Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/February 1891/Chinese Buddhism
By WARREN G. BENTON.
IN a former paper, on the Taouist Religion, it was the purpose of the writer not to dwell upon the strictly historical features of the subject. That has been done by others, whose conclusions are recorded in books and encyclopædias which may be consulted. But the object aimed at was to give as true a picture as possible, in small space, of the practical workings of the system at the present time.
In writing of Chinese Buddhism the purpose is not to enter the historical phases of the question, but to show the present status of this ancient faith in the land of its adoption.
Historians generally agree that the religion was invented in Hindostan, about six centuries b. c., and that it has spread throughout almost all of Asia, until it is to day the religion of at least a third of the human race. To have lived so long, and reached so wide a field in its conquests, indicate elements of vitality not frequently matched in the world's history; and, while its origin, as well as its founder, is so far back, as the annals of history go, as to be shrouded in mystery, and even by many attributed to mythology, yet that it still lives and thrives as the most widely accepted religion none can deny. A reason for this fact must be sought in other directions than the perversity and ignorance of human minds, which incline men to accept absurd beliefs as a substitute for truth, as many assert.
There must be somewhat in a system of religion or philosophy which accords with human experience, and which tends to better the condition of life, and to foster hope, in order that a decade of centuries may pass without witnessing any diminution of its power. It is not sufficient to assume that its being a system of ingeniously woven myths is sufficient to account for its ready acceptance by unintelligent and unscientific Oriental minds. For even New York and London, as well as other centers of intelligence in our own civilization, have their rapidly growing theosophical societies, whose members include men of intelligence. These have formulated, according to their own fancies largely, what they are pleased to call a Buddhist creed; and, while they do not build temples, and ornament them with wooden images of their patron saint, as do their Oriental brethren, yet they none the less ardently declare their belief in the cardinal teachings of the system.
There is a tradition among Chinese scholars that, not far from the beginning of the Christian era, a rumor reached China that a great reformation was going on to the westward, and the emperor sent a committee to investigate the matter and report. The committee went overland through Burmah into India, inquiring at each stage of their journey as to the reports. In this way they encountered the promulgators of the Buddhist faith, who, on learning the object of their visit, informed them that their journey was at an end, and that they had found the true religion. On investigating the subject, the committee returned and made a favorable report; whereupon the emperor announced that the religion of Buddha was good for the people, and adopted it officially as one of the state religions of the empire. From that time the Buddhist missionaries found China a "field already white for the harvest," and it was at once recognized as the chief religion of the people, and has continued such ever since. Some scholars in China believe that it was the founding of Christianity that had reached their country; and that, had the committee continued their journey farther, China would have been among the first nations to adopt the Christian religion, instead of, most probably, the last people now likely to adopt it as a nation. The idea opens the way to much speculative fancy, but it lies outside the purpose of this paper to pursue it.
The first thing to attract the attention of one investigating Chinese Buddhism is the many points of similarity in the details with the Roman Catholic system. So striking was this resemblance, that the first Catholic missionaries declared that, in some manner, their own faith had preceded them; and that the Buddhism of the twelfth century was really copied from, or a perversion of, the Roman faith. But, finding that dates did not justify this solution of the matter, they then asserted that the devil, in anticipation of the true religion, had planted a counterfeit (older than the original), for the express purpose of preventing the people from accepting salvation when it was offered to them. This is hardly made clear enough to meet the inquisitive mind in seeking a solution of the matter.
While in China, investigating this subject of the "Religions of the Orient," I visited many Buddhist temples, conversed through interpreters with many priests and laymen on the subject, and put up at temples for weeks at a time, studying the methods observed in the semi-daily worship or performances; and reached certain conclusions which may have some interest to others. And in what I shall say it shall be my endeavor to treat of the present status of the ancient faith as exemplified in the present generation of believers, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions. I am not an advocate for or against the system, and shall seek to view it impartially.
In the first place, the present generation of Buddhists give but little or no thought to the origin or founder of the faith. There is apparently none of the controversial element in them. They ask no questions and have no doubts. That Buddhism exists, and meets all their requirements in the religious line, they know; and with that they are content. All efforts to dislodge this ancient faith are met with the most aggravating indifference; and such as have nominally adopted the Christian system have apparently not abandoned the old, but simply taken on another additional string to their bow. With most men, one religion is sufficient, but not so with pagan John. In this respect, indeed, the "heathen Chinee is peculiar." The same individuals believe in and practice no less than four different systems of religion. Taouists are also Buddhists, and Confucian disciples recognize both systems; while all together, and even the Mohammedans of whom there are many in China recognize the state religion, of which the emperor is the representative and custodian. And it is said that many Roman and Protestant converts also adhere to their former belief in the native articles of faith.
Buddhist priests are not, as a class, educated in any legitimate sense. They mostly are able to repeat from memory the ritual of the faith, and many include in their mental storehouses a literal memorized text from the "classics"; but in matters of general interest they are often the merest children in knowledge. They are recruited from all classes of society, but most generally from the so-called literary class. They are strictly celibates, and are vegetarians in living. Priests are exempt from the law which requires every other male Chinaman to wear the crown-locks braided in a queue, while the rest of the head is smoothly shaved.
