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August 2, 2013

Essay on East Asian Buddhism

East Asian Buddhism
Religions of Southeast Asia are rich in their variety. Islam dominates in Indonesia and Borneo; Christianity is firmly entrenched in the Philippines, Hinduism has left traces in Indonesia and elsewhere, Confucianism and Taoism are still alive in the Vietnamese and Chinese part of the world. Animism can be found next to the main religions, in various local forms. Religion Buddhism, however, surpasses all others, which is the religion of the majority of the people of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
The cradle of Buddhism lies in the Ganges basin, north-east India. Its origin precedes the Christian era by several centuries. Gautama, who was the founder of Buddhism, belonged to the Sakya clan. Thus, it was later named Sakyamuni is to say, "the Sage of Sakya." He was born a prince, son of King Kapilavastu near Lumbini, Nepal today. His father, spared nothing for his education and history relates that he excelled in all fields of art and science. Tradition tells that the prince went out again four times with each of the palace gates. He first met an old man and a sick man, then a dead man, and finally a monk. These four visions of human misery made him think deeply about the meaning of life and desire to reach peace through religion. At age 29 (or 19 according to another legend), he left the palace one night, looking his way. He visited two spiritual masters, following which he devoted himself to a severe asceticism, and then he went into meditation in the posture of the legs crossed. With this profound meditation, he attained the perfect serenity of soul, by which he acquired omniscience, then he awoke to the supreme truth. Thus he became the Buddha (Sanskrit word meaning "the Enlightened"), at the age of 35.
Shortly after the death of the Buddha, the Sangha was split into two groups: one was the oral teaching of Buddha to supreme authority, the other, more open-minded, thought that the word itself was less important than its deeper meaning. Schisms succeeded to produce eighteen different doctrines. Among them the Theravada, "the old doctrine," based on oral teaching of the Buddha, which has become the predominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Theravada uses Pali texts, sacred language of Buddhism. (Han, 533)
Around the first century BC, a new movement was born within Buddhism, who claimed to be the true follower of the dharma, "law". He had a conception of the bodhisattva ideal "wakefulness" and became known as Mahayana "Great Vehicle", as opposed to the traditional doctrines of the Hinayana, called the "Small Vehicle". Mahayana Buddhism spread in Central Asia, China, Tibet and other regions of the Far East. In Southeast Asia, the only countries that still practice is Vietnam, where a Chinese variant is observed, a mixture of Ch'an meditation and worship of Amitabha: the Buddha of "infinite light", which resides in the "Western Palace".
Called the Great Vehicle in China unlike India where it is called small vehicle. Difference between the Buddhism of India and China: In India we reach Nirvana alone, by dint of will and perfection, that is the small car: In China we are not alone, we have people who help us support us to reach the small Nirvana.Avec vehicle while sober is no frills, at Sanchi (India cradle of Buddhism) monks belonged to the small vehicle that is why the temples are so sober at Sanchi. The monks who dug the first group belonged to the Buddhist caves (small vehicle) whereas the second group was in the "great vehicle". The first was oriented tradition, simplicity and rejected human representation of Buddha, the awakened as had always opposed any tendency to deification by his disciples, he was also present in the form of temples symbols, such as: the wheel of the law or the Bodhi tree, or awakening to wisdom, the footprints etc.
The transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Road to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan had begun in the first century if we are to believe the words of an embassy (perhaps legendary) sent westward by the Chinese emperor Mingde (58-75). Contacts asserted themselves in the second century, probably through the expansion of the Kushan empire in the Chinese territory of the Tarim basin, with the missionary journeys of a large number of monks from Central Asia. The first translators of the sutras in Chinese, Lokaksema for example, were Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian or Kuchean.(Chen, 152)
Shipments missionaries along the Silk Road were accompanied by a stream of artistic influences, visible in the development of  Serindian art from the second to eleventh century in the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang). This art often derives from the Graeco-Buddhist Gandhara district (now Pakistan), and combines influences of Indian, Greek, Roman and Persian. These influences are reflected to Japan today in the architectural motifs, Buddhist imagery and representation of Japanese gods.
In China, Buddhism Ch'an (or Zen) grew in contact with Taoism, and in Japan, it has always coexisted happily with the indigenous religion, Shinto deities. In Southeast Asia local beliefs have been assimilated in the same way. In Sri Lanka, the devil dances and the ceremony of the "ribbon tied" were adopted as essential practices of Buddhism. The "ribbon tied" is a ritual in which the monks chant while holding a ribbon attached to a window and passes through the hand of a statue of Buddha. In Thailand, for example, the blessing of a new home is made by the ceremony of "ribbon tied."
In Burma, the worship of animist spirits called nats coexists with Buddhism, and there are depictions of nats in Buddhist temples and pagodas. In Cambodia, the great temple of Angkor Wat reflected a happy blend of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Buddhism has implanted deep belief in karma in the spirit of South-East Asians. This term refers to human actions as generating an impact on his destiny. Thus, there arises the notion of a life better and happier future is promised to those who perform meritorious deeds in it, however, bad deeds lead to a miserable fate in the hereafter. The sufferings of the damned are represented in a frightful manner on the walls of temples in Thailand, reminding the visitor of the torments awaiting sinners. For the uninitiated the cardinal virtue is to observe the five commandments: Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not lie and do not get drunk. By cons, make donations to the sangha, offering food to monks, maintaining the temples and participate in Buddhist ceremonies, is considered meritorious.
