Buddhism and Buddhists in China
By Lewis Hodus

Presented by

Public Domain Books

VIII. The Spiritual Values Emphasized by Buddhism in China

Near the House of Parliament in Peking is located a small monastery dedicated to the goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. Before her image the incense burners send forth curling clouds of smoke. The walls are decorated with old paintings of gods and goddesses. The temple with its courtyard has the appearance of prosperity. Its neat reception room, with its tables, chairs and clock, shows the influence of the modern world.

Here a monk in the prime of life spent a few months recently lecturing on Buddhism to members of parliament and to scholars from various parts of China. Frequently the writer used to drop in of an afternoon to discuss Buddhism and its outlook. Usually a simple repast concluded these conversations, the substance of which forms the greater part of this section.

1. The Threefold Classification of Men Under Buddhism

“What does Buddhism do for men?”

“There are in the world at least three classes of men. The lowest class live among material things, they are occupied with possessions. Their life is entangled in the crude and coarse materials which they regard as real. A second, higher class, regard ideas as realities. They are not entangled in the maze of things, but are confused by ideas, ascribing reality to them. The third and highest class are those who by meditation have freed themselves from the thraldom of ideas and can enter the sixteen heavens.”

2. Salvation for the Common Man

“What can Buddhism do for the lowest class?”

“For this class Buddhism has the ten prohibitions. Every man has in him ten evils, which must be driven out. Three have to do with evil in the body, namely, not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery; four belong to the mouth, lying, exaggeration, abuse, and ambiguous talk; three belong to the mind, covetousness, malice, and unbelief.”

“Is not this entirely negative?”

“Yes, but it is necessary, for during the process of eliminating these evil deeds, man acquires patience and equanimity. Buddhism does not stop with the prohibitions. The believer must practice the ten charitable deeds. Not only must he remove the desire to kill living beings, but he must cultivate the desire to save all beings. Not only must he not steal, but he must assist men with his money. Not only must he not give himself to lasciviousness, but he must treat all men with propriety. So each prohibition involves a positive impulse to virtue, which is quite as essential as the refraining from evil.”

“What energizing power does Buddhism provide?”

“First, is purgatory with its terrors. The evil man, seeing the consequences of his acts upon himself, becomes afraid to do them and does that which is good. Then there is transmigration with the danger of transmigration into beasts and insects. Again, there are the rewards in the paradise of Amitābha. Moreover, there is even the possibility not only of saving one’s self, but by accumulated merit of saving one’s parents and relatives and shortening their stay in purgatory.”

3. The Place of Faith

“Can any man enter the western paradise of Amitābha?”

“Yes, it is open to all men. The sutra says: ’If there be any one who commits evil deeds, and even completes the ten evil actions, the five deadly sins and the like; that man, being himself stupid and guilty of many crimes, deserves to fall into a miserable path of existence and suffer endless pains during many long ages. On the eve of death he may meet a good and learned teacher who, soothing and encouraging him in various ways, will preach to him the excellent Law and teach him the remembrance of Buddha, but being harassed by pains’, he will have no time to think of Buddha.’”

“What hope has such a man?”

“Even such a man has hope. The sutra says: ’Some good friend will say to him: Even if thou canst not exercise the remembrance of Buddha, utter the name of Buddha Amitabha.’ Let him do so serenely with his voice uninterrupted; let him be (continually) thinking of Buddha, until he has completed ten times the thought, repeating ’Namah O-mi-to-fo,’ I put my trust in Buddha! On the strength of (his merit of) uttering Buddha’s name he will, during every repetition expiate the sins which involve him in births and deaths during eighty millions of long ages. He will, while dying, see a golden lotus-flower, like the disk of the sun, appearing before his eyes; in a moment he will be born in the world of highest happiness. After twelve greater ages the lotus-flower will unfold; thereupon the Bodhisattvas, Avalōkitėsvaras and Mahasattva’s, raising their voices in great compassion, will preach to him in detail the real state of all the elements of nature and the law of the expiation of sins.”

“Does faith save such a man?”

“Yes, not his own faith, but the faith which prompted the vow of Amitabha. Amitābha’s faith in the possibility of his salvation gives him supreme confidence that he will attain salvation. All he needs is to have the desire to be born in that paradise and to repeat the name of Amitabha.”

4. Salvation of the Second Class

“How do those of the second class attain salvation?”

“The men of the second class regard ideas as realities. They are not entangled in the maze of things, but are confused by ideas, regarding them as real. These men do not need images and outward sanctions, but they need heaven and purgatory though regarding them as ideas. By performing the ten good deeds they will obtain a quiet heart, having no fear, and become saints and sages. Among men, saints and sages occupy a high rank, but not so among Buddhists. By merit of good works merely they enter the planes of sensuous desire, the six celestial worlds located immediately above the earth.”

5. Salvation for the Highest Class

“And the third class?”

“This class has many ranks. There are those who by the practice of meditation (four
dkyanas)* can enter the sixteen heavens conditioned by form. By the practice of the four arūpa-dhyānas** they enter the four highest heavens free from all sensuous desires and not conditioned by form. These heavens are the anteroom of Nirvana.”

*Dhyana means contemplation. In later times under the influence of the idea of transmigration heavens were imagined which corresponded to the degrees of contemplation.
**That degree of abstract contemplation from which all sensations are absent.

“What is the driving power in all this?”

“It is vīrya or energy.”

6. Heaven and Purgatory

“Do heaven and purgatory exist?”

“Heaven and purgatory are in the minds and hearts of men. Really heaven is in the mind of Amitābha and purgatory exists in the illusioned brains of men.”

“Does anything exist?”

“Nāgārjuna says: ’There is no production, no destruction, no annihilation, no persistence, no unity, no plurality, no coming in and no going forth.’”

7. Sin

“Does sin exist?”

“In the mind of the real Buddhist sin and virtue are different aspects of the all. Sin is illusion; virtue is illusion, There is a higher unity in which they are reconciled.”

8. Nirvāna

“Do you know of any one who attained Nirvāna?”

“Yes, I have experienced it. It is not a state beyond the grave. It is a state into which one can enter here.”

“Can you express this experience in words?”

“Impossible. I can only indicate the shore of this great ocean. At first I was in great distress and agony, as though carrying the illusions of the world. Then came a great peace and calm, ineffable, serene, and surpassing the power of language to express.”

9. The Philosophical Background

“What is behind this universe!”

“Underlying this universe of phenomena and change there is a unity. It is the basis of all being. It is within all being and all being rests in it. It is because of this common background that men are able to apprehend it. This universal basis we call dharma, or law. Its characteristics are that everything born grows old, is subject to disease and death; that the teachings of Buddha purify the mind and enable it to obtain supreme enlightenment; that all Buddhas by treading the same way of perfection will attain the highest freedom.”

“You speak of the Buddhist Trinity.”

“Yes, we have the Dharmakāya. This is the essence-body, the ground of all being, taking many forms, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, spirits, angels, men and even demons. It is impersonal, all-pervasive. It may be called the first person. The second person is the Sambhogakāya, the body of bliss. This is the heavenly manifestation of Buddha. The third person is the Nirmānakāya. This is the projection of the body of bliss on earth.”

Some identify this trinity with that of the Christian faith. While there is a resemblance, we should note that the first person of the Buddhist trinity would correspond to God as the absolute or the impersonal background of universal Being. The second corresponds to the glorified Christ and the third to the historic Jesus. There is no counterpart either to God the Father or to the Holy Spirit.

“Do you believe in the salvation of all beings?”

“Yes, all have the Buddha heart. All living beings will finally become Buddhas.”

Then turning to a friend of mine the speaker said: “What have you done in Buddhism?” The friend answered: “I have written and translated many books.” “I do not mean that,” he answered. “What work have you done?” The friend confessed that he had not done much else. Then he said: “Every morning when you awake, reflect deeply and profoundly upon your state before you were born. Think back to that state where your soul was merged with Buddha. Find yourself in that state and you will find ineffable enlightenment and joy.”

The sun was setting behind the Western hills. The blare of trumpets sounded on the city wall. Outside of the door was the whirling sound of Peking returning home from its mundane tasks and joys. We joined the rushing, restless crowd and still we felt the calm of another world. Has not Christianity a message of balm and peace for these sons of the East who are so sensitive to the touch of the eternal and sublime?

10. What Buddhism Has to Give

An important government official obliged to deal with many vexatious requests and demands declared: “I could not get through my day’s work, if I did not spend an hour every day in meditation, just as Buddha did when he became enlightened.” He was asked what he did when he meditated or prayed. “Nothing at all.” “Well, about what do you think?” “Of nothing at all. I stop thinking when I engage in religious meditation. Life makes me think too much. I should lose my sanity, if I did not stop thinking and enter into the ’void’, whence we all came and into which we all are going to drop back.”

His Christian inquirer still was unsatisfied by the Buddhist’s description of his prayer life, and pressed further for details. “What happens when you meditate or pray?”

“Nothing happens, I tell you, except, that I experience a peace which the passing world cannot give and which the passing world cannot altogether take away. The secret of religion is simply to realize that everything is passing away. When you accept that fact, then you become really free. The Christian world seemed to have been tremendously impressed by the slogan of the French soldiers at Verdun, ’They shall not pass!’ Perhaps the German soldiers did not pass just then or there. But the French soldiers themselves are all passing away. And everything in the world is passing away. What our Buddhist religion teaches us is: ’Let it pass!’ You cannot keep anything for very long. And prayer or meditation is simply to practice yourself in that thought deliberately. Oh, it is a wonderful peace when you fully believe that gospel, and enter into it every day. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity! Why worry? We do altogether too much worrying. To pray means simply to quit worrying, to quit thinking, to enter into the indescribably passionless peace of Nirvana.”

Here seemed to be an ardent Buddhist. When asked what he thought as the difference between a Buddhist and a Christian, he answered promptly:

“Yes, there is my wife. She is a very good woman. All the neighbors come to her, when there is any one sick or in trouble. So I say to her: ’Wife, I should think you would make a first-class Christian.’ But I think she lets herself be worried by altogether too many troubles. She is all the time thinking and fussing and planning. To be sure, it is mostly about other people, But then she does have the children and the house and the relatives and friends and neighbors to look after. Perhaps she really cannot be a Buddhist. Perhaps it is all a matter of temperament. Oh, but I tell you it is great to be a Buddhist, because it gives you such a wonderful peace.”


Preface  •  I. Introductory  •  II. The Entrance of Buddhism Intro China  •  III. The Establishment of Buddhism as the Predominating Religion of China  •  IV. Buddhism and the Peasant  •  V. Buddhism and the Family  •  VI. Buddhism and Social Life  •  VII. Buddhism and the Future Life  •  VIII. The Spiritual Values Emphasized by Buddhism in China  •  IX. Present-Day Buddhism  •  X. The Christian Approach to Buddhists  •  Appendix I. Hints for the Preliminary Study of Buddhism in China  •  Appendix II. A Brief Bibliography