Chinese Buddhist Philosophy

Mario Poceski

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Chinese Buddhist Philosophy

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One could argue that philosophy is a uniquely Western concept or discipline, closely tied up with distinctive ways of thinking and systems of thought that originated in ancient Greece and became essential elements of European knowledge and tradition. Some scholars still debate whether China ever developed philosophical traditions along the lines of those that flourished in the Western world, or whether we can talk of Chinese philosophy as a distinct intellectual discipline. Such views and discussions are played out in a variety of intellectual and institutional contexts, including hiring and curriculum decisions made by philosophy departments at various universities. Similar arguments have been made about Buddhism, whose teachings have been labeled in a number of ways, for instance as religion, philosophy, or theology. Notwithstanding the presence of complex systems of doctrine within Buddhism, there is no precise equivalent to the Western term “philosophy” in any of the languages that were used by the various Buddhist traditions. Similarly, in premodern China there was no native term exactly equivalent to the Western term “philosophy.” The present Chinese word for philosophy, zhexue (lit. “study of wisdom,” pronounced tetsugaku in Japanese), was coined by the Japanese philosopher and public intellectual Nishi Amane (b. 1829–d. 1897), in the context of his influential efforts directed toward the introduction and popularization of Western philosophy in Japan. The first Chinese intellectual to appropriate the new Japanese term was the late Qing writer and diplomat Huang Zunxian (b. 1848–d. 1905). Accordingly, only in the first decade of the 20th century did the term zhexue come into vogue within Chinese academic and intellectual circles. On the other hand, once we move beyond Eurocentric suppositions and narrow definitions of disciplinary parameters, in both the Buddhist and the Chinese traditions we can find intricate sets of doctrinal principles and highly sophisticated systems of thought that can be characterized as philosophical. Within the different Buddhist canons, as well as the voluminous bodies of exegetical literature that grew around them, we can locate diverse arrays of systematic analyses of the general features of the universe or the essential nature of reality. We can also identify methodical explorations of the basic categories by which we think or process reality, such as mind, freedom, truth, and causality—which have been major topics of intellectual inquiry throughout the history of Western philosophy—as well as multifaceted reflections on the meaning of human life, the ethical principles that should guide everyday conduct, or the processes of personal transformation. Accordingly, this entry adopts a broad definition of philosophy, with the understanding that within the Chinese Buddhist context one can also use other terms, such as teaching, doctrine, or dharma, which in their native variants are often used interchangeably. Moreover, in Chinese Buddhism the various forms of philosophizing were (and still are) typically situated within broader religious and institutional contexts, which inevitably incorporated other issues and concerns, such as contemplative cultivation, devotional practice, ritual performance, or ideological contestation. The philosophical insights or arguments of Buddhist traditions such as Yogācāra (practice of yoga) and Chan consequently cannot be properly understood without consideration of their comprehensive soteriological templates, especially their views about spiritual practice.

Article.  7309 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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