Looking to ancient India for the as the origin of the Mahayana movement tends to obscure something obvious: There is an almost perfect correlation between Theravada Buddhism and the part of Asia in the traditional Indian sphere of cultural influence, on the one hand, and between Mahayana Buddhism and the vast traditional Chinese sphere of cultural influence, on the other. For instance, in Theravada countries people traditionally eat with their hands, and in Mahayana countries people traditionally eat with chopsticks. These correlations suggest that the two great schools of Buddhism are actually Suitable Cultural adaptations rather than the just result of deviation and schism in India. I will leave it to others to consider if and how Tibet, as a third cultural region, fits in with the points I make in this essay.
So, it seems there were two phases is the differentiation of the two primary schools: First, the schools that had developed in India spread beyond India, both the sects and the Mahayana overlay on the sects. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Mahayana was found in Southern and Southeastern Asia as well as China and Tibet. Second, the local culture has selected the form of early Buddhism that has most appeal to that culture, and continued to adapt it to make it even more culturally suitable. These two processes might be compared to extension of a gene pool through mutation followed by the process of natural selection for environmental conditions. The more conservative Theravada Buddhism had a natural base of appeal in the Indian cultural area, but presumably so did early Mahayana, which had also grown up there. Even if Mahayana had come to dominate in the Land of the Hand, it would have been, one would expect, a much more conservative Mahayana than found now in the Chinese cultural area because it would have been more nearly Culturally Suitable to begin with. Because of different cultural conditions Mahayana Buddhism evolved more rapidly in China and beyond.
The Culture of the Chopstick.
Aside from eating implements, the following are roughly characteristic of Chinese culture at the time Buddhism was moving into the Land of the Chopstick: The weather was and is much colder than in India; clothing and housing are expected to be more substantial. The religious life largely was based in Confucianism and Taoism, both rather austere and non-metaphysical. Confucianism has a very strong ethical code governing every aspect of life from the behavior of the emperor to familial relations. The family had a pronounced place in Confucian culture. Begging for food was denigrated in China and there was no previous tradition of wandering mendicants. Taoism was more contemplative and simple, close to nature, with a non-dualistic world view. China enjoyed a rich intellectual life, Chinese thought has been called syncretic where Indian is analytic, The emperors were divinities. There was a lot of political instability and wars, and the government distrusted and regulated any nongovernmental organization, such as a religious order. There was much social mobility in China; a farmer’s son could through passing government examinations become employed in the government system and eventually be promoted to be a minister to the emperor. It was hard for the natives to get the tongue around the traditional Buddhist languages like Sanskrit and Pali.
Selection and Adaptation in the Land of the Chopstick.
It has been suggested that Mahayana Buddhism had greater appeal in the Chinese because it was so colorful, and had a rich mythology, in contrast to the indigenous Taoism and Confucianism. This is prominent in the Busby Berkeley-like Mahayana Suttas with their complex imagery and magical stories. The mythical bodhisattvas, like Avalokiteshvara (in China, Guan Yin) became very popular. The more austere Theravada or other early sects would not have had such appeal.
Monastics in India were home-leavers by definition, yet family and home in China were at the very center of Chinese society. The monastic Sangha seems to have deflected social criticism on this point through the device of Ordination Lineage, that is through making a public analogy between the family tree and the lineage chart one can derive by drawing a line from each monk or nun to his or her preceptor/teacher. With a little creative imagination family trees all the way back to the Buddha were drafted, spanning far more generations than almost any indigenous Chinese family history. The Sangha, now organized by ordination lineage, became in effect a really big family, such that a new monk or nun not so much left family as switched family. This seemed to appease Chinese otherwise bruised familial sensitivities. Perhaps as a consequence of the emphasis on family lineage, monks seem to have developed closer relationships with their preceptors, traveling less freely from monastery. Teachers began to protect their students from the influence of other teachers, introducing strong sectarianism at a microscopic level.
Monastics in India and in the Vinaya live on alms, yet beggars in China were pariahs. As a result, it seems, monks and nuns became more self-sufficient, relying more on large donations than on small daily alms. Often these large donations were in the form of land grants through which monasteries could earn wealth through renting land to farmers. Often monastics became farmers themselves, forcing modifications of the otherwise cumbersome monastic robes, or of their abandonment in certain situations in favor of monastically appropriate work clothing. On the other hand, because monastics became more self-sufficient, monastic discipline was actually tightened in others ways: monastics, freer to choose their own diet, stopped eating meat altogether in China.
