From gradualism to suddenism: the evolution of Mahâyâna Buddhism

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

Coming from India, after passing through the Silk Roads, Buddhism adapted its message to China.

Leaving India twenty-three centuries ago, after passing through Iran and the steppes of Central Asia, it was in China that Buddhism changed. Buddhism postulated that rebirth is dictated by the merits accumulated in previous lives (karma). That to access Salvation, liberation (Hindu moksha) or extinction of desire (Buddhist nirvana), one must go through an infinity of rebirths and deaths (samsâra). Being aware of this allows us to bear the vicissitudes of existence.

Such a state of mind was foreign to the area of ​​Chinese civilization. Spirits were adored there, gods who reflected in Heaven the earthly hierarchies. One could go to other worlds at death, and it was important to worship the ancestors, who from the beyond watched over their descendants. Salvation, for a majority of Chinese, was to have children who would be keen to help you in the afterlife with their offerings. Not to wait for an extinction of suffering, putting an end to an incessant cycle of existences.

New context, new concept

This is how from gradualist, Buddhism has also become, for some, suddenist. The debates which agitated the schools then helped to develop these new conceptualizations. Buddhism had to adapt to a new context, find the words that would touch the minds of people who did not share its original concepts. To stir the hearts of pragmatic Chinese, Buddhism adapted its message, as it would everywhere for centuries to come.

To stir the hearts of pragmatic Chinese, Buddhism has adapted its message. And it will do so everywhere for centuries to come.

This is how we now find, in particular, two major movements:

– Gradualist: this is the adjective that qualifies the original Buddhism, perpetrated by the Theravada. You reach nirvana at the end of an infinity of existences, in which you will accumulate merit, life after life.

– Subitiste: this is the adjective that qualifies Mahayana Buddhism (Great Vehicle) and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle). The idea is that you can access salvation in your lifetime. Schools of Mahayana, such as Zen or Amidism, have pushed this logic very far. The Japanese know it. They popularized these impromptu awakenings, in the middle of a meditation, or when the mind stumbles on an enigma (kôan), or when one relies on the benevolent bodhisattva that is Amida (Amithâba) at the moment of expiring.

It is to this version of Buddhism, sudden, that the Sinicized world converted: China, then Tibet and Mongolia, Korea and Japan and Vietnam… There are two Buddhist worlds. The gradualists, once eastward; and the suddenists, as if transfigured by their circular journey around the Himalayas.

Something to ponder on your next convolution arounda stupa.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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