The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun): A Study of the Unfolding of Sinitic Mahayana Motifs

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The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun): A Study of the Unfolding of Sinitic Mahayana Motifs

China, the country traditionally ruled by the Confucian literati, has prided herself in being moderate, rational and agnostic. So prevalent is this self-image, projected by her cultural elite and enhanced by Sinology itself, that to many, China is still the paradigm of la vie de la moderation, or, in Chinese, of chung-yung (the mean).
      However, historically, China did mysteriously seem to lose her sense of proportion in what may be regarded as her "medieval", or, better, Buddhist period, roughly from the fourth to the tenth centuries A.D. At that time, China showed she was capable of all the extravagance of the spirit that one, for better or for worse, still associates with the word "religious."
      By the twelveth or thirteenth century, during the Sung period (960-1279 A.D.), China regained her sense of proportion and came down to earth once more. The Sung Neo-Confucian triumph was not simply due to the institutional strength of the literati alone, as has been so often argued. The same literati only a short while earlier embraced wholeheartedly the Buddhist mysteries. The Neo-Confucian triumph was due to new spiritual insights into the nature and destiny of man and the priorities of life. It is the Neo-Confucian polemics against the Buddhist that still cloud modern Chinese views of the Buddhist tradition. The anticlerical attitude of modern Western humanism introduced into China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does not help much to correct these long-cherished Neo-Confucian opinions. Even the more objective Sinologist still follow Dr. Hu Shih's interpretation that Buddhism was ultimately an alien plague or anomaly that led China astray from her "predestined" humanism.1
      In many studies on Chinese Buddhism, the emphasis has been put on the so-called "Sinicization" process and on the confrontation between Chinese and Indian "essences." For example, emphasis has been placed on how "otherworldly" Indian Buddhism was transformed by the Chinese "essence" of "worldliness." The assumption that cultures may be described in terms of "essences" oversimplifies the complex human issues. Additionally, too strong a focus on the dynamics of "acculturation" can misconstrue the religious elements involved. I would prefer to look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. The question I raise is not how China was "Indianized'", as Hu Shih would put it, but how the Chinese were converted to the Buddhist Dharma (Law) and came to recognize the truth in it.1 Nor is it a question of how an Indian religion was "Sinicized" but how the Buddhist sangha (fellowship) in China underwent self-transformation, drawing upon inspirations from within the Buddhist tradition itself. For example, the turn towards the world or the rejection of otherworldliness or, better, "othershoreliness" was already in the Mahayana tradition itself as in the dictum "Samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara." The Buddhist tradition is never simply "otherworldly mystical" but contains within itself a wealth of teachings providing a whole range of orientations towards the world. As the Buddhist sangha matured in China, the Chinese Buddhists merely developed those elements in the Mahayana tradition closest to her "native" heart.
      The phenomenon of "Sinitic Mahayana" should therefore be objectively analyzed as a cultural phenomenon and also sympathetically appreciated in its own religious terms. Just as Christianity is considered to be a creative synthesis of the Classical and the Hebraic tradition, Sinitic Mahayana should also be seen as a proud and independent offspring of the Indian and Chinese confluence. The Hebraic concept of the Messiah and the Greek idea of the Logos merged into the Christian notion of Christ as the Word of God. Similarly, it can be shown that the mature Chinese Buddhist concept of li (principle) as it was used by the Hua-yen school, was a union of the Buddhist Dharma and the Chinese Tao. Li synthesized the original meanings of Dharma and Tao, both symbols for "Transcendence", and articulated their structural interrelationship in a manner unknown before in India or China. The Sinitic understanding of the Mahayana Dharma is comparable to the Christian Church's proclamation (kerygma) concerning God—it is a new insight into an eternal truth.
      The approach outlined above· would seem to be the natural and proper approach in the understanding of Chinese Buddhism. However, for some reasons, scholars have not yet followed such paths of investigation. I hope the thesis' attempt to combine the traditional sectarian Buddhological approach (which sees all Chinese Buddhist innovations to be solidly grounded in sacred Indian scriptures) and the modern critical historical analysis can reveal more faithfully the dynamics of the Buddhist faith in Chinese history.1      The larger issues mentioned in the preface here form the backdrop for the more specific study of one Chinese Buddhist text in the body of the thesis. I am interested in the "emergence of Sinitic Mahayana" ca. 600 A.D. in China and in the role the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun) played in bringing it about.1 (Lai, preface, i–v)


(as numbered in the original manuscript)
1. Hu Shih, "The Indianization of China: A Case Study in Cultural Borrowings," Independence, Convergence and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought and Art (Cambridge: . Harvard Tercentenary Publication, 1937). Kenneth Ch'en, in his book The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism (Princeton: 1973) follows explicitly Hu Shih's approach.
1 See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: 1972). The Dharma is "Truth" and it is no more Indian than the Christian God is Jewish.
1. For a review of the limitations of sectarian scholarship, see Kamata Shigeo's critical resume (in English) in his Chūgoku Bukkyō shisō shi kenkyū (Tokyo: 1969).

Citation Lai, Whalen. "The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun): A Study of the Unfolding of Sinitic Mahayana Motifs." PhD diss., Harvard University, 1975.