Chinese Buddhism before Bodhidharma

The following was taken from a master’s thesis by John A. Jorgensen (The Earliest Text of Ch’an Buddhism: The Long Scroll. The Australian National University, 1979). The thesis vividly describes what China was like in the period 450-600—its social, economic, cultural and political landscape, of which the influential and wealthy Buddhist institutions were an integral part. I had intended to post a few paragraphs from his chapter on the doctrinal debates taking place among Chinese Buddhists, but the issues that Jorgensen discusses are so urgent, so important for seekers of enlightenment to understand, that the post grew quite lengthy. You can download his thesis and read the entire thing for yourself here: JorgensenBodhidharma. (Editor)

(p. 45) The story of this period should begin with the great translator Kumarajiva (344-413) and his pupils. Kumarajiva arrived in Ch’ang-an in 401 and there began the translation of works that were to be influential throughout the remainder of Chinese Buddhist history. Although he translated some sutras that had already been rendered into Chinese, his versions were those which became most popular. His main contribution to Buddhism in China was the introduction of Madhyamika texts and the compilation of the Ta chih-tu lun. He provided more accurate translations of the Prajnaparamita texts, including the Vajracchedika (Diamond Sutra), and translated sutras important to several schools of Mahayana. (For example, Vimalakirti, Dasabhumika, Visesacinta-brahma-pariprccha and Surangama-samadhi.)

In contrast to the above, his translations and compositions specifically dealing with meditation are all Theravadin with the exception of the Surangama-samadhi-sutra, which concerns a Mahayana meditation, a samadhi of emptiness pertaining only to the Bodhisattva of the tenth stage in which “the Six Perfections in every mode of physical, verbal and mental behaviour” are realized.

T’ang Yung-t’ung* lists Kumarajiva’s main contributions to Chinese Buddhism as being the introduction of the Madhyamika teachings, the complete denial (for the first time in China) that a soul (atman) exists, and the fact that “he was the first . . . to make it absolutely clear that sunyata signifies not the Taoist idea of nothingness, but a total lack of attributes.”

His pupils and associates continued to promote the development of Buddhist doctrine. Hui-yuan of Mount Lu fostered the devotional side of the teaching, whereas Seng-chao tried to give an explanation of sunya and prajna in a Chinese fashion. . . . I think rather that Tao-sheng (ca. 360-434), of all the students of Kumarajiva, was to determine the course of later Nan-pei-ch’ao (period) Buddhist scholastic debates. Moreover, I would also like to examine the possibility of Tao-sheng’s influence on the compilers of the Long Scroll, for Tao-sheng taught doctrines that were relevant to proto-Ch’an, in fact early Ch’an thought may be the only true successor to his thought and doctrines.

Tao-sheng’s most outstanding contribution to Buddhist theory in China was the thesis that all creatures without exception are endowed with a Buddha-nature. After leaving his teacher (Kumarajiva) in Ch’ang-an he went south (in 408) and there he concentrated on studying the Nirvana Sutra. When he read the Mahaparinirvana Sutra in six chuan that had been jointly translated between 417 and 418 by the pilgrim Fa-hsien and Hui-yuan’s Mt. Lu associate, Buddhabhadra, Tao-sheng opposed its statement that:

“All creatures have a Buddha-nature within themselves. After the innumerable hindrances (klesa) have been eliminated, one will clearly see the Buddha. The icchantikas are an exception to this.”16 (16 An icchantika has no faith, lacks the nature to become Buddha.)

Tao-sheng boldly stated that “on the contrary, even the icchantikas have a Buddha-nature and can become Buddha,” reasoning thus: “Icchantikas are included in the category of creatures. Why should they alone lack a Buddha nature?”

This incited such fanatical opposition that he was expelled as a heretic in 428 from the Southern capital, Chien-yeh. He went into retreat on Mt. Lu. Given that the Taoist and Confucian-influenced Southern literati had not yet accepted Kumarajiva’s pronouncement that there is no soul, they considered that “to say that all creatures share the Buddha-nature implied that they possess immortal souls and thus will be ancestors in the end.” Many of the literati just could not accept that the masses had souls or could become Buddhas just as they themselves could.

However, in 430, Dharmaksema’s translation of the latter part of the Nirvana Sutra (completed 421) arrived at Chien-yeh (K’ang) from the North, and Tao-sheng found that his theory was vindicated by it. The corresponding passages in the Dharmaksema Nirvana Sutra did not make an exception of the icchantikas, it simply said that, “Although these icchantikas have the Buddha-nature, they are bound by the contamination of innumerable sins, and so they cannot break free.”

Thus the idea that all beings have a Buddha-nature was accepted as the truth, however reluctantly. But despite the assertions by Kumarajiva and Tao-sheng that the Buddha-nature is not a soul, nor a self or ego, this idea remained as endemic as ever. Passages in the Srimala and Nirvana sutras contributed greatly to this misunderstanding, and even Emperor Wu of Liang [the great patron of Buddhism who interviewed Bodhidharma] still obstinately clung to the notion that the spirit does not perish. Even Tao-sheng’s own statements are ambiguous enough to allow of such a misapprehension.

“The Principles have it that emptiness does not come from the ego, so how can there be an ego that can govern it? So there is no ego. Non-ego [anatman] basically (means) that there is no ego in that which is born and dies; it does not (mean) that there is no Buddha-nature Ego.”

He asked, “How can there exist an ego apart from non-ego?”

“Because it is eternal, it is self-existent. This is the meaning of Ego. It responds to the impressions made unceasingly by beings. Its self-existence comes from That; it does not originate from ego.” 26 (26 All of these quotations are from Tao-sheng’s commentary on the Nirvana Sutra)

(p. 50) Opponents of Tao-sheng grasped this Ego, which is but a description of the state of Nirvana, and made a soul out of it. Emperor Wu of Liang could still, even after Tao-sheng’s denunciation of it, assert the view that the Buddha-nature is an undying soul. Emperor Wu’s contemporary, Seng-yu, attributes to him a treatise entitled “To establish that the soul forms the Buddha-nature.” T’ang Yung-t’ung concludes that the significance of Emperor Wu’s Buddha-nature was no more than what most people called the soul or spirit. Others also asserted this view of the soul. Seng-tsung (422-475) , a pupil of one of Tao-sheng’s antagonists, Fa-yao (400-475), seems to have asserted that “the spirit is the direct cause of Buddhahood.”

The idea of the soul was not restricted to the South. Tsukamoto, commenting on the use of the word ‘spirit-soul’ says, “it would seem possible to sum up the views of both the lay thinkers and the Buddhists of Northern Ch’i on this subject in these words: ‘The wondrous incomprehensible spirit is immanent in all men. A human being, by refining this spirit and bringing out his own true nature in its pristine beauty, can become a genie, a sage or a buddha.’” This notion of a soul was repudiated by the followers of Bodhidharma.

Tao-sheng’s assertions about Buddha-nature had other implications. Hurvitz summarises Tang’s conclusions as follows:

“The presence of Buddhahood in all living beings leads logically to the identification of everyone with Buddha. The problem is now to be stated not in terms of who is enlightened and who is not, but rather who is aware and who is not. . . . Anyone who holds this view must of necessity believe that enlightenment is instantaneous, and that literally anyone . . . can become a buddha — rather, is one already.”

Involved in this problem is the argument as to whether one has always been endowed with the Buddha-nature and will see its realization, or whether it only comes into being because of practice. Tao-sheng stated:

“Creatures originally have a share in the Buddha’s cognitive vision . . . which is realized through the present teaching. . . . (The Buddha-nature) originally exists, and this seed grows. This does not mean it rises and ceases, for it is eternal, bliss, uncreate.”

He opposed the idea that a Buddha-nature could come into existence:

“Returning to the ultimate is to attain the origin, but it seems as if it has arisen for the first time. If it begins, it must end, and therefore it is not eternal. If one investigates this, then it is I, ego, [who understands it for the first time]. [One] does not reflect that it [only] now exists.”

Fa-yao (400-475) was the principal antagonist of Tao-sheng and Tao-sheng’s pupil, Tao-yu. Fa-yao stated that the Principle was the Buddha-nature and that “the Principle of the Buddha-nature is ultimately a function of the mind.” . . . T’ang deduces from the statements of Fa-yao’s pupils, pupils such as the aforementioned Seng-tsung, that their master kept to the idea of the spirit and gave the Principle [learning the Dharma from a teacher] an overriding importance. One of his pupils, Ling-ken, thought that since creatures were not already Buddha, there was a nature and a Buddha-nature.

The Bodhisattva Simhanada asked, ‘If all creatures already have the Buddha-nature, what is the use of cultivating the Way?’ The Buddha replied, ‘Although the Buddha and the Buddha-nature are undifferentiated, creatures are still unrealized, for they truly have the nature, but lack the Buddha. Therefore they are said to be not yet realized.’

This, despite being considered as an ‘always-endowed’ idea, also contains an element of the ‘initiated’ idea [i.e., initiation through learning]. Chi-tsang comments unfavourably on Ling-ken’s overemphasis on Principle [learning]:

(Ling-ken says of Principle that) ‘its significance is of the highest, even if one lacks the transmission from a teacher.’ The substance of learning is that one must rely on a teacher to receive the practices. Now I ask those who contend that the attainment of the Buddha principles is the direct cause of the Buddha-nature (Ling-ken), what sutra says this and who is it that receives the practice? His teacher (Fa-yao) had taken the mind to be the direct cause of the Buddha-nature, and yet the pupil considers that the attainment of the Buddha principles is the direct cause of the Buddha-nature. Has he not turned his back on his teacher and made his own speculations?

p. 53 Tao-sheng also differed with Fa-yao and others over the question as to whether awakening is instantaneous or gradual. This was the other major debate in the Nan-pei-ch’ao and early T’ang Buddhist circles. In fact there were three schools of thought on awakening during the early Nan-pei-ch’ao: the Major Instantaneous Awakening of Tao-sheng, the Lesser Instantaneous Awakening of Chih Tao-lin and Tao-an, and the Gradual Awakening of Fa-yao and Hui-kuan.

Tao-sheng’s thesis is based on his idea that the Dharma is indivisible and that consequently the awakening must be both instantaneous and complete. Therefore he said it must occur in the final, the stage of the Bodhisattva, i.e. the tenth. Hui-ta’s Chao Lun-shu summarises his views as follows:

“Chu Tao-sheng’s Major Instantaneous Awakening holds that ‘Instantaneous’ is to clarify that the Principle is indivisible, and ‘Awakening’ is to name the Ultimate Illumination. It (means) that Awakening’ is non-dual, and tallies with the undivided Principle. To understand through seeing is called Awakening, to understand through hearing is called faith. . . . Understanding through faith is not the Truth, for when Awakening happens, faith departs. . . . Awakening does not arise of itself, it necessarily depends on the gradual (buildup) of faith.”

Thus Tao-sheng believed that the word ‘Gradual’ applied only to the preparatory stages and that ‘Instantaneous’ applied to awakening, which is a sudden leap, like an awakening from a dream.

His difference with the Lesser Instantaneous Awakening theory concerns the stage of Bodhisattvahood in which awakening occurs. The Lesser School said that it happened at the seventh stage, but this left the problem of what the final three stages were for. The arguments centred on Principle, the ten stages and the Three Vehicles. Tao-lin had said that one is awakened at the seventh stage to the Unborn, and that the latter three stages are a manifestation of the Vajra (Diamond) -mind, a realization that one will become Buddha. In later times these three stages were called the Lesser Awakening. The three vehicles of Arhat, Pratyeka Buddha and Bodhisattva were equated with stages seven, eight and nine of the Bodhisattva career.

Tao-sheng attacked this theory, saying that the three vehicles were only an expedient, and that only the tenth stage was significant. Chi-tsang (549-623) says of the two opinions:

Thus a sutra says, “The first stage does not know of the world of the second stage, nor does even the tenth stage know of the Tathagata’s lifting and planting of his feet.” Also, the Major Instantaneous Awakening School says, “When one reaches the tenth stage, one sees the Unborn for the first time.” The Lesser Instantaneous Awakening School says, “When one reaches the seventh stage, one sees the Unborn for the first time.”

Tao-sheng ridiculed the Vajra-mind, saying:

Life and death is the realm of a great dream. All is a dream, from life and death to the Vajra-mind. The mind after the Vajra (stage) is suddenly awakened, and then there is nothing more to see.

However, in Tao-sheng’s theory, one still has to go through a long, gradual preparation to reach the stage where the sudden qualitative leap is made:

The simile of cutting wood (says) that while there is wood remaining one can gradually remove it by large and small chips. The realization of the Unborn is when birth is exhausted, so the illumination must be instantaneous. [In this figure the last bit of wood is chipped away in an instant.]

About Yung-T’ung T’ang 湯用彤 (1893-1964)

T’ang Yung-t’ung, leading historian of Chinese Buddhism whose major work was the Han wei liang-chin nan-pei-ch’ao fo-chiao shih [History of Buddhism during the Han, Wei, Chin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties, 1938].

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