Also in order to gain merit, we see the faithful discharge into water fish caught, or pasting gold leaves on the images of Buddha. In Burma, the construction of a new pagoda is regarded as the act most worthy to be rewarded. Repairing an old pagoda, however, is not meritorious, unless you are a descendant of the builder. By these actions, the most faithful hope ensure the happiness and pleasures in the afterlife, or in a new earthly life or in the celestial world. However, some hoping to become rich and live in luxury rather that reaching for spiritual bliss.
Buddhist art continued to grow in India for several centuries. The pink sandstone sculptures of Mathura during the Gupta reached (fourth to sixth centuries) a very high quality workmanship and a delicacy in the modeling. The art of the Gupta School was extremely influential in Asia. Nevertheless, from the tenth century, the decline of Buddhism and Hinduism to Islam led to the decline of Indian Buddhist art.
The iconic art was characterized from the start by a realistic idealism, combining realistic human figures (in proportions, attitudes and attributes) with a sense of perfection and serenity to the divine. The expression of the Buddha as both man and god became the iconographic canon for the most representations of Buddhist art.
After a period of transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang dynasty evolved into a more realistic expression. Openness to foreign influences, and renewed exchanges with Indian culture through travel of Chinese monks in India between the fourth and eleventh century was the move towards a more classic, inspired by the Indian Gupta period. The capital Chang'an (now Xi'an) became an important center of Buddhism, from where it spread to Korea then to Japan.
However, foreign influences were received half-heartedly. In the year 845, Emperor Tang Wuzong prohibited all "foreign" religions, including Christian Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Buddhism, to promote the indigenous religion, Taoism. He confiscated Buddhist possessions, and forced to make illegal this religion for nearly two years. This brief blackout and other hazards that Buddhism had to undergo during the transition period from the Tang to Song did not prevent him from continuing to influence the religious and artistic landscape. The Song Dynasty (1127-1279), was another period particularly favorable to Buddhism, represented mainly by currents and chan jingtu. Shan monasteries were centers of learning and culture, and Buddhist art underwent a new peak. (Mullin, 35)
Generally, the popularity of Buddhism in China has made this country the holder of one of the richest collections of Buddhist art. The Mogao caves near Dunhuang in Gansu, the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang auHenan, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi and the Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing are among the most important and famous  sculptural sites. The Leshan Giant Buddha, carved into a hillside at the confluence of three rivers in the seventh century (Tang dynasty), remains the largest statue of Buddha in the world.
Buddhism spread outside India from first century BC. Its original artistic style mingled with other influences, leading to a progressive differentiation between countries.
The art of the northern route was also heavily influenced by the development of Mahayana Buddhism. While the original Buddhism advocated work on self-detachment of suffering to attain enlightenment and personal status of arhat, without the aid of any deity, the Mahayana reintroduced the use of quasi-divine figures, bodhisattvas and (s) Buddha (s) to whom the faithful devotion was demonstrated.
Northern Buddhist Art northern is characterized by a very rich and syncretic pantheon, with a multitude of images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and lesser deities.(Welsh, 54)
This new religion had features disagree with the moral ideal and Social shaped by Confucianism. Thus, the monastic celibacy adopted for the individual spiritual development violated the duty to contribute productively to the family and empire at the expense of personal fulfillment if necessary. It responded by pointing to Indian sources, causing minor, with its social utility and promoting filial piety. They praised the effectiveness of the prayers of monks to deliver, where appropriate, parents from hell, a notion that Buddhism and Indian elements endowed with a rich iconography.
With Taoism it offered outward similarities. At first, it was sometimes considered a form, and vocabulary was used to translate the Taoist sutras. Some concepts were confused to the point that it was sometimes impossible to disentangle precisely the two influences. An ancient tradition claiming that Lao Zi went westward to the end of his life and gave birth to the legendary Taoist who says he is in fact the Buddha and will be used as propaganda when the two currents become competitors.
Taoism developed its monasticism to imitate the great Buddhist monasteries. Nevertheless, contacts and exchanges between the two religions never ceased and are found together in the popular religion, some forms of Chan, the current syncretistic born under the Sung and new religious movements emerged in the nineteenth century.(Saunders, 412)
From the fifth century, many monks came to China from Central Asia or India spreading the doctrine, bringing with them new texts. Some were put in charge of teams pursuing an intensive translation work commissioned by the rulers. One of the best known is Kumarajiva disciple Fotucheng, active from 401 under the Qin post. The Chinese monk Faxian in 399 started a pilgrimage to India which would last 15 years; he left the story loaded with valuable information.
Recent political changes in South-East Asia, have affected the Buddhist way of life, but Buddhism has retained its identity. For many to be, it remains the conscience and the fundamental principle of their conduct both in their temporal life and in their spiritual life.

Works Cited

Chen, Kenneth Kuan Sheng. Buddhism in China: A historical survey. Princeton, N.J. , Princeton University Press, 1964.
Han Yu. "Sources of Chinese Tradition. c. 800. Hill, John E. Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. John E. Hill. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina.2009
Mullin, Glenn H.The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnations  Clear Light Publishers.2001
 Saunders, Kenneth J. (1923). "Buddhism in China: A Historical Sketch", The Journal of Religion, Vol. 3.2, pp. 157-169; Vol. 3.3, pp. 256-275.
Welch, Holmes. The practice of Chinese Buddhism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Welch, Holmes. The Buddhist revival in China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.


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