20. What are your views on Buddhism?
20.1 Necessity for Detailed Study
Buddhism is a very big subject divided into different schools and ethnic traditions. My introduction to that religion occurred in 1965 when I visited the Buddhist Society of London. However, I did not commence a detailed study until the early 1970s, when I began to borrow books on Buddhism from Downing College Library in Cambridge. It was primarily the Mahayana traditions which I then studied. It seemed important to understand how the various sects and traditions had spread from India to Central Asia, Tibet, China, Japan, and yet other countries. The diversity of teaching, ethnic complexities, and the time-scale of many centuries comprised a challenging field of investigation.
I had discovered that many Western enthusiasts of Buddhism did not apply themselves to any detailed study of this religious phenomenon. They often opted to follow a particular tradition, usually Zen (associated with China and Japan) or Vajrayana (associated with Tibet). I did sample both of those traditions, but without becoming a partisan (Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 43-5). Rather, what interested me was the phenomenon as a whole, and from an historical and philosophical standpoint, not from any sectarian one. How many times did I find Zen elevated above all other religions and philosophies? There were numerous instances of that approach available in popular literature, and I did become allergic to it. I became aware that specialist scholarship was probing Zen in a more analytical spirit than was generally known.
I returned to these matters in the 1980s at CUL (Cambridge University Library), and tracked ongoing books like Professor Bernard Faure’s highly rated The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (1991). A version of Zen was included in my Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), pp. 103-122. Here I incorporated a topic that has been unpopular (or neglected by non-specialists) for many years, namely the debate between the Japanese savant D.T. Suzuki and the Chinese scholar Hu Shih. Both of these men were University Professors, though their respective worldviews were rather conflicting.
20.2 Suzuki Zen
Daisetz_Teitaro_Suzuki (1870-1966) became widely regarded in the West as the major expositor of Zen Buddhism. It was sometimes stated that he had achieved enlightenment. He became a Professor of Buddhist philosophy at Otani University in Kyoto from 1921, and he was later a visiting Professor at Columbia University during 1952-7. His output should not be underestimated. He could speak seven languages and wrote many books. He contributed such influential works as Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols, 1927-34) and Zen and Japanese Culture (1959). Another major book was his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1932). Perhaps more widely read were his Manual of Zen Buddhism (1934), Living by Zen (1949), and The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (1949).
The reputation of Suzuki for enlightenment derived from his early years. While studying at Tokyo University as a young man, he took up the practice of Zen with the renowned monk Soyen Shaku (1859-1919) at the monastery of Engakuji in Kamakura. Suzuki lived the life of a monk during training periods, but he did not become an ordained monk. His fabled enlightenment in 1897 was associated with the practice of koan, the enigmatic phrases which later became popular in America. Unlike Soyen Shaku, Suzuki became an academic. He married an American Theosophist in 1911, and himself is said to have become a Theosophist, though Mahayana remained by far his primary interest. Conservative Japanese Zen practitioners have tended to regard him as a populariser of Zen.
Some commentators affirm that Suzuki’s conceptions of Zen were generalising. Western critics have been wary of his rather romanticising version of bushido, the cult of the sword. Suzuki was born into the samurai class. The present writer questioned the status of enlightenment (satori) credited to Professor Suzuki by Western partisans of Zen, though not because of his associations with the Beat generation, concerning whom he was duly reserved (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p.187 note 177). The status of satori is often vague, making this easy to claim by persons far less accomplished than Suzuki. Academic distinctions surely do not require enlightenment status; even mild criticisms might then be impossible. The Japanese savant is reported to have been unimpressed by the outpourings of the Beatniks Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at a meeting they gained with him in New York. These innovators believed that they understood Zen, though others were in strong doubt on such points.
l to r: Daisetz T. Suzuki, Hu Shih
20.3 Hu Shih Version of Chan and Revisions
Coming from a different academic background was Hu Shih (1891-1962), the Chinese philosopher and educator who was not a subscriber to either Confucianism or Buddhism. His arranged marriage in 1917 partnered him with an illiterate girl who suffered from the affliction of bound feet which had been encouraged by the Confucian system for centuries. Meanwhile, in 1910 he had been sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in America. He moved on to Columbia University to study philosophy, and there came under the influence of his tutor John Dewey (1859-1952), the famous pragmatist philosopher.
