Buddhism in East Asia
Many people will choose Confucianism as the most important factor in understating East Asian culture. Confucianism, indeed, is crucial in understanding the culture. However, one should not overlook the influence of Buddhism on Confucianism and many areas of East Asian culture. Buddhism, one of the world’s oldest religions and a philosophy, is shared by East Asian countries, thus in order to fully appreciate the East Asian culture, one should learn about Buddhism and its significant influence on the culture.
This paper will discuss Buddhism shared by East Asian culture and how the religion played an enormous role in shaping the mindset of people affecting their culture. Buddhism started approximately in the 6th century BCE, starting with the birth of the Buddha in India. The religion then spread through Central Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia (Keown). Among many branches of Buddhism, Mahayana has been diffused from first west, north, and east throughout East Asia (Skilton). The fundamental principles of Mahayana are liberation from suffering and the belief in the existence of Bodhisattva.
Bodhisattva is someone who achieved Nirvana, the state of being free from both suffering and the cycle of rebirth (Keown). One can find a carved wood elongated figure of Bodhisattva Guanyin (1999. 13. 0003) from Spurlok Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL . In this wooden figure, Guanyin is barefoot with hair wrapped in knot, wears ornate robes and holds a basket with flowers (Spurlock Museum). One can also find a photo of Bronze Seated Buddha in National Museum at Kyongbok-Kung, Seoul, South Korea (1986. 27. 0017) in Spurlock Museum .
These are an important artifact and a photo because one can easily find very similar artifacts of Guanyin or Buddha in China, Korea, and Japan. It shows one how Buddhism was shared by East Asian countries (Yu). Upon first encountering Buddhism, many Chinese scholars regarded it as merely a foreign religion. This caused Buddhism to transform itself into a system that could co-exist within the Chinese way of life. Thus, filial devotion, one of the most valued by Confucianists, in Buddhist teachings became the core texts in China.
It further strengthened the Confucian value by claiming that the salvation of an individual was a benefit to the society and family. Therefore, Buddhism could spread well in the Chinese population (Chen). From this point, Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan, and Buddhist ideology began to merge with Confucianism. This caused many Confucian scholars to redefine Confucianism as Neo-Confucianism (Chen). While Neo-Confucianism adapted Buddhist ideas, many Neo-Confucianists strongly opposed Buddhism.
Nonetheless, Buddhism offered Confucianism important ideas such as the nature of the soul and the relation of the individual to the cosmos, ideas not explored by Confucianism (Chen). Again, Neo-Confucianism was spread through Korea and Japan, and they were all deeply influenced for more than half a millennium (Chen). Moreover, many other indigenous religions and philosophical systems in East Asia integrated the ideas and teachings of Buddhism, so it came to be a natural part of living. In conclusion, the teachings of Buddhism not only influenced in shaping the mindset of East Asian people, but also affected their philosophy of life.