The Concept of “Change” in Chinese Buddhism and Its Modern Transformation
In premodern Chinese thought, change — “bian” — is understood as the fundamental state of the world and the inescapable situation of life. It has long been a central theme in Chinese philosophy, historiography, and religious writings. Rather than positing an external source for motion and order, Chinese cosmology interprets dynamic organization as implicit in the very nature of beings; it is one facet of the status of individualized things and is also embedded in the relationship between the patterns of nature and specifically human values.
On the one hand, the changes caused by modernity, such as industrialization, urbanization, globalization, and secularization, began to reshape China at both institutional and conceptual levels. On the other hand, modernity is also loaded with new theories, which are mostly universal, linear, normative, and secular, to explain and control change. New intellectual tools, such as science, became powerful, if not dominant, in dealing with changes.
The concept of change is deeply linked with people’s idea of time and their understanding of the past, the present, and the future. In particular, the future, due to its unknowable and unpredictable nature, often maintained a religious orientation. The Buddhist community’s imagination, judgment, and understanding of the future is an example that contributes to a further reflection on how a sustained manner of coping with negative changes has taken shape between secular forces and religious beliefs in early twentieth century China.