Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Rise of Buddhism in China

This was a take-home final exam, probably my least favorite way of writing. Even the Blue Book has the virtue of pure spontaneity, but the take-home is a bastard child, halfway between polish and improv. No doubt it will be my instrument of choice should I ever be in a position to give exams.

The class was a Chinese intellectual history course, which I took in 2001. The essay was in response to an exam question, evidence suggests "Question #8," but I have no idea what the question was. This also has the drawback of quotation with a citation, but no bibliography--I know I own the books somewhere, but I don't have them with me (long story). So the quotations are real enough, but just fake enough for no one to be able corroborate.

I have another paper elaborating the "escapist" thematic I introduce as the thesis below, but I don't remember why I was using that language, whether I imported it or the lecturer talked about it. I suspect I brought it in a bit to organize the material. I also don't know why I thought the question I ask in the intro is "interesting"--sure, it's interesting enough, but why more than any other question. It has been so long since I've been involved with the material that I have no answers to that.

One thing to defend the thematic of "escapism" is a general consideration of the function of other intellectual patterns across the world. When one read's Hans Blumenburg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age," one is confronted with the thesis that modern science didn't take hold in early Greek materialism (principally Democritus and Epicurus, but one can trace it to the pre-Socratics who are still taught on the first day of History of Science 101 lectures), not because people weren't ready for science, but because these explanations weren't forwarded in the the interest of explaining how the world worked--they were forwarded, particularly in the very influential Epicurus, to quell doubt, to help people be happy.

So I hope no one reads the below as somehow slanderous against Eastern philosophy, or early philosophies in general. I take escapism to be one thematic among many, one that is continued today, and I don't take escapism to be an evil thing. Pirsig even points at it at the beginning of ZMM: "[Phaedrus'] kind of rationality has been used since antiquity to remove oneself from the tedium and depression of one's immediate surroundings." (72-3) Blumenburg's point is that science didn't take off until technological advance had gotten to the point where scientific explanations began to obviously increase our control over our environment, directly lead to increases in happiness. Science's vaunted "disinterestedness" came out of a very specific interest.

The other thing that catches me about the paper is the unhappiness of my articulation of the difference between Buddhism and Daoism. I still think there might be something important in the differences between Daoism's enunciation of being in the Flow and Buddhism's of ceasing to desire, escaping out of the hold of desire, but I don't think my clumsy attempt below gets at it. It would require a lot more work in articulating the meat and bones of the traditions.


As early as the second century BCE, China had contact with Buddhism through the Silk Road, but it was not until the second century CE that Buddhism began to spread in China. Commoners started by organizing churches between the second and fourth centuries. After the fourth century, intellectuals became involved with the development of Buddhism in Chinese culture and some began to make pilgrimages to India and some began to make translations of the Buddhist sutras. The interesting question to ask is, “Why did Buddhism take hold in the minds of ethnocentric Chinese intellectuals and commoners?” The answer is that Chinese intellectuals and commoners had a tradition of escapism during this time, through Neo-Daoism and Religious Daoism respectively, and Buddhism not only fit this escapist mold, but also added an explanation as to why there was a need to escape.

In the third and fourth centuries CE, intellectuals began to criticize Imperial Confucianism. They said that Confucianism is concerned with teaching wisdom and truth, but these things are only names for reality. Wisdom and truth otherwise have no other significance. These intellectuals began to dabble in Daoism and this sparked the rise of Neo-Daoism.

Neo-Daoism emphasized spontaneity and opposition to social norms. They also valued eremitism and practiced a kind of nihilism. In their revolt against social norms, Neo-Daoists placed high value on hermits. Ge Hong is an exemplar in this tradition of intellectuals. In his autobiography he says,
I am hoping to ascend a famous mountain where I will regulate my diet and cultivate my nature. It is not that I wish to abandon worldly affairs, but unless I do so, how can I practice the abstruse and tranquil Way? … It is not that the Way is found in the mountains and forests; the reason the ancient practitioners of the Way always had to enter the mountains and forests was that they wished to be away from the noise of the world and keep their minds tranquil. (95 of Ge Hong’s Autobiography)
He says that unless he travels to the mountains, how could he practice the Way? The noise that Ge Hong wishes to escape from is the noise of social norms.

