The Chinese Canon


History of Buddhism in China: The First Thousand Years


The Chinese Canon is called the Ta-ts'ang-ching or "Great Scripture Store." The first complete printing of the "Three Baskets" or Tripitaka was completed in 983 C.E., and known as the Shu-pen or Szechuan edition. It included 1076 texts in 480 cases. A number of other editions of the modern Chinese Canon were made thereafter. The now standard modern edition of this work is known as the Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo, published in Tokyo between 1924 and 1929. It contains 55 volumes containing 2184 texts, along with a supplement of 45 additional volumes. A fine chapter titled "The Chinese Tripitaka" can be found on pp. 365-368 of Buddhism in China (Princeton University Press), 1964 by Kenneth K.S. Ch'en.

The Chinese Tripitaka in World Buddhism

The main objective of the World Buddhist Fellowship is to link the various schools of Buddhism, coming as they do from all over the world. This communion can be accomplished by harmonious cooperation on the basis of spiritual sharing. As a global community we can then actualize the inspiring ideals of world enlightenment and salvation through the encouragement of our common Buddhist culture.

We must first acknowledge that the various schools of thought in Buddhism are indeed facets of the Triple Gem that is Buddhism. There is no room for superficial and dogmatic claims that one school is true whereas others are not. For instance the Mahayana schools should not be lightly dismissed as illegitimate, nor should the Sravakavana school conversely be despised as moribund. Only when the study and practice of Buddhism is carried out in a friendly and accommodating atmosphere, with mutual trust and understanding, will coordination and cooperation be possible. With this attitude, the trash and trimmings now enshrouding Buddhism can be removed to reveal the essential splendour of the Triple Gem. Thus Buddhism, which is well-adapted to this modern world, can be redeemed and developed for the purpose of the enlightenment and salvation of the world in its dire present need.

Buddhism stems from one point of origin and is highly adaptable under many circumstances. For different races, time and environments, it seems to develop into entirely different shapes and forms. But a close study of its trends and modes of development, its adaptations to new environments whilst preserving the integral identity of its core, brings one to the realisation that the different forms of Buddhism are interrelated and that cooperation amongst them is entirely feasible. Generally, each school has its own characteristics and shortcomings. Buddhists should honestly survey these various schools, exchanging the shortcomings in each for the strengths in others on the basis of equality, and for the sake of pursuing truth. In so doing, the ultimate truth as experienced by the Buddha may be realized and his original intention, as embodied in his teaching, may be fully understood.

When we trace the different schools of Buddhism in the world today, from their origins in India, we can see that the profile sprouting of sectarian Buddhism seems to have taken place as follows:

(1) The sacred texts embodying the Buddha-dharma developed over time. The sutras and Vinaya Pitaka were the earliest to be compiled and circulated. Round about the beginning of the first century A.D., the researchers of the Agama Sutra and those dedicated to Sravaka practice had compiled the Abhidharma, emphasising the existential aspect of Dependent Origination. On the other hand, the Mahayana scriptures had been compiled by those who stressed the virtues of the Buddha and the practice of the Bodhisattva, emphasizing the aspect of emptiness as central to the attainment of real understanding of Dependent Origination.

By the third century A.D., Nagarjuna had composed his famous Sastras on the Madhyamika doctrine interpreting the Agama and Abhidharma on the basis of the Mahayana sutras of the Sunyata school. At about the same time, Mahayana scriptures tending towards 'eternal-reality' idealism, such as the Srimaladeve-Simhanada Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, had begun to be found, followed by sutras such as the Lankavatara Sutra. Along with this development, the Asters and Yogacaryas of the Sravastivada school accepted the "mind-only" aspect of the Mahayana school. They compiled a number of Sastras of the Yogacara Vijnanavada and eventually flourished as a great Mahayana school in their own right.

Then, at about the fifth century there was a further development of esoteric Yoga from the school of eternal-reality idealism. If one tried to follow the course of development of Buddhism as outlined above, one would have no difficulty tracing the evolution of the vast diversity of scriptures and doctrines held sacred by the many schools.

(2) Doctrinally, Buddhism was just Buddhism at first and there was no sectarian difference. It did not divide into the Sravakayana and Bodhisattvayana until about the beginning of the Christian era. Then in the scriptures of the Bodhisattvayana we begin to see the division of Hinayana and Mahayana.

In the second and third centuries scriptures of eternal-reality idealism started to appear in the Bodhisattvayana. In such Sutras were first seen the terms "noumenon, Sunya and Madhya"; and "Hina-, Maha- and Eka-yana." These scriptures of later date laid special emphasis on the achievement of Buddhahood, and were thus also classified as Buddhayana.

At the beginning of the fifth century, another 'yana', the Dharaniyana, sprung into existence from the noumenal school of Buddhism. This school classified all Buddha Dharma into the Tripitaka, the Paramita Pitaka (including everything of the exoteric schools), and the Dharani Pitaka. It also categorised the Dharma according to practice as: Catvri-satyani, Paramita, and greed-ingrained.

