From Resistance to GrowthIn the course of its initial entry and subsequent growth in China, Buddhism elicited a variety of responses, which ranged from enthusiastic acceptance to benign indifference to outright rejection and trenchant criticism. ... [S]ome among the Chinese officials and literati articulated a set of explicit critiques of Buddhism that drew attention to supposed areas of conflict between it and the prevalent Confucian-based ideology. ... Buddhist monks were accused of not being filial — a major transgression from a Confucian or Chinese point of view — because their celibate vocation meant they did not produce heirs and thus failed to secure the continuation of their families’ ancestral lineages. Other criticisms against the monastic order were based on economic and political foundations. Monasteries and convents, along with individual monks and nuns, were accused of being economically unproductive, thereby placing unwarranted financial burden on the imperial state and the general populace. ... In addition, some Chinese intellectuals critiqued Buddhist teachings and practices for being primarily concerned with individual salvation and transcendence of the world of everyday affairs, at the expense of an ingrained Confucian emphasis on human interactions and the fulfillment of social obligations. ... Buddhism was also dismissed by some of its detractors as being unsuitable for the Chinese on account of its foreign (or “barbarian,” in traditional Chinese parlance) origin. (ICR, 116-8)
The Indigenization of BuddhismThe reunification of the Chinese empire under the Sui dynasty (589-618) initiated a new phase in the historical growth of Chinese Buddhism. ... The pattern of remarkable flourishing and ingenious development continued during the succeeding Tang dynasty (618-907), a prosperous period marked by unprecedented dynastic power and extraordinary cultural effervescence that is widely considered the golden age of Chinese civilization. ... During the Sui-Tang period Buddhism was undoubtedly the most powerful and influential religious and intellectual tradition in the Chinese empire. To a large degree Buddhism eclipsed Confucianism and Daoism, although the other two traditions also flourished during this period, which was marked by cultural openness and imaginative embrace of religious pluralism. The main schools of Chinese Buddhism surveyed in the next chapter were also formed during this era, representing the formation of uniquely Chinese systems of Buddhist philosophy and methods of spiritual praxis, which were accompanied by new forms of literature and art. These involved the formulation and wide diffusion of Buddhist beliefs, doctrines, practices, and institutions that were uniquely Chinese. In light of these developments, the Sui-Tang period is often recognized as the apogee of Buddhism in China, which coincided with the most glorious epoch of China’s long history. (ICR, 131-2)
Schools/TraditionsScholars habitually approach the study of Chinese Buddhism in terms of particular “schools” or traditions (zong). The Chinese term zong is somewhat ambiguous and has multivalent connotations. In the Buddhist context it can signify a a particular doctrine, tradition or canonical exegesis, essential principle of a scripture, religious group that adheres to a set of principles or ideals, or a combination of some of these. But even when the expression is used in the sense of a distinct group or faction within Buddhism, in the Chinese context it does not designate separate sects, as the notion of “sect” is defined by sociologists or religion. In the sociological sense, the idea of a sect stands in contrast to that of “church,” and implies an exclusive stance or character, which is accompanied with opposition to existing social and religious institutions. ... The Chinese schools of Buddhism were primarily doctrinal or exegetical traditions, or in some instances loosely-organized religious groups that were subsumed within the mainstream monastic order, rather than standing in opposition or outside of it. There was thus no way for an individual to be formally ordained as a “Chan monk,” for instance, although it was possible to choose to be a follower of the Chan school, perhaps while also adhering to beliefs and practices associated with other Buddhist traditions. While there were occasional doctrinal disputes and squabbles over authority, sometimes permeated with quasi-sectarian sentiments, on the whole Buddhism in China tended to be ecumenical and accepting of diverse perspectives and approaches. ... It is also useful to keep in mind that in general, despite their great historical significance, the main schools of Buddhism involved only a limited segment of the monastic elite (with a possible exception of the Pure Land tradition), while local and popular manifestations of Buddhist piety among the general populace often had little to do with them directly. (ICR, 148)
A central philosophical framework formulated by Zhiyi was the doctrine of three truths, which expanded on the doctrine of two truths propounded by the Middle Way tradition of Indian Buddhism [i.e. the tradition associated with Nagarjuna]. The two truths postulated two levels or aspects of reality, conventional and absolute. Zhiyi presented an analysis of reality in terms of three integrated and interrelated aspects: (1) emptiness, (2) conventional existence, and (3) the mean (or “middle”), which incorporates the first two into a unitary reality. Ultimate reality itself is deemed to be inconceivable, its inestimable subtlety being beyond the human ability for conceptualization or verbal explanation. Within Zhiyi’s interpretative scheme, the three truths point to the unitary nature of reality, which encompasses all modes of existence, from the denizens of hell all the way up to the fully enlightened Buddhas. That led Zhiyi to formulate a peculiar understanding of reality that encompasses the existence of all things in the universe, succinctly expressed by a famous Tiantai maxim, according to which “the three thousand realms of existence are inherently present in each moment of thought.” (ICR, 150)
Zhiyi also systemized the meditation traditions of medieval Buddhism, producing a comprehensive schematization of contemplative practice that brought together the two basic approaches to Buddhist meditation, calmness and insight. In this multifaceted scheme Zhiyi took into account the needs and dispositions of a wide range of practitioners. ...
The Huayan school is primarily known for its thorough and rarefied system of religious philosophy, which is usually perceived as a high point of doctrinal development in Chinese Buddhism. As suggested by its name, the Huayan school was based on or inspired by the Huayan Scripture (see Chapter 5). The central Huayan themes and concepts were derived from this voluminous scripture, but the tradition also used other canonical texts and was predisposed towards ingenious theoretical innovation. Even as Huayan thinkers integrated the major traditions of Mahayana scholasticism and cited a broad range of canonical text, their writings show a distinctly Chinese penchant for harmony and balance. Huayan texts display a tendency to focus attention on the phenomenal realm of everyday reality, even while adopting a cosmic perspective and engaging in rarefied metaphysical speculation. (ICR, 152)