AS AN INDIAN who has lived for several years in China and Japan, I’ve heard politicians wax eloquent about the Buddhist connection that binds these nations together, more often than I care to remember. Buddhism’s cross-Himalayan journey from India to China and eastward to Japan (and Korea) is regularly trotted out at various bilateral summits as an example of how all of us “Asian” countries exist in a civilisational embrace. So that despite our superficial differences, at the core we are somehow fraternal—because of Buddhism.
Since my years reporting from China, in the first decade of this millennium, I’ve argued that stressing the religion as evidence of the commonalities between India and the erstwhile Middle Kingdom obfuscates the fundamental differences between them. Indian religions, including Buddhism, were steeped in metaphysics with questions of an ontological and epistemological nature at their heart. What is the mind? How do we know what is real? How does inductive reasoning stack up against deductive logic? Is the soul eternal?
The search for answers to these questions had created a lively debate between schools of thought in India, firmly implanting a tradition of argumentation in the culture. Indian Buddhist philosophy, for example, held that there was no permanent soul or self that survives rebirth, as posited in some Hindu schools of philosophy. In place of an unchanging “soul”, Indian Buddhism believed there to be only an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents.
Territorial integrity and notions of empire were not as central to India’s self-image as metaphysics. Indian civilisation was more rooted in philosophy than geography. In contrast, China was more coherent territorially. Its empire was underpinned by Confucian thinking that tended less to the metaphysical and more to the practical, legalistic, and political. This divergence becomes clear when we examine how Indian Buddhism’s otherworldliness—with its emphasis on renunciation— was transformed in China, after being reconciled with the Confucian preoccupation with the here and now.
The philosophical child of these two traditions was Zen Buddhism, which reached its apogee in Japan, where it remains foundational to the archipelago’s modern-day culture and aesthetics. Daisetsu T Suzuki’s seminal work, first published in 1938, Zen and Japanese Culture, describes Zen as “The product of the Chinese mind when it came into contact with Indian Buddhist teachings in the 1st century AD.” In essence, it was a less intellectualised version of Indian Buddhism, in keeping with the “practical” Chinese temperament.
AN ASIDE: The word Zen comes from the Chinese Ch’an, which in turn derives from the Sanskrit dhyana. The founder of the Ch’an school in China was an Indian monk, Bodhidharma, who, according to legend, spent nine years gazing at the wall of a cave near the famous Shaolin Temple in modern-day Henan province. In one version of the story, Bodhidharma fell asleep seven years into this wall-gazing marathon. Upon waking, he became so enraged with himself at his somnambulant lapse, that he cut off his eyelids to prevent any future napping. As his leaf-like eyelids hit the floor, they sprouted miraculously into tea plants. Instinctively, Bodhidharma reached over and plucked a few leaves from the bushes to chew on and suddenly found himself refreshed. With a clear and focused mind, he was able to resume his meditation and, thereafter, tea was used as a stimulant to help monks stay alert.
WHEN IN THE late 12th century Zen took root in the Japanese archipelago, the practical aspects of the religion became even more pronounced. All Zen monks in Japan had to do manual, and menial, labour, including gathering fuel, picking tea leaves, cultivating the land, and cleaning temple grounds. In his book, Suzuki recalled a koan (story) in which when a Zen master is asked about his future life, he answers: “Let me be a horse or donkey and work for the villagers.” This was in stark contrast to the Indian sangha where for centuries monks had been prohibited from working, supported in their material needs by the generosity of their neighbourhood lay community.
Indian civilisation was more rooted in philosophy than geography. In contrast, China was more coherent territorially. Its empire was underpinned by Confucian thinking that tended less to the metaphysical and more to the practical, legalistic, and political
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While visiting the great Zen temple of Tōfuku-ji in Kyoto a few years ago, I found myself gazing upon an outhouse that was regarded as a national treasure. Designated an “Important Cultural Property” since 1902, this 14th-century restroom was the oldest and largest of all extant Zen toilets. I’d gazed at the row of holes in the bare earthen floor of the airy sloping-roofed structure. Outside, a sign explained how human excrement had been used for compost manure and had therefore been indispensable for maintaining an adequate supply of vegetables for the kitchens of samurai warriors and court nobles. Compost used to be a large part of any Zen temple’s income.
I was brought back to the central, consequential, difference between Buddhism in India with its emphasis on renunciation, and its Japanese/Chinese variants with their focus on work. Not only did Japanese monks work (unlike their Indian alms-seeking counterparts), they made no distinction between work and meditation. And most of the ‘work’ they performed was cleaning of different kinds: raking leaves, dusting the altars, scrubbing the toilets.
In Tokyo, one of my good friends was Shoukei Matsumoto, a young Buddhist monk at the Kōmyō-ji temple who was also the author of a book, A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind. The book’s premise, founded on my friend’s years of cleaning as an apprentice monk, was that cleaning isn’t just about removing dirt but about cultivating the mind.
“People may ask what the point of cleaning is. It is only cleaning, nothing more,” he told me. “There is no end to cleaning. You sweep away a leaf and another falls to take its place. That’s just fine. There is no difference between the process and the goal.” Matsumoto had just given me as precise a definition of Zen Buddhism as was possible.
THE DEMOCRATISATION OF labour in eastern Buddhism had long-lasting social effects. In Smoke and Mirrors, my China memoir, I made the case that this crucial difference between India and China explained much about their divergent trajectories. Growing up in India, a special “toilet-cleaning lady” had been employed in our home to scrub our commodes, a job no one else was willing to perform. In contrast, in China, my newly wealthy but old-fashioned landlord used to come around and fix our frequently malfunctioning toilet himself. As for Japan, our toilet in Tokyo not only never needed any fixing, it was a veritable objet d’art.
It was as if India-China-Japan formed a great Asiatic triangle of the metaphysical-political-aesthetic. India was the home of the Buddha, and China of Confucius. While Japan’s most quoted thinker was probably Sen no Rikyū— the 16th-century master of tea ceremony, a seemingly mundane and secular activity, but one whose aesthetics are imbued in Zen precepts.
IT IS TRUE THAT all these three civilisations can find echoes of the other in themselves due to the syntax of their shared Buddhist heritage. Yet, the vocabulary and stories they have developed from this syntax make each unique and there are some vital insights to be gleaned from these differences.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open