Hu Shih returned to China after securing his doctorate, and lectured at Peking University. He subsequently became a leading figure in the emergence of modern China. He was a prominent liberal intellectual in the May Fourth Movement of 1917-23, and both advocated and mediated the use of the vernacular in preference to the classical Chinese language which had existed for over two millennia. This endeavour created an era of literacy for the masses, relegating the status of Confucian texts to that of reference works rather than prescribed manuals to be routinely memorised.
Confucianism was now seen as a barrier to true cultural growth, a religion advocating superfluous ritual, class distinctions, and a filial piety that obstructed independent thought. Hu Shih became a Professor of Philosophy at Peking (Beijing) University, but later dropped from favour because of his criticism of the ascendant Chinese Communists. Yet he was a leading analyst of traditional Chinese thought, very learned in antique texts. In a more political capacity, he was even Chinese ambassador to America during 1938-42. His output subsequently reaped neglect and disdain, though it was duly reassessed by Chinese scholarship in the late 1980s. His standpoint also took exception to the version of Zen Buddhism promoted by Professor Suzuki, and this led to a controversy that deserves attention.
In China, Zen is known as Chan, which had commenced long before the transplantation to Japan. According to Hu Shih, “Zen can be understood only within its historical context.” This statement comes from his 1953 article on Chan Buddhism in the journal Philosophy East and West. That article was entitled “Ch’an Buddhism in China: Its History and Method.” In the same issue featured the response of Suzuki, “Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih.” My own commentary continued: “Hu Shih resented Suzuki’s claim that human reason could not evaluate Zen, that Zen was illogical and irrational by nature and therefore impervious to the historical approach. Yet Hu Shih’s views were forgotten outside the ranks of scholarship, which has since tended to prove those views correct. In the uncritical sectors elsewhere, the influence of ahistorical Zen has been disastrous in various aspects of New Age belief and sentiment” (Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, p. 107).
Hu Shih’s revised version of the Chan patriarch Shen-hui was rather different to that of Suzuki, and is still of interest. He was the first scholar to study the Tun-huang manuscripts preserving the teachings of Shen-hui (684-758). His biographical study of that Chan practitioner was published in 1930. He was partial to Shen-hui, though his iconoclastic assessment of textual processes entailed the verdict that the traditional history of Zen amounted to “about ninety per cent humbug and forgery” (quoted in ibid., p. 115). Yet the pragmatic Hu Shih was sympathetic in his conclusion that there was a sane method behind the apparent madness of the classical Chan practitioners. There thus emerges an alternative complexion to such diverting pleasantries as: “My dear fellow, how fine are the peach blossoms on yonder tree!” (Quoted in ibid., p. 121, and citing a 1931 article of Hu Shih). Some antique monks were far more sophisticated than the contemporary Beat Zen which perturbed Suzuki.
Assessments of the Hu Shih-Suzuki exchange have varied. A critical judgment comes from Professor John McRae, a more recent authority on Shen-hui, who says that “neither man seems to have had the interest or capacity to really consider the other’s position.” See John R. McRae, “Shen-hui and the teaching of Sudden Enlightenment in Early Chan Buddhism” (227-278) in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (1987, Indian edn, Banarsidass, 1991), p. 261 note 15. It is true enough that the overall outlook of both contestants was quite clearly defined.
Professor McRae has complained that Hu Shih interpreted the career of Shen-hui in terms of a major transformation in Chinese intellectual and cultural history. “Hu defined this transformation as the reassertion of native Chinese values and the rejection of the Buddhist ideas that were so popular during the Six Dynasties and early T’ang dynasty periods” (art.cit., p. 231). The basic fulcrum for this interpretation was the teaching of “sudden enlightenment” promoted by Shen-hui, a doctrine which Hu Shih viewed as being inherently Chinese in outlook.
The theme of “sudden enlightenment” (see 20.7 below) does have connotations of a Chinese disposition in the complex religious and cultural situation here denoted. Yet objections to the overall interpretive scheme of Hu Shih go further than this factor. McRae urges that although Chan Buddhism did undergo a major transformation in the latter half of the eighth century, this did not amount to a revolution in Chinese intellectual history. Further, Shen-hui was only one of a number of monks involved in this process of change, and the “sudden” teaching was only one of the doctrinal factors involved (McRae, art.cit., p. 232).