Formerly the custom of scalp-taking in the event of conquest was observed by the Tartars and Chinese (from whom the custom was handed down through their successors in this country, he Indians); but when the Tartars subjugated China they issued a decree that all who would shave their scalps, except the scalplocks, in token of subjection, and wear that in a braided queue, to be ready to be removed if emergency should arise, would have their lives spared. It is not recorded how many refused to accept the conditions, but the queue on the head of every Chinaman today is the flag of truce, as it were, and by it he is counted loyal to his conquerors; but the priests were exempted from this rule, owing, no doubt, to the custom already in vogue among them of shaving the head clean as a mark of humility.
The priests live in the temples, having no other home. The temples are located in the most inaccessible places in mountains and on islands, and often cover acres of land. They are void of architectural beauty or effect, and consist of a main auditorium, with a succession of sheds attached, windowless and plain. The main room is furnished with an altar, on which is placed an image, generally of wood, of Buddha, sitting upon an imitation lotus leaf, and on either side of this image are other images of lesser lights in the calendar of saints who are supposed to be especially celebrated in Buddhist annals. In front of these figures incense-sticks burn day and night. These are made of dried aromatic wood reduced to fine powder and mixed into paste with oil and then put on splinters of dry wood, the lower end of which is stuck into a vase of sand and the upper end lighted, which burns slowly without a blaze, the curling, slender volume of smoke shedding forth an odor which counteracts the damp, musty smells of the old stone walls and sunless rooms.
The sheds attached serve as living-rooms for the priests and as guest-chambers for pilgrims and travelers.
At intervals around the walls of the audience-room stand the images of other saints in the calendar, which includes eighteen or more principal characters. These are not intended to represent deities, as many people suppose, but simply symbolize and preserve the memories of the men who figured prominently in the past history of the religion. They are supposed to represent also certain ideas connected with the conception of certain attributes, such as Love, Mercy, Justice, War, etc., and each figure has been made to convey the idea of his specialty.
For example, the Love symbol is shown as a fat, jolly-tempered man surrounded with little children at play. Justice sits with a face utterly devoid of all traces of sympathy, and with eyelids drawn down and lips firmly closed, and, with drawn sword, symbolizes the fate of the evil-doer. Thus, each figure is intended to impress the observer with a proper observance of the graces inculcated in the religion. But they are not worshiped. Nor has Buddha been deified in any proper sense, but is looked upon as the founder and best example of the faith. So far as I can judge, no prayers are offered to him as such, but, while he occupies the post of honor in all temples, he is merely venerated as above indicated.
Morning and evening services are observed in the temples, which consist of a certain number of strokes upon a great bell and a similar number of taps on a huge drum, which sometimes consists of a section of a hollow trunk of a tree, with rawhide fastened across one end; and this noisy demonstration is preceded and followed by repetition of ritual, and bowing and kneeling in turn in front of the central altar. Nothing can be more weird than to listen to the beating on the drum and bell in the stillness of a mountain gorge at sunset, where no sound except the occasional howling of tigers near by comes to break the monotony of the mountain stillness. I can well understand how it affects the minds of ignorant worshipers, inspiring in them an awe equal to that produced by the most profound ceremonies of the churches on the minds of the worshipers.
They have no set days for the people to come to the temples to worship. The priests keep up the service above named at sunrise and sunset of each day, and the laity may come to the temples at any time they see fit. Prayers are said for the people, or rather by the people, in a sort of lottery scheme. A joint of bamboo, open at one end, is kept in the temples, in which are an assortment of prayers and omens good and bad. The worshiper (?) selects one of these by chance, much as we sometimes see children pulling straws for the longest or shortest to decide some question in dispute. If the first effort gets an undesirable "prayer," it is put back and another drawn. This is repeated until the worshiper gets one that suits him, and then he goes on his way, feeling sure that the blessings of Heaven will rest upon his undertakings.
There are monasteries and convents in addition to the temples, and these are carried on for the same purposes and very similar in all respects as the Roman institutions of the same nature.
Among the tenets of the faith is one commonly called "works of merit" similar to and for the same objects as supererogation—that is, doing more good than the present emergencies require—for the purpose of having a balance to one's credit in case of emergency. Priests under such pious inspiration go into the markets and buy squirming eels of fish-mongers and liberate them. Paying for them with money first begged from door to door. The relative merits of buying these eels and giving them to the hungry for food have not occurred to them; but they are not the only people who take the least probable route to gain favor in the sight of their final Judge. Acts of personal torture and self-denial rank high in the line of "merit," and men are not infrequently met with who inflict the most atrocious penalties upon themselves in the vain belief that it will gain them high standing in the eyes of the powers that control their future destinies. The people can not understand disinterested benevolence; hence, when missionaries go among them and apparently put themselves to inconveniences to induce the people to accept their teachings, they are looked upon with a certain respect; but their actions are invariably construed as being "works of merit," and that, instead of their good, it is the future good of the missionary himself which he is looking after.
