(W.E. Talk) Sheng Kai: Is Sinicization the Secularization of Buddhism?

2023-02-19 Editor : Jing Yuxin ECNS App Download

By Li Hanxue, Journalist from CNS 

(CNS)-- Since Buddhism was introduced from India to China more than 2,000 years ago, it has not only merged with Chinese culture and philosophy, but also deeply integrated into the daily lives of Chinese people without their noticing. Buddhism comprises three major schools: Han, Tibetan and Southern, each with a different language. Has the Sinicization of Buddhism been completed? Can the historical process be interpreted as the secularization and Sinicization of Buddhism? SHENG Kai, vice president of Tsinghua University's Institute of Ethics and Religion and deputy director of the Institute of Buddhist Culture of China, explored these topics in an exclusive interview with China News Service's "W.E. Talk". 

Excerpts from the interview:

Buddhism Sinicization is a brand-new process

China News Service: How can we accurately understand Sinicization of Buddhism? Why can't we take this as Sinicization and secularization?

Sheng Kai: Buddhism was introduced to China from India around the beginning of the Christian Era. To take root and develop in China, Buddhism had to be compatible with the traditional inheritance of Confucian and Taoist cultures, blended into the faith and belief of the Chinese ritual culture, systematically accepted by the monarchy, sustained by the society through communication, and well supported by a booming economy. So discussion of the historical connotation of the Sinicization of Buddhism means exploring the process and laws of Buddhism’s transformation from an alien civilization to Chinese religion, recording the continuity, separation, heritage, and innovation between Indian and Chinese Buddhism, and examining the conflicts, interpretations, and fusions with Confucian and Taoist cultures as a result of interaction with Chinese society.

In contrast to the migration of other religions, Buddhism from India to China has four fundamental characteristics. First, its cultural communication is characterized by a "missionary as communicator" mode. The linkage between Indian and Chinese Buddhism is mainly the translation and dissemination of classical texts. Monks acted as individuals and had no relationship with organizations of Indian Buddhism, so the propagation of Buddhism never caused any war.

Second, it is the original cultural integration process. The traditional Chinese culture of Confucianism and Taoism is the background for the development of Buddhism in China. Although there were conflicts between monasticism and filial piety, the original classical interpretation and theoretical innovation of Chinese Buddhism resolved the ethical conflicts among the three religions. They promoted the cultural integration of the three on the common understanding that their distinctive beauties should all be preserved.

Third, its cultural practice has mainly been undertaken by the elite and the public. The Sinicization of Buddhism for thousands of years is not simply a creation by elite Buddhists and literati but the joint work of worshipers in Chinese Buddhism.

Fourth, an integration of globalization and localization. As a result of the Sinicization of Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism is not only a local transformation of religious civilization from overseas but also a rediffusion to East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Indian Buddhism was introduced to the Central Plains of China around the beginning of the Christian Era, and Tibet in the 7th century, and Yunnan in the 11th. It blended with different cultures and regions, forming three primary schools of Chinese Buddhism with different temperaments, forms, and characteristics: Han Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Southern Buddhism. They use Chinese, Tibetan, and Dai languages to carry forward the significance of Mahayana, Tantra, and Theravada Buddhism. Therefore, the Sinicization of Buddhism is not based on any single nationality. For example, Southern Buddhism is practiced by the Dai, Blang, Deang, Achang, and some Wa and Yi ethnicities. Even Han Buddhism did not undergo the process of Sinicization because it was created by the monks of the Han, ethnic minorities, and even overseas Chinese expatriates. Foreign monks from West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia, as well as those from Khotan, Qiuci, Shule, and other places in Xinjiang, traveled across China to translate Sutras and evangelize Buddhism. Of the eight primary schools of Buddhism in the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the Three Treatises, Vijnaptimatrata, Avatamsaka, Tantra, and Dhyana were founded directly by non-Han monks or with their joint efforts. Han Buddhism integrates the collective multiracial wisdom of the monks and the public. It blends pluralistic cultures with Buddhism and reflects the complicated characteristics created by multiple nations.

Between Chinese Mahayana and Indian Mahayana, the relationship is a creative transformation and innovative development. Although the fracture is bigger than the continuity, they are not opposites. Innovation is greater than inheritance but still keeps the fundamental spirit of the Buddha. Thus, it is not possible to use the linear historical view to explore the relationship between the two by saying that the previous generation is always better than the present, nor can we use the word “secularization” to describe the development of Han Buddhism. The connotation of secularization in the contexts of Western culture is related to sacredness, as Mircea Eliade wrote in the preface of his book The Sacred and Profane: "Sacredness is the opposite of profane." The Western narrative of secularization is that the propagation and development of Buddhism in China is a process of constant degradation and decline. However, the Sinicization of Buddhism is not simply about Buddhism in China, but refers to a process of interpretation and creation of Indian Buddhism by Chinese Buddhists, which finally took root and developed into a new form of Chinese Buddhism. 


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