Buddhism and Buddhists in China
By Lewis Hodus
Public Domain Books
A well known missionary of Peking, China, was invited one day by a Buddhist acquaintance to attend the ceremony of initiation for a class of one hundred and eighty priests and some twenty laity who had been undergoing preparatory instruction at the stately and important Buddhist monastery. The beautiful courts of the temple were filled by a throng of invited guests and spectators, waiting to watch the impressive procession of candidates, acolytes, attendants and high officials, all in their appropriate vestments. No outsider was privileged to witness the solemn taking by each candidate for the priesthood of the vow to “keep the Ten Laws,” followed by the indelible branding of his scalp, truly a “baptism of fire.” Less private was the initiation of the lay brethren and sisters, more lightly branded on the right wrist, while all about intoned “Na Mah Pen Shih Shih Chia Mou Ni Fo.” (I put my trust in my original Teacher, Säkyamuni, Buddha.)
The missionary was deeply impressed by the serenity and devotion of the worshipers and by the dignity and solemnity of the service. The last candidate to rise and receive the baptism of branding was a young married woman of refined appearance, attended by an elderly lady, evidently her mother, who watched with an expression of mingled devotion, insight and pride her daughter’s initiation and welcomed her at the end of the process with radiant face, as a daughter, now, in a spiritual as well as a physical sense. At that moment an attendant, noting the keen interest of the missionary, said to him rather flippantly, “Would you not like to have your arm branded, too?” “I might,” he replied, “just out of curiosity, but I could not receive the branding as a believer in the Buddha. I am a Christian believer. To be branded without inward faith would be an insult to your religion as well as treachery to my own, would it not? Is not real religion a matter of the heart?”
The old lady, who had overheard with evident disapproval the remark of the attendant, turned to the missionary at once and said, “Is that the way you Westerners, you Christians, speak of your faith? Is the reality of religion for you also an inward experience of the heart?” And with that began an interesting interchange of conversation, each party discovering that in the heart of the other was a genuine longing for God that overwhelmed all the artificial, material distinctions and the human devices through which men have limited to particular and exclusive paths their way of search, and drew these two pilgrims on the way toward God into a common and very real fellowship of the spirit.
A Buddhist monk was passing by a mission building in another city’ of China when his attention was suddenly drawn to the Svastika and other Buddhist symbols which the architect had skilfully used in decorating the building. His face brightened as he said to his companion: “I did not know that Christians had any appreciation of beauty in their religion.”
These incidents reveal aspects of the alchemy of the soul by which the real devotee of one religion perceives values which are dear to him in another religion. The good which he has attained in his old religion enables him to appropriate the better in the new religion. A converted monk, explaining his acceptance of Christianity, said: “I found in Jesus Christ the great Bodhisattva, my Saviour, who brings to fruition the aspirations awakened in me by Buddhism.”
Just as it has been said that they do not know England who know England only, so it may be said with equal truth that they do not know Christianity who know it and no other faith. There are many in China like the old lady at the temple, who have found in Buddhism something of that spiritual satisfaction and stimulus which true Christianity affords, in fuller measure. The recognition of such religious values by the student or the missionary furnishes a sound foundation for the building of a truer spirituality among such devotees.
As will be seen in what follows, religion in China is at first sight a mixed affair. From the standpoint of cruder household superstitions an average Chinese family may be regarded as Taoists; the principles by which its members seek to guide their lives individually and socially may be called Confucian; their attitude of worship and their hopes for the future make them Buddhists. The student would not be far afield when he credits the religious aspirations of the Chinese today to Buddhism, regarding Confucianism as furnishing the ethical system to which they submit and Taoism as responsible for many superstitious practices. But the Buddhism found in China differs radically from that of Southern Asia, as will be made clear by the following sketch of its introduction into the Flowery Kingdom and its subsequent history.