These classifications are indicative of the diversification and development of Buddhism and are consistent with the schematic three periods of historical development proposed by the late Venerable Tai Hsu. The latter were as follows:

First 500 years after Buddha's demise - Hinayana in vogue with Mahayana in the background. The Pali Tipitaka are representative of the Buddhism of this period.

Second 500 years - Mahayana to the fore with Hinayana attendant. The Chinese Tripitaka reflects the development of Buddhism in this period.

Third 500 years - Tantric Buddhism took the lead, leaving the exoteric school in its wake. The Tibetan Tripitaka is the fruit of this period.

Chinese Buddhism - from which Japanese Buddhism derives is representative of the Buddhism of the second 500 years, i.e. it is founded mainly on Bodhisattvayana, which links the earlier Sravakayana and the later Buddhayana. It therefore effectively ties Buddhist history together.

As it plays such a pivotal role in the historical development of the Buddha-dharma, the Chinese Tripitaka deserves the special attention of all those concerned with the present development of world Buddhism. It is my humble opinion that only in the study of the Chinese Tripitaka can the contents of Buddhism be fully and totally understood. The Chinese Tripitaka offers the following:

(a) Agamas: All four Agamas belong to the Bhava division. The Madhyamagama and Samyuktagama were translated from the texts of the Sravastivada school while the Dirghagama and Ekottaragama were translated from those of the Mahasamghika or Vibbajyavada schools. Though admittedly it does not contain a complete set of the sutras of any single school, (the Pali Tripitaka does present a more complete set), a textual conglomeration of many schools does have its merits (The Tibetan Tripitaka contains no Agama at all).

(b) Vinayas: The Tibetan Tripitaka contains only the new rules of the Tamrasatiya sect, while the Chinese Vinaya contains all the following:

(i) The Mahasamghika Vinaya of the Mahasamghika school.

(ii) The five divisions of the Mahisasaka Vinaya, the four divisions of the Dharmagupta Vinaya, the pratimoksa of Mahadasyapiyah, and the Sudarsana Vinaya of Tamrasatiya. All these are rules of the Vibbajyavada school.

(iii) The old Sravastivada Vinaya and the new Mulasarvasti vadanikaya Vinaya, both of the Sarvastivada school.

(iv) The Twenty-Two-Points-Of-Elucidation Sastras of the Sammatiya sect of the Vatsiputriyas school.

This rich collection of materials from different sources greatly facilitates comparative studies of sectarian Buddhism.

(c) Abhidharmas: This body of scripture is common to the three main schools of Theravada Buddhism, namely, the Vibhajyavadins, the Sarvastivadins, and the Vatsiputriyas. In the Tibetan Tripitaka there are only the Prajnapti of the Jnanaaprasthanasatpadabhidharma and the later Abhidarmakosa.

The Pali Tripitaka contains seven Sastras. While the Chinese Tripitaka has an especially large collection of the work of the Sarvastivada school, it also possesses the Abhidharma work of practically all sects. The Chinese Tripitaka contains:

i) The Samgitiparyaya, the Dharmaskandha, the Prajnapti, the Vijnanakaya, the Dhatukaya, the Prakaranapada, the Jnanaprasthana, the Mahavibhasa, the Abhidharma-hrdaya-vyakhya, the Abhiraharmananyanyanusara and the Abhidharmasamayapradipika Sastras of the Sarvastivada school.

ii) Of the works of Vibhajyavadins, it includes the Abhidharma Sastra of Sariputa, which is the only important work that links up the Southern and Northern Abhidharmas.

iii) It also contains the Vimmuttimagga which is a different version of the Pali Visuddhimagga.

iv) It further contains the Sammitiya Sastra of the Vatsiputriya School.

v) The renowned Abhidharmakosa of the third to fourth century which combines the best teachings of the Sarvastivada and Sautrantika schools, and the Satyasiddi Sastra of Harivarman which greatly influenced Chinese Buddhism.

All these treasures of the Abhidharma may be found in the Chinese Tripitaka. It can thus be seen that although the works of earlier dates in the Tripitaka were not given the full respect due them by the majority of Chinese Buddhists, the wealth of information they contain will be of great reference value to anyone interested in tracing the divisions of the Sravaka schools and the development of the Bodhisattva ideal from the Sravakayana. If these scriptures are ignored, I will say that it would definitely not be possible for anyone to fulfil the responsibility of coordinating and linking the many branches of world Buddhism.

(d) Mahayana scriptures of the Sunyavada.