Hu Shih referred, in his 1953 article, to the teaching of Shen-hui in terms of a “new Ch’an which renounces ch’an itself and is therefore no ch’an at all.” Professor McRae juxtaposes this verdict with his own critical reflection that Shen-hui failed to give gradual cultivation any serious consideration, despite his concession to a period of such cultivation subsequent to insight or “awakening.” McRae assesses Shen-hui “as a missionary concerned only with increasing the size of the flock” (McRae, art.cit., p. 254). Further, “the central thread that unites all of Shen-hui’s ideas and activities was his vocation of lecturing from the ordination platform” (ibid.). The same scholar states: “Shen-hui’s polemical fervour correlates with doctrinal and practical superficiality” (art.cit., p. 251).
The image of the myopic Chan evangelist lends a critical context to attendant events celebrated in Chan lore. Shen-hui was the disciple of Hui-neng (638-713) and successfully campaigned for the public recognition of this obscure monk as the sixth Chan patriarch. The famous Platform Sutra purports to preserve a sermon of Hui-neng, but that document is now thought to have been composed c.780 by a member of an early Chan grouping known as the Ox-head school. The teaching of the legendary Hui-neng apparently reaped oblivion. See Philip B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (1967). Shen-hui is now seen to have distorted the teaching of the so-called Northern School of Chan in his campaign against the “gradualists.” See McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Chan Buddhism (1986). See also McRae, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Genealogy, and Transformation in Chinese Chan Buddhism (2003).
The complexities in the early situations of Chan are prodigious. Hu Shih tended to exalt Shen-hui, though that zealous monk is now viewed as an erring sectarian in the version of history that he imposed. Shen-hui called his own tradition the Southern School, a term by which he annexed the East Mountain school associated with earlier Chan patriarchs. Whereas Hui-neng’s rival Shen-hsiu (d.706) was relegated to the status of the Northern School possessing an inferior teaching of “gradual enlightenment.”
The Shen-hui depiction of “Northern School” has been questioned. That maligned contingent apparently considered themselves to be representatives of the “Southern School,” here meaning South India, from where the first Chan patriarch Bodhidharma had supposedly originated. Tsung-mi (Zongmi), who claimed to be the fifth patriarch of Shen-hui’s ho-tze lineage, “was in many respects much closer to the Northern School than to his proclaimed master Shen-hui” (Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy, 1991, p. 13). For Tsung-mi, see 20.7 below.
Such considerations have prompted the suggestion that “the demarcation line drawn by historians between the two schools may be purely fictitious or at least unstable” (ibid.). See also Faure, The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism (1997). See also Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History: Vol. 1: India and China (1988), p. xx, for the observation: “the abundant historiographical literature that has emerged during the past two decades shows that Suzuki’s thesis on the ahistoricity of Zen has not really been accepted.”
20.4 Hinayana and Shakyamuni Buddha
At CUL I was also able to research the nowadays less popular subject of Hinayana Buddhism, the so-called Lesser Vehicle in contradistinction to the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). Hinayana represents the early Buddhism as split into the numerous offshoots which developed from “primitive” Buddhism. The search for Shakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha is a rather pressing matter. Only one of the Hinayana sects survived into later centuries, namely the Theravada, associated in some minds with a gloomy monasticism far inferior to the paradoxes of Zen. The resuscitation of Shakyamuni is not to be underestimated. Buddhism began in a North Indian habitat obscured by legend, textual intricacies, and sectarian rivalries.
Siddhartha Gautama, alias Shakyamuni Buddha, is said to have attained enlightenment, thus being freed from the cycle of rebirth. His dating has been disputed, and on close investigation, he was but one of several shramana sages who were in conflict with the orthodox Brahmanism of the early post-Vedic era. Along with Mahavira (the Jain), he may be considered the most distinctive of these “forest philosophers,” to employ a generalising description. In my view, this constitutes the most fascinating chapter of all in the history of Buddhism. Gautama appeared, along with a treatment of Jainism, in my Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, pp. 722-813. (I also composed an unpublished treatment of Hinayana Buddhism.)
