What I mean is this: The Dharma is the indisputable truth of the universe, as taught by Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, while Buddhism is the religion that grew up around the Dharma – and that religion has gone through many changes in the 2,500 years since the Buddha’s time.
How could it not? 2,500 years is a long time, and Buddhism has spread over many countries. Several of these changes, of course, have become very important to us.
The Chinese language, for example, which was probably entirely unknown to the Shakya people in Siddhartha Gautama’s lifetime, has become a sort of lingua franca of Buddhism, as is evident throughout Buddhist Asia. In Thailand, for example, one may encounter monks speaking Thai, English and Japanese, but those same monks will conduct their liturgy almost entirely in Sanskrit, Pali and Chinese.
Tibetan, Japanese and Vietnamese monastics also study the Chinese language as a matter of course, for it is in Mandarin that the greatest extant volumes of the Buddhist Canon can be found. So, Indian, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist scholars may not study exactly the same form of Buddhism, but they will all study it, to some extent, in Chinese.
And it is fitting that Chinese has become such an important part of the Buddhist faith, even though the Dharma was not originally taught in Chinese. When the Indian monk Bodhidharma (Damo) took the dhyana tradition out of India in the year 526, it was to China that he carried it, and it was in the Chinese temple at Shaolin (Young Forest) that he taught it. His famous nine-year meditation in the cave took place there, and it was from there that ch’an would spread into the places that would later be called Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Eventually, ch’an would arrive on American shores, and would be embraced by many Americans seeking a more enlightened understanding of their world.
So even if neither the Buddha nor the majority of Americans understand Chinese, it’s only through the direct involvement of the Chinese language that words that were spoken by the Buddha himself can be heard and understood by Americans in the twenty-first century.