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Basic Ideas Underlying the Chinese Religion


When examining Chinese Religions, one has to have an approach different from that used to examine most other traditions. In the West, we think of someone as either a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim; it is not possible for someone to be both a Christian and a Muslim. However, this was not the case in China. It was not only possible but common for someone to turn to Confucianism for family and ethical concerns, to Daoism (sometimes spelled Taoism, but Daoism is preferred today) for physical and psychological health concerns, to Buddhism for funeral procedures, and to the local gods and spirits unconnected with these three traditions, to deal with more mundane concerns. Moreover, the native Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Daoism share many of the same basic ideas about how the world functions, the role of mankind in the world, the functions of gods and spirits, the ethical ideas that shaped China, etc. When Buddhism arrived in China from India, and became popular in the 2nd century A.D., it too began to absorb these Chinese ideas and to change in a number of ways.

In addition to these three great traditions, two other aspects of Chinese religion need to be mentioned. One is the Imperial Cult, in which the Emperor, who was called the Son of Heaven, not in a biological sense but in the sense of being chosen by Heaven to rule China, worshipped Heaven and various gods on behalf of the entire country. No one else could fulfill this ritual function which was an essential part of the Emperor's role. While the Confucians co-opted this role and amalgamated it into their religion and philosophy, this function of the emperor pre-dated Confucianism. This was such an essential part of the Chinese way of approaching the non-human world, that one sees echoes of this tradition in the way many people viewed such nationalists as Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhong-shan) and Mao Zedong. Sun Yat-sen for example, is buried on the same mountain near Nanjing as the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The second aspect is the tradition of folk religion which varied by region and often by village and involved the worship of local gods and spirits; sometimes this tradition intersected with Daoist or Buddhist rituals; sometimes it was independent of them.

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Basic Ideas Underlying the Chinese Religion

Several basic ideas underlie all Chinese Religion and Philosophy. First, their approach is basically humanistic; that is, their concern is with people, with human beings, rather than center around gods or spirits. Their interest in gods are in how these beings interact with and affect people; the Chinese have had little interest in discussing the nature of the gods apart from understanding the impact they can have on people. This can be contrasted with the Western traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in which the focus of all three religions is on how mankind can understand and implement God's will on earth. The emphasis is on what God wants, what God intends, not on what mankind wants. The Chinese concern