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The Buddha Tree

    Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Ming Ti had a dream which led him to send his agents down the Silk Road -- the ancient trade route between China and the west -- to discover its meaning. The agents returned with a picture of the Buddha and a copy of the Sutra in 42 Sections. This Sutra would, in 67 ad, be the first of many to be translated into Chinese. 

    The first Buddhist community in China is thought to be one in Loyang, established by "foreigners" around 150 ad, in the Han dynasty. Only 100 years later, there emerges a native Chinese Sangha. And during the Period of Disunity (or Era of the Warring States, 220 to 589 ad), the number of Buddhist monks and nuns increase to as many as two million! Apparently, the uncertain times and the misery of the lower classes were fertile ground for the monastic traditions of Buddhism. 

    Buddhism did not come to a land innocent of religion and philosophy, of course. China, in fact, had three main competing streams of thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion. Confucianisim is essentially a moral-political philosophy, involving a complex guide to human relationships. Taoism is a life-philosophy involving a return to simpler and more "natural" ways of being. And the folk religion -- or, should we say, religions -- consisted of rich mythologies, superstitions, astrology, reading of entrails, magic, folk medicine, and so on. (Please understand that I am simplifying here: Certainly Confucianism and Taoism are as sophisticated as Buddhism!) 

    Although these various streams sometimes competed with each other and with Buddhism, they also fed each other, enriched each other, and intertwined with each other. Over time, the Mahayana of India became the Mahayana of China and, later, of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 

Pure Land 
    The first example historically is Pure Land Buddhism (Ching-T'u, J: Jodo). The peasants and working people of China were used to gods and goddesses, praying for rain and health, worrying about heaven and hell, and so on. It wasn't a great leap to find in Buddhism's cosmology and theology the bases for a religious tradition that catered to these needs and habits, while still providing a sophisticated philosophical foundation. 

    The idea of this period of time as a fallen or inferior time -- traditional in China -- led to the idea that we are no longer able to reach enlightenment on our own power, but must rely on the intercession of higher beings. The transcendent Buddha Amitabha, and his western paradise ("pure land"), introduced in the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, was a perfect fit.


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