Kenneth K. Inada
Journal of chinese Philosophy
vol 24:1 (1991)
PP. 5-17
Coypright @ 1997 by dialogue Publishing Company, Honolulu,
Hawaii, U.S.A.

. P.5 For years I have wondered about Buddhism in China with both puzzlement and amazement. Puzzlement as to why the Chinese accepted a foreign ideology, a religion, that would sweep their already set ways of thinking and practice, i.e., despite the fact of their established Confucian and Taoist traditions. Amazement in terms of how the Chinese over a period of time, several centuries to be sure, were able to understand Buddhist principles or doctrines in such a way that in time they were able to forge ahead with their own brand of Chinese Buddhism. With respect to both aspects, puzzlement and amazement, I certainly do not have any complete answers for the simple reason that a good portion of the answers are quietly buried in the sands of time. To the first aspect, puzzlement, perhaps the onus of clarifying the situation belongs largely to the historians and related social scientists, if indeed a consistent plausible story can be told. To the second aspect, amazement, perhaps the onus of presenting a plausible theory belongs to the speculative thinkers who are able to decipher the ideological contacts and ongoing dialogues, subtle and abstract as they necessarily are, and bring forth a reasonable theory concerning the uniqueness of the Chinese mind in terms of adaptation, accommodation, incorporation and creativity. In this essay, I am more concerned about the aspect of amazement than that of puzzlement and will thus proceed accordingly with full knowledge that a more comprehensive treatment will have to be done by the cooperation and contributions by scholars throughout the world. P. 6 I. Continental Spirit We must first of all focus on the nature of the Chinese mind. This mind has unique features which many a scholar has failed to address properly or to which they merely gave lip service. The attitude is not only myopic but damaging to any probe and understanding for, afterall, the unique Chinese culture or civilization is certainly based on a unique mind. The best description I have encountered thus far comes from the late Fung Yu-lan(a) who characterized the Chinese mind as one endowed with a continental spirit. The more I explore into the nature of the Chinese mind the more I am inclined to accept Fung's characterization. Of course the continental spirit does not explain every phase or element of the mind, but it does, more importantly, point out the basis of each phase or element that makes a crucial difference in the interpretation of a people, their actions and culture. So, what is the continental spirit? The term "continental" depicts a huge land mass, a vastness, an illimitable nature, and the term "spirit" is modified with the same nature, a spirit that is huge, large, extensive, holistic, totalistic and a grand unity. Because of such a spiritual nature, it also carries with it certain complementary features or dimensions, such as, resiliency, malleability, mutuality and, most significantly, constant change or transformation. In consequence, when we point to the Chinese mind, we are focusing on resultant actions that exhibit particular form and content. That is to say, the exhibitions are characterized by a full breadth, depth and total change in the phenomenal and spiritual worlds of individuals; these actions are also expressed in terms of boldness, swiftness, magnanimity and holistic mutual involvement. This is the spirit that has led and guided the Chinese to construct unbelievable greater-than-life monuments of human endeavor, such as, the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Ming Tombs and the huge buried entourage of warriors designed to guide the emperor's final journey to the nether world. These monuments could hardly come about from a lesser mind or P.7 without a spirit to match them. Naturally, at times. such a spirit may falter or languor in hubris as witnessed for example by the relative inactivity, passivity or incohesiveness of the Ch'ing Government during the European colonial expansionism in Asia. II. Tao: The Nature of Things The concept of the Tao underlies all existence in phenomenal as well as non-phenomenal manifestations indeed it is Nature as it is and as it is in the making. The Chinese early on depicted the Tao manifestation in terms of the cosmological triadic heaven-earth-humankind relationship, a relationship that focuses on the holistic unity of things rather than on any divisive or dichotomous particulars. Nothing stands alone or independent under this cosmology, so that everything seeks mutual identity in its scheme of things. This totalistic nature is not only difficult to grasp but also difficult to implement in everyday living, yet it is always the basis of all actions and activities, large and small, significant or insignificant, good or evil. What makes it difficult to grasp? The answer lodges in the most