Shakyamuni Buddha locates to the central Ganges Valley some centuries before the Christian era. He was born into the Gautama clan of the Shakya tribe, who are identified with the border of India and Nepal. There are prodigious difficulties in extricating a biography from the Pali and Sanskrit sources. The early canonical works of Theravada Buddhism have diverse references to the career of Shakyamuni, and the most celebrated events became the miraculous birth in the Lumbini Garden near Kapilavastu, his enlightenment (bodhi) under a tree at Bodhgaya (in Bihar), his preaching the first sermon at the deer park near Varanasi (Benares), and his decease at Kushinagara. Later Buddhist tradition elaborated a hagiography several centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. It may be deduced that he inspired a monastic order of a very disciplined type, and there are abundant details of the monastic code emerging in the early Buddhist religion.
The Buddhist monastic community was known as sangha in Sanskrit. There was a basic difference between lay followers and monks or nuns. “The rules or precepts of the sangha, of which there were approximately 250 for monks, were called the vinaya” (Hirakawa Akira, A History of Indian Buddhism, 1990, p. 63). Discipline was strict, and if any of the most serious precepts were broken, then permanent expulsion from the sangha was the consequence. Temporary suspension could result from the violation of other precepts.
The original Buddhist lifestyle was itinerant, with a break during the rainy season. When monasteries developed along the itinerant routes, new forms of organisation and economic complexity developed, peaking during the Mahayana era which started about the time of Christ.
One assessment of early Western interpretations of Shakyamuni stresses that “the idea of an agnostic teacher of ethics of entirely human proportions who was later divinized by the enthusiasm of his followers, remains a liberal nineteenth century European creation” (David L. Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Serindia 1987, p. 8). The “rationalist Buddha” here loses rating due to the textual indications of more elaborately religious connotations, including the concept of a series of Buddhas, of whom Shakyamuni was the most recent. The critical implication is that Shakyamuni himself was a promoter of the more gnostic doctrines.
The process by which various Buddhist teachings developed has been argued in detail by numerous erudite scholars of the subject, though frequently ignored by avid enthusiasts who receive texts in a different manner. Shakyamuni’s denial of atman or “soul” has been a familiar reference point, and has been variously treated. The Pali suttas relaying the teachings of Buddha have been revealed as more subtle than conventionally assumed. “Summaries of the Buddha’s teachings rarely convey how much use he made of simile and metaphor” (Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, 1996, p.65).
The development of Indian Mahayana from Hinayana has been attended by scholarly disagreements. The proliferating array of Mahayana sutras that appeared in Sanskrit during the early centuries A.D. was later preserved in the Chinese and Tibetan Mahayanist canons. Yet the name of Nagarjuna became more famous than any of the sutras. He is sometimes described as a nihilist. Almost nothing is known about his life.
Though Nagarjuna is often described as a Mahayanist, one erudite work about this exponent stated on the cover: “The book shows that Nagarjuna’s ideas are neither original nor are they an advancement from the early Buddhist period; Nagarjuna is not a Mahayanist.” That description comes via courtesy of the State University of New York Press. The author of the book was Professor David J. Kalupahana. The title was Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way (1986).
The work under discussion made the bold statement that “now it is time to exorcise the terms Theravada and Mahayana from our vocabulary” (pp.5-6). Kalupahana was here attempting to show that some early Mahayanists and others had been endeavouring to overcome sectarian interpretations and return to the non-sectarian form of Buddhism found in the early discourses of the Pali Canon. A new translation of Nagarjuna’s major work Mulamadhyamakakarika (or Karika) was intended to reveal that “a majority of modern scholars” had created an obstacle to understanding the correct context for Nagarjuna (ibid., p. 6). The Karika consists of verses arranged in 27 chapters. The full title has been translated as “Basic Verses on the Middle Way.”
Over the course of centuries, Nagarjuna became rated as a second Buddha by Mahayanist canonisers. Professor Kalupahana disputes this mythologisation, observing that such a pronounced elevation arose because the Mahayana schools refused to recognise the spiritual status of many early disciples of Shakyamuni mentioned in Hinayana texts (ibid., p.2).
Professor Kalupahana was not the first scholar to express the “non-Mahayanist” theme. He duly stressed that A.K. Warder was “one of the first to raise the question whether Nagarjuna was a Mahayanist” (ibid., p. 7). Professor Warder was one of the more daunting Indian scholars of the 1960-80 period, an expert in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu literature. In the lengthy work Indian Buddhism (1970; second edn, Banarsidass 1980, p. 376), Warder stressed the apparent absence of reference by Nagarjuna, especially in his major work, to the Mahayana or Mahayana sutras. “His references to sutras are all to the old (Hinayana) Tripitaka, mostly to the Samyukta; he writes simply as a Buddhist trying to establish the correct interpretation of the Tripitaka as recognised by all Buddhists.” Further, the same scholar deduced that “he (Nagarjuna) was claimed by the Mahayanists as their own, but his real position would seem to have been not to take sides in a provocative controversy hardly conducive to progress on the way” (ibid., pp. 376-7). Warder stated that five works other than the Karika were “probably” by Nagarjuna (ibid., p. 375).
