It is intriguing to think about what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. This is one way of looking at the coming of Buddhism to China, and I think it may also usefully describe Buddhism’s encounter with Western civilization. If the dynamic revealed in the first episode serves at all as a model for the contemporary situation, we should bear witness to a great conflagration—not of mutual obliteration, but of mutual transformation.
By the time the Buddhist tradition rolled across Central Asia and set a course for China, it had five hundred years of momentum that gave it the quality of an irresistible force. Emerging in India from a spiritual and intellectual tradition of great antiquity, the teachings of the Buddha were presented to the world in a highly structured and coherent form, the product of a mature and profound civilization. Buddha himself seems to have taught a consciously integrated curriculum, and the first few generations of his followers continued his work by compiling and cross-referencing the voluminous canon of Pali and Sanskrit literature. Buddhism prevailed in the most important early centers of power, from Magadha and Kosala during the Buddha’s lifetime, to the pan-Indian Mauryan empire of Asoka, and ultimately, as the winds of political power shifted to the Northwest, to Kanishka’s kingdom of the Kushans. Meanwhile many more generations of monks, scholars, practitioners, poets, artists, architects and others refined and innovated the Buddhist culture to a point of tremendous sophistication.
It is understandable how the highly developed Buddhist civilization was able to have such an overwhelming impact on the lesser-developed cultures of Sri Lanka and Central Asia, and later of Southeast Asia and Tibet. But in China it encountered a culture of equal antiquity and sophistication, a culture so self-sufficient and so inward-looking as to qualify as an immovable object. With an internal balance between the official, highly-structured Confucianism and the more formless and popular Taoism, the Chinese for hundreds of years after encountering Buddhism had little use for this foreign tradition. It was long considered an exotic form of Taoism, and the monastic system upon which Buddhism depended so heavily in India was thoroughly at odds with deeply cherished family traditions in China.
So what happened over the centuries as these two collided? Some Indian forms of Buddhism flowed around China, like Hinayana to Southeast Asia and Tantra to Japan as Esoteric Buddhism; neither of these were very influential in China. Some forms, such as Pure Land, integrated non-Indian elements from the West and flourished in China as they never had in India. But the third pattern, exemplified by the emergence of Ch’an or Zen, involved a thorough synthesis of some of the strongest elements of each tradition into a brand new form of Buddhism—the authentic offspring of each but legitimate heir of neither.
Like a wildfire that burns brightly and moves on, Buddhism today is of only marginal importance in both India and China, yet its inexorable influence is starting to be felt in the West. Western civilization, though its roots are more diverse than the Chinese, is similarly self-centered and self-sufficient. The Western mainstream is stubbornly aloof to any significant input from east or south or west of the Mediterranean, and shares the Chinese self-view that it occupies the cultural center of the earth. The Western world view allows for and even appreciates the exotic ethnic diversity of the world’s other traditions, but, even in today’s enlightened times, remains largely unmoved by non-Western views of truth, reality and meaning.
This may well change, even in our own generation. The methods for arriving at truth, reality and meaning which Westerners have relied upon for centuries are beginning to come up against their inherent limitations, and the Buddhist tradition has a lot to offer on these themes. There will always be features of Buddhism of little interest to Westerners that will bypass our culture, and other aspects that are consciously rejected, just as a majority of people may always retain wholly Western models of thought. All this happened in China too. But I think it inevitable that essential features of the Buddhist view will be appropriated and transformed by the West, and that Western civilization will itself be profoundly transformed in the process.
Truth, as both philosophers and scientists have been saying for some time in the West, can no longer be taken on faith, nor can its perception be separated from our personal experience. Reality at the level of both the microcosm and the macrocosm has turned out to be entirely relative, empty, and instantaneous. Meaning hits a brick wall with the twin realities of suffering and death, which neither science nor religion knows how to circumvent, given the new standards of truth.
The Buddhist tradition has well-thought-out and deeply experienced contributions to make on the very points where Westerners seem to be stumped. Truth turns out to be a concept inherently impossible to grasp, but one can get as close as possible simply by direct awareness of the mind states that arise moment-to-moment in the texture of one’s own experience. Reality is indeed relative, empty and episodic, and that’s okay. And meaning becomes considerably easier to deal with when, factoring in the perspectives of karma, rebirth and liberation, we recognize that suffering has a cause, death is not a final end, and there is a way to quench the anguish of both.
There are many natural matches between what the West wants and what Buddhism offers. Western thinkers will seize upon what they feel are the most essential aspects of Buddhism, possibly misunderstanding or misappropriating them in the process, and will blend these with key elements of the Western tradition to create an entirely new form. Traditional Buddhists may well challenge the pedigree of this hybrid, but I doubt that they will disinherit it. Western curmudgeons might downplay or even deny its foreign origins, but will nevertheless be enthusiastic as they watch it flourish.
The world can only benefit from this encounter. Buddhism may never be the same, but it has seldom avoided the prospect of change. Western civilization may well be shaken to its roots, but these are deep enough to survive the blow. The transformation of both will surely be a dramatic spectacle, and the new birth that will emerge may well turn out to be the salvation of both.