I knew an English missionary who went into the famine district, twelve years ago, to distribute the relief sent there from England; and the chances were ten to one that he would never return alive. Yet the people admired him as being piously seeking to lay up treasures in heaven to his own credit.
But the leading characteristic of the Buddhist faith, and the one in the light of which all their actions and observances must be judged, is the doctrine of transmigration of souls. In this belief lies whatever of practical good comes from the system, in addition to the rest of mind and contentment which come of one being entirely satisfied with his faith. It is urged by religious people in this country that the disciplinary benefits arising out of the belief in a future state of rewards and punishments are apparent in and essential to good society; that if a belief in this doctrine be annihilated, society would lapse into a state of barbarism and outlawry. Without entering into any discussion of this question, it is sufficient to say that the restraining effects of the belief in transmigration are an equally strong motive for right-doing.
They believe that life is a succession of existences, and that every grade and condition of life are the product of a former career. All animals are equally immortal as men; and, in fact, the souls of all are identical and interchangeable. Hence, to kill an ox or a dog is as much murder as to kill a man. So strong is this belief, that no Buddhist will take the life of an animal for food, the pig and fowls alone excepted. But for the contingent of Mohammedans in Chinese cities, Europeans would fare badly for beefsteaks and lamb-chops. I never knew a Chinese butcher who was not a Mohammedan; and when Mohammedan butchers buy fatted cattle of pious Buddhist farmers, they have to promise that the cattle shall not be slaughtered. I once asked a fish-dealer why he made a distinction in his line. He said that he never killed fish, but that when taken out of the water they died. I suggested that if he were to reverse this rule and put an ox under water, he too would die without being killed. When, however, the soul of an animal has departed, the carcass is exempt, and finds ready takers among the faithful who are not averse to eating beef. It is from this fact that all animals having died natural deaths are used by the people as food. The only exception to this rule of eating dead animals is in the case of their having belonged to a priest. I once shot a priest's dog, and it was buried with great ceremony (at my expense), and, when asked why they did not eat it, was told that being a priest's dog it was sacred. That made, of course, a great difference!
The beneficial results from this belief are apparent in the kindness to all domestic animals. No need for Mr. Bergh's society there. When a farmer harnesses his faithful ox or cow to plow his field, he treats the beast with the utmost consideration, for the reason that, for aught he knows, he has harnessed the soul of his own grandfather; and that the soul of the beast is watching him, and knows just what he is doing, he does not question.
Buddhists accept the proposition that one's relative rank' whether as a poor man, or, next thing to that, a pig or a donkey, is entirely due to his actions in a former life. And no matter how humble one's lot may be, he devoutly hopes for promotion in the next inning. One of the most potent fears in the minds of many men is that they may be born next time as a donkey. With us the difficulty is that sometimes men are born donkeys but do not appear to know it.
The old problem of how long it will take a frog to get out of a well twenty-one feet deep by jumping seven feet every day and then sliding down six feet at night, aptly illustrates the Buddhist's idea of the problem of existence. How many lives or succession of ages must one live in order to get into the final haven, or Nirvana, whatever that is, is the question. He believes this depends chiefly upon his own conduct, hence the belief has the tendency to restrain the vicious to discipline. How well this motive succeeds is apparent when we consider the unmatched population, both in numbers and in poverty, and then consider the comparative immunity from crime. True, the civil law punishes crime severely; but so it does in other countries, but this is thought not to be sufficient.
In China, where there is not a burglar-proof safe, and no constant surveillance of policemen, there is comparative security to life and property. It is apparent that the belief in the transmigration doctrine has a repressing influence in this direction. But the people are not, as a rule, as good as their religion would make them if it were practiced. But in this, again, they are not peculiar. The masses are grossly ignorant and largely brutalized by ages of tyranny and poverty; yet they plod on in patience and industry, waiting their final rescue from existence.
The bible of the sect is not without beauty and high moral as well as poetic conceptions. There is much in it of the nature of mythology and mysticism, which Buddhists do not pretend to understand themselves, yet there is much to admire. From a book of extracts and translations from the Buddhist bible I give a few examples:
"The perfect man is like the lily, unsoiled by the mud in which it grows." Another: "The perfect man will not be angry with him who brings him evil reports of himself, lest he be not able to judge truthfully of the matter whereof he is accused." Its moral code contains such rules as "Do not steal"; "Do not lie"; "Do not kill"; "Do not be a drunkard"; "Do not to another what you would not wish done to yourself." From these examples it may be observed how nearly their moral law runs parallel with our own; and that this has exerted a potent influence in forming the Chinese character is evident. Also, that they cover the cardinal rules of right living in good society, none will question.
The system offers motives in the way of rewards for right living, and punishments for evil-doing. It develops sympathy, the source of many virtues. It teaches the equality of all men. One man is better or worse than another only as he observes the laws of good society or breaks them. That it satisfies the minds of its votaries is certain. The Chinese will never abandon this ancient faith on sentimental grounds. They must be convinced that a better system is offered before they accept it.
Whether this demonstration is forthcoming, remains to be seen. Strong efforts are being made in that direction, and the future alone will reveal the outcome.