auspicious but demanding concept of change (yi(b)). In retrospect, it was the Chinese genius to perceive change as the most important and basic element of nature in the understanding of the phenomenal world. The average person, however, would not see its importance in phenomenal movements and would instead simply ignore it as not having any appreciable consequence. But therein lies the rub. That is to say,have we really taken a good look at the happenings, the momentary nature of things? Have we wondered about the events of the day as they arise and subside, or how they influence and mold the very character of succeeding events? Or, in the personal biological realm, have we really gotten to the bottom of changes in the ageing process? The chances are we have not seriously examined ourselves and that the ageing process or events attendant to it are mere slurs, if anything at all, in our dim memories. These memories are awakened only by reference to anniversaries or celebrations of certain P.8 dates. But we cannot escape the fact that we are creatures in momentary existence in tandem with the cosmological process. The Chinese saw change or transformation as the very expression of the Tao.(C) How the Tao expresses itself and how humans are able to follow its movements have been the eternal quest from time immemorial. On this point, the whole genre of Taoist literature is nothing but a revelation of the Tao and its movements, a revelation that remains a constant challenge to humans to assimilate its process. A simple message, to be sure, but one fraught with implemental difficulties. The Yi-ching(d) (Book of Changes) crystallizes the movement of the Tao in terms of so-called positive and negative forces, the straight and broken lines. The elaborate configurations in the hexagrams have constantly been an allurement to many a thinker who seeks to decipher their meaning and significance, even in contemporary times all this has trickled down to the rhythmic representations of daily phenomena as recorded, for example, in popular Oriental calendars. Moreover, the movements are nothing but interpretive derivations of the well known yin-yang(e) phenomenon. This phenomenon, more accurately, should be referred to as correlative or mutual dynamics because it points to an inner process which defies dichotomization into independent elements or forces. It exhibits the fact that mere cosmological description is inadequate, and calls for the need to grasp or intimate what is an ever vital ontological dynamics. It also affirms the leading Taoist notion that the Tao that can be expressed/described is not the eternal Tao. Such a notion is frustrating, to say the least, but it also challenges and entices us to further probe the nature and function of the Tao. Indeed, in a sense, the whole Taoist literature is nothing but hints and suggestions on how to become intimate with the Tao. We shall now try to discuss a few of these basic but subtle ideas The Tao Te Ching(f) has several references to the great doctrine of non-action (wu-wei(g)). It exhibits the fact that rather than positively identifiable action in and of itself that really underlies change, it is the exact opposite notion, the nature of non-action, that does so. For P.9 example, it is said "By acting without action, all things will be in order" (verse 3) .(1) Or, similarly, " Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone." (verse 37).(2) And finally, verse 43 illuminates it.(3) The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world. Non-being penetrates that in which there is no space. Through this I know the advantage of taking no action. Few in the world can understand teaching without words and the advantage of taking no action. The above verse contains the important concept of non-being, a cognate for the way of non-action. Since deeds of non-action are quite subtle and paradoxical, we turn to Chuang Tzu(h) to enlighten us, especially by his great acumen for the use of metaphorical language. In the Chuang Tzu, Chapter 27, on "Imputed Words,"(4) he discusses the very important nature and function of goblet words (chih-yen(i)) Goblet words transport ideas but are not carriers of ideas in and of themselves. They are "words that are no-words," and "you may speak all your life long and you will never have said anything."