Nagarjuna's Contribution Towards Chinese Buddhism
by Cheng Jianhua
Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China

1. Introduction

Sunyata is the core concept of Nagarjuna' s philosophy. The concept of sunyata was introduced into China in the early fourth century. Kumarajive was the first person who translated Nagarjuna's philosophy into Chinese and preached the doctrine sunyata to the whole community of Chinese Buddhism. Since the scriptures of Madhyamaka (e.g. Madhyamikasastra, Mahaparjnaparamitasastra and Satasastra) were translated into Chinese in succession, there occurred a number of eminent scholars who were very much interested in study of Madhyamika philosophy at the time. Seng-zhao, a great disciple of Kumarajive, had written a book named Zhao-tun on Madhyamika. Although the statement and explanation of Zhao-lun is quite deferred from Nagarjuna's Madhyamikasastra, both the ideas are quite closer.

It was, during the Sui and Tang dynasties the eight kinds of Buddhist Schools like Tian-tai, San-lun (the Three Treatise School), Vijnana, Hua-yen, Chan-zong and the Pure Land School came into existence. All these Chinese Buddhist Schools declared that Nagarjuna was their first master. However, according to some sources, out of these eight Buddhist Schools, there are a few schools such as the Three Treatise School and Tian-tai School which have something to do with Nagarjuna. A so called the Three Treatise School was actually in direct line of succession of Nagarjuna that based its doctrine on Madhyamikasastra, Satasastra, and Dvadasanikayasastra. Tian-tai School based its doctrine on Sadharmapundarikasutra. The central concept of this school " Yi-xin-san-guan " (to view from three aspects with a mind) is actually come from or inspired by Mahaparjnaparamitasastra and the Verse No. 24 of Madhyamikasastra. The early development of Chinese Buddhism, therefore, has something to do with Nagarjuna either directly or indirectly. This shows that Nagarjuna had given a great influence to the Chinese Buddhism and because of his great contribution, he deserves to enjoy high prestige in the Chinese Buddhist society.

In my paper I will focus on the following three aspects: the spread of Nagarjuna's philosophy in its early stage in China, the characteristics of the Three Treatise School and Nagarjuna' s influence to both the Tian-tai and other Chinese schools.

2. Spread of Nagarjuna's philosophy in its early stage in China

Nagarjuna is one of the greatest philosophers the world has so far produced. In the Buddhist world of China and the Far East, Nagajuna exerted a historical influence either in scope or depth that had been surpassed only by that of the Buddha. In fact, devout Buddhists of China (including Tibet and Taiwan), Japan and Korea consider him to be the second Buddha who once again set the Dharma in motion. In the integration of Mahayana and in providing it with a philosophical basis, Nagarjuna played an important role in founding Madhyamika Buddhism. The philosophy of him is somewhat a reconstruction and a new creative synthesis of the Buddha's teaching. Modern scholars drew a parallel between Nagarjuna's philosophy and Kant's philosophy. However, in the critical approach Nagarjuna's philosophy is even more critical than Kant's.

The theory of Madhyamika philosophy of Nararjuna was carried forward later on by his great disciple Aryadeva. It was enhanced in vogue during the end of 5th and 6th century in India that was split into two: the Prasangika school and Svatantrika school. The latter was divided further into two sub-schools: the Sautrantika Svatantrika and the Yogacara Svatantrika. Since the 9th century Madhyamika Buddhism lost its power and influence in India and withered away completely in 15th century. The original Sanskrit scriptures of Madhyamika were lost almost. However, the Madhyamika School was introduced into Tibet in 8th century and even today the school plays still a dominant role in Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism was introduced into China around the beginning of the first century, that for roughly a thousand years the Chinese mind was largely dominated by Buddhism. It is, however, during the Wei and Jun dynasties, when Xuanxue, the Chinese philosophical trend of the day based its doctrine on Taoism dominated the Chinese intellectual circle, the concept of parjna and sunyata were introduced into China successively. The metaphysic question of Xuanxue like You (existence) and Wu (non-existence) together with its relations were extensively discussed in the Chinese intellectual circle. For the Buddhist term sunyata (kong) or emptiness is literally quite close to that which was concerned and discussed in Xuanxue, the devout Buddhist scholars interpreted Buddhism by making a farfetched comparison of some Taoist terms in order to propagate Buddhism. This kind of irrelevance caused a big quarrel in the Chinese Buddhist community and as a result several philosophical schools of Buddhism Called "Liu-jia-qi-zong" held in difference on the concept of sunyata were occurred one after another.

