The introduction of Buddhism in China

Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC), or the Enlightened one in Sanskrit, founded  Buddhism in India.  A contemporary of Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama preached a very different doctrine, partially derived from Hinduism, an earlier religion.  While Confucian learning took a positive attitude toward this world and treated human observations as capable of truth, the first principle of Buddhism was a denial of all human senses and perceptions and the authenticity of any material existence in this world.  The Confucians called for service in the government, self-cultivation that would eventually lead to national stability and prosperity, while the ultimate goal of the Buddhists, at least in the early phase, was to completely vanish into the spiritual realm of the universe and leave this world forever.  Despite their differences, when Buddhism was introduced to China on a large scale after the 1st century A.D., it was embraced by many people.  Despite waves of persecution, Buddhism was endorsed by many Chinese emperors over the centuries up to the last Chinese imperial dynasty, the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (1644-1911).  One of the reasons to explain the early support for Buddhism in China was that, with its transcendental emphasis, it was perceived by some as similar to Daoism, the Daoist branches that were trying to find sources of immortality through alchemy.  As time went on, Buddhism gradually came into its own in China.  Still, it was much modified from India, with a greater emphasis on meditation and action instead of the reading of esoteric scriptures.  It introduced a transcendental dimension to Chinese life that Confucian learning tried to ignore, and offered a way to "escape from," or transcend, the difficulties of life.  It introduced many new concepts to Chinese culture, such as consciousness (jue wu), and retribution (bao ying).  To many Confucian scholars, however, Buddhism posed a great danger to the Confucian belief in the inherently ethical human heart, and the battle against Buddhism began almost as soon as Buddhism became popularly known in China.

1. Basic tenets of Buddhism

The central tenet of Buddhism was a denial of all human senses and perceptions and the authenticity of any material existence in this world.  To the Buddhists, the material world and the very human material existence were negative things, called karma.  Human perception  was blinded by this karma and therefore could never achieve a true view of the world.  To know the truth humans must battle against themselves through meditation, fasting, reading of scriptures, and other rituals, to purge the karma from themselves and reach greater spirituality.  This process of cultivation would not only take stages but also generations: when one person dies his/her soul will transmigrate and be born with another body; but this soul will bear the imprint of the previous life and good conduct in the previous life will lead to less karma in this new baby.  So long as karma remains, the soul will be reborn until it is completely eliminated from a person's conduct, when, upon death, the soul of the perfect person will vanish into the spiritual universe and never return to the world, a state called nirvana

Just because humans have imperfect knowledge of the world, they cannot tell between their desires and the reality.  They do not know that their very desires are the result of karma, hence are misleading.  While humans long for permanence, everything in the world is transient.  The way out of disappointments and sorrow is to recognize the illusiveness of one's own desires and seek to overcome them through Buddhist style self-cultivation, so that eventually, one is able to "see" through specially trained intuition. 

Although the eventual outcome of nirvana, or Buddhahood, is vanishing into the spiritual realm, maybe because of the influence of Hinduism which boasts of many gods and goddesses, Buddha is still often celebrated as a being, or a god.  There are numerous statues of the Buddha in China, as well as elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia.  In China, they usually are opulent (with protruding bellies that often were bared with their navel showing, but are otherwise clothed), with a fat smiling face that looks Chinese.  Associated with the image of the Buddha is that of the Bodhisattva, or Being of Wisdom.  Theoretically, it should refer to Shiddartha Guatama himself, but as time passes by, the Bodhisattva becomes transformed into a woman deity in China who is viewed as exceptionally sympathetic to the poor and hopeless.  The Chinese burn incense in front of statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattva the way they burn incense before the tablets of their ancestors. 

Buddhism has many denominations, and the largest two are called Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (the Greater Vehicle).  The former, developed earlier, focuses on more esoteric texts, while the latter simplifies much of the rituals.  The most extreme form of Mahayana Buddhism, as developed in China, called Pure Land Buddhism, championed immediate rebirth into Buddhahood when one simply called out for the Buddha! Mahayana is the branch of Buddhism that most East and Southeast Asian countries adopted.  It is called the Greater Vehicle because it is more accessible than Hinayana to many people. 

Buddhist texts give an exhaustive explanation of human sensations and perceptions (see de Bary, p.416 for an example), why they err, and ways out. 

Like Confucian learning, Buddhism emphasizes human conduct, as the conduct of one person directly affects the life of his/her soul in the next life.  This conduct, however, unlike Confucian conduct which affirms this worldly activities and properly cultivated human observations, negates worldly activities and human sentiments.  Buddhism champions withdrawal from this world.

2. Conflicts between Buddhism and Confucian learning:

Although Buddhism seems to appeal to followers of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi because the latter two often also treated human perceptions as illusory, there are many differences between Confucian and Buddhist teachings.  Here are some of them:

1. Confucian approach to human sentiments: instead of denying them, Confucians believe properly cultivated human sentiments can lead to accurate perceptions of the world.  Buddhist approach to human sentiments, on the other hand, totally denies them as results of illusion.

2. Confucian approach to human society: Confucians believe in a hierarchical society where every one has his/her proper place.  Buddhists, on the other hand, believe every one is ultimately equal because the end goal is the same and one's life in this world is not bound by one's social position/gender/birth order/place in the clan, but by his/her individual efforts and the efforts of the person where the soul previously resided. 

3. Confucian treatment of the body: almost sacred, because of filial piety: the body was given by parents and should therefore remain intact, including hair.  Historically, Chinese men wore long hair held in a bundle on top of his head (if you have seen the movie "Mulan" you have some idea of it), and women wore long hair, too).  Buddhists, on the other hand, denied the importance of their bodies, partly reflected in their shaving of the head.

4. Confucian importance to the heir: the most unfilial act, according to Mencius, is not to have posterity to carry on the family line.  Practicing Buddhists were to practice celibacy and not to have children, thereby ending one's family line.

5. Dietary rules: although not all Buddhists were vegetarians, Buddhists from northern countries (China and other East Asian regions) were mostly vegetarians because of their belief in the transmigration of souls, which leads them to believe that some souls, which in their previous lives did not properly get rid of  karma, would be reborn in animals.  Therefore eating meat would mean some kind of cannibalism.  In contrast Southeast Asia largely practices a Buddhism that allows a meat diet. Diet-wise, Confucian learning could not go hand in hand with Buddhist belief: the pork diet often found in Chinese households would clash with the belief in ancestral worship: what if your ancestors were reborn into the pigs slaughtered for your meals?

6. Transmigration and ancestral worship: another difficulty with Buddhism for the Confucians is that a soul could be infinitely reborn into many bodies.  This created a problem for ancestral worship: if your ancestor is only the bearer of one version of the repeatedly reborn soul, how many incarnations of the same soul then should be worshipped, and how can you tell which ones they are?