Buddhism and Buddhists in China
By Lewis Hodus
Public Domain Books
VI. Buddhism and Social Life
1. How the Laity is Trained in Buddhist Ideas
A common way of emphasizing moral ideas among the people by Buddhist teachers is the use of tracts purporting to have a divine origin. The following gives the substance of such a tract:
Not long ago in the province of Shantung, there was a sharp and sudden clap of thunder. After the frightened people had collected their wits, they discovered a small book written in red in front of the house of a certain Mr. Li. Mr. Li picked up the book, copied it and read it reverently. He gave a copy to Mr. Ma, the prefect, but Mr. Ma did not believe in the book. Thereupon MaitrÍya, the Messiah of the Buddhists, spoke from the sky as follows:
“These are the years of the final age. The people under
heaven do not reverence Heaven and Earth, they are not
filial to father and mother, they do not respect their
superiors. They cheat the fatherless, impose upon the
widow, oppress the weak; they use large weights for
themselves and small measures for others. They injure the good.
They covet for their own profit. They cheat men of money,
use the five grains carelessly, kill the cow that draws the
plow. This volume is sent for their special benefit. If
they recite it they will avoid trouble. If they disbelieve,
the years with the cyclical character Ping and Ting will
have fields without men to plant them and houses without
men to live in them. In the fifth month of these years
evil serpents will infest the whole country. In the eighth
and ninth months the bodies of evil men will fill the land.
“Those who believe this book and propagate its teachings
will not encounter the ten sorrows of the age: war,
fire, no peace day and night, separation of man and wife,
the scattering of the sons and daughters, evil men spread
over the country, dead bones unburied, clothing with no
one to wear it, rice with no one to eat it, and the difficulty
of ever seeing a peaceful year. S‚kyamuni foreseeing this
final age sent down this volume in Shantung. The Goddess
of Mercy saw the sorrows of all living beings.
MaitrÍya commanded the two runners of T’ai Shan, the
god of the Eastern Mountain, to investigate the conduct
of men and as a first punishment to increase the price of
rice, and then besides the ten sorrows already mentioned
above, to inflict the punishments of flood, fire, wind,
thunder, tigers, snakes, sword, disease, famine and cold.
The rule of S‚kyamuni which has lasted twelve thousand
years is now fulfilled, and MaitrÍya succeeds to his place.”
These sorrows may be escaped by reciting this sutra whose substance we find above. If it is repeated three times the person will escape the calamity of fire and water. If one man passes it on to ten men and ten men pass it on to a hundred, they will escape the calamities of sword, disease and imprisonment, and receive blessings which cannot be measured. He who in addition to repeating the sutra practices abstinence will insure peace for himself. He who presents one hundred copies to others will insure his personal peace. He who presents a thousand copies will insure the peace of his family. He who is attacked by disease, may escape it by taking five cash of the reign of Shun Chih (1644-1661 A. D.), the first emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty, one mace of the seed of cypress, one mace of the bark of mulberry, boil in one bowl of water until only eight-tenths of the water remain, drink and he will become well.
In this way the five Buddhist commandments for the laity not to kill any living creature, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, and not to use intoxicating liquor are propagated and made real to the common man. The method is quite efficient. Whole provinces have been put into a panic by such prophecies.
2. Effect of Ideals of Mercy and Universal Love
The command not to kill any living being has had considerable influence in China. There are volumes of stories telling of the punishments which will be visited upon those who disobey and of the rewards of those who release living animals. Every monastery has a special place for animals thus released by pious devotees.
There is a popular story about a fishmonger of the T’ang dynasty who was taken sick and during his illness dreamed that he was taken to purgatory. His body was aflame with fire and pained him as though he were being roasted. Flying fiery chariots with darting flames swept around him and burned his body. Ten thousand fish strove with one another to get a bite of his flesh. The ruler of the lower regions accused him of killing many fish and hence his punishment. For a number of days he was hanging between life and death. His relatives were urged to perform some works of penance. They had his fishing implements burned. With reverent hearts they made two images of Kuan Yin, presented offerings and repented. The whole family performed abstinence, stopped killing living things, printed and gave away over a hundred copies of the Diamond Sutra, and ferried over a large number of souls through purgatory. As a result of their efforts the sick man became well.
The following comment was made on the above story by a scholar. If its premises are granted, the conclusion is inevitable:
“If the fiery chariots are seal, why does not man see them? If they are false, how is it that man feels the pain? But where do the fiery chariots come from? They come from the heart and head of the one who kills fish. The fire in the heart (heart belongs to the element fire) causes destruction. The chariot fire also causes destruction.”
This attitude of mercy has been extended to human beings. There are numerous tracts against the drowning of little girls in those regions where this custom is prevalent. One tells the following story:
In the province of Kwangtung there lived a Mrs. Chang who daily burned incense and repeated Buddha’s name. One day she and her husband died. Much to their surprise and consternation Yama (the potentate of hell) decided that Mr. Chang must become a pig and Mrs. Chang a dog. Mrs. Chang accordingly went to Yama and said, “During life we honored Buddha and so why should we become animals after death?” Yama said, “What use is it to honor Buddha? During life you drowned three girls whom I sent into life. People with the face of a man and the heart of a beast, should they not be punished?” The husband accordingly took on a pig’s skin and the wife a dog’s. Then by a dream they revealed to their brother Chang number two that, although they repeated Buddha’s name, they were not permitted to be reborn as men, because they had drowned little girls.
Perhaps the extent of this spirit, of mercy and its possibilities may be illustrated by the reverence for the ox. While there is a great deal of cruelty in China to animals and men, it is rarely that one sees an ox abused. Up to the advent of the foreigner an ox was not killed for meat. In many places in China today the slaughter of an ox would bring the punishments of the law upon the butcher. No doubt this reverence is due to the great Indian reverence for the cow. The law of kindness has been extended to other animals, taking the rather spectacular form of releasing a few decrepit animals and allowing them to spend their last days in a monastery compound. There are many kindly things done in China. The dead are buried, the sick are provided with medicine. Every year numerous wadded garments are given away to poor people. Various groups carrying on a humble ministry of helpfulness have found a real inspiration in the ideals held before them in Buddhism, the rewards promised and punishments threatened.
3. Relation to Confucian Ideals
Why have not these ideals exercised a larger influence in China? The answer is quite simple. The activities of the monks have been strenuously opposed by the Confucian state system. The philosopher, Chang Nan-hsiian, a contemporary of Chu-Hsi, states concisely for us the differences betwen Confucianism and Buddhism in his comment on a passage in the Book of Records.
“Strong drink is a thing intended to be-used in offering sacrifices and entertaining guests,–such employment of it is what Heaven has prescribed. But men by their abuse of such drink come to lose their virtue and destroy their persons–such employment of it is what Heaven has annexed its terrors to. The Buddhists, hating the use of things where Heaven sends down its terrors, put away as well the use of them which Heaven has prescribed.
“For instance, in the use of meats and drinks, there is such a thing as wildly abusing and destroying the creatures of Heaven. The Buddhists, disliking this, confine themselves to a vegetable diet, while we only abjure wild abuse and destruction. In the use of clothes, again, there is such a thing as wasteful extravagance. The Buddhists, disliking this, will have no clothes but those of a dark and sad color, while we only condemn extravagance. They, further, through dislike of criminal connection between the sexes, would abolish the relation between husband and wife, while we denounce only the criminal connection.
“The Buddhists, disliking the excesses to which the evil desires of men lead, would put away, along with them, the actions which are in accordance with the justice of heavenly principles, while we, the orthodox, put away the evil desires of men, whereupon what are called heavenly principles are the more brightly seen. Suppose the case of a stream of water. The Buddhists, through dislike of its being foul with mud, proceed to dam it up with earth. They do not consider that when the earth has dammed up the stream, the supply of water will be cut off. It is not so with us, the orthodox. We seek only to cleanse away the mud and sand, so that the pure water may be available for use. This is the difference between the Buddhists and the Learned School."*
*Shu King, Pt. V, Bk. X, p. 122.
This statement reveals at once the opposition of the sect of the Learned and the influence which Buddhism exerted upon its members.
Buddhism while enjoying occasional favor from the state was often zealously persecuted. In 819 Han Yii issued his celebrated act of accusation. In 845 the emperor Wu Tsung issued his decree of secularization. At that time 4600 monasteries and 40,000 smaller establishments were pulled down and 265,000 monks and nuns were sent back to lay life. Their rich lands were confiscated. Under the Ming dynasty, as well as under the Ch’ing dynasty, Buddhism enjoyed a precarious existence. Whether Buddhism would have improved the moral conditions of the Chinese; if it had been given a free hand, is difficult to affirm. Still its failure is at least partly due to the opposition of Confucian orthodoxy.
4. The Embodiment of Buddhist Ideals in the Vegetarian sects
The state persecutions of Buddhism forced it to leave temporarily its institutional life and trust itself to the people. These persecutions were usually followed by a revival of piety and religion among the people. The Buddhist teachers gathered about themselves a large number of lay devotees who formed societies which practice religious rites in secret. These sects have preserved the genuine Buddhist piety, not only in times of persecution, but at times when the Buddhist organization under imperial favor was departing from its simplicity.
A number of these sects have continued under different names for several centuries. For example, the Tsai Li, a society now enjoying a quiet existence in North China, is successor to the White Lotus society. The latter started in the fifth century. Its members sought salvation in the Pure Land of Amitabha. In the eleventh century it enjoyed imperial favor. During the Mongol dynasty it fought against the throne with rebels and placed one of its leaders, Chu YŁan-chang, a monk, on the throne, who became the founder of the Ming dynasty. The sect was soon proscribed and its members persecuted by the government. During the Ch’ing dynasty it took part in a rebellion and was ruthlessly exterminated. At present it goes under the name of Tsai Li, i.e., within the Li or principles of the three religions. It is a mediator among the three religions.
There are thirty-one organizations of this sect in Peking and branches throughout North China. The society forbids the use of wine and opium, though it does not forbid the use of meat. It usually has a Buddhist image, Kuan Yin or some other. It uses Buddhist prayers and incantations. The outstanding doctrines held during its long history have been the hope of salvation in the Western Heaven of Amit‚bha, the early coming of MaitrÍya, the Buddhist Messiah, and the large use of magic formulas and incantations.
Another sect which embodies Buddhist ideals is the Chin Tan, the sect of the philosopher’s stone or pill of immortality. Its founder was the writer of the Nestorian tablet and so the sect is related to Christianity. It exalts the teaching of universal love. This is one of several examples of a supposed contact between Buddhism and Christianity.
These sects of which the two above are examples are present in all parts of China. They obey the five Buddhist commandments for laymen. The members spend much time in fasting and prayer, and in the repetition of Buddhist books. Their lives as a rule are simple and sincere. They are preparing for rebirth in the land of Amit‚bha, or are expecting the early coming of the Buddhist Messiah to set this world right. In the meantime, by means of incantations, personal regimen and cooperative action they are doing all they can to usher in a better state.
Pilgrimages are very popular in China. The famous Buddhist shrines are Wu T’ai Shan in Shansi, Puto on the coast of Chekiang, Chiu Hua Shan in Anhwei, and Omei Shan in Szechuan. These, one on each side of China, represent the four elements of Buddhist science, wind, water, fire and earth. They are also the centers of the worship of the four great Bodhisattvas, Wenshu, Kuan Yin, Titsang and Puhsien. Besides these large centers there are many others to which pilgrims direct their footsteps.
In the spring of the year, when the god of spring covers the earth with a green mantle, when the sky and winds call, many start on their pilgrimage. Many go singly and laboriously, kneeling and bowing every few steps. Others go in happy companies, chaperoned by a pious, village dame, who has organized the group. Some go because their turn has come. They are members of a guild which has a fund devoted to pilgrimages by its members. Some go for the performance of a vow made to Kuan Yin, when the father was sick unto death and the goddess prolonged his life. To others it is the culmination of a pious life. All go for the joy which travel in the spring gives.
Puto, an island off the coast of Chekiang, is the goal of many pilgrims from all parts of China. In, the monasteries on the island are about two thousand monks. In the pilgrim season this number is increased to ten thousand monks and thousands of lay pilgrims.
A group of pilgrims was going along merrily. The sun was bright, lighting up the white caps on the deep blue sea. Spring was rioting all about. One member was an abbot from Hangchow. A small, humble-looking man with a few straggling long hairs where the mustache usually grows, was a lay Buddhist from Wuchang. One was a bright young monk from Tientsin. Last, but almost omnipresent and always bubbling over, was a servant of the abbot from Hangchow. He was in the presence of divinity and his whole life was heightened for the time being. “Why did you come!” they were asked. “We came to worship the holy mother, Kuan Yin." When they entered a shrine each purchased three sticks, of incense and two candles and reverently placed them before the image of the goddess, kneeling and bowing. Then they sat and partook of the tea offered by the attendant. After paying a small gratuity, they went on to the next shrine.
On the way a large black snake as thick as an arm lazily crossed over the road. They stood, reverent and awestruck, until he disappeared in the grass, remarking that this was a good omen. When crossing a sand dune piled up by the winds the abbot from Hangchow remarked that this was called the flying sand, wafted there by the goddess who took pity on some travelers who had been compelled to cross a narrow strait in order to come to a cave. This cave, called Fan Yin Tung, is one of the rifts made by an earthquake and washed out by wind and waves. Below it rushes the tide; from above the sun sends down a few rays. Each pilgrim after offering incense looks into the darkness to see whether he can behold in the dark cavern an image of some Buddha. One sees Kuan Yin and is acclaimed as having had a good vision. Another sees the Laughing Buddha. All exclaim that he has been the most fortunate of all, for this Buddha is the Messiah to come and he who beholds him will be blessed. So from place to place they wander, chatting and seeing the sights of the island. Thus thousands are doing in various parts of China, and in this way strengthening the hold of Buddhism upon themselves and their communities.