As the teachings of the Buddha migrated from its birthplace in India, one of its pathways was the Silk Road, the gateway to China. During the first century A.D. Buddhist teachings were translated into Chinese. These teachings were fiercely resisted by the Chinese elite who favored the philosophy of Confucianism, with its emphasis on the cultivation of virtue and the development of moral perfection.
After two centuries of suppression, the teachings of the Buddha finally found expression as a form of Taoism, but it was not so much Buddhism in disguise as the real thing in a slightly different form. Buddhist teachings had become intertwined with the Chinese philosophy of Taoism (pronounced Daoism) which was the religion of the common people.
By the fourth century A. D. a distinctly Chinese form of Buddhism emerged that was harmonized with the ancient teachings of the Taoist sage, Lao Tsu. It became known as Chan Buddhism and it had some similarities to the more widely recognized Japanese variation, Zen Buddhism. Both spiritual philosophies sought solitude in the quest for blissful state of Samadhi and both teachings emphasized the “pure mind” of enlightenment to dispel the worldly “illusions” that cause human beings much suffering in life.
While Indian Buddhism emphasized gradual attainment of enlightenment through discipline, Taoists sought sudden awakening through non-assertion (wu-wei in Chinese) which means little or no interference with cosmic events. Both philosophies treasure Yoga and quiet contemplation but the Taoists are especially inclined toward a love of nature and the congeniality to quote poetry and drink mulled wine. Taoism is a way of living that accepts life as it is without aversion to small pleasures.
Each philosophy borrowed liberally from the other to form a Chinese form of Buddhist practice that was seasoned with a touch of Taoist mysticism. The following excerpt from Beyond the Gods, by English writer John Blofeld demonstrates the unique sensibilities of Taoist thought, which form the basis of Chan Buddhism. He is describing a walk around a mountain hermitage with a monk known as the Dark Valley Recluse:
The hermitage, as I have explained, was situated on a spur of gently undulating ground close to the mountain-face. In front of it lay what might be called a natural garden, that is to say, no attempt had been made to convert the spur into a garden proper and yet the features of this seeming wilderness had beauties too refined to be wholly the work of nature. The rocks protruding from the ground were of such pleasing shapes and so richly garbed in moss and tailing lichens that I soon began to suspect nature had artfully been helped to give of its best.
The gorge where flowed a swift and thunderous torrent was certainly nature’s handiwork and so perfect in itself as to require no improvement, but elsewhere things had an air of having received delicately concealed attention. The trees – mostly pines and cedars – disposed their limbs in ways either charming or amusingly grotesque, and there were dells containing just such a wealth of harmoniously contrasting shapes and colours as one would expect to find in an old and well-kept rockery. Yet one had to look carefully to become aware of a subtle human artistry cunningly disguised.
‘It seems that yesterday I climbed further than I knew, for this is surely heaven,’ I remarked, bringing a gleam of pleasure to the old man’s eyes. ‘Ah, you have noticed our hidden garden,’ he replied. ‘People coming from the cities generally have eyes for the torrent and for that vista of hills stretching beyond – you will agree that they are lovely and you should come here in the evening light when the sun drops below the blue range – but they seldom notice what lies close at hand, never guessing that centuries of loving care have gone into the making of this hidden garden.
Nature, so harmonious in the large, is often careless and untidy in the small. Rocks may occur too near together or too far apart. Trees in their eagerness for what sun and shade they need may overreach themselves, causing a certain lack of harmony and balance. These little oversights can be redressed, but it would not do, I think, to create a palace-style garden on a remote mountainside. All that is needed is a lightly guiding hand. When contemplating a little change, it is fitting first to observe what you wish to alter at different times of day throughout the four seasons of the year, lest by hasty action something precious be lost. Also you need to become a rock or a tree yourself before you can judge how to make a change that will accord with its nature.’
‘Become a tree?’ ‘Do you find that astonishing? If you had much time, I would show you. You just sit before it in sunshine and in cloud, in rain or snow if necessary, and project your mind into it. Slowly you learn how to be at one with it, to sense its rhythm, to know how its branches would dispose themselves under just slightly altered circumstances. Only then can you make a change without doing violence to its treeness. All good gardeners get to know their plants as intimately as their own children. Otherwise how could they be good gardeners?’
‘I see. But what about rocks, mountains, streams? How can one know them like children? They have no life.’ ‘
Do they not?’ exclaimed the old man in real surprise. ‘How strange you should think that! Everything is formed by the sublime Tao. Everything is the Tao. How then can some things have life and others not? To an insect that lives a single day, a human may seem an object immemorial, yet you and I know that human life is short; to us it is rocks and mountains that seem eternally unchanging. But are they so? Are not their comings and goings as dreams in comparison with the innumerable eons between birth of a universe and its ending? And if by life you mean consciousness, how can you tell that rocks are not conscious? Those who know them intimately recognize that they have not only consciousness but moods – gloomy and menacing one day, relaxed and smiling another.’
I did not gainsay this. After all, how do I know that rocks lack consciousness? I have read of English people who believe that flowers are happy and bloom more charmingly when they know they are loved. Why then not rocks? Who has the knowledge to draw such distinctions with authority?