(5) So like the utensil named a goblet which fills up with water only to empty its contents when full and immediately return to its upright position, the process of filling-and-emptying never ends, which is precisely the manner in which goblet words function. These words, in brief flow with the process of speaking and do not ever have any objectively residual nature or any retaining characteristics. Such then is also the flow of the Tao and the basis of all changes wherein non-action is more basic than visible action. III. Being-nonbeing Dynamics The tension between being and nonbeing is merely alleged since it exists only because of the inadequate understanding of human perception. That is to say, in the normal perception of things, one's perceptual appara- P.10 tus is always skewed in the direction of the tangible, visible or manipulable elements. However, perception is much more than what the apparatus reveals, since those elements are always more open, wider and deeper. In other words, we have been conditioned in such a way that we always associate perception with those specific elements, and so in time an odd habit of perception develops which not only blunts the perceptual edges, but continues to keep us tied up with those elements. Just as we saw with the nondichotomous yin-yang process, the being-nonbeing process is also dynamic at all times. Moreover, as soon as the dual components are split up, the process is no longer balanced and dynamic. It will result in a truncated view, a half-view, if you will, of the process itself. Where Lao Tzu(j) and Chuang Tzu wrote in metaphysical terms concerning the movements of the Tao,we find that the Neo-Taoists, Wang Pi(k) (226-249) in particular, came to grips with the dynamic nature of things in more explicit ways. He introduced two features in the dynamics, namely, substance (t'i(1)) and function(yung(m) ), to exhibit its holistic and fluid nature. His singular contribution here is to speak of an original substance (pen-t'i(n) )whereby function (yung) becomes a way of exhibiting its manifestation. In this respect, his commentary on the Book of Changes brings out the cardinal doctrine of an underlying principle in each of the changes as depicted by the respective hexagrams (i.e., symbolic representations of nature's occurrencies).(6) As a further extension of this doctrine, his commentary on the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, offers a bold and direct affirmation that "all beings originated from nonbeing" and that "the time before physical forms and names appeared was the beginning of the myriad things" and thus the "Tao produces and completes things with the formless and nameless."(7) Although these statements appear to replicate the Tao Te Ching, we must take into consideration the times, (the 3rd Century A.D.) and the circumstances (the age of disunity) in which these assertions were made, a time when Buddhism was already making inroads into Chinese culture. At this juncture, I am compelled to assert that Wang Pi, in his relatively short life (dying at 24) filled with rnetaphysical acumen, set the stage for subsequent Chinese P.11 thought to be conducive to the accommodation of Buddhist doctrines and principles. From this period on, there will be greater and more serious contacts with Buddhism in various aspects. Indeed, the most notable scholars during this crucial period of contacts came from the Taoist persuasion. The most prominent Taoist turned Buddhist here is Seng-Chao(o) (384-414) who worked with the famous Kumarajiva(P) (344-413) on translating Buddhist texts. He also on his own commented and wrote treatises on Buddhist doctrines, albeit with Taoist leanings. These treatises were later compiled by his disciples into a work called Chao Lun(q) (Treatises of Seng Chao). With remarkable insight and understanding of Buddhist principles, especially those of Nagarjuna's(r) (15-250) Verses on Ihe Fundamental Middle Doctrine(S) (Mulamadhyamakakarika) he gave a fine philosophical treatment of Buddho-Taoist vocabulary. He recognized the superior Buddhist perception of ordinary experience, a dyanmic form of metaphysics, and set the tone for Chinese Buddhist development.(8) Perhaps he more than any other Chinese thinker was able to perceive the subtle connection or association between Wu(t) and k'ung(u) , "nonbeing'' and "emptiness" respectively. In a sense, he set the stage for the eventual identical treatment of the two concepts in Chinese thought and culture, especially as seen in various art forms. By the time of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) the Chinese had become attuned to Buddhist principles and went ahead to establish their own brand of Chinese Buddhism, notably Ch'an(V) (Zen) and Ch'ing-t'u(W) (Pure Land). IV. Analogical Comparisons We are at a point to begin general analogical comparisons between Chinese pilosophy and Buddhism. The first general category in which both seem to converge is the quest for the truth of existence. That is to say, both systems of thought focus on the total nature of perception to realize the true nature of existence. Where the Chinese perception is always oriented in the triadic heaven-earth-humankind relationship to P.12 exhibit the Tao and its manifestation, the Buddhists took the lead from the historical Buddha's insight (prajna) that led to nirvana and came up with the novel nature of the Dharma and its manifestation in experiential reality. Thus on the whole, the methodological quest for the Tao is similar to the quest for the Dharma. Both systems acknowledged the subtleties of the quest and resorted to the two-fold nature of epistemic