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(W.E. Talk) Sheng Kai: Is Sinicization the Secularization of Buddhism?
By:Ecns.cn
update:February 20,2023

(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. 
 
The ideology of human Buddhism is the right way tothe Sinicization of Buddhism 
 
CNS: Recently, the reform of human Buddhism has effectively changed the Buddhist community. It calls for self-salvation and renewal to adapt to contemporary society. Please describe the background and significance of the ideology and reform of human Buddhism. How do you see the relationship between Sinicization of Buddhism and the vitality of Buddhism in China today? 
 
SHENG: Buddhism encountered crises in different periods. In the Northern and Southern Dynasties, for example, Buddhism met the legitimacy problem of Dharma, and there was a debate about the relationship between Chinese and foreign cultures. In the mid-late Ming dynasty, talent lacunae and monastery malfunction happened. Masters like HanshanDeqing, YunqiZhuhong, ZibaiZhenke, and YuyiZhixu strongly advocated religious reform to rejuvenate Buddhism in the late Ming Dynasty.
 
After the Opium War of 1840, the Chinese Buddhism community faced national peril and the decline of the religion. Human Buddhism was established and promoted as a way of modernizing Buddhism by consolidating doctrines, reforming teaching sources, and popularizing catechism. The announcement of human Buddhism has not only pushed forward the transformation of Buddhism from the old to the modern but also set an excellent example of retaining the past glory and inspiring future honor for the development of contemporary Buddhism.
 
Human Buddhism was first advocated by Master Tai Xu as a correction to the unearthly ills of traditional Chinese Buddhism, which was guided by the principles of Buddhism doctrines and opportunities and focused on exposing and criticizing the accumulated ills of Buddhism and the decay of teachings during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
 
The theoretical construction and the practical development of human Buddhism are not only consistent with but also reinforce each other. After Master Tai Xu’s passing, many masters, such as Grha-pati Zhao Puchu and Master Jing Hui in Mainland China, Masters Yin Shun and Sheng Yen in Taiwan, and Masters Yan Pei and Lung Kan in Singapore, all adhere to the path of pluralistic and parallel development towards human Buddhism.
 
Human Buddhism is a way of modernizing and synchronizing Buddhism, not a new Buddhism departing from tradition. It inherits traditional conventions, adapts current Buddhist thoughts, and underlines that religion shall conform to the national status quo and the current background of modern civilization. Sinicization of Buddhism has different historical connotations in different periods, such as the establishment of schools in the Sui and Tang dynasties, the religious reform in the late Ming Dynasty, and contemporary human Buddhism. Human Buddhism is a sensible choice for Buddhism to integrate its traditional inheritance with modern Chinese Buddhism. Summing up the historical experience of Buddhism Sinicization and the landmark of 100 years of human Buddhism, we realize that the Sinicization of Buddhism is continuing forever in a conscious and sustainable manner. It is the key to keeping Buddhism vital in China. 
 
Dual expectations and directions of self-renewal for contemporary Chinese Buddhism 
 
CNS: What challenges do you think Chinese Buddhism may encounter in today’s China? How does Buddhism continue to develop or rejuvenatealong the direction of Sinicization?
 
SHENG: As part of Chinese traditional culture, Buddhism still exerts far-reaching influence in China and around the world, attracting the preference of Chinese today with its traditional charm. However, as an active religious society in contemporary China, its premodern institutional systems, customs and beliefs may contradict modern civilization. And some thoughts and doctrines are not in line with today's political and social situations.
 
In the 21st century, Buddhism in mainland China faces a dilemma of dual expectations. The purity and tranquility of great monasteries in famous mountains are the spiritual home for people nowadays to heal their bodies and souls. But a big, invisible economic hand has reached out to the spiritual need and fostered the denounced commercialization of Buddhism. Following the development of the tourism economy, monasteries make for pure spiritual space but fail to meet the public's expectation of purity. At the same time, the Party and state authorities hope that Buddhist society will maintain traditional farming and praying daily and gear into the modern economy and social life norm. Adapting to the corporate system of assets and finance management is an example.
 
The Buddhism community needs to solve its talent cultivation and survival issues. The discipline of religious life and the inheritance of doctrines are keys to enhancing the total quality and morale of Buddhist groups and to encouraging monks’ return to the fine Buddhist traditions, such as preaching, annotating scriptures, teaching the Dharma, educating people, meditating, chanting sutra and other inner practices with peace in mind. It is also necessary for the state and society to support the Buddhist community in working out its religious ways for monastic living and economic development.
 
The Buddhist community should respond to the needs of society. The monastic groups shall be able to regenerate and benefit the public. Monasteries shall organize activities to promote the Dharma and the public interest and to help people in need with particular support for its charity businesses instead of conducting activities directed to the monasteries' interests.
 
Buddhist society should respond to the concerns and needs of the Party and the state, adapting to the new situation and its requirementsfor a comprehensive modern socialist country.It should cultivate Buddhists of high quality, promote the contemporary interpretation of Buddhist classics, tamp down the ideological foundation for the Sinicization of Buddhism, develop and improve the internal standard of operation for modern Buddhism and strengthen the relevant policies of Buddhism's Sinicization.
 
Historically, Buddhism has made important contributions to the formation and consolidation of a pluralistic society in China. Today, Buddhism still plays a significant role in unifying Chinese people and fostering a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation. In the meantime, it also has unique advantages in operating public charity businesses, facilitating the cross-strait relationship with peaceful development, and enhancing Sino-foreign friendship.
 
(Translated by WANG Yunhong)

By LiHanxue
 
(Journalist from CNS) 

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