Kalupahana complains that the recent pro-Mahayanist interpreters assumed that Nagarjuna must have rejected any Hinayana literature. “Not only are they reluctant to accept certain positive statements of Nagarjuna in the Karika, they are also ready to abandon some of the most important chapters in that work either as later interpolations or as having no relevance to Nagarjuna’s thesis” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p. 7).
A version explicitly criticised here is that of T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System (1955). Kalupahana accuses Murti of having “portrayed the Buddha as a half-hearted metaphysician introducing a theory of elements that came to be rejected by Nagarjuna” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p.xv). More muted criticisms were here made of Kenneth K. Inada, Nagarjuna (1970) and Richard Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967). Basic aspects of the Kalupahana critique emphasise Nagarjuna’s teaching as “a mere restatement of the empiricist and pragmatic philosophy of the Buddha” (op.cit, p. 8). Kalupahana is opposed to the idealist view associated with much Indian religion.
Other scholars affirm that Nagarjuna was a Mahayanist who adhered primarily to the Hinayana canon. The attribution of specific texts to Nagarjuna is not straightforward. The only work universally agreed upon as his own is the Karika. Yet some credit him with over a dozen works. The Mahayanist attribution is strongly related to the authenticity of these texts. That attribution is favoured in Christian Lindtner, Nagarjuniana (1987).
The disputed Nagarjuna texts became the foundation for the Madhyamaka (“Middle Path”) school of Mahayana. Nagarjuna was apparently born in the latter half of the second century A.D., but his biography is legendary. Medieval Tibetan hagiology links him with the monastic university of Nalanda in North India, but this cannot be regarded as reliable. More credence can be given to an origin in the brahman caste. He is said to have been born in South India.
The Nagarjuna texts are associated with a philosophical negativism. The essential emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomenal existence is emphasised. This has been viewed as a continuation of the early Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self), which denied the atman of Hinduism. Different explanations have been given for the original context of anatman (Pali: anatta), which arose in a situation of conflict with the brahmanical expositors of the caste system and post-Vedic ritualism.
Nagarjuna is emphasised by Kalupahana as an empiricist, and the modern commentator seems to relish the comparison he makes between the Buddhist exponent and David Hume, who likewise “refused to accept the notion of a cogito” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p. 81). The notion for refusal in Nagarjuna’s case was the atman. Hume was certainly dour with regard to metaphysical factors, though the anti-Mahayanist argument would meet with difficulty if the British nihilist were to be aligned too closely with the world-renouncing arhant ideal of the Hinayana sects. Did Kalupahana fully grasp the nature of that obscured ideal? Certainly the Mahayanists tried consistently to degrade that ideal as inferior to their own.
A particular verse of the Karika (XXV, 19) has given rise to a belief in the identity of samsara and nirvana. These two Sanskrit terms are evocative of famous concepts. Samsara denotes the round of conditioned existence, while nirvana denotes freedom or liberation from that limitation. The Karika verse says there is no difference between these two polarities. This has been interpreted as a unique teaching of Mahayana philosophy (though it is rejected by critics). The Kalupahana exegesis urges that the relevant verse should be viewed in historical context, implying that a relativist doctrine was not intended (Kalupahana, op.cit., pp. 366-7).
The contextual Karika terminology in Sanskrit is difficult for many non-specialist readers to integrate. A problem in verse texts is that abbreviations can be misleading, whatever the intentions of the author. Whatever Nagarjuna meant precisely by the disputed “identity” verse, the samsara-nirvana equation underwent some questionable adventures in later Tantric guises and counterparts. Many centuries later, it was also the kind of doctrine that appealed to American antinomians of the Leary-Alpert trend, and not forgetting Beat Zen.
