As Buddhism was gaining recognition in different places across the world, the Chinese were figuring out how it could be of value to their beliefs and practices. They wanted to determine how Buddhism could help them in achieving their desires, as the socio-political life across the country during that time was not stable. The religion was associated with super powers and the potential to prosper, and thus many people were challenged to learn and experience it since it had compatible aspects with the Chinese Daoism.
From the third to sixth centuries, Buddhism had gained popularity in China. This paper will show that China practiced Buddhism widely. Focusing on literature about Chinese Buddhism history from the third to the sixth century, the paper will analyze events and experiences by the Chinese society supporting the thesis. These encounters were deemed extraordinary and sometimes they involved spirits displaying unusual abilities.
Practices and beliefs
Buddhism is defined as awakening and developing intellectual capacity to understand values of love and kindness. A Buddhist country practices values of peace, kindness, and unity coupled with teaching everyone live as a friend to all beings. The social practices of the society are highly reflected in Buddhism teachings in the Chinese society; for instance, worshiping Buddha by offering sacrifices and expecting favors in return.
The members of the Buddhism clergy were expected to shave their heads (De Barry & Bloom, 1999). Although this rite was not practiced in China before the introduction of Buddhism, it penetrated the society seamlessly as shaving did not cause any harm to the people. Celibacy was also practiced amongst the clergy; however, before the introduction of Buddhism, staying childless was not encouraged. Having a child or a wife was a choice and property was a luxury that people could live without.
Simple life without amassing wealth, which one might not even require, was the best way of living. Monkhood, which entailed adhering to the set practices, was the best way of concentrating and avoiding pleasures of the world. Monks allegedly experienced goodness by forfeiting the joys of wealth and family. This aspect expressed the values of charity, compassion, and the need to hold on to virtuous desires.
The Buddhists believed that souls of the deceased never perish, as they exist as spirits when the body dies. When one died as a righteous person, the soul existed in happiness, but when one died out of the right way, the soul encountered eternal bad luck. Those who belonged to Daoism were challenged with the emergence of Buddhism, which held that it did not reduce people to lesser being or transform them to immortals.
This assertion hinged on the fact that Monks did not bow down to show respect to the king. Buddhist leaders only knelt down during their religious duties, but they did not show respect to their fellow men in authorities. The Chinese religions examined many important doctrines of Buddha and established that they were indeed good to be practiced. Buddhism taught intimacy, appreciation, kindness, and forgiveness coupled with helping people to learn how to respect one another.
The emergence of Buddhism in China
In the course of the third and fourth centuries, lifestyle in China was rapidly changing as socio-political life and class struggles were developing. Due to these unfavorable twists in life, most enlightened people abandoned the Confucian ideas and started seeking spiritual enlightenment elsewhere (De Barry & Bloom, 1999).
Buddhism was described as the awakening period and most people converted from Confucianism and Daoism to practice it. Even those who did not convert shared some practices of Buddha teachings. Therefore, Buddhism overwhelmed Confucianism and Daoism during this period of perceived awakening.
Buddhism circularized rapidly especially after it linked to the Chinese literary circles, which influenced philosophical realms in the country (Campany, 2014). At the beginning of the 3rd century, Buddhism had not yet gained momentum, but it had started penetrating China and across other Asian states.
However, with time, the religion gained acceptability in the Chinese society, and by the end of the 6th century, its popularity had soared. Buddhism flourished immensely and attracted attention as a state religion. Monks were gaining popularity for their capability to communicate with spirits and make sacrifices to appease them. Buddhism developed the belief that spirits could punish people for their disobedience. Spirits were mysterious and they existed randomly in obscure forms of demons or ghosts.
However, monks were supposed to help the Chinese society in realizing ways to handle the spirits effectively and appealingly. Therefore, Buddhism principles spread across the Chinese population through schools and religious set ups. Monks were not supposed to show respect to earthly matters.
This aspect was not an act of disrespect, but as show that they were beyond the boundaries of the usual life. This aspect draws monks closer to Heaven, thus opening the way for other human beings. The Chinese sought to attain enlightenment in the teachings of Buddha.
Counsel of Buddhism
The admonitions surrounding this religion were claimed to come from the utterances of Buddha and they contained discipline and regulatory code for the monks. This aspect gave the Chinese a strong belief and acceptance to the monks. The Chinese community followed the admonitions given by Buddha. Buddha prohibited intentional killing of human beings coupled with prohibiting stealing or encouraging others to steal.
Committing fornication was unacceptable even with female animals and such an act amounted to an unpardonable misconduct. Lying in whatever kind was intolerable. These among other prohibitions were highly acceptable and practiced by the Chinese community, which believed in compassion and good will by fellow beings.
Buddhism and the supernatural events
The Chinese community perceived Buddhism as a means of practice and spiritual advancement to bring insight as well as enlightenment to the society. The early translations of the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese marked the emergence of the Mahayana Buddhism. Signs identifying families that worshiped Buddha were very common. Wu was believed to serve as a link between human beings and gods. The Chinese society made animal offerings in shrines with the expectation of positive results to what they sought.