When the great scholar Kumarajiva came to China and translated some important Buddhist books such as Mahaparjnapararnitasastra, Madhyamika Sastra, Dvadasamukha Sastra and Sata Sastra into Chinese, the so-called Xuanxuelized Buddhism was restored again to order. Seng-zhao, a great disciple of Kumarajiva wrote a book Zhao-tun in which it has introduced systematically the origin of the concept of sunyata and criticized clearly the miscomprehension of Buddhism of the day. In order to avoid any confusion and explain clearly the true concept of sunyata, Seng-zhao had a term "bu-zhen-kong " (not real but empty) in his philosophy. According to his philosophy, "bu-zhen " (unreal) is actually "conceptual name". "Name" is unreal that is man-made. What is unreal is actually empty (sunyata). By adapting this new term in explaining sunyata, it shows that Seng-zhao had apprehended correctly the real sense of Nagarjma' s philosophy. Although Seng-zhao took measure for thorough-going reform on the studies of prajna and sunyata his philosophy had not broken away 100 percent from the influence of Chinese Xuanxue. That is to say the situation in its early stage when Nagarjuna's, philosophy was introduced to China was hard for any foreign religion like Buddhism to spread freely and comfortably. That is why Buddhism could run only side by side with the local Chinese sorcery in the very beginning.

3. Characteristics of the Three Treatise School

Indian Madhyamika Buddhism was introduced into China in the 4th century. The so-called "San-lun-zong" (the School of Three Treatise) or "Kong-zong" (the School of Emptiness) was actually based its doctrine on the three books: Madhyamika Sastra, Dvadasamukha Sastra and Sata Sastra. The three books, as a basic doctrine of the Three Treatise School translated by Kumarajiva were originally written by both Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva. The original copy of these books in Sanskrit was also lost. What we talked today the Nagarjuna' s philosophy or Madhyamika Buddhism is in accordance with Candrakirti's Ming-ju-lun (Prasannapada).

When these three treatise books were introduced and translated into Chinese by Kumarajive, it brought a big attention to the Chinese intellectual circle and caused a great interest in the area of philosophy of Buddhist studies. There are number of great scholars exerted their interest in the three treatises, such as Hui-yuan, Seng-rui, Seng-zhao, Dao-seng, Seng-lang, Ji-zang and Fa-lang. Hui-yuan, Seng-rui, Seng-zhao and Dao-seng were early Chinese Madhyamikas. All four were Kumarajiva's contemporaries, the first his correspondent and follower and the other three his disciples. Dao-seng advanced a number of original theories, but it was Seng-zhao who incorporating Taoism into Madhyamika developed a systematic philosophy. But the most important thinker of this school was Ji-zang who was very much honored by emperors of the Sui and Tang Dynasties. The philosophy of Ji-zang completely Indian in viewpoint, though he too quoted some from Taoism. It was Ji-zang carried forward Madhyamika philosophy in vague and founded the Three Treatise School in China. Since then, the Three Treatise School had played a dominant role in the Chinese Buddhist society until its decline in the ninth century.

According to the Three Treatise School, any philosophy or doctrine is not a systematical consummation, but it should be approached with a critical sense of study. Generally, what approached by Mahayana or Hinayana is only an interest in its annotation of the doctrine. What they seek after is to establish a permanent truth. However, in the mind of the Three Treatise School there is no such which can be treated as permanent. In this case, the Three Treatise School criticized not only the traditional Indian philosophy, but the Buddhist orthodox as well. In order to avoid any arbitrary and bias the Three Treatise Sciiool attaches importance to means and method, but not the annotation of the doctrine itself. The Three Treatise School rejects any fixed form of logic for they do not consider that logic has a priori truth of knowledge. Any kind of metaphysics should be also criticized. According to them, either logic or language is nothing but sunyata, emptiness. Either deduction or induction is but man-made which has no permanent value of truth, Therefore, man's mind should not be obstructed by it. Strictly speaking, the Three Treatise School has no unique method of philosophy itself. From the logical point of view, the theoretical method of Three Treatise School adapted usually is the practice of "empty logic". When they come to debate or to criticize the view of others they utilize always the method that is customarily used by their opponents. In the sense of their opinion, any philosophical method has only the pragmatic value. Any theoretical method by which one can remove any kind of attachment from either oneself or others that deserves value of usage. The aim of the debate or criticism of the school is not necessarily to establish any viewpoint of themselves, but to point out and correct the theoretical contradictory of others.

