The Fight Between Religions in Early Chinese History

The following is a quote from Joseph Campbell’s “The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology”. It pertains strongly to the TCM discussions I’ve been hosting, and may go into the notes for next week. Anyway, interesting material. Most of us in the west are unaware of the struggle between Buddhism and Taoism in the early ages, and how it really helped define the two separate systems.

The learned clergy of the Taoism church, that year of the victory, 844, in the ninth moon, issued to the Palace the following summa contra gentiles and pontifical request:

“The Buddha was born amog the western barbarians and taught “non-birth.” “Non-birth” is simply death. He converted men to Nirvana, but Nirvana is death. He talked much of impermanence, pain, and emptiness, which are particularly weird doctrines. He did not understand the principles of spontaneity and immortality.

Lao Tzu, the Supreme, we hear, was born in China. In the Tsung-p’ing-t’ai-lo Heaven he roamed about and spontaneously and naturally became transformed. He concocted an elixir and, taking it, attained immortality and became one of the realm of spirits and produced great benefit without limit.

We ask that a terrace of the immortals be erected in the palace where we may purify our bodies and mount to the heavenly mists and roam about the nine heavens and, with blessings for the masses and long life for the Emperor, long preserve the pleasures of immortality.”

The emperor mounted twice to the top of the terrace. The first time, he wished to see a man pushed off, and when the individual ordered to give the shove demurred, he received twenty strokes of the cane on his back. The second time, wondering about the Taoist priests, he said, “Twice We have mounted the terrace, but not a single one of you, Ou lords, has as yet mounted to Immortality. What does this mean?”

To which the witty Taoist priests replied, “Because Buddhhism exists alongside of Taoism in the land, li (“sorrow”) and ch’i  (“breath”) are in excess, blocking the way of the immortal. Therefore, it is impossible to mount to immortality.

After this, the Emperor wanted to kill all the monks and nuns, but was advised to send them back to their “places of origin to perform the local corvee.”

Buddhism in China never recovered from the blow of 841-845. It survived along with popular Taoism largely on the level of a crude folk religion, no longer developing, only serving in its own way the perennial needs of family and community life, providing colourful ceremonies for occasions of birth, marriage, and death; symbolic games to mark the passage and particular qualities of the seasons; solace for those sad and weary; mythic goals beyond, for those with none here; archaic answers to undeveloped questions about the mysteries of being; a literature of marvel’ and supernatural backing for parental and governmental authority.

Specifically, the Chinese rendition of those services derives from the background of the Bronze Age and in that sense can be said indeed to represent in the modern world – along with India – a past of five thousand years. THe basic level is that of the toiling, beautiful “lower” people of the patient earth. However, in contrast to the peasantry of India and of much of Europe, the Chinese were not in the deep past people of the soil. They were nomads of a race developed (apparently) in the northernmost habitable Arctic, who came south after the Glacial Age and displaces whatever people had preceded them. IN their cults we find an interesting, characteristic combination of neolithic fertility elements, reverence for ancestors, etc., with an emphatically shamanistic factor. The phenomenon of possession is conspicuous throughout the Mongoloid terrain, both in private and in public cult. It serves to supplement divination as a means of learning – and even influencing – the will of the unseen. It supplements, also, the family cult of devotion to the ancestors, which is under the charge, fundamentally, not of the shaman, but of the paterfamilias. In Chinese thought the idea of the ancestor is on the one hand linked to the noble terms Ti, Shang Ti, and T’ien, which have been generally translated “God,” but on the other to such terms as shen, “spirits,” and kuei, “ghosts.” The sphere of the shaman is properly the latter. The sphere of the paterfamilias centres about the family cult of his own ancestral line. And the sphere of the imperial cult is a development of the familial, wich accretions front he shamanistic: the ancestral line of the emperor (the son of heaven) having been identified, practically, with “the deified being (ti) above (shang),” Shang Ti.