For a critical assessment of the Madhyamaka position, see David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987), pp. 81ff., and remarking that in the associated Perfection of Wisdom sutras, “the teachings about the emptiness of all concepts are to some extent balanced by recommendation given to the career of a Bodhisattva” (p.92). However, Kalupahana is averse to the bodhisattva lore, which he views as a Mahayanist superfluity. He emphasises that the term bodhisattva occurs only once in the Karika (XXIV,32), and in a context which “offers no consolation to those who accept certain doctrines of popular Mahayana” (Kalupahana, op.cit., p. 348). The monastic ideal of the bodhisattva emphasised the moral virtues of this role, which was depicted in terms of an altruism prepared to forego nirvana for the purpose of assisting other beings caught in samsara. The ideal was a noble one, though subject to mythologisations. The earlier Hinayana role of the arhant (saint) was depicted as inferior and selfish by comparison.
The translator Edward Conze was partial to the “Perfection of Wisdom” texts, known in Sanskrit as Prajnaparamita. See, e.g., Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature (1960). There have been other scholars who are sceptical of such Mahayana sutras which claim to be Buddha Word. The presentation evidences a clear sense of competition with Hinayana antecedents, and this has raised provocative questions about the rivalry between various sects implicated. Yet some commentators take the conventional view that all this was a normal development in which a religious tradition with a larger scope was in process of supplanting a more limited one.
In a subsequent book, Professor Kalupahana complained at the insistence of his critics that dependence on the Karika alone for an understanding of Nagarjuna is an error. The critics had argued that Nagarjuna’s philosophy must be assessed in the light of “all the works attributed to him, rightly or wrongly, whether they represent his early writings or his later ones.” Kalupahana responds that the Karika was the last major work of Nagarjuna, and “as such, it supersedes any other work he may have compiled during his early years” (Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy, 1992; Indian edn, Banarsidass 1994, p. 259 note 9).
A recent interpretation of Nagarjuna registers him as the most influential thinker in the Mahayana tradition. There is here an unusual effort to place the subject in the context of the monastic debates of the second century A.D. See Joseph Walser, Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (2005). Professor Walser credits a number of Nagarjuna treatises as being authentic, and argues that these texts bridged the gap between the existing Buddhist canon (of the Hinayana) and the new Mahayana teachings. Nagarjuna is here depicted as providing scope for the legality of Mahayanist exegesis within the parameters of the Buddhist monastic code (vinaya). This version credits the use of rhetorical devices by Nagarjuna to ensure the transmission of texts by Buddhist monks.
The Madhyamaka tradition was mediated to China, and was strongly sustained by the Tibetan version of Mahayana, meaning the monastic preservation of Indian texts that gained a hallowed term of survival in a different environment. Legends developed about the origins of Madhyamaka transmission, elaborated by the Tibetan chroniclers Bu-ston and Taranatha. Nagarjuna was credited with treatises relating to the Tantric tradition, but these are several centuries later than the Karika.
20.6 Vajrayana Traditions of India and Tibet
The term Vajrayana is identified with Tibetan Buddhism, the Mahayanist offshoot which gained popularity in the West from the 1960s. This was only partly due to the emigration of the Dalai Lama and his monastic tradition from the Chinese invasion undertaken by an oppressive Communist regime.
The antecedents of Tibetan Buddhism also require close study and analysis, both in the Indian and Tibetan phases of Vajrayana. The legendary siddha tradition of Tantric India has led to different interpretations, and that tradition was supplemented by other hagiologies involved in the early Lamaist phase of Tibet associated with figures like Milarepa and Marpa. Medieval Lamaism featured strong rivalries between different sects and sub-sects, and the establishment of the Gelukpa monastic order (associated with the Dalai Lama figureheads) was a complex political process supporting what has often been described as a centralized regime. My own version of these various developments is contained in the unpublished Minds and Sociocultures Vol. Two, Part 4.
The substantial differences between Tibetan Buddhist environments and Theravadin societies of South-East Asia have been remarked upon. Ceylon (Shri Lanka), Thailand, and Burma are the latter day inheritors of ancient Indian Theravada, a sect of the Hinayana. The shamanic character of Tibetan Buddhism is offputting to some investigators, though even in Theravadin countries “many monks are involved in ‘pragmatic religion’ to a considerable degree as makers and empowerers of magical protective devices and occasionally as exorcists and the like” (Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, Smithsonian Institution 1993, p. 27). There is also the matter of Theravadin “cult-groups that form around individual Buddhist monks or occasionally laymen to whom magical powers are attributed” (ibid.). Such “cult-groups” arise in response to lay demand, but are regularly kept in control by religious or secular authorities. Such trends are sometimes described in terms of “millennial Buddhism.”
