How Dharma Spreads

It was a long, hard road from India to China around the turn of the Common Era. Those who made the journey were largely traders from the far North-Western fringes of the Indic world, in what we now call Central Asia.

In Chinese culture, neither trading nor Central Asia had high status. Yet these people managed to communicate Bauddha traditions across China.

This new host culture was quite unlike India. To get the message across took skill and perseverance.

Take the not-self approach (anātma). The idea here is that it helpful to stop thinking about yourself.

This teaching was framed in Indic terms. That, after all, was where the Buddha set the Dharma wheel rolling.

In India, it was fashionable to say that everyone had an eternal self (or Self). To sort your life out, you just had to get in touch with it. Bauddhas rejected that. We talk about ourselves too much, they said, particularly to ourselves. It does not help. On the contrary, it traps us — and, when you look at it carefully, it makes no sense to say that people have a fixed Self, which makes them what they truly are.

In China, though, people, had no fancy ideas about an eternal Self. There was no language to express them even. How, then, to explain the not-self approach to Chinese friends?

Happily, Bauddhas have always been clear that, while the letter of the teaching (vyañjana) is important, what matters is the spirit (artha). So, immense effort was put into translating Indian texts, but we may assume that even more went into teaching people face to face and finding out what worked for them. Such things are harder to count, of course, but, judging by the results, that is a fair assumption.

For, gradually, a Chinese Bauddha culture developed. Then there was a context for the not-self approach — and so, people got the sense of it.

In this way, a ‘Bauddha common­wealth’ came into being across Asia, from the bottom of India to the top of Japan. Yet, at the same time, there developed forms of the tradition that were unmistakably, distinctively Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

That tells us something about the Buddha-dharma and how it spreads. What matters is how it works — how people can use it in their lives.

A way to go?

Something similar must surely happen as we people from a Western or Westernised cultural background get into this tradition. It will not just be about learning and reproducing something that comes to us from elsewhere — it will also be about looking at what we have here, now, and gradually reworking it, from the ground up.

There has to be that two-way process. One way starts with recognising the texts and teachings, and then mining them for meaning. The other way starts from where you are and tries to make better sense of it.

Most leaders and opinion-formers around the world, whatever their country and their cultural base, have a modern education. They are trained in patterns of thinking that started out as European — patterns different from much of what we find in Bauddha tradition. If the modern world is to benefit from this resource, we can perhaps expect to see distinctively modern habits of mind developing, and modern ways of living, which are nonetheless recognisably infused with a Bauddha spirit.

It is worth exploring, anyway. That is what this section of the So-Wide website tries to do.

These ‘think-pieces’ may offer an illustration. They mainly come out of visits to international Buddhist conferences and workshops that Geoff Bamford undertook on behalf of So-Wide.

If they work for you, then hopefully you may be moved to contribute, in two ways:

  • You might like to put up comments. If we get some good threads going, we could possibly then work some of the material up into a digest, which would be a new think-piece.
  • You might have, or know of some comparable pieces from elsewhere that we could put up or link to.

So far what we’ve got is mainly about social issues. It refers mainly to Āgama texts (most often cited in Pali). There is:

  • some very general material, on
  • some work on ‘Buddhism and Business’
  • some pieces with a specifically Indian focus
  • some reflections on Buddhist texts