Buddhism Within the Sinitic Cultural Environment
Buddhism entered China with the emergence of the first translations of scripture. The original Indian texts were never translated into the Chinese language as a whole. The full translations of a book took centuries to complete, as the example of “Great Treasury of Sutras” (“Ta-Tsang-ching”) shows. Thus, it is evident that such a long period of work on the translations marked not only the character of the narration but also the content. It may be explained by the overall Chinese culture’s need to have detailed reasoning of all the ideas. If such explanations were not available from the original texts, the Chinese monks created them to complete teaching. Such an approach is based on the cultural differences between India and China.
Due to the powerful and highly-developed cultural background of China, the newly introduced religion needed to be transformed under the influence of the existing religious ideas. Indeed, the rich literary tradition of China influenced the interpretations of practices and teachings of Buddhism. Many texts that later comprised the written tradition of Chinese Buddhism were not translations but original texts created by Chinese monks.
Therefore, there existed two main groups of the Chinese Buddhist schools, which included those related to a “direct Indian counterpart” and the ones “native to China.” Nevertheless, most of the Chinese followers of Buddhism adhered to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as the mainstream of the Mahayana system even though it was commonly accepted to join any other school. The very limitation of the local teachings to a particular number of texts demonstrates the differences in the perception of the religion from its original form.
The creation of Mahayana Sutras was profoundly influenced by the Chinese monks and produced thoughts and practices that significantly differed from the Indian ones. According to Gethin, “Mahayana Buddhism as a … separate tradition of Buddhism … is … the outcome of the history of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.” The ordination procedure was different due to the need of Chinese monks to take fifty-eight “bodhisattva vows” as opposed to the traditional tonsure. Besides, the type of clothes was different; the East Asian monks wore black or grey robes.
As for the significant change of the main features of the teaching, the example could be the belief about the Four Noble Truths. The Chinese introduced the approach to understanding the enlightenment process in opposition to sudden and gradual processes. Sudden awakening and gradual awakening are characteristic of Chinese Buddhism that question the process of obtaining the knowledge of the four truths. The commonly accepted Confucian ideas of proper life for the good influenced the interpretations of Buddhist teachings because they were contradictory to the local philosophy.
To summarize, the spread of Buddhism from India to other countries during the early stages of its development caused a lot of interpretations and various forms of teaching. Such adherence to the requirements of local philosophies and cultures in China is called Sinification that takes its roots in the differences in mentalities and life visions of the Chinese and the Indians. Interpretive translations of the original scripture took a long time and were influenced by the tendency of the Chinese to add more details. Thus, there appeared not only the translations but also some original Chinese texts that contributed to the religion’s development. The general orientation on Mahayana, new perspectives on the process of awakening, as well as the original interpretations of meditations influenced by Confucianism and Taoism made Chinese Buddhism a unique phenomenon.