In relation to the cult of birth and death, two soul-like principles are recognized: the first, p’o (written with the character for “white” and that for “daemon,” i.e., “white ghost”), is produced at the time of conception; the second, hun (written with the character for “clouds” and that for “daemon,” i.e., “cloud daemon”), is joined to the p’o at the moment of birth, when the light-world is entered front he dark. The p’o in later thought was identified with the yin, the hun with the yang. At death, the p’o remains in the tomb with the corpse for three years (compare Egyptian Ba) and then descends to the Yellow Springs; or, if not set at rest it may return as a kuei, a ghost. On the other hand, the hun, which partakes of the principle of light, ascends to heaven, becoming a shen, a spirit.

It is now believed that the two terms Shang Ti (Lord Above) and T’ien (Heaven) derive from the periods, respectively, of the Shang and the Chou dynasties. The former term suggest a personality. The latter tends to the impersonal. Both imply a will, the will of heaven. However, this will is conceived, in accordance with the formula of the hieratic city state, in the way of a mathematically structured cosmic order (maat, me, rta, dharma, tao). And as everything in the history of Chinese thought and civilization shows, the realization of this order has been the chief concern of the Middle Kingdom, from the ages of its first appearance. Fundamentally, the idea is that he individual (microcosm), society (mesocosm), and the universe of heaven and earth (macrocosm), form an indissoluble unit, and that the well-being of all depends upon their mutual harmonization. As in INdia, so in China, there is no notion of an absolute creation of the world. IN contrast, however, to INdia, where an accent is given to the dissolution-recreation motif, in China the main thought is of the present aspect of the world. And ins read of a systematic sequence of four recurrent ages, ever growing worse, China presents in The Book of Changes a guide to the nuance of the present moment. Correspondingly — as Professor Joseph Kitagawa succinctly remarks — “How to realize Tao,” more than “What is Tao?” is the problem that has been the chief concern of the Chinese — superstitious masses and lofty philosophers alike.

And again in contrast to India, where a theoretically static system of caste represents the social aspect of the cosmic order and the individual is oriented to his duties by way of his broad caste alignment, in China the family and immediate kinship alignment dominates, and not devotion to a god but filial piety is the focal sentiment of the system.

Thus it is that the Chinese religion – to cite once again Professor Kitagawa – never made a distinction between the sacred and the secular. “The religious ethos of the Chinese,” he writes, “must be found in the midst of their ordinary everyday life more than in their ceremonial activities, though the latter should not be ignored. The meaning of life was sought in the whole life, and not confined to any section of it called religious.”

Following the orgy of Wu-tsung, the Buddhist community in China convalesced, and there developed what can be termed, for our purpose at any rate, the final form of the Chinese mythic order. The T’ang Dynasty, whose monarchs supposed themselves to be descended from the mythical sage Lao Tzu, collapsed 906 AD, and after five decades of war lords (the so=called Five Dynasties), the politically weak but culturally wonderful Sung Dynasty arose (960-1279). Its founder sponsored the first printed edition of the Chinese Buddhist scriptures and its second monarch built a huge Buddhist stupa in the capital. Ch’an Buddhism, which, in one branch at least, namely that inspired by Hui-neng, had stepped away from the monastic ideal, was the chief Buddhist influence among the literati, and as a kind of synthesis of the Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian vocabularies, Neo-Confusianism came into being.

“The ultimate purpose of Buddhism,” states Dr. Fung Yu-lan, “is to teach men how to achieve Buddhahood…LIkewise, the ultimate purpose of Neo-Confucianism is to teach how to achieve Confucian Sagehood. The difference between the Buddha of Buddhism and the Sage of Neo-Confucianism is that while the Buddha must promote his spiritual cultivation outside of society and the human world, the Sage must do so within these human bonds. The most important development in Chinese Buddhism was its attempt to depreciate the otherworldliness of original Buddhism. This attempt came close to success when the Ch’an Masters stated that “in carrying water and chopping firewood, therein lies the wonderful Tao.” But…they did not push this idea to its logical conclusion by saying that in serving one’s family ant the state, therein also lies the wonderful Tao.”

And herein, we can see the natural emergence of the China alive today. Interesting, how much influence the coming out of Buddhism had on the entire Chinese society. Perhaps we can see mirrors of this in the west in the late 20th/early 21st Centuries?


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