Tibetan Buddhism is very different from the itinerant ascetic lifestyle of “primitive” Buddhism in ancient India. Tibetan monasteries in the medieval era featured strongly entrenched Lamaist sects of warring temperament. Battles could quite literally result. The magical aspect of Mahayanist religion was inherited from the Indian phase of Vajrayana that requires careful elucidation not always extended. A delicately expressed version of this theme is: “Generally speaking, through most of the history of Buddhism in Tibet it has been ‘millenial’ Buddhism that has been paramount” (ibid., p. 29). That reference includes the pronounced ritualism devoted to objectives of maintaining a relationship with “gods and spirits” of various kinds. The monastic Lamas were the officiants of such ritualism, which is what much Vajrayana Tantra signifies (though more spiritualised dimensions are also evident).
Professor Samuel has questioned the common description of premodern Tibet as a centralised state under the rule of a theocratic government at the capital of Lhasa. He says that the political system was far more complex, admitting “a number of autonomous religious orders, only partly composed of celibate monks” (ibid., p. 32). The Tibetan gompa was a phenomenon varying from a small village temple to a monastic town. Here we arrive at one of the major conundrums for analytical investigators. “Most of the larger gompa are centered around one or more series of reincarnate lamas” (ibid.). Each Lama was recognised as the reincarnation of the previous office holder in the series. Such “rebirth-series” of lamas often acquired political control over large territories, sometimes in alliance with local aristocrats. Unquestioning belief in reincarnate Lamas was pervasive in Tibet, but comes under query elsewhere.
20.7 Sudden and Gradual in Chinese Buddhism
Chinese Buddhism involved the interplay and competition between several different Buddhist sects, and these were eventually overshadowed by the Neo-Confucian philosophers who are thought to have assimilated some elements of Buddhism, however indirectly as competitors. Even within the phenomenon of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, there were rival sects who produced different interpretations of basic meditation features that were derived from Indian models.
The theme of “sudden versus gradual” can be found in some popular books on Zen. The relevant terms have been closely analysed by specialist scholars, along with the textual locations. I will here endeavour to follow some of the complexities involved.
The sudden-gradual controversy is first attested in the debate visible between the Chinese Buddhists Tao-sheng (c.360-434) and Hui-kuan (363-443). The former promoted the theme of sudden enlightenment (tun-wu), whereas the latter defended gradual enlightenment (chien-wu). This was a pre-Chan occurrence. Tao-sheng has been credited with Neo-Taoist leanings which apparently influenced his “sudden” theme. Tao-sheng referred to gradual practice as a preparation for sudden enlightenment. See Whalen Lai, “Tao-sheng’s Theory of Sudden Enlightenment Re-examined” (169-200) in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (Indian edn, Banarsidass 1991).
Gradualist teaching was an outcome of the basic Mahayanist position, and is associated with the Indian character of early Mahayana. Chinese Buddhists increasingly found the sudden-gradual dichotomy useful as a means of explaining diverse teachings they had inherited from the Indian substrate. The context of application could vary. The most dramatic instance of tension between the basic ideals denoted here occurred in the Chan tradition, when Shen-hui (684-758) denounced the gradualism (or meditation practice) of the “Northern” Chan school. A uniquely Chinese version of Chan is said to have resulted. The word ch’an basically means practice, being associated with the Sanskrit term dhyana (meditation).
The iconoclastic Chan of the “Southern” School was influential, opting for laconic descriptions in contrast to the more didactic and logical idioms of the Indian original. Some scholars refer to “a new rhetoric with which to express sinitic Buddhist concepts,” a trend particularly associated with the Hung-chou school that demonstrated the tangent of beating, kicking, and shouting in relation to students of their form of meditation. Lin-chi (d.866) became renowned for employing a loud shout (ho) in his teaching method, while Ma-tsu (709-788) is reported to have kicked a colleague in the chest. See Robert E. Buswell Jr, “The ‘Short-cut’ Approach of K’an-hua Meditation” (321-377) in Gregory, op.cit.
The “sudden” tactics of Lin-chi involved such verbal emphases as “attainment is attained instantly, with no time required, no practice, no realising” (Buswell, art.cit., p. 342). That form of exegesis became popular in America in more recent times. A variant of this theme is: “all persons are in fact already enlightened, and only mistakenly believe that they are not; hence, enlightenment involves nothing more than simply accepting that fact” (ibid.). Shakyamuni and the Indian generations of Buddhist monks would not have recognised this doctrine.
