Buddhistdoor Global has recently launched our year-long Buddhism in the People’s Republic project, which focuses on han chuan fo jiao—the Chinese Mahayana tradition, and the resurgence of Buddhism in China. While han mightimply that every ethnic Han Chinese follows Mahayana Buddhism and that the practice is limited to this ethnic group, this is not the case. Han chuan, however, has been tied to the Han people (who make up 92 per cent of China’s population), ever since its introduction in China during the Han dynasty, two millennia ago. It embedded itself in a culture that is very different to its Indic antecedent (even though all schools in the han chuan family trace their lineages ultimately to Shakyamuni Buddha). Chinese Buddhism remains different from the Dharma forms found in countries such as Japan and Korea, where it has also been adapted to the local culture. And it certainly differs from the forms of Buddhism with which the West has come to be most familiar.
How is han chuan fo jiao different from all these other Dharmic expressions? We would propose that Chinese Buddhism is different thanks to the culture that adopted it. For thousands of years, through upheavals and tectonic shifts in society, Chinese civilization has maintained a distinct disposition and mindset, inspired by three differing socio-spiritual philosophies (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism), which have merged into a unitary yet diverse culture of thought.
Unlike the Abrahamic view of good versus evil found in many Western spiritual traditions, Chinese Buddhism advocates following a way (dao) of being and moving in the world. Rather than a teleological view of history as expressed in theism or Enlightenment rationalism, where humanity moves toward a common destiny and the march of time is synonymous with the march of progress, Chinese thought accepts the cyclical nature of existence. Conditions, whether couched as karmic affinity (yuan fen) or as movements of the cosmos or heaven (tian), develop in ways often unknown, independent, or contradictory to human scheming.
Finally, whereas West’s religious heritage has in the past few centuries emphasized an individual’s agency over the external world, Chinese culture has traditionally valued the dynamic between yin and yang, of the productive and harmonious interaction between opposites, and the collective—clan, community, and country.
Han chuan is constantly evolving in this unique cultural context, and is consequently not easy to approach from the perspective of an academic or practitioner. Nevertheless, its living significance can perhaps be summarized in three ways: informing the Chinese present, articulating a moral future for China’s people, and mediating between the Chinese and non-Chinese worlds.
In the literature of old China, the past functioned as a corrective, as an ideal to return to rather than abandon. Time and again we see emperors, ministers, scholars, and poets of different periods lamenting their contemporaneous times, comparing them to a past dynasty or era. From the 19th century onwards, the worldview of a lost, ideal antiquity existed alongside Western religions and schools of thought that banked on a glorious future to come: the Kingdom of Heaven, Utopia, the end of capitalism, and so on.
And the world is moving toward a future that many Chinese do feel optimistic about: 41 per cent of Chinese in a 2016 poll, compared with 6 per cent in the US and 3 per cent in France. One functional presence of Buddhism in China is to remind believers that the lessons of the 2,000 year old tradition of Mahayana Buddhism can help tame the modern-day malaise of materialistic, winner-takes-all social attitudes. Its teachings on no-self, insight, and compassion can provide a corrective to distilled interpretations of Western (now global) individualism—which in China has taken the form of a social sphere in which status and money are all that matter—while also teaching people to cultivate non-attachment to ideological extremes of any form.
Han chuan was also linked to the intellectual elite of old China, the literati that negotiated Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist teachings and institutions at local and imperial levels. At times, they prioritized schools of thought at Buddhism’s expense, but at other times acted as Buddhism’s vanguard. A study by Zhe Ji in 2013 concluded that Buddhism today functions as a “basic system of symbolic reference for 10–20 percent of the Chinese adult population.” (Chinese Sociological Review) As the number of Buddhist monastics and householders is less than this number, it suggests that a considerable number of Chinese encounter Buddhist ideas, even if superficially. This is a context ripe for a retrenchment of Buddhist values, facilitated by monastics and householders at community centers, monasteries, universities, and other places of intellectual and social development.
The Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is full of high-tech projects in infrastructure, transportation, and communications, also hearkens back to a “golden age” of cosmopolitan exchange. During this golden age, Buddhism was carried on the backs of merchants and monks’ camels into the great cities like Luoyang and Chang’an, from where it was transported to other East Asian regions, facilitating a great cultural and spiritual exchange between China and non-Chinese cultures. It’s no coincidence that today the government seems to see Buddhism as China’s most “international” spiritual export. As the Belt and Road Initiative unfolds, Buddhist leaders and organizations need to take advantage of this exposure to present who they are and what they do. This is important not only for cross-cultural understanding, but also to clarify in no uncertain terms Buddhism’s opposition to superstitious and materialistic interpretations of the Dharma practiced in China.
To understand Chinese Buddhism means in no small way to understand Chinese thought. Chinese Buddhist institutions are in the unprecedented position to not only guide the people, but also to help articulate the ideal kind of future and engage in dialogue with non-Chinese cultures—after all, Buddhism was once just one of many foreign religions in China. The key is for Buddhism to renew itself in “Chinese” fashion: accommodating and in dialogue with others, returning to roots without being attached to the past, and moving between different worldviews and opinions rather than simply supporting one over the other. This is a bold yet promising journey that depends on the initiative and courage of Buddhist leaders to guide the way.
Zhe Ji. 2013. “Chinese Buddhism as a Social Force: Reality and Potential of Thirty Years of Revival.” Chinese Sociological Review.
China is the only country that’s remotely optimistic about the future (Business Insider)