that Buddha-nature should not be understood as a particular spiritual power, but should be understood as one universal reality that is the same in all beings. He also taught that Buddha-nature cannot be grasped gradually, but only all at once, in a single stroke of sudden Awakening. Dao Sheng’s teaching about “sudden” Awakening in which one “recognizes one’s innate Buddha-nature” contributed to a line of Buddhist thought that was influential throughout all of East Asia. (BIBE, 226-7)