The Chinese community had strong cultural values and beliefs such as the existence of supernatural powers and beings in the form of ghosts or animals. They worshiped by idolizing Buddha and abiding by his teachings. The society relied on Buddha to turn around situations and transform experiences. Buddhism held that if a woman had stayed for long without a son, she could get one after pleasing the gods.
For instance, Chen Su’s desire to get a son had been kept waiting for ten years of marriage in the Yan district. His wife offered a sacrifice and after pleasing the gods, she became pregnant. However, she conspired with a neighboring woman to conceive and in case she got a boy and her, a girl, they would exchange. After nine months, Chen’s wife gave birth to a girl, but they exchanged as agreed after the neighbor had a boy.
Chen was extremely delighted, he raised the boy, and during his 13th birthday, a sacrifice was to be made to the gods. However, an old woman in Chen’s house saw spirits, which confirmed a mischief and thus Chen confronted his wife who revealed the truth. The appearance of the spirits implied that the gods were unhappy with Chen’s wife conspiracy and the situation was turned around against the wish of the wife.
Spirits demanded sacrifices from the people. In addition, Buddhism held that if troubled by the spirits, it meant that they needed offerings. For example, some spirits were believed to live at the Pavilion in Houguan district. The spirits received bull sacrifices from the district at the end of every year. Failure to make a sacrifice, the spirits would trouble the persons responsible for making an apology sacrifice.
Spirits also helped people to avoid misfortunes. Gods could cause anomalies and disruptions to people until they are pleased by sacrifices of wine and meat. The Chinese religions were very keen to avoid these perceived misfortunes, and thus whenever anything unusual was seen, they made offering to avoid punishments. Spirits were associated with sickness and bad dreams. This aspect meant that offerings had to be made to avoid bad events occurring in dreams. Specific collections of events symbolized vengeful spirits and magic indicating the presence and power of Buddhism.
Buddhism was associated with spirits that brought blessings when appeased. This aspect motivated the Chinese to adhere to what pleased the gods most. For instance, Huan Gong discovered a small opening in front of his bed leading to an ancient tomb with a decomposed coffin, and thus he started making fish and rice offering in this hole. After a year, one night, a man stood before him, spoke of how he was pleased of Huan’s generosity, and told him that he would be made the regional Inspector of Ningzhou.
This scenario shows how the Chinese society committed time and sacrifice to the spirits to seek favors and fortune in life. In addition, behind Chen Qungsun’s house in Yinchuan, there was a tree where people visited to seek blessings. Later, the Temple of the celestial spirit was structured at the same place.
The spirits asked Chen to offer his black bull to avoid death of his son, but he rejected the instructions and indeed the son died. The spirits asked for the black bull failure to which his wife would die, but Chen refused again and the wife died. On the third time, the spirits asked for the bull or Chen’s life; however, he refused to sacrifice the bull, but he did not die. His stand stunned the spirits and thus they promised him long life.
Ge Hong’s account
According to Ebrey (1993), the Ge Hong’s autobiography speaks of his simplicity and straight forwardness. He says that he never followed the currents of the world, but he always practiced the good of the society. He states that he was always ignorant in paying courtesy calls to the high officials, but instead he made efforts to visit the sick and joined the bereaved to mourn. These values were all encouraged in the Buddha teachings.
Ge observed keenly the practices in Buddhism, and to some extent, he shared some virtues with the monks. For instance, he says that he did not value prosperity and majesty since all would end (Ebrey, 1993). According to him, it was wise to reflect the way of Buddhism and lead a life devoid of worldly pleasures. Ge dismissed some of the issues advanced by Confucianism and Daoism. Although he did not mention Buddha in many occasions, the practices he talked about reflected those in the Buddha fraternity. For instance, he said that he learned the secret methods equivalent to magic, which assured victory in every encounter (Ebrey, 1993).
This aspect shows how Buddhism was influencing the Chinese community in their line of duty, social life, and advocacy through writings. The belief in dreams and power of the magic led to fortunes for those who made sacrifices in the Chinese society. For instance, the Pang clan made sacrifices for the crickets that were said to have saved a prisoner by digging a hole out prison after he had fed them for a while. These beliefs were highly observed until the sixth century and beyond by the Buddhist society of China.
In the 3rd century, Buddhism in China was received with some skepticism; however, given that people were seeking alternatives to the unstable socio-political lifestyle, they gradually started to accept this new religion. Buddhism widely influenced the lives of many people in the Chinese society. The religion was later practiced widely in China and it became the state religion due to the proliferation of Buddhist writings, which were translated into Chinese.
In addition, the high number of monks taught Buddhism in the country. Ge Hong’s bibliography presented most of the Buddhist virtues, which are echoed in the modern teachings. All aforementioned factors shaped China to a Buddhist nation, thus commanding a wide coverage across the nation. The fact that most Asian countries practiced Buddhism meant that China was receiving external influence as well. The Chinese Buddhism influenced the cultural practices and beliefs of both the ancient and modern Chinese community.
Campany, R. (2014).Tales of Strange Events. In W. Swartz, R. Campany & J. Choo (Eds.), Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook (pp. 576-591). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
De Barry, W., & Bloom, I. (1999). Sources of Chinese Traditions. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Ebrey, B. (1993). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York, NY: Free Press.