BUDDHISM IN CHINESE CULTURE

In SACRED WORLD by Lee Weingrad7 Comments

Buddhism in Chinese culture is a real question for me to me as well, the degree to which it’s entered the culture, with me essentially married into it, and the degree to which there is some connection to the view. And the connection between the two.

It’s perhaps seductive for a dharma practitioner, like a hound on the hunt, to not smell the scent or dharma in the many old temples, castles, not to mention commercials. Knots of eternity are as ubiquitous as the word for Buddha, fó, . Seeing the image of the Buddha in China is about as common as seeing the Marlboro man in America.  Then after a while the ubiquity wears thin and you might become cynical. But I’ve found that after 24 years, there are veins of real gold that run through the vast Chinese cultural ore.

Dogen, the founder of Soto school of Japanese Buddhism, said that it takes 400 years for Buddhism to enter a culture.

For almost all countries that Buddhism came to, it was a force of civilization. Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Mongolia, all got their written languages from Buddhist scholar-missionaries. But not China. China was a civilized country at the time, with its own language and literature when Buddhism arrived. Buddhism came to China around 800 years before it got to Tibet. That would be about 1400 years ago.

Unlike Tibet, the Chinese Buddhist masters didn’t have to create a language for writing or translating or transliterating the holy Sanskrit Dharma. That’s a mouthful.

Scholars worked at signifying Sanskrit but often created words that were already Chinese homophones (paramita became “poluomiduo”) some new words were invented: “buddha” became “fo” 佛, dharma became 法). These scholars were far from common people. The Chinese words for dharma, 法, was a combination of two characters, water + the verb to go. Alan Watts poetically translated this as “watercourse way.”

Sometimes sacred sounds such as mantras, such as om mani padme hum, having no literal meaning anyway, were transliterated. These new words were scholarly inventions and were not exactly Chinese.

唵嘛呢叭咪吽 is Om Mani Padme Hum and most Chinese could not read this or if they could, wouldn’t see it as Chinese. Because it isn’t. (those little “kohs” 口, in front of the characters are mental triggers to a Chinese reader telling them that the word is borrowed from a foreign language.)

In looking at the impact of Buddhism on Chinese culture, we have to realize the difficulty, the challenge of Chinese language literacy. Unlike English, it is not a sound-based written language, meaning that simple sounds, like “h-oh-pe” are not meaningless marks that are compounded to make a word, “hope.” Making things more ridiculous is the fact that before 1949 there was no grammar. Unbelievable but true, no grammar.

To learn classical written Chinese before 1949, you’d have to have sat at the feet of a scholar and copied and copied texts until you got the transmission of their meaning. A similar way of teaching, by rote and repetition, remains the hallmark of monastic Tibetan Buddhist education to the present day.

as it is

Making things even more impossible, in Chinese, classical texts can be written left to right or right to left or top to bottom. It is a scholar’s play thing. Two simple words such as 真如 when read right to left as 如真, changes their meaning from “true nature” to “as it is.”

These challenges to reading Buddhadharma in classical Chinese exist to the present day. There are very few who teach in the Chinese vernacular, as Chogyam Trungpa did in American English.

But what is more important, at least to me, is the absorption of the religion into the common culture, the way people talk, and write. The sense of basic principles such as egolessness, non-aggression, emptiness, rebirth, and karma, merit is in the culture like water in wine. That is palpable. Many many Chinese help our foundation because they believe that giving life to others will give them longevity in return as well as to their family members. This is the idea of merit and it is a value absent  in the US and other Western countries.

I was once told by the Governor of Qinghai Province that our foundation would succeed because it was the upaya, the skillful means of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This came as a great shock to me, but in time I began to see how deep the waters of dharma run in Chinese culture.

The basic model for Buddhism in all of Asia, with the exception of the villages of Nyingma and Kagyu yogis of Tibet, was the local monastery, supported by farming peasants. Like in Tibet, the monasteries were also landlords and peasants were tenant farmers, until 1949 tax being paid in grain, not gold or paper money. Basically the farmers supported the monks who did the practice, or heavy lifting with the idea that the generosity of the farmers would result in merit in future lives that would free them from a life of brutal hard work and poverty.

I believe that the values of Buddhadharma are truly represented in China, at least in the more atheistic north where I live. What does this mean? It means that sanity is equated with generosity and patience. When people say they are losing their patience, it usually means they are losing their sanity. There is a strong tendency to judge people by their kindness. While it has become more middle class, which is to say, having more toys has some real value in the culture, it is by no means as no means as crassly materialistic as America. Modesty and cheerfulness are still common virtues.

Modesty, cheerfulness, lack of materialism. These are all values that come from Buddhism.

On top of that, is history. It’s a culture whose people have suffered greatly in the past 75 years. First under Japanese occupation (another Buddhist culture), then with the Great Leap Forward then the Cultural Revolution. These events etched into the Chinese people a kind of survivor’s mentality, which is very risk-averse. You don’t see this among Taiwan Chinese for example.