4. Nagarjuna's influence to both the Tian-tai and other schools

Nagarjuna's philosophy has something to do with the founging of the Tian-tai School. According to Fo-zhu-tong-ji (Record of the Lord Buddha), Hui-wen, an eminent scholar monk of Northern Qi Dynasty was enlightened especially by reading 27th chapter of Mahaparjnaparamitasastra: "the tri-knowledge can be achieved actually with a mind and the 4th chapter of Madhyamikasastra: "what is dependent origination that we call sunyata; it is a conception (prajnapti imposed (or appropriated). It alone is the Middle Path." He established the doctrine of "Yi-xin-san-guan" (to review from three aspects with a mind) after having inspired by the above verses. The actual founder of the Tian-tai School is Zhi-yi. The Tian-tai School based its doctrine on Mahaparjnaparamitasastra and its central teaching is theory of "San-ti-yuan-rong" (the integralrelation between kong – emptiness, Jia – conception, and Zhong – middle way) and " Yi-xin-san-guan " (to review from three aspects with a mind) which were evolved and developed from Nagarjuna's philosophy. That's why this school had traced its philosophy back to Nagarjuna and regarded him as the first master of them. This shows how close relation of Nagarjuna and the Tian-tai School.

According to the Tian-tai School, the world is a flux, things are constantly changing from moment to moment. They are caused and causing to be, they act and are being acted upon, and they come into existence and cease to be. There is no permanent entity or substance, and everything's nature is but sunyata, emptiness (Kong). Things have no substance, but conventional forms, conception and names just like a miracle that is unreal (Jia). All these are constituent in natures that are mutually related without being created that is Middle Path (Zhong). Kong can't be separated from Jia and Zhong, Jia also can't be separated from Kong and Zhong, Zhong too can't be separated from Kong and Jia. The three are integrally related.

Nagarjuna's philosophy avoids the extremes of affirmation and negation. It does riot affirm that there is Substance of Self, nor does it deny them. It attempts to critically review what is and be aware of things as they are. It is the Middle Approach or the Middle Doctrine. It is neither, realism nor idealism, and certainly not nihilism. Nothing has its own being; everything is what it is in relation to other things and nothing has an independent existence. Moreover, nothing is integral entity: things we see and deal with are made up of constituents. Everything is mutually dependent and related. The caused and conditioned nature of all things constitutes their vacuity or emptiness, sunyata.

Other Chinese schools of Buddhism like the Huan-yan, Chan-zong and Pure Land were also influenced more or less by Nagarjuna's philosophy. The Dasabhumivaibhasa sastra is the commentary written by Nagarjuna on Ten stages chapter of the Buddhavatamsakamahavaipulya sutra (Huan-yan-jing) on which the Huan-yan School based its doctrine. It shows that Nagarjuna had further elaborated the doctrine of Huan-yan-jing. Chan-zong (Dhyana School) reckoned Nagarjuna among its Patriarchs and regarded him as the most important Indian link in the long chain of witnesses since Sakyamuni Buddha, and through him negativism, paradox, intuition and the concept of "thusness" (tathata) flowed into Chan. According to some scholars, the fundamental thesis of Bodhidharma (the founder of Chan-zong), Bodhicitta (the Buddha nature) can be realised by inward gazing for everyone has potentially himself of becoming a Buddha. This kind of concept was actually taken from Pu-ti-xin-li-xiang-lun, a Chinese translation of Nagarjuna's works. Although Bodhidharma was the nominal founder of Chinese esoteric school, Nagarjuna was the real philosophical thinker who gave him the impulse to reflection. The Chan School exercised an enormous influence on Chinese thought, life, literature and art for some centuries.

Amitabha sects consider Nagarjuna as their first Patriarch. Amitabha scriptures were known to China since the 2nd century, but the Pure Land School which taught the worship of Amitabha was founded by Hui-yuan and some of its most important teachers began as students of San-lun-zong, the Three Treatise School and then became Amitabhaists. The Amitabha sects hold the doctrine of salvation by faith in Amitabha and their goal is the attainment of his paradise (Sukhavati) by his grace. Nagarjuna's Suhrliekha distinctly countenances Amitabha cult.


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