functions, i.e., the ordinary or conventional perception of things and the inordinate or supreme perceptual insight into the nature of things. The Taoist, for example, referred to imputed words for the former perception and to goblet words to aid in realizing the latter. The former is related to the senses and the latter to the mind's unique way of sensing and transporting (indeed in a way transmuting) ideas into experiential realities. The former lies in the domain of being (yu(X)), and the latter in the domain of nonbeing(wu). So that, ultimately, enlightenment (ming(y)) in Chinese meant the perception of nonbeing over being. The Buddhists likewise made the distinction between the veiled or covered nature of truth (samvrti-sat) and the supremely open and pure nature of truth (paramartha-sat )The former, again, is related to the senses and their functions as in Chinese thought and the latter to the mind's strength to discipline itself (i.e., yoga) to control the epistemic rise of forms or entities derived from the senses, but which unsuspectingly and incessantly occlude the very nature of perception. As a consequence, in Mahayana Buddhism we witness the interplay between the senses and the mind. Because the senses are limited they deal only with forms or experiential dharmas,(9) and mind initially functions by being fed the dharmas from the senses by virtue of yogic discipline it will realize the purity or emptiness (sunyata )of experiential reality. All of this is oriented within the nature of dynamic experience, known technically as relational origination (pratitya-samutpada). Furthermore, it was the great Nagarjuna (c.150-250) who demonstrated the pitfalls of dharmic analysis that veers off from relational origination to end in objective realism or substantialism, thus retarding the very function of experience by attach- P.13 ment to projected inherent natures (svabhava). He saw reality or the truth of existence within the dynamic flow of things and did not deviate from this context. His famous equation(10) of (a) relational origination, (b) emptiness (c) provisionality of things, and (d) the middle way exhibits in no uncertain terms that the truth of existence is multifaceted, indeed multicontextual, and that in the final analysis it is non-dharmic and totally empty of any designation. This equation is another version, indeed a follow up, of the famous assertion found in the Heart Sutra:(11) "Form is empty and the very emptiness is form." So Buddhism also concluded that emptiness or nonbeing (wu) undercuts any reference to elements of existence (dharmas) or beings as such (yu). Although Chinese thought is not as thorough as the Buddhist metaphysical treatment of experience in terms of the dharmas and non-dharmic nature of things, it should be noted that Chinese thinkers also acknowledged an analogous connection between being and nonbeing. This fact is quite obvious, especially in the philosophy of Seng-chao, and thus the Chinese pursued the enlightening process within a similar framework of dynamic reality. In consequence, both the Tao and the Dharma are at once subject to and the basis of experiential phenomena; they are idealized myths, if you will, of existence. Again, although Chinese thought is divided between Confucianism and Taoism on the matter of humanity (jen(z)), both schools still function to incorporate the highest state of personhood, the sage, within the same unadulterated nature of existence. For Confucianism, the attainment of humanity is most basic to all of life; indeed it is the foundation of all other virtues and doctrines, such as, righteousness, propriety, trustworthiness and intelligence. For Taoism, on the other hand, there is no attainment of humanity as such because it is not an item to be captured nor is it something to be objectified and manipulated. In this respect, the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu have taken issue with the above-mentioned Confucian doctrines. This does not mean, however, that the Taoist is not interested in the good life or the good person. Quite the contrary, the Taoist is deeply concerned for the well-being of individuals and he or she goes about promoting it in a P.14 thoroughgoing naturalistic way rather than in any twisted, strained, forced, formal or conventionally attached ways. The doctrine of supreme naturalness (tzu-jan (aa)) is highly prized, and is a cognate term for nonaction (wu-wei) discussed earlier. In turn, it is an extension of the nature of nonbeing. All this points to the supreme realization or intuition of the Tao (wu-tao(ab)). The closest concept to humanity (jen) in Buddhism is the great doctrine of compassion (karuna). It is actually the flip side of penetrating insight (prajna). For when the historical Buddha realized deep insight into the nature of things, how experiences continually arise and subside, the realization at once manifested both the nature of compassion to understand and save all beings regardless