Buddhism and Buddhists in China
By Lewis Hodus
Public Domain Books
III. The Establishment of Buddhism as the Predominating Religion of China
Even the historical influences noted above do not account entirely for the spread of Buddhism in China. In order to understand this and the place which Buddhism occupies, we need to review briefly the different forms which religion takes in China and to note how Buddhism has related itself to them.
1. The World of Invisible Spirits
The Chinese believe in a surrounding-world of spirits, whose origin is exceedingly various. They touch life at every point. There are spirits which are guardians of the soil, tree spirits, mountain demons, fire gods, the spirits of animals, of mountains, of rivers, seas and stars, of the heavenly bodies and of many forms of active life. These spirits to the Chinese mind, of today are a projection, a sort of spiritual counterpart, of the many sided interests, practical or otherwise, of the groups and communities by whom they are worshipped. There are other spirits which mirror the ideals of the groups by which they are worshipped. Some of them may have been incarnated in the lives of great leaders. There are spirits which are mere animations, occasional spirits, associated with objects crossing the interests of men, but not constant enough to attain a definite, independent life as spiritual beings. Thus surrounding the average Chinese peasant there is a densely populated spirit world affecting in all kinds of ways his, daily existence. This other world is the background which must be kept in mind by one who would understand or attempt to guide Chinese religious experience. It is the basis on which all organized forms of religious activity are built. The nearest of these to his heart is the proper regard for his ancestors.
2. The Universal Sense of Ancestor Control
The ancestral control of family life occupies so large and important a place in Chinese thought and practice that ancestor worship has been called the original religion of the Chinese. It is certain that the earliest Confucian records recognize ancestor worship; but doubtless it antedated them, growing up out of the general religious consciousness of the people. The discussion of that origin in detail cannot be taken up here. It may be followed in the literature noted in the appendix or in the volume of this series entitled “Present-Day Confucianism.” Ancestor worship is active today, however, because the Chinese as a people believe that these ancestors control in a very real way the good or evil fortunes of their descendants, because this recognition of ancestors furnishes a potent means of promoting family unity and social ethics, and, most of all, because a happy future life is supposed to be dependent upon descendants who will faithfully minister to the dead. Since each one desires such a future he is faithful in promoting the observance of the obligation. Consequently, ancestor worship, like the previously mentioned belief in the invisible spiritual world, underlies all other religious developments. No family is so obscure or poor that it does not submit to the ritual or discipline which is supposed to ensure the favor of the spirits belonging to the community. Likewise, every such family is loyal to the supposed needs of its deceased ancestors. In a very intimate way these beliefs are interwoven with the private and social morality of every family or group in Chinese society, and must be taken into account by any one who seeks to bring a religious message to the Chinese people.
3. Degenerate Taoism
Taoism is that system of Chinese religious thought and practice, beginning about the fifth century B. C., which was originally based on the teachings of Lao Tzu and developed in the writings of Lieh Tzu and Chuang Tzu and found in the Tao TÍ Ching. It is really in this original form a philosophy of some merit. According to its teaching the Tao is the great impersonal background of the world from which all things proceed as beams from the sun, and to which all beings return. In contrast to the present, transient, changing world the Tao is unchangeable and quiet. Originally the Taoists emphasized quiescence, a life in accordance with nature, as a means of assimilating themselves to the Tao, believing that in this way they would obtain length of days, eternal life and especially the power to become superior to natural conditions.
There is a movement today among Chinese scholars in favor of a return to this original highest form of Taoism. It appeals to them as a philosophy of life; an answer to its riddles. Among the masses of the people, however, Taoism manifests itself in a ritual of extreme superstition. It recommends magic tricks and curious superstitions as a means of prolonging life. It expresses itself very largely in these degrading practices which few Chinese will defend, but which are yet very commonly practiced.
4. The Organizing Value of Confucianism
Confucianism brought organization into these hazy conceptions of life and duty. It took for granted this spiritual-unspiritual background of animism, ancestor-worship and Taoism, but reshaped and adapted it as a whole so that it might fit into that proper organization of the state and nation which was one of its great objectives. Just as Confucianism related the family to the village, the village to the district, and the district to the state, so it organized the spiritual world into a hierarchy with Shang Ti as its head. This hierarchy was developed along the lines of the organization mentioned above. Under Shang Ti were the five cosmic emperors, one for each of the four quarters and one for heaven above, under whom were the gods of the soil, the mountains, rivers, seas, stars, the sun and moon, the ancestors and the gods of special groups. Each of the deities in the various ranks had duties to those above and rights with reference to those below. These duties and rights, as they affected the individual, were not only expressed in law but were embodied in ceremony and music, in daily religious life and practice in such a way that each individual had reason to feel that he was a functioning agent in this grand Confucian universe. If any one failed to do his part, the whole universe would suffer. So thoroughly has this idea been adopted by the Chinese people that every one joins in forcing an individual, however reluctant or careless, to perform his part of each ceremony as it has been ordered from high antiquity.
The emperor alone worshipped the supreme deity, Shang Ti; the great officers of state, according to the dignity of their office, were related to subordinate gods and required to show them adequate respect and reverence. Confucius and a long line of noted men following him were semi-deified* and highly reverenced by the literati, the class from which the officers of state were as a rule obtained, in connection with their duties, and as an expression of their ideals. To the common people were left the ordinary local deities, while all classes, of course, each in its own fashion reverenced, cherished and obeyed their ancestors. It should be remarked at this point that Confucianism of this official character has broken down, not only under the impact of modern ideas, but under the longing of the Chinese for a universal deity. The people turn to Heaven and to the Pearly Emperor, the popular counterpart of Shang Ti.
*Confucius was by imperial decree deified in 1908.
Viewed from another angle, Confucianism is an elaborate system of ethics. In writings which are virtually the scriptures of the Chinese people Confucius and his successors have set forth the principles which should govern the life of a people who recognize this spiritual universe and system. These ethics have grown out of a long and, in some respects, a sound experience. Much can be said in their favor. The essential weaknesses of the Confucian system of ethics lie in its sectional and personal loyalties and its monarchical basis. The spirit of democracy is a deadly foe to Confucianism. Another element of weakness is its excessive dependence upon the past. Confucius reached ultimate wisdom by the study of the best that had been attained before his day. He looked backward rather than forward. Consequently a modern, broadly educated Confucianist finds himself in an anomalous position. He does not need absolutely to reject the wisdom which Confucianism embodies, but he can no longer accept it as a sound, reliable and indisputable scheme of thought and action. Yet its simple ethical principles and its social relationships are basal in the lives of the vast masses of the Chinese.
5. Buddhism an. Inclusive Religion.
Upon this, confused jumble of spiritism, superstition, loyalty to ancestors and submission to a divine hierarchy Buddhism was superimposed. It quickly dominated all because of its superior excellence. The form of Buddhism which became established in China was not, to be sure, like the Buddhism preached by Gautama and his disciples, or like that form of Buddhism which had taken root in Burma or Ceylon. Except in name, the Buddhism of Southern Asia and the Buddhism which developed in China were virtually two distinct types of religion. The Buddhism of Burma and Ceylon was of the conservative HÓnay‚na ("Little Vehicle” of salvation) school, while that of China was of the progressive Mah‚y‚na ("Great Vehicle” of salvation) school. Their differences are so marked as to be worthy of a careful statement.
The Hinayana, which is today the type of Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma and Siam, has always clung closely to tradition as expressed in the original Buddhist scriptures. Its basic ideas were that life is on the whole a time of suffering, that the cause of this sorrow is desire or ignorance, and that there is a possible deliverance from it. This deliverance or salvation is to be attained by following the eightfold path, namely, right knowledge, aspiration, speech, conduct, means of livelihood, endeavor, mindfulness and meditation. To the beatific state to be ultimately attained Gautama gave the name Nirvana, explained by his followers variously either as an utter extinction of personality or as a passionless peace, a general state of well-being free from all evil desire or clinging to life and released from the chain of transmigration. Hinayana Buddhism appeals to the individual as affording a way of escape from evil desire and its consequences by acquiring knowledge, by constant discipline, and by a devotedness of the life to religious ends through membership in the monastic order which Buddha established. It encourages, however, a personal salvation worked out by the individual alone.
The Mah‚y‚na school of Buddhists accept the general ideas of the Hinayana regarding life and salvation, but so change the spirit and objectives as to make Buddhism into what is virtually another religion. It does not confine salvation to the few who can retire from the world and give themselves wholly to good works, but opens Buddhahood to all. The “saint” of Hinayana Buddhism is the arhat who is intent on saving himself. The saint of Mah‚y‚na Buddhism is the candidate for Buddhahood (Bodhisattva) who defers his entrance into the bliss of deliverance in order to save others. Mah‚y‚na Buddhism is progressive. It encourages missionary enterprise and was a secret of the remarkable spread of Buddhism over Asia. Moreover, while the HÓnay‚na school recognizes no god or being to whom worship is given, the Mah‚yan‚ came to regard Gautama himself as a god and salvation as life in a heavenly world of pure souls. Thus the Mah‚y‚na type of thinking constitutes a bridge between HÓnay‚na Buddhism and Christianity. In fact, a recent writer has declared that HÓnay‚na Buddhists are verging toward these more spiritual conceptions.*
*See Saunders, Buddhism and Buddhists in Southern Asia, pp. 10, 20.
After the death of S‚kyamuni* Buddhism broke up into a number of sects usually said to be eighteen in number. When Buddhism came to China some of these sects were introduced, but they assumed new forms in their Chinese environment. Besides the sects brought, from India the Chinese developed several strong sects of their own. Usually they speak of ten sects although the number is far larger, if the various subdivisions are included.
*S‚kyamuni is the name by which Gautama, the Buddha, is familiarly known in China.
To indicate the manifold differences between these groups in Buddhism would take us far afield and would not be profitable. It will be of interest, however, to consider some of the chief sects. One of the sects introduced from India is the Pure Land or the Ching T’u which holds before the believer the “Western Paradise” gained through faith in Amit‚bha. Any one, no matter what his life may have been, may enter the Western Paradise by repeating the name of Amit‚bha. This sect is widespread in China. In Japan there are two branches of it known as the Nishi-Hongwanji and the Higashi-Hongwanji with their head monasteries in Kyoto. They are the most progressive sects in Japan and are carrying on missionary work in China, the Hawaiian Islands and in the United States.
Another strong sect is the Meditative sect or the Ch’an Men (Zen in Japan). This was introduced by Bodhidharma, or Tamo, who arrived in the capital of China in the year 520 A.D. On his arrival the emperor Wu Ti tried to impress the sage with his greatness saying: “We have built temples, multiplied the Scriptures, encouraged many to join the Order: is not there much merit in all this?” “None,” was the blunt reply. “But what say the holy books? Do they not promise rewards for such deeds?" “There is nothing holy.” “But you, yourself, are you not one of the holy ones?” “I don’t know.” “Who are you?” “I don’t know.” Thus introduced, the great man proceeded to open his missionary-labors by sitting down opposite a wall arid gazing at it for the next nine years. From this he has been called the “wall-gazer.” He and his successors promulgated the doctrine that neither the scriptures, the ritual nor the organization, in fact nothing outward had any value in the attainment of enlightenment. They held that the heart of the universe is Buddha and that apart from the heart or the thought all is unreal. They thought themselves back into the universal Buddha and then found the Buddha heart in all nature. Thus they awakened the spirit which permeated nature, art and literature and made the whole world kin with the spirit of the Buddha.
“The golden light upon the sunkist peaks, The water murmuring in the pebbly creeks, Are Buddha. In the stillness, hark, he speaks!"*
*K. J. Saunders in Epochs of Buddhist History.
Such pantheism and quietism often lead to a confusion in moral relations, but these mystics were quite correct in their morals because they checked up their mysticism with the moral system of the Buddha.
Still another important sect originated in the sixth century A. D. on Chinese soil, namely, the T’ien T’ai (Japanese Tendai), so called because it started in a monastery situated on the beautiful T’ien T’ai mountains south of Ningpo. Chih K’ai, the founder, realized that Buddhism contained a great mass of contradictory teachings and practice, all attributed to the Buddha. He sought for a harmonizing principle and found it in the arbitrary theory that these teachings were given to different people on five different occasions and hence the discrepancies. The practical message of this sect has been that all beings have the Buddha heart and that the Buddha loves all beings, so that all beings may attain salvation, which consists in the full realization of the Buddha heart latent in them.
There was a time when these sects were very active and flourishing in China. At the present time the various tendencies for which they stood have been adopted by Buddhism as a whole and the various sectaries, though still keeping the name of the sect, live peacefully in the same monastery. All the monasteries practice meditation, believe in the paradise of Amit‚bha, and are enjoying the ironic calm advocated by the T’ien T’ai. While the struggle among the sects of China has been followed by a calm which resembles stagnation, those in Japan are very active and the reader is referred to the volume of this series on Japanese Buddhism for further treatment of the subject.
When Buddhism entered China it brought with it a new world. It was new practical and new spiritually. It brought a knowledge unknown before regarding the heavenly bodies, regarding nature and regarding medicine, and a practice vastly above the realm of magical arts. In addition to these practical benefits, Buddhism proclaimed a new spiritual universe far more real and extensive than any of which the Chinese had dreamed, and peopled with spiritual beings having characteristics entirely novel. In comparison with this new universe or series of universes which Indian imagination had created, the Chinese universe was wooden and geometric. Since it was an organized system and a greater rather than a different one, the Chinese people readily accepted it and made it their own.
Buddhism not only enlarged the universe and gave the individual a range of opportunity hitherto unsuspected, but it introduced a scheme of religious practice, or rather several of them, enabling the individual devotee to attain a place in this spiritual universe through his own efforts. These “ways” of salvation were quite in harmony with Chinese ideas. They resembled what had already been a part of the national practice and so were readily adopted and adapted by the Chinese.
Buddhism rendered a great service to the Chinese through its new estimate of the individual. Ancient China scarcely recognized the individual. He was merged in the family and the clan. Taoists, to be sure, talked of “immortals” and Confucianism exhibited its typical personality, or “princely man,” but these were thought of as supermen, as ideals. The classics of China had very little to say about the common people. The great common crowd was submerged. Buddhism, on the other hand, gave every individual a distinct place in the great wheel dharma, the law, and made it possible for him to reach the very highest goal of salvation. This introduced a genuinely new element into the social and family life of the Chinese people.
Buddhism was so markedly superior to any one of the four other methods of expressing the religious life, that it quickly won practical recognition as the real religion of China. Confucianism may be called the doctrine of the learned classes. It formulates their principles of life, but it is in no strict sense a popular religion. It is rather a state ritual, or a scheme of personal and social ethics. Taoism recognizes the immediate influence of the spirit world, but it ministers only to local ideals and needs. In the usages of family and community life, ancestor worship has a definite place, but an occasional one. Buddhism was able to leave untouched each of these expressions of Chinese personal and social life, and yet it went far beyond them in ministering to religious development. Its ideas of being, of moral responsibility and of religious relationships furnished a new psychology which with all its imperfections far surpassed that of the Chinese. Buddhism’s organization was so satisfying and adaptable that not only was it taken over readily by the Chinese, but it has also persisted in China without marked changes since its introduction. Most of all it stressed personal salvation and promised an escape from the impersonal world of distress and hunger which surrounds the average Chinese into a heaven ruled by Amit‚bha* the Merciful. The obligations of Buddhism are very definite and universally recognized. It enforces high standards of living, but has added significance because it draws each devotee into a sort of fellowship with the divine, and mates not this life alone, but this life plus a future life, the end of human activity. Buddhism, therefore, really expresses the deepest religious life of the people of China.
*Amit‚bha, meaning “infinite light," is the Sanskrit name of one of the Buddhas moat highly revered in China. The usual Chinese equivalent is Omi-To-Fo.
It will be worth while to note some illustrations of the conviction of the Chinese people that there are three religions to which they owe allegiance and yet that these are essentially one. They often say, “The three teachings are the whole teaching.” An old scholar is reported to have remarked, “The three roads are different, but they lead to the same source.” A common story reports that Confucius was asked in the other world about drinking wine, which Buddhists forbid but Taoists permit. Confucius replied: “If I do not drink I become a Buddha. If I drink I become an Immortal. Well, if there is wine, I shall drink; if there is none, I shall abstain.” This expresses characteristically the Chinese habit of adaptation. Such a decision sounds quite up to date.
The Ethical Culture Society of Peking, recently organized, has upon its walls pictures of Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius and Christ. Its members claim to worship Shang Ti as the god of all religions. An offshoot of this society, the T’ung Shan She, associates the three founders very closely with Christ. It claims to have a deeper revelation of Christ than the Christians themselves. A new organization, the Tao Yuan, plans to harmonize the three old religions with Mohammedanism and Christianity.
Buddhism has consistently and continually striven to bring about a unity of religion in China by interpenetrating Confucianism and Taoism. Quite early the Buddhists invented the story that the Bodhisattva Ju T’ung was really Confucius incarnate. There was at one time a Buddhist temple to Confucius in the province of Shantung. The Buddhists also gave out the story that Bodhisattva Kas’yapa was the incarnation of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. An artist painted Lao Tzu transformed into a Buddha, seated in a lotus bud with a halo about his head. In front of the Buddha was Confucius doing reverence. A Chinese scholar, asked for his opinion about the picture, said: “Buddha should be seated; Lao Tzu should be standing at the side looking askance at Buddha; and Confucius should be grovelling on the floor.”
A monument dating from 543 A. D., illustrates this tendency of Buddhism to represent its own superiority in Chinese religious life. At the top of the monument is Brahma, lower down is S‚kyamuni with his disciples, Ananda and Kas’yapa on one face, and on the other S‚kyamuni again, conversing with Buddha Prabhutaratna and worshipped by monks and Bodhisattvas. On the pedestal are Confucian and Taoist deities, ten in number. Thus Buddhism sought to rank itself clearly above the other two religions. From the early days Buddhism regarded itself as their superior and began the processes of interpenetration and absorption. In consequence the values originally inherent in Buddhism have come to be regarded as the natural possession of the Chinese. It does express their religious life, especially in South China, where outward manifestations of religion are perhaps more marked than in the north.