It’s a Big Country
We often criticize the destruction of 1/3 Serda, Larung Gar, as if such desecration were acts of racial warfare. Hidden in our outrages is the fact that maybe 1/4 of the people in residence at Serdar there were Han Chinese. I don’t mean that from the point of view of affixing or releasing blame. Just that there are many many Chinese people who practice the vajrayana dharma, because there are many many Chinese people.

But what is more important is the widespread way in which Buddhist values are held as mentioned above. The basic cosmology would never support “God is Dead” because a hefty percentage of the people believe that there is no God to die. No transcendent deity or sacredness.  China could never support a Martin Luther King, appealing to transcendent values of righteousness and natural law. For most Chinese people the natural law is imminent, in-dwelling in people and in nature.

From that point of view what is beyond mind, is heaven. What is manifested is earth. And what is a little bit of both is human. It is no accident that the character for emperor, 王, the person who unites heaven, earth and human, . This is the enduring vastness of Chinese culture the heart’s blood of many of the Chinese people.

About the Author

Lee Weingrad

Lee Weingrad is a practicing Buddhist, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche since 1971. He resides in Beijing, China with his wife, Wenjing, and their two children, Iana (in College) and Joseph. He runs Surmang Foundation, a health promotion foundation that focuses on mother and child health in Tibet.

Featured image from the author: Fa Ben Fa Wu Fa – 法本法無法 – the source of dharmas is no-dharma.

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Comments

  1. It’s a big country. The biggest country, in fact. My own observations are not scientific. Far from it. They are based on my personal experiences over what is 25 years of marriage and 23+ years of living here as a dharma practitioner.

    I’ve heard all kinds of things said over the years, especially by expats. It’s possible to find something wrong with anything, which is a mark of living in samsara.. As they say, “your mileage may vary.”

  2. Yudron Wangmo

    Wonderful, inciteful, article.

    I’m not sure I agree that middle-class Chinese people are less materialistic than Americans. This is not what I have heard Chinese-American Buddhist practitioners say. Quite the opposite. They say that these days a male suitor must shower a woman with ostentatious gifts to win her; the primary motivation to marry is for material possessions. The wealth-building continues after marriage. Have you not observed this? Wealthy Chinese people have been buying up real estate here in the U.S. for years, outbidding Americans and paying cash. How do these observations fit with your experience living in Beijing?

    Also, could you say more about: “China could never support a Martin Luther King, appealing to transcendent values of righteousness and natural law. For most Chinese people the natural law is imminent, in-dwelling in people and in nature.” I don’t quite understand.

  3. Thank you for highlighting one of the few ways that the buddhadharma migration to China mirrors that of its move into western cultures. It’s also interesting to note that Buddhism migrated to China and experienced ups and downs of government and patron support and repression fueled by native cultural beliefs and cultural norms. Early on the lack of contribution to the economy through labor and celibacy of monastics seemed very foreign and dangerous to the Chinese. In the West, the buddhadharma has experienced quite different challenges and what I’d like to believe are victories.

    1. That is true and I’m happy you brought it up. I didn’t want to go there because I was afraid that that observation would cause the article to lose its focus.

      Trungpa Rinpoche, starting in the mid-70’s put more and more emphasis on American culture as a vehicle for carrying Buddhadharma. He called that approach, “Shambhalian” because of its potential for bringing brilliance, wakefulness and sanity to America through familiar forms such as dress, music, speech (he taught elocution!), eating, cooking and dancing, without much allegiance to traditional Oriental norms such as monasticism and scholarship as was/is the case in China. His observation in living in England and being a student of Western civilization was that Western culture had its own unique ways of transmitting such dignity and wakefulness. That period in my life –1975 – 1987– was a time I could glimse Buddhist social values of non-aggresion and brilliance in our own Western cultural terms. The degree to which I internalized it is basically the degree to which I was able see it in China.

      He was particularly critical of dharma teachers and their students who wanted to remove or isolate the Buddhist teachings from their Western cultural milieu. Some students of other teachers dressed “Tibetan” and affected what they thought were Tibetan or Oriental speech mannerisms. The reason he wanted us to drop our resistance to all things Western wasn’t because Rinpoche wanted to produce a class of rich Buddhists. No. (In fact that tendency was disturbing in the year prior to his passing in 1987). It was because by “fully, properly” engaging culture, he thought that it was possible to create an enlightened society. Very few other teachers had such strategy in promulgating the teachings. I remember Kalu Rinpoche describing himself as a blind man swinging a white cane at a train depot. He said, “whoever I hit, I hit.”

      On the other hand he had his doubts. Many of his students took that engagement as a ticket to ride bourgeoise culture. He saw the handwriting on the wall when he talked about moving his capital to Nova Scotia. “In the future, American will become more and more inhospitable to the world we want to create.” How prophetic.

  4. You are most welcome. I should add that the calligraphy, from the large Prajnaparamita Sutra in 108 volumes, was executed by my late calligraphy master, Dr. Cen Yuanxi.

    1. I’d also like to add the entire four lines:

      the source of dharma is no-dharma.
      no-dharma itself is dharma.
      dharma, dharma, where is there no-dharma?
      now is the time of no-dharma.

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