Neo-Daoists also practiced nihilism. Nihilism is the position that all values and norms are illusory and because of this one cannot make value assertions. Instead Neo-Daoists, like the Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove, would engage in pure conversation to help disengage from worldly developments. In pure conversation, the Sages would argue about various philosophical questions. These conversations, rather than being about truth, were about dialectical agility. Rather than reaching any kind of conclusion or wisdom, the Sages would merely marvel at their own skill of debate.

Eremitism and nihilism are two ways in which Neo-Daoists’ escapism appeared. In eremitism, they tried to physically remove themselves from their surroundings, thus negating social norms. In nihilism and through pure conversation, they tried to mentally remove themselves, thus negating intellectual norms.

Religious Daoism had very few links with the new Neo-Daoism. Since the second century CE, Religious Daoism became the most prolific religion in China, though it never reached a sophisticated level of religious explanation. Because of, or partially do to this, Religious Daoism adhered to eclecticism or spontaneous doctrines. Each temple or preacher had their own principles and doctrines that were taught. During the Han Dynasty, though, two important religious schools converged under Religious Daoism: the hygiene school and the Elixir school.

The hygiene school taught ways in which to enhance your life. They taught meditation and gymnastics. The Elixir school sought immortality through alchemy and other potions. These schools combined and the belief that practitioners of meditation and alchemy could become immortal became very widespread. This is also a form of escapism. The practitioners sought to escape this life by transcending the life/death cycle.

Buddhism began to first filter in on the religious level with some of its doctrines. The meditation and gymnastics that the Religious Daoists taught matched up fairly well with the meditation and yoga that the Buddhists taught. And the eclecticism of Daoist teachers and temples allowed an easy flow of Buddhist beliefs to creep in. Indeed, many early Chinese believed that Buddhism was merely a sub-branch of Daoism.

The intellectual beliefs of Buddhism also sometimes had a striking similarity to Chinese philosophies. Theravada Buddhism’s stress on the ascetic lifestyle for enlightenment seemed to mirror the Neo-Daoists’ eremitism. Buddhism also taught that values in this life are transitory, which matched with Neo-Daoism’s nihilism. The scholar Mouzi went as far as writing an apologetic for Buddhism. In it he tried to argue that Buddhism wasn’t so foreign a doctrine when compared to current Chinese philosophies, especially Daoism. He even went as far as trying to show misconceptions in Chinese philosophies, such as the belief in immortality:
The questioner said, “The Daoists say that Yao, Shun, the Duke of Zhou, and Confucius and his seventy-two disciples did not die, but became immortals. The Buddhists say that men must all die, and that none can escape. What does this mean?”

Mouzi said, “Talk of immortality is superstitious and unfounded; it is not the word of sages. Laozi said, ‘Even Heaven and Earth cannot last forever. How much less can human beings!’ Confucius said, ‘The wise man leaves the world, but humaneness and filial piety last forever.’ … I make the Classics and the commentaries my authority and find my proof in the world of men. To speak of immortality, is this not a great error?” (426 de Bary)
While all these similarities between Buddhism and Chinese philosophies may have facilitated the integration of Buddhism, it does not account for its lasting foothold. If you have a spoon that you like and is nice and another spoon comes along that is equally nice, unless you are capricious, you don’t just switch spoons. One spoon has proven its worth; the other has not. So what did Buddhism add?

The main tenets of Buddhism are called the Four Noble Truths: 1) All life is suffering. 2) Suffering comes from Desire. 3) The cessation of Desire will lead to nirvana, or enlightenment. 4) Nirvana can be reached by way of the Eight-Fold Path (an eight-step plan of right action, right speech, etc.). These Four Truths continued the streak of similarities. The Eight-Fold Path was very similar to Confucian doctrine of humaneness. Indeed, Wei Shou, a Chinese historian in the sixth century, had this to say about the similarities between Confucianism and Buddhist doctrine:
The first step in cultivation of the mind is to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the samgha. These are the three refuges. These are comparable to the three things a man of virtue stands in awe of [in Confucianism]. There are also five prohibitions: one must not kill, rob, commit adultery, lie, or drink wine. The meaning is much like [the Confucian virtues of] benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness, though the names are different. (98 Buddhist Doctrines and Practices)
The cessation of Desire was also something that Confucians and Daoists were in the habit of doing. What was new was the first Noble Truth: all life is suffering. It was an explanation for the world’s evils that the Chinese had never had before. In Daoism, neither Neo-Daoism nor Religious Daoism had an explanation for why evil occurred. Buddhism was a new spoon.

