Setting the Stage for Buddhism to Enter China

Week 10, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define ziran 自然.
  2. Discuss the role dao 道 played in translating Buddhism into Chinese.

Kongzi died in 479 BCE, just before the Warring States period began to rage. Over the next two centuries the states that had broken away from the Zhou dynasty fought one another for supremacy. Finally, in 221 BCE, the Qin dynasty conquered the what was left of the Zhou dynasty as well as the remaining seven warring states. Although the Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years, their dynasty marks the beginning of the imperial system of China which has lasted for more than two centuries. Succeeding the Qin was the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

Confucianism in the Han dynasty
Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, is considered to be the principal architect of the Han system, and formulated the cosmological need for an emperor that would rule over all of what we today would think of as China. Dong extended the earlier arguments between the Ruists and the Mohists and argued that  Tian 天, earth, and man are the origin of all things. “[Tian 天] gives gives birth to things, Earth then nourishes them, and man’s role is to consummately arrange them all [….] These three complement each other as arms and legs go together to  complete a body and none can be dispensed with.” (Chun Qiu Fan Liu, chapter 19; modified translation from Fung, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 194–195)

We’ve previously discussed this theory here and here.

Arthur Wright explains Dong’s argument in this way:
“The three spheres of heaven, earth, and man […] are linked together by the three horizontal lines in the character wang [王], ‘Prince.’ As Son of Heaven the ruler was concerned with the timely performance of ritual, with astronomy and the calendar, with responding to phenomena which could be interpreted as reflecting Heaven’s approval or disapproval. In relation to Earth, the ruler was to ensure its harmonious productivity by seeing that proper arrangements were made for agriculture; one way of doing this was by promulgating an agricultural calendar based on observations of the heavenly sphere. Another way was by establishing well-balanced programs for land use and taxation, for trade in the fruits of the earth’s bounty. And in doing this he moved into the sphere of Man. There he must first see that his subjects have an adequate means of livelihood, for man cannot perfect himself in virtue until his materials needs are met. Once this is done, the ruler is to educate and civilize his people, by teaching the proprieties (li [禮]), music, and the moral norms.” (Buddhism in Chinese History, 13)

The Ascent of Daoism in the Han
During the Han dynasty Ruist philosophy had dominated the bureaucracy.  But as the Han dynasty began to deteriorate in the late-first and early-second century, there was an earnest desire to find alternatives to Ruist thinking. There then came a resurgence in Daoist philosophy.

This renewed interest in philosophical Daoism brought the promise of explaining how to overcome an empire in dissolution. A central concept that was engaged with and elaborated during this period was ziran 自然 “naturalness” it literally means “self-so.”

Étienne Balasz  explains that ziran 自然  has three associated meanings:

  1. nature without human intervention—the self-perpetuating balanced order of nature;
  2. the spontaneous liberty of the individual—the endowment, as it were, of the natural man, free of restraints of convention; and
  3. the ‘Absolute’—another name for [dao 道], the principle of harmonious vitality which informs of all phenomena. (Wright, 29)

Translating from the Indian to the Chinese

From Arthur Wright’s Buddhism in Chinese History:

“No languages are more different than those of China and India. Chinese is uninflected, logographic, and (in its written form) largely monosyllabic; Indian languages are highly inflected, alphabetic, polysyllabic. Chinese has no systematized grammar; Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit, have a formal and highly elaborated grammatical system. [….] In their attitudes toward the individual the two traditions were poles apart at the beginnings of the invasion of Buddhism. The Chinese had shown little disposition to analyze the personality into its components, while India had a highly developed science of psychological analysis. In concepts of time and space there were also striking differences. The Chinese tended to think of both as finite and to reckon time in life-spans, generation, or political eras; the Indians, on the other hand, conceived of time and space as infinite and tended to think of cosmic eons rather than of units of terrestrial life. The two traditions diverged most critically in their social and political values. Familism and particularistic ethics continued to be influential among the Chinese even in an age of cataclysmic change, while Mahayana Buddhism taught a universal ethic and a doctrine of salvation outside the family. Whereas Chinese thinkers had long concentrated their efforts on formulas for the good society, Indian and Buddhist thought had laid particular stress upon the pursuit of other-worldly goals.” (33–34)

“Early efforts to translate Buddhist scriptures were carried on under difficult conditions. Patrons of this work were superstitious and fickle; wars and rebellions disrupted many such enterprises. The early missionaries knew little if any Chinese, and their Chinese collaborators knew no Indian or Central Asian language. There was little communication among scattered Buddhist centers, and hence little chance for one translator to profit from the experience of others. [….] Little by little the technique of translation improved. But it was not until 286 [CE …] that a translation appeared which made the speculative ideas of the Mahayana accessible and reasonably intelligible to literate Chinese. This was the work of Dharmaraksha, who had been born in [Dunhuang] ….” (35)

This first work to be translated into Chinese was the Prajñaparatmita. In our class you are reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s commentary on the “Heart Sutra” section of the Prajñaparatmita.

In order to facilitate communication of these Buddhist ideas to the receiving Chinese language speakers, the early translators of the Buddhist canon relied heavily on terms and concepts that were indigenous to China. For example, dharma (meaning “teaching”) became dao 道. But dao 道 also became useful for translating bodhi (meaning “the enlightenment that allows all things to be as they are”), and dao 道 also was used to translate yoga (meaning “union with totality”). We also see that wuwei “effortless or non-coercive action” came to translate nirvana (meaning ultimate release from illusion).