of class, rank or stature, and that all being belong to the selfsame realm of existence. So in Buddhism insight and compassion are regarded as the 'twin peaks' of existence and the highest forms of livelihood. As a consequence, from the very outset Buddhist thought had collapsed the realms of epistemology and ethics No one could speak of one realm without introducing the other. This is the foundation of the concept of Bodhisattva, literally the "enlighted being", because such a one realizes the equality of beings and practices the Bodhisattva way of life (Bodhisattvacarya). In sum, this ideal way of life poses the ultimate challenge to all adherents of the Buddhist faith as well as to interpreters of Buddhism. In truth Chinese thought was capable of incorporating the insightcompassion scheme of things because of its Taoist and Confucian lineage which stressed the sagelike penetration into reality (Tao) and the unstrained humaneness abounding everywhere. Its continental spirit was always magnanimous enough to allow the Chinese to nourish all elements, both domestic and foreign, into a comprehensive harmony. Moreover, from the methodological standpoint, the merging or fusing of Buddhist and Chinese thought displays a deeper nature of the systems, issuing forth a unique kind of Oriental way of life. More specifically, it reveals that Asiatic philosophic systems, by and large, do not adhere strictly to Western fields of metaphysics(ontology) , epistemology P.15 and ethics, and to their attendant elements that foster objectivism. If indeed a central field is to be designated, then it would have to be ethics, the search/quest for the ideal personhood-buddhahood and sagehood in our discussion. All metaphysical and epistemological devices are used merely as aids to understanding the human situation. In the final analysis, the nature and function of ethical principles and values can only be captured and appreciated by serious individual effort and dedication. To this end Asians have striven for and demonstrated the feasibility of a supremely noble way of life. A final afterthought: The Chinese were successful in finally incorporating Buddhist thought into their culture about 1500 years ago, though it took them through a long and tortuous route. Is it not then possible that we here today stand a good chance of succeeding through various forms of East-West dialogues in eventually attaining a dialectical transformation of our lives? Since the mechanics of the contacts and many actual human benefits in dialogue are already in place, we may be in a fortunate situation. But only time will reveal the final outcome. THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT BUFFALO NOTES 1. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (NY: Columbia University Press, 1963). Tao Te Ching. Verse 3, p. 141. 2. Ibid., Verse37,p.158. 3. Ibid.; Verse43,p.161. 4. Burton Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (NY. Columbia University Press, 1968). Chapter 27,pp. 301-308 5. Ibid., p.304. 6 Wing-tsit Chan, op.cit.pp 320-321. 7. Ibid., p.321. 8. Seng-chao's treatises discuss highly abstract subject matters, such as, on "The Immutability of Things," "The Emptiness of the Unreal," 'The Uncogniz- P.16 able Nature of Prajna (insight), " and "The Undesignatable Nature of Nirvana." These are all essential doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism which Seng-chao focused on and understood them quite well, aided no doubt by being close to his teacher, Kumarajiva. It is no accident. moreover, that Kumarajiva chose to translate texts relative to the Madhyamaka philosophy (Middle Way School) Afterall, they were the leading texts in India. 9. These dharma (lower case "d") are factors or elements of experience and should not be confused or identified with the Dharma (in caps), the truth of existence. In order to avoid confusion, the latter is commonly referred to as Buddha Dharma. That the same term is used for ordinary experience as well as enlightened experience exhibits clearly the infrastructural nature of things. In other words, true to the Buddha's original insight, there is universal nature of suffering but at the same time there is a way out of suffering within the selfsame nature of things. This is indeed the saving truth for all Buddhist adherents. 10. Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika Verses on the Fundamental Middle Doctrine) XXIV, 18. See various translations of this mononumental work, eg.,by Kenneth K. Inada, Nagarjuna (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970) P. 148. 11. See the excellent translations and explanations of the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra by Edward Conze, Buddhist Wisdom Books (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958). CHINESE GLOSSARY a. 馮友蘭 b. 易 c. 道 d. <<易經>> e. 陰陽 f. <<道德經>> g. 無為 h. 莊子 i. 言 j. 老子 k. 王弼 l. 體 m. 用 n. 本體 o. 僧肇 p. 鳩摩羅什 q. <<肇論>> r. 龍樹 s. <<根本中觀論頌>> t. 無 u. 空 v. 禪 w. 凈土 x. 有 y. 明 z. 仁 aa.自然 ab.悟道