It is relevant here to point out that the conventional assumption of continuity between Hui-neng or Shen-hui and figures like Ma-tsu has been contradicted by recent scholarship. Shen-hui is located in the era of “early Chan,” whereas Ma-tsu belongs to the so-called “classical Chan.” The latter phenomenon is represented in the annals by what American scholars have termed “encounter dialogue,” meaning the spontaneous interaction between Chan masters and their students. The classical Chan dialogue exhibits paradoxes and conundrums which became the fuel for the koan formulae celebrated by later Chan annalists of the Sung era. There are harbingers of “encounter dialogue” in early Chan, but these exist alongside varied doctrinal excursions and activities that were displaced by the sequel. It is possible to deduce that the popular genealogies and koan enigmas of the sequel are not superior to the precedent in any way, and furthermore that the neglected “Northern School” had merits despite the zealous repudiations of the polemical Shen-hui and his canonising “Southern School.”
There were also Chinese reactions to the “sudden” tactics. Criticisms of the Hung-chou tradition (or lineage) were notably expressed by Tsung-mi (780-841), a monk who complained that the mood of spontaneity was “often misinterpreted by ignorant students as advocating antinomianism” (ibid., p. 336). This is significant in that Tsung-mi was a Chan historian and an exponent of the Southern School facilitated by his predecessor Shen-hui. Tsung-mi relates how Shen-hui had become elevated as the seventh Chan patriarch by an imperial commission in 796. It is evident that Shen-hui’s attack on the Northern school had inaugurated “a period of intense and often bitter sectarian rivalry among the proponents of the different Chan lineages.” See Peter N. Gregory, “Sudden Enlightenment Followed by Gradual Cultivation: Tsung-mi’s Analysis of Mind” (279-320) in Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual, p. 280.
There was the additional factor that the Chinese Mahayanist schools of Hua-yen and T’ien-t’ai were at strong variance with Chan. The former two schools identified with the gradualism of the Indian heritage, and disapproved of the extremist Chan tendencies. Tsung-mi was so perturbed at the rivalries dividing Chinese Buddhists that he described the situation as one “in which Buddhist teachings had become a disease that often impaired the progress of the very people they purported to help” (ibid.). Seeking to offset this problem, he composed the Chan Preface. His purpose was to reconcile Chan with the scholastic traditions of Buddhist learning known as chiao. The latter represented gradualism.
The approach of Tsung-mi was basically different to the polemical attack of Shen-hui against the Northern School. The former was not only affiliated to Chan, but also to the Hua-yen tradition of Chinese Buddhism. His reconciling tactic stressed that he had encountered many Buddhists who used the terms “sudden” (tun) and “gradual” (chien) in a thoroughly inadequate manner. He enumerated the different ways in which the pervasive and confusing terms had been employed with regard to practice and enlightenment. Yet despite his ecumenical position, he did strongly criticise the radical Hung-chou lineage and clearly viewed this as harbouring ethically backward tendencies.
Tsung-mi explicated his own preference in terms of “sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation.” The Chinese phrase is rendered tun-wu chien-hsiu. In this charting, tun-wu is the actual foundation for practice via the initial insight (chieh-wu). Yet that insight is only the first stage in a tenfold process of spiritual cultivation said to climax in the attainment of Buddhahood. Some commentators have deemed this a form of gradualism, though others say that Tsung-mi straddles both sides of the “sudden-gradual” dichotomy. However, there are anomalies in relation to the standpoint of Shen-hui, whom Tsung-mi claims to represent in his own doctrine of “sudden followed by gradual.” This teaching has been defined as the conservative line of defence for Shen-hui in some arguments, whereas the more radical teaching of “sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation” (tun-wu tun-hsiu) seems to have been the preferred doctrine of Shen-hui when he was on the offensive (ibid., pp. 305-7). See also Peter Gregory, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Chinese Buddhism (1991).
Such considerations do, at the least, serve to guard against the more fluent and uncritical versions of Chan (Zen) which have been strongly influential outside China. Exactly who gained insight or enlightenment, or exactly who was most assiduous in spiritual cultivation, are questions that may be strongly pressed in the face of routine assumptions.