Monastics in India, and in the Vinaya, sported the traditional rectangular lower and upper robes, and generally nothing else, yet the weather in China forced the monks and nuns to adopt more substantial clothing. First, the Mahayanists added layers of clothing underneath the traditional Indian robes. These additional layers have such innovations as sleeves, the most pronounced layer taking a form something like a large bathrobe, which in my Zen experience had voluminous sleeves that tended to collect chairs, pets and small children if one moved about without mindfulness. Second, the outer, more archaic layer, has tended to shrink more manageably in size and to disappear altogether in informal or humid contexts. It also turned out that some of the colors that Indian monks used to dye their robes, and that had become part of the Vinaya standards for the properly attired monk or nun, were reserved for exclusive royal use. More use of brown or even black resulted.
The governance of the monastic Sangha in India and in the Vinaya was designed as a concentual democracy operating at the monastery level with relative freedom from outside interference in mind, yet the government in China habitually interfered in the governance of any nongovernmental organization and took them in as part of the authoritarian hierarchy. As monasteries became more integrated into the prevailing hierarchy of authority, seniority within the Sangha became more pronounced and became reflected in the color, design or quality of clothing of senior monks. At times the government in China turned against Buddhism, even actively suppressing it.
In Japan the government interfered at different times with monastic discipline. In the Tenth Century it tried to put a cap a the number of ordinations, resulting in large numbers of ordinations outside of Vinaya protocol, and eventually leading to the almost total loss of the Vinaya in Japan. In the Nineteenth Century the Meiji government, for a time openly hostile to Buddhism, restructured the Buddhist establishment in such a way to encourage ordained monks to serve as married temple priests.
In spite of the necessity for many adaptations, the monastic Sangha survived and thrived, and seems to have kept close to the Vinaya wherever possible. In China the monastics took on a second ordination, the fifty-eight Bodhisattva Precepts, which includes, for instance, that prohibiting the eating of meat, and strengthening that for drinking alcohol. Monastics continued to study and practice meditation often in very serene environments. In at least one very significant sense the preservation of the pre-Mahayana monastic discipline succeeded where it succumbed to historical contingencies in the Theravada countries: The bhikkshuni tradition (full ordination for nuns) died out centuries ago in all Theravada countries, while it has flourished continuously in East Asian Mahayana lands since Sri Lankan nuns brought it to China, around 350 AD, and flourishes there to this day,
Buddhist doctrine and the ways in which doctrine was expressed also evolved in China. China, like India, seems to have been fairly tolerant of religious diversity. In many ways the Mahayana might have been more easily understood in China; it was beginning to develop non-dualistic leanings (also thought to have influenced Hindu Advaita Vedanta in India) which may have resonated with Taoists. The generalization of Buddha’s concept dependent co-origination as the basic stuff of reality, particularly in the Flower Ornament Sutra probably appealed to the Chinese bent toward syncretism. Various schools appeared in China apparently without much debate or conflict. A common pattern was for a school to base itself on a particular Mahayana scripture. For instance, the foundational scripture of the Hua Yen School was the Flower Ornament Sutra, that of the Tien Tai School was the Lotus Sutra, that of the Pure Land School was the Amitabha Sutra. At the same time, Buddhism integrated much from Confucianism or Taoism; The Ch’an School in particular blended Taoism in rather freely, initially by adopting Taoist terms as targets for Buddhist terminology from the Sanskrit. Zen developed in China a quite unique scriptural corpus whose language is more the language of Chinese Taoism than of Indian Buddhism, and Taoist predilections for non-dualism or mistrust of conceptual thinking accentuated explorations already present in Indian Mahayana. Another Chinese innovation, that of sudden enlightenment in this very life, rather than gradual enlightenment over many lives, is probably related to the relative social mobility of the Chinese.
One peculiar dependence of Buddhism on Confucianism seems to have developed in East Asia that might be important for Buddhism in the West. This has been pointed out by Rev.Shohaku Okamura. Buddhism in India is very much about Ethics. In China Confucianism already provided very exact commonly recognized standards for ethical behavior that were never displaced by Buddhism and probably were strong until the Twentieth Century in all of the Lands of the Chopstick. As a result, within Buddhism per se ethical teachings seemed to have been minimized, as Buddhism used the indigenous teachings on ethics as a crutch, The focus of Buddhism seems thus to have shifted more toward meditation and wisdom practices and away from ethics.
In summary, Buddhist made changes in both doctrine and monastic discipline in order to adapt to the Culture of the Chopstick. At the same time it retained the general shape of tradition rather tenaciously, where it had to give a little her it took a little there. In the end it was the Culture of the Land of the Chopstick that adapted to Buddhism and Buddhism pervaded many aspects of Eastern Asian life, thought and art.