Chinese Buddhist Thought - Lecture 1

Hello everyone,

On p. 12 (Lecture 1) under “Several factors that were responsible for the Buddhist-Taoist mixture” we can find the following sentence: “The Buddhists taught the indestructibility of the soul…”

As being familiar with major Buddhist concepts like pratītyasamutpāda, anātman, and śūnyatā, this sentence sounds somewhat strange to me. It raises the question, what is meant by the term “soul”, and where is this “soul” to be found? Or was Buddhism simply misunderstood at that time?

Any ideas?

It raises the question, what

It raises the question, what is meant by the term “soul”, and where is this “soul” to be found? Or was Buddhism simply misunderstood at that time?

khamvilay The ultimate aim of Buddhism is Nibbana. At the time Buddhism entered to china first, there were two schools mainly those Buddhism and Daoism, their teaching of external practicing were similarly but their aim was difference, the theory of soul between Buddhism and Daoism. So the soul is mean that the world of the personality, man, self, sense of body, identity, substantial. And the soul where we can find in our self, in our identity, therefore the different self there are different soul be hide self. In early Buddhism, the soul theory was very interesting, there were two ideas Barhmanic arising: Sassatavadin and Ucchetavadin both of them had different idea with soul. Sassatavadin who believed the soul cannot dead, the soul continue alive, that soul is eternal, immortal and Ucchetavadin who believed soul arising and in finally vanished, nothing continue, everything of life destruction. But Buddhism is middle idea between eternality and nihilist, nor eternality and nor nihilist. Where the soul come from which believe that the Brahmanic who create the soul, or self, or man that mean man and all being are created by Brahmanic. The Chinese Buddhist misunderstands at the early time between Taoists and Buddhist such as: with the theory of Nibbana, Arahant, soul and pure man. Taosists and Buddhist they were mixtures, they said that the Nibbana is the same with soul immortal and the Arahant is the same with pure man.

Chinese Buddhist Thought - Lecture 1

Thanks to everyone for your helpful comments.

While seeing the statement and its meaning, i.e. proclaiming a soul entity, as an instrument that was used to support the integration of Buddhism in China, the situation is now clearer for me. Here, from a philosophical point of view, it is interesting to notice that the most fundamental Buddhist teaching, that is anātman or śūnyatā as more holistic, was initially modified to its opposite; skillful means? Maybe!


Chinese Buddhist Thought - Lecture 1

Hi everyone,

It is good that the statement, “The Buddhists taught the indestructibility of the soul ..." found in Lecture 1, has stimulated an interesting discussion.

Ch'en pointed out that when Buddhism was first introduced to China, "the Chinese Buddhists had difficulty understanding the idea of repeated rebirths without some abiding entity linking together the different stages of rebirth. To overcome this difficulty, they evolved the concept of "shen-ling" or an indestructible soul that is transmitted through successive rebirths. Man consists of a material body and a spiritual soul. The body comes into being at birth and disintegrates at death, but the soul is eternal and indestructible." (Ch'en, p.46)

At the beginning, the Buddhists and Taoists joined forces, with Buddhism seen as another aspect of Taoism by the Han Chinese. According to Ch'en, this union was an advantage for the Buddhists because it enabled them to gain a hearing among the Chinese and to overcome some of the prejudice against a foreign faith. (Ch'en, p.49) (You can read more of the subject matter in Chapter II of Ch'en, Buddhism in China).

Wong Ping Ling.

Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury's picture

Chinese Buddhist Thought (Lecture 1)

Namo Ti Ratana Saraṅaṁ

Hello Sven !

It is very interesting question, indeed. Regarding to your crop up statement the Buddhists taught the indestructibility of the soul”, I speculate that the lecture-note probably try to focus on the motion or process of Soul- how it attaches to oneself or the five aggregates, or how the soul transcends from one life to another life (after death/ rebirth process), of which had ascribed by the pioneer scholars/ monks from India, who taught the Buddha’s teachings to the generation of Han Dynasty for the first time.

To the contrary, the concept of ‘Soul’ (Pāli : atta) is philosophically renowned as eternal thing inside of any being or human being which is unchanged at all. Soul idea, moreover, claims that soul is the doer and enjoyed of all one’s deeds. Another concept of Soul is Satta (or beings); it literally means attached beings – ones who has attached to oneself or the five aggregates. The opposite word of Soul is non-soul (Pali : anatta), the last form of the ‘three characteristics’ (ti- lakkhaṅa) – impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self or non-soul (anatta). General concept of non-soul refers to the detachment from oneself or five aggregates (pañcakkhandha)of clinging, namely namely feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (sankhārā) and consciousness (viññāṅa). Furthermore, according to the early Buddhist Nikāya text “Samyutta Nikāya”, the Blessed One advocates, “there are three types of teachers, (1) the first one teaches that the ego or the self is real now as well as in the future (here and hereafter); (2) the second one teaches that the ego is real only in this life, not in the future; (3) the third one teaches that the concept of an ego is the empirical and functional self as a designation. It neither exist as entities, nor non-exist as hallucinations. It arises and ceases as processes depending upon changing conditions.” (S.III.133~135)

With referring to the abode quotation of the Buddha, the first one is the eternalist (sassatavadi); the second one is the annihilationist (ucchedavadi); the third one is the Buddha who teaches the middle way of avoiding the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Herein, the middle way is the doctrine of dependent arising, or causal conditioning (pa5iccasamupp1da).

To end up, undoubtedly Han Dynasty embraced to Sectarian Buddhism which was doctrinally and philosophically dissimilar from the Early Buddhism. In fact, the first lecture note precisely (Page no. 1) mentioned in thus: ‘the earliest form of Chinese Buddhism was introduced via central Asia; the doctrines were mainly those of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidhamma and the early Mahāyāna literatures’.

Be happy always.

With Metta,


I am second guessing the lecture notes here.

The Chinese Taoism believe structure is based on the indestructibility of the soul and its transformation of the physical form on oneself from a mortal into an immortal through alchemy, moral righteousness and the correct way of life (i.e. the way, Tao).

The early Buddhism correlation would be the eightfold path with is the first correlation to the Tao. However, in early text, the concept of soul or in Buddhism sense, Self, is not key to the integration. One important point would be to also study the very strong resistance of Buddhism's spread to China and how this was adapted to the local religion of Tao and deity worship.

A very good examples would be the current social believe of the Pure Land amongst some as "heaven" as those suggested in Tao, and where the heavens are where the Boddhisatva and Buddha cross path with the Chinese deities. The "hybrid" religion practice by the common folks are centered around the correct way of living rather than the philosophical and deeper understanding of Buddhism.

I would take this chapter as a social-cultural adaptation of Buddhism to first enter China (although many wrong ideas where introduced in the process).

I would recommend a personal research on the rejection and the opposition to Buddhism as a foreign religion, and how it was "moulded" to overcome this obstacle.



Chinese Buddhist Thought Lecture note-1

What kind of discussion on “being and no-being” Taoist and early Buddhist school engaged, can anyone explain more?? (Note 1, page 13)