The doctrinal differences of Buddhism and the two Daoisms can be found in the Buddhists belief in reincarnation and the third Noble Truth. Buddhism taught that all life was caught in a karmic cycle of life and rebirth. Evil and good deeds are like stains on your skin that follow into your next life and shape the way your life is experienced. The third Truth says that if you cessate your desires you will reach enlightenment. Well, karma is the cycle of life and if all life is suffering, then that means that karma is the cycle of suffering. If suffering comes from desire, then karma is the cycle of desires. Therefore, ceasing to desire rids you of the karmic cycle, which also rids of you of life (being that the karmic cycle is the life cycle). Nirvana literally means “blowing out,” as in a candle or lamp, but it also has come to mean annihilation, Nothingness—“no life”.

The karmic life cycle resembles, in a way, the Dao from Daoism. Daoism didn’t have a doctrine of reincarnation, but they believed that even when your material body died, you were still in the Flow (a synonym for the Dao). Material life and material death were really a unified reality. Buddhism agrees insofar that after you materially die, you are materially reborn. But from this Buddhism diverges.

Daoism is all about being in the Flow. Being spontaneous and letting life happen and going with it. Buddhism is all about getting out of the Flow. Enlightenment is reached when you stop desiring and, therefore, cease to be. This “getting out of the Flow” of enlightenment can clearly be seen as an escape from life. It literally is an escape from life, the karmic cycle. This fits in strongly with the vein of escapism in Daoism. The escape from social and intellectual norms (eremitism and nihilism) and transcendence of life into immortality are stepping-stones to finally just leaving life altogether.*

Early Chinese philosophies never enunciated what evil was. Daoism, in particular, says that the world is neither good nor evil, it just is. Buddhism does say where evil comes from and it also tells you what to do about it. As it happens, what it told practitioners to do wasn’t a giant leap for the Chinese. They had begun a tradition of escapism and Buddhism’s continuance, but with an added explanation, of this tradition made it very popular as a fully separate Chinese religion, standing alongside Daoism and Confucianism.


* It can be argued that immortality can hardly be seen as a stepping-stone for leaving life, but the Chinese transformed Nirvana into a kind of Heaven, so that you kept your identity when you reached enlightenment (unlike Indian Buddhism). This, then, mirrors the belief in immortality that is believed by the Western religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam where immortality is reached in Heaven after life.


  1. “Daoism is all about being in the Flow. Being spontaneous and letting life happen and going with it. Buddhism is all about getting out of the Flow.”

    This was certainly true of early Buddhism. No doubt early on the meditation schools were teaching, “escape from reality”, which seems to me nothing more than a form of escaping past appearance to reality and/or retreating to the old “pie in the sky”.

    This always seems to happen once ideas become institutions…

    did you buy any candles???

  2. Of course, on the other hand, I'm not completely sure what ideas are good for if not some of them becoming institutions.


    What candles?

  3. Candles... Didn't someone leave a post selling candles or something (looks like you deleted it) I don't remember now... I've been gone from the blog for a while... Gotta catch up.

  4. Hhi there,
    Interesting post! I like how you compared Buddhism with Daoism and Confucianism at the same time, very difficult to do... Would you have by any chance books or other sources to suggest on that topic?


  5. Unfortunately, no. I did find out what the "de Bary" reference was to: Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1. That was the main reference text. We also used two other books that I've since found on a list: Open Empire by Valerie Hansen and Mountain of Fame by John E. Wills.

    I haven't really studied Eastern thought since the time of that class, some 8 years ago. Though for those of us who still like to refer to "Eastern thought," more needs to be done to remedy our lack of understanding of the diversity of non-Greek intellectual traditions. There's tons of religion survey books, crap assigned to me in classes years ago, but I'm not sure there's a lot of interesting stuff designed to give Westerners a feel for how the traditions actually function (though anything by Ninian Smart is decent). One thing I can think of is Arthur Danto's Mysticism and Morality, which collages together various Eastern traditions. He's a very sensitive and supple thinker.

    But this is still a deficit of mine. What we need to learn in particular is more about how these various traditions transformed themselves in different cultural contexts--India and China are very different, something that get's glossed over in "Eastern." We all know that "Zen Buddhism" was born of a mispronunciation, but the one thing that was heightened through that class was my awareness of how difficult it is to refer to something unified called "Buddhism."


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