(e) Mahayana scriptures of the noumenon school, or the school of eternal-reality, are very complete in the Chinese Tripitaka. These scriptures are very similar to those found in the Tibetan Tripitaka. The four great Sutras, the Prajnaparamita, the Avatamsaka, the Mahasamghata, and the Mahaparinirvana (to which may be added the Maharatnakuta Sutra, making five great sutras), are all tremendously voluminous works. Here it may be pointed out that the Chinese scriptures are particularly notable for the following characteristics:

(i) The different translations of the same Sutra have been safely preserved in the Chinese Tripitaka in their respective original versions without their being constantly revised according to later translations, as was the case with Tibetan scriptures. From a study of the Chinese translations we can thus trace the changes in content which the majority of scriptures have undergone over time and reflect upon the changes in the original Indian texts at different points in time. Thus we have the benefit of more than one version for reference, recording the evolution of the scriptures.

(ii) The Chinese Mahayana scriptures that were translated before the Tsin Dynasties (beginning 265 C.E.) are particularly related to the Buddhism of Chinese Turkestan with its centre in the mountain areas of Kashmir. These scriptures form a strong nucleus of Chinese Buddhist thinking. The translations of the Dasabhumika Sastra and Lankavatara Sutra all possess very special characteristics.

(f) Madhyamika: The Madhyamika texts of the Chinese Tripitaka are considerably different from the Tibetan renditions of the same system of thought. The Chinese collection consists mostly of earlier works, particularly those of Nagarjuna, such as the Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra and the Dasabhumikavibhasa Sastra, which not only present Madhyamika philosophy of a very high order but also illustrate extensively the acts of a Bodhisattva.

Of the late Madhyamika works, i.e. works produced by the disciples of Nagarjuna after the rise of the Yogacara system, only the Prajnapradipa Sastra of Bhavaviveka has been rendered into Chinese. The Chinese Tripitaka does not contain works or as many schools of this system as the Tibetan Tripitaka. The Mahayanavataraka Sastra of Saramati and the Madhyayata Sastra of Asanga clearly indicate the change of thinking from the Madhyamika to the Yogacara system.

(g) Yogacara-Vijnanavada: The Chinese Tripitaka contains a very complete collection of this system of thought. It includes important scriptures such as the Dasabhumika, Mahayanasamparigraha Sastra, and Vijnaptimatrasiddhi Sastra. While the Tibetan system was mainly founded on the teachings of Sthiramati which are more akin to the Mahayanasamparigraha school of Chinese work, the Chinese students of orthodox Vijnanavada follow the teachings of Dharmapala.

The Vinaptimatrasiddhi Sastra, which represents the consummation of the Dignaga-Dharmapala-Silabhadra school of thought, is a gem of the Chinese Tripitaka. The Hetuvidya which is closely connected with Vijnanavada, is not fully translated in the Chinese Tripitaka and cannot compare favourably with the works of Dignaga and Dharmakirti collected in the Tibetan Tripitaka.

This seems to indicate that the Chinese people were not logically inclined, and gives no weight to engagements in verbal gymnastics and debates. In times past this had relegated the position of Sastra masters in China to one of relative unimportance.

(h) The esoteric Yoga: The Chinese Tripitaka includes Chinese translations of both the Vairocana Sutra of the practical division, and the Diamond Crown Sutra of the Yoga division of the Tantric school of Buddhism. The only esoteric scriptures that are missing are those of the Supreme Yoga division which, as they arrived in China at a time of national chaos, did not have much chance to circulate widely. Its very nature of achieving enlightenment through carnal expressions also made Tantrism unacceptable to the Chinese intellectuals. However, the texts of esoteric Yoga are abundant in the Tibetan Tripitaka.

From the above it can be seen that the Chinese Tripitaka is composed mainly of Mahayana scriptures of the second 500 years, yet translations were not restricted to scriptures of this middle period. The Chinese Tripitaka also possesses a wealth of works of early Buddhism as a good portion of the later productions.

Thus, if one could have a sufficient knowledge of the Chinese Tripitaka, and could extend his knowledge from there to include the Pali Tripitaka of the Sravakayana, and the Madhyamika and Supreme Yoga of the Tibetan system, then he would have little difficulty in gaining an accurate, complete and comprehensive panorama of the 1,700 years of development of Indian Buddhism, the record of which has been preserved in the three great extant schools of Buddhist thought.

The late Venerable Tai Hsu once said, "To mold a new, critical and comprehensive system, based on the Chinese Tripitaka, the Theravada teaching of Ceylon, and selected components of the Tibetan canon, should be the objective of the writing of a history of Indian Buddhism." Even more so, it should be the objective of coordinating and connecting the many tributaries of world Buddhism. It is our responsibility to discard the trimmings and to retain the very essence of the great Tripitakas, adapting Buddhism to the modern world so that it may fulfil its mission of leading the way, taking under its wings the miserable beings of the present era.

Translated by Mok Chung, edited by Mick Kiddle, proofread by Neng Rong. (20-6-1995)



Wednesday August 17, 2022
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