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Buddhisms Contributions To East Asian Culture Cultural Studies Essay

Topic: What Contributions did Buddhism make to East Asian culture? What obstacles did it have to overcome, and how did the “native” culture respond?

Although Buddhism originated in India, the public nowadays associate Buddhism more with East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, and Japan. It does not mean, however, that Buddhism in all three countries is identical to each other, nor was it accepted with no opposition. China, Korea, and Japan already had their own indigenous religions firmly established in their culture. China had been embracing Confucianism and Daoism, while Korean people’s main religion was Shamanism, a religion that emphasizes rituals and spirits. Japan was built on the basis of Shinto. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Buddhism first clashed with the already-existing native values when they tried to break through these three countries. However, thanks to zealous rulers who supported Buddhism, China, Korea, and Japan were able to create their own versions of Buddhism mixed with their own indigenous religions and cultural values. With the help of Buddhism, the three countries also received the advanced technology and cultural elements from China, the most advanced of the three. In short, despite the fact that Buddhism conflicted with the existing cultures and religions, Buddhism eventually merged with native values to improve all three countries in aspects of art, technology, and politics.

Buddhism was first transmitted from India to China, then to Korea, and lastly to Japan. A monk named Kumarajiva crossed from India to China to introduce Buddhism to China around 344 to 413 C.E. (Lee, 36). Because Goguryo was geographically closer to China than any other kingdoms, Goguryo was able to receive Buddhism first. Similarly, since Paekche was closer to the southern dynasties of China than Goguryo or Silla, the rulers of Paekche obtained the Buddhist doctrines directly from the southern dynasties (Lee, 38). Silla, on the other hand, went through Goguryo and Paekche to receive Buddhism (Lee, 35). Although it was last in accepting Buddhism, it flourished the most due to the belief that Silla was the chosen land by Maitreya (Lee, 35). The state that influenced Japanese Buddhism was Paekche. The king of Paekche, hoping to win the favor of the Japanese court, sent images and books regarding Buddhism, praising the religion to be “among all doctrines the most excellent” (Keene, 100). All three countries received Buddhism from India, but the resulting influence turned out to be all different: China applied Confucianism to the basic doctrine of Buddhism, while Korea applied Shamanism and Japan, Shinto. This is the reason that Buddhism in all three countries differ in their practices and applications to culture and politics.

Upon its arrival in China, Buddhism experienced hardships in trying to compete with the already-existing religions of Confucianism and Daoism, but eventually found a common ground with them. For headstrong Chinese, it did not make sense to them why they would have to give up their own religions they had embraced for years in order to receive some kind of a foreign religion from the west. The concepts and philosophy and Buddhism seemed different from the existing ideas of Confucianism and Daoism and thus difficult to the Chinese people (deBary, 420). What eventually shed light on Buddhism were the ideas of a Chinese author named Mouzi. He argued that one does not need to choose between China’s indigenous religions and Buddhism, but one can adopt similar points of both sides and apply them to one’s lifestyle (deBary, 422). He gave clear solutions to many issues that seemed confusing to the Chinese people, such as why Buddhism is not part of the Chinese classics and why Chinese should accept a completely foreign religion (deBary 422, 425). He also found connections between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in terms of their teachings and philosophy. For instance, when speaking of death and rebirth, two of the major concepts in Buddhism, he explained the notion of afterlife by stating, “The spirit never perishes. Only the body decays. … Only the body of one who has achieved the Way perishes” (deBary, 424). Through this statement, he drew a parallel between ancestral sacrifice and afterlife - because spirit never fully dies, it is necessary to care of the spirit of our ancestors. Concerning marriage, Mouzi uses Daoist ideas to explain why monks are not allowed to marry: “Wives, children, and property are the luxuries of the world, but simply living and doing nothing (wuwei) are the wonders of the way” (deBary, 424). As a result, the Chinese people learned to accept Buddhism as a different set of ideas similar to Confucianism or Daoism.

The Three Kingdoms in Korea, although received Buddhism more readily than China or Japan, also experienced some degree of opposition in adopting Buddhism. One of the significant anecdotes describes Popkong, the twenty-third king of Silla, attempting to spread Buddhism in his kingdom but meeting heavy opposition from his ministers (Lee, 42). Because Silla was suffering from heavy poverty and lack of crops, the ministers did not like the idea of spending extra money and people’s strength into building “unnecessary” buildings and monuments (Lee, 42). So the Grand Secretary Yomchok sacrificed himself to cause a miracle that would show the doubting ministers that Buddhism was a strong religion indeed. Upon his execution, “…the sun darkened, wonderful flowers rained from heaven, and the earth trembled violently” (Lee, 43). This miracle made the ministers realize how powerful Buddhism was and to accept Buddhism as the state religion (Lee, 43). Although the obstacle Buddhism faced in Korea differed in nature from that of China or Japan, avid Buddhists such as Popkong and Yomchok made a way for Buddhism to enter the country as a state religion. As a result, Buddhism combined with Shamanism, Korea’s indigenous religion and belief system, to create a unique kind of religion like no other that merged the existence of mountain gods like the Holy Mother with Buddhist deity (Lee, 51).

Lastly, when Buddhism was brought to Japan from Korea, it did not become a prominent religion overnight. Although the emperor and the Soga clan readily accepted the religion, the rest of the government officials did not approve of a foreign religion being adopted (Keene, 100-101). Therefore, when pestilence broke out, the ministers blamed the adoption of Buddhism, arguing that the already-existing deities of Shinto religion were furious (Keene, 101). Eventually Soga clan attempted to bring Buddhism back for the seond time by erecting a Buddhist temple, which was blamed as a cause for another plague (Keene, 101). The emperor tried to take action by destroying the temple and executing Buddhist nuns, but when this extreme method did not help the plague decease at all, he had no choice but to give the Soga clan the right to spread Buddhism (Keene, 101). This story shows that, similar to what happened in China, Buddhism initially clashed with the already-existing, native religion of Shinto, but eventually made its way into Japan, thanks to the Soga clan. Later on in Nara period, a man named Fujiwara Muchimaro had a dream of a Shinto deity asking him to build a Buddhist temple for his karma, which he did so immediately (Keene, 121). The temple built by him is now “part of a Buddhist-Shinto shrine complex in Echizen Province” (Keene, 121). Just like how the deities of Korean Shamanism merged with Buddhist deities, Japanese native Shinto gods were integrated into Buddhism as well.

Buddhism also acted as a carrier of China’s superior artistic culture to Korea and Japan. In Silla, Buddhism introduced the Chinese garments, which the royals adopted as their own attires (Lee, 48). Without the Buddhist monks who brought in Chinese culture, the Silla royals would never have received the culture, which would have prevented their envoys from being placed in the very front of many tributary states (Lee, 48). Buddhism shaped not only fashion but other aspects as well, such as architecture and craft. Because the practice of Buddhism required temples and monasteries, Paekche, when sending Buddhist monks to Japan to teach the religion, also sent along “carpenters, artisans…men learned in pottery…and a painter” (Keene, 102). The royal court during Nara period which embraced Buddhism very highly was able to build countless splendid temples and monasteries, thanks to Chinese culture transmitted through Korea (Keene, 104). All of these contributions are very much related to Buddhism. Without the carriers who brought China’s superior culture into Korea and Japan, there would not be any of the magnificent temples, monasteries, pottery, and paintings that symbolize Buddhism.

Buddhism also shaped technology in East Asian cultures as well. The Buddhist monks of China brought with them the system of Chinese calendar, which the Silla court gladly adopted (Lee, 48). This technology was later transmitted to Japan by a Paekche monk named Kwalluk, who brought with him “books of calendar-making, of astronomy and of geomancy” (Keene, 102). Not only that, but Buddhism also spread the Chinese writing system, since it was necessary for Korea and Japan to understand the system of Chinese writing in order to translate the doctrines of Buddhism. Especially in Japan, the monks were required to copy by hand books after books of Buddhist sutras (Keene, 101). Other aspects of technology were brought in by Buddhist monks as well, including “making of highways and bridges, to the use of irrigation…public bath and cremation” (Keene, 104). Thanks to Buddhist monks who first brought these technologies to Korea and to Korean monks who transferred them to Japan, Korea and Japan were able to advance in terms of technology with borrowed Chinese techniques.

Another interesting aspect that Buddhism helped shape in East Asian countries is politics. Because Buddhism was accepted by the royal courts of Korea and Japan before it was passed down to the commoners, the ruling class took Buddhist doctrines into their way of governing their countries. For example, Silla’s ruler was “viewed as a wheel-turning emperor of the Ksatriya caste,” one of the very important concepts of Buddhism (Lee, 34). Silla was especially avid in integrating Buddhism and politics because their land was seen as the “chosen land” or the “Buddha Land of Maitreya (Lee, 48). This notion also gave birth to a creation of a whole new group called “Hwarang,” whose members were thought to be reincarnations of Maitreya (Lee, 48). In Korean history, these Hwarang members are the ones who go on to become prominent figures in politics, warfare, and other fields as well. The Japanese government also took in Buddhism into their way of ruling. During Nara period when Buddhism flourished the most, Japanese rulers made one of the main sutras of Buddhism – “the Sutra of Golden Light” – into an “instrument of state ideology” (Keene, 105). This sutra puts an emphasis on the quality of the king, claiming that “any king who violates the Law will be punished, but as long as he is faithful to it, Buddha will see to it that he enjoys immesurable blessings” (Keene, 105). This statement enabled many rulers of Japan to strive to become Buddha-like in their behavior and way of governing.

Although Buddhism started off as one religion in India, by the time it was received in China, Korea, and Japan, it was interpreted in different ways depending on the three countries’ indigenous religions and cultural values. It also helped shape art, technology, and governing system of Korea and Japan when China sent ideas and techniques along with Buddhist teachings. As a result, Buddhism flourished in all three countries. Buddhism is what ties together China, Korea, and Japan, but at the same time making their cultures unique and different from each other. Because of Buddhism, the three countries share similar cultures but embrace their own indigenous cultures and religions at the same time.

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