Turnings: Some Aspects of Buddhist History

Turnings: Some Aspects of Buddhist History
by Dairyu Wenger

1. The telling of history is a selection of choices. Some choices are right on, some choices are near misses, and some choices are way off. There is a history that is written down, and a history which underlies that and remains to be articulated. So when we talk about history, what are we talking about? Is it our intuition, or that handed down verbally? Is it the un-spoken, yet to be articulated? Or is it our projections, from the facts available currently? These questions remain with us in our attempts to understand history. Rujing, Dogen’s teacher in China spoke of this, “the footprints of Tathagata can actually be seen today in India, the room in which the layman Vimalakirti still exists, the foundation stones of the Jetavana monas-tery remains as well. But when one goes to the sacred remains such as these and measures them, he finds them sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, contracted or extended. These dimensions can not be fixed. This is the manifestation of the breath and vitality of the buddha dharma itself.”

Buddhism, like Hinduism and Jainism, is one of the great religions of the Ganges plane. It is often argued that Buddhism came out of Hinduism, but this is not so clear. It’s possible that the contemplative tradition was brought to the region by nomadic Arians. At that time in the region there were many religions flowing together, like tributaries to the Ganges itself. Hinduism and Buddhism are from a common stream, which eventually separated. Though Hinduism considers Buddhism to be a sub sect, it may be that they both are streams in a larger river. The founder of Jainism was contemporary to the founder of buddhism and they shared some of the same teachings. However, Jainism, like hinduism, did not spread past the Indian subcontinent.

In a poem by Sekito Kisen, Sandokai, merging of difference and unity, it says, “branching streams flow in the darkness,” alluding to the various separate sects of buddhism, and their both interacting and separate nature. Buddhism, at its best, is a religion of tradition and transformation. To both be grounded in the past, and to be open to change on each new occasion is very important. Japan is a good example of a culture grounded in the past and open to the future. The modern trend to desire a return to a past that maybe never was, or seek a future which has no roots in the past, lead to a divisive, rather than inclusive, religious life. 

2. One of the important aspects of buddhism is its cultural adaptation. That’s why people may be confused by buddhism having different color robes, languages, teaching emphasis, and all still be considered buddhist even though they are so different. My own Soto Zen tradition traveled from India, to China, to America, all different cultures with different cultural adaptations, yet each cultural tradition left its own distinguishing mark. Each of these cultural turnings had to adapt from one culture to another. When Buddhism reached China, the closest cultural referent was Taoism, so much of Buddhism was translated into Taoist terms. In China, Taoism in particular and Confucianism were changed by meeting with buddhism. In fact, at one point, there was a decision to have a Buddhist Chinese, with technical Chinese terms, to distinguish itself from Taoism. While it may have been more technically accurate, it isolated buddhism from the rest of Chinese cultural debate. In America, the closest cultural referent was perhaps psychology, so much of Buddhism was translated into psychological terms. While this may not have been completely accurate, it allowed buddhism to integrate into the cultural zeitgeist. Cultural references that have been affected by and are affecting buddhism include psychology, the quakers, and 12-step programs. 

3. It is often said that buddhism in it’s Indian form is a religion of renunciation. This can be seen in the extensive teachings on precepts, and sexual renunciation by monks and nuns. Therefore, in India there was an emphasis on community rather than individual fulfillment. 

Renunciation in the cultural realities of the west might best be described as acceptance. We need to accept our differences in order to see our oneness. So perhaps we see that renunciation and acceptance while appearing to be opposites, can often come from the same understanding.

The Dalai Lama and other eastern teachers have observed that many western students have a great self-loathing. Thus the emphasis on acceptance may be more important here. An example of this in Japan are two ways in which meditation instruction is presented. One is to give your mind a big pasture, to neither encourage or discourage thought. This is more of an accepting way. Two is to cut off all thought. Perhaps this is more renunciation.

4. Precepts, or buddhist conduct, were redacted from a number of questions that were brought to the buddha, “So and so did such and such, was that appropriate or not?” Many of those decisions grew into a more general proscriptive preceptual guide.

Ananda once asked shakyamuni buddha, “does a monk have to follow all the precepts?” Shakyamuni said, “only the major ones.” However, Ananda never asked which were the major and which were the minor ones, so after buddha’s death Mahakasyapa said, “the monk should follow all precepts because they don’t know which are major and which are minor.” This decision perhaps kept the buddhist religion from getting too self righteous while keeping rigorous rules of conduct. 

5. Food
Eating is an important part of every culture. While buddhism is thought of as a vegetarian tradition, its primary admonition is to eat what is served. Of course, in monasteries this meant being vegetarian, but outside of the monastery you would eat what is served. In China, due to the climate and other cultural influences, it was said that a day of not working was a day of no eating, which was a change from India where monks were not supposed to work. Also, because of the climate, the monks were given an evening meal, which was often called a medicine bowl, due to having to work in the colder climate. In India and South East Asia, they didn’t eat after noon. Another important factor in Chinese Buddhism was its dependence on the patronage of the empirial court. The fact that the Zen school was located in the countryside and did not depend on royal patronage lead to its ability to survive persecution. In the years 574, 577, 845, and 955, buddhism was persecuted by the emperors of China, usually to weaken it’s influence, get more recruits for the army, and collect more taxes. Thus, all the schools of Buddhism eventually were housed in Zen temples, because all the other temples had to shut down due to lack of funding.

6. Precedence
Japan and Tibet were, until mid-20th century, the only countries not subjugated by other countries in the East. The Meiji restoration in Japan was an attempt to both westernize and remain independent from western powers. 

Japan is unusual in that during the Meiji period (1868-1912), the government encouraged the clergy to marry. This was in order for the government to have more control over the clergy. It also became a precedent, when Japanese Buddhism came to America, for the clergy to be married. Of course this is a much more complicated discussion than I will present to you currently. While this was unique in Asian cultures, it foreshadowed modern developments. In non-monastic temples of Japan today, the wife of a priest is often equally important in serving the community.

Another interesting cultural Japanese precedent, when Zen Buddhism first came to 11th century Japan, was Dainichi Nonin. The founder of the Daruma school emphasized the non-duality between buddha and sentient beings, attracting many poets and painters. He was very moved by the natural world, much like the Beats in America, who also were drawn to Zen. He sent two of his disciples to China to put forth his realization to Zhuoan Deguang, who certified Nonin’s enlightenment. Daruma was the first Zen school in Japan, but in 1194 the Tendai establishment shut it down for being incomprehensible. Following the decline of the school, Koun Ejo, Tettsu Gikai, and others, became an important element of Dogen’s followers. It is interesting that in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Beat painters and poets were attracted to Zen and its emphasis on personal liberation.

It is also noteworthy that three of the major strands of Buddhism in America: Zen, Tibeten Buddhism, and South East Asian Buddhism, had three different propagation scenarios. Southeast Asian teachers mostly stayed in Southeast Asia, and their western counterparts studied in Asia with them, and were encouraged to adapt to Western cultural styles. Many teachers from the Zen schools of Japan and Korea came to the West and empowered their students to change slowly over time. Tibetan teachers resisted change in order to preserve their culture and religion in a time of intense persecution.