45.   The Critical Factors for the Propagation of Buddhism in Ancient China

45.   The Critical Factors for the Propagation of Buddhism in Ancient China

Buddhism started in late Han Dynasty in 25 A.D. in China, but advanced enormously in the Period of Disunity (also known as the Period of North and South Dynasties) in 220-589 A.D. It reached its golden age during Tang Dynasty (618-807 A.D.) which followed the Sui Dynasty (581-618 A.D.) when China was once again united under a single imperial regime. It is interesting to note that, strictly speaking, there had no proper religion originated from China, though China has had its own brilliant culture in philosophy, arts, etc for over four thousand years. It may be one of the significant differences between the Chinese culture and the western one.

However, the development of Buddhism in China cannot be accomplished without the emergence of the following:

  1. the development of Sangha system,
  2. the translation of Buddhist scriptures.

45.1   The Development of Sangha System

Sangha is one of the Three Jewels in Buddhism. In early Chinese Buddhism, people claimed themselves to be Buddhists without taking refuge officially or taking precepts at their own discretion without abiding by the strict Buddhist Vinaya. In the monasteries, there were no unified rules for the monks and the nuns to follow. The way of life and the clothing or ordained monks had not previously been different from those layman.

Not until the beginning of 4th century, a great master called Tao-an (312-385 AD) (rendered the greatest service to Chinese Buddhism by establishing the first native Sangha in China.

The effects of Tao-an's activities extended to many areas of Chinese Buddhism. For instance, he compiled a full and complete precepts and monastic rules with reference to the Vinaya. He introduced prescribed garments for monks and set the precepts and regulations in order to make the way of life of Chinese monks the same as that of monks in India. He gained many disciples and followers under those new disciplines and taught true Buddhism. He sent them to preach Buddhism throughout China.

The present tradition that all ordained Chinese monks and nuns have to change their surname to "Shih" (i.e. the first syllable of the name of the Buddha's clan, Shakya) was insisted and advocated by Master Tao-an.

Again, with the effort of the great Master Tao-an, a comprehensive catalogue recording all the sutras and scriptures that had been translated into Chinese was compiled in 374 A.D. He and his followers collected five to six hundred volumes of sutras and scriptures. He edited and published the catalogue, the first of its kind. Though the catalogue was no longer transmitted in its entirety, most of its contents were found in earliest extant catalogue, compiled by Master Seng-yu (445-518 A.D.) in early 500 A.D.

Tao-an also gave new titles that reflected their context to the untitled sutras. He also wrote preface for the translated sutras, through he was not a translator. However, he recruited and trained many outstanding scholars to translate Buddhist sutras. He and his followers translated a considerable number of new sutras, such as Madhyama-agama, i.e. Middle-length Sayings [中阿含經], Ekottara-agama, i.e. Gradual Sayings [增一阿含經], and Vinaya-pitaka, i.e. Ordinance Basket.

As he had strong desire to clarify the correct meanings of the Buddhist teachings, he sent his disciples to invite the most famous scholar and translator at his time, called Kumarajiva in Central Asia to China. Unfortunately, Kumarajiva arrived at China until 16 years after Tao-an's death.

45.2   The Translation of Buddhist Scriptures

Dharma is another one of the Three Jewels in Buddhism. In the last chapter, we mentioned that Buddhist scriptures were initially translated into Chinese in later Han Dynasty around 100 A.D. by Kashyapamatanga and Dharmaraksha. Since Buddhism was an Indian religion, it reflected the Indian philosophy and culture, and also the way of Indian thinking and expressing. It has no doubt that Chinese had difficulty to understand the Buddhist doctrines and terminology and comprehend the exact meanings and the concepts of Buddhism. It was also not difficult to imagine how hard the Chinese to make their effort in translating the Buddhist scriptures, though they were keen to study. Therefore, to start with, they read primarily the general moral teachings and stories without any technical terms nor theoretical doctrine. Those simple teachings and stories, presented in ordinary languages, were comprehensible, interesting and useful, such as "the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters", "Jataka" (i.e. birth story), "Avadana" (i.e. stories), "Dharmapada" (i.e. ethical story teaching), etc.

There was an attempt that Chinese Buddhists used their own philosophical and social terminologies to interpret the expounded and sophisticated doctrines in Buddhism, so that it was more comprehensible to their countryman. However, distortion was inevitable if Buddhist teachings were explained by traditional Taoist philosophical terms.

Another problem was the confusion and inadequacy of the original texts of Buddhist scriptures. The majority of the Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit was brought to China via the Silk Road, though some of them were shipped from India and Sri Lanka by sea.

In the mid third century, some Chinese religious scholars, like Chu Shih-hsing left for India seeking for easier version of the sutras and Buddhist scriptures.

Lastly, the patronage of the emperors and the nobles was also imperative for the success of the translation works in Chinese Buddhism. There were special bureaus operated by the government in a large scale, where hundreds or even over a thousand qualified scholars were designated to carry out the huge task of translating Buddhist sutras. They were required, of course, to have excellent understanding in Buddhism, and be proficient in both Chinese and Sanskrit languages. They set very strict rules and codes for translation, to ensure accuracy and consistency. That is why some Buddhist scriptures are extant in Chinese only, as the original texts in Sanskrit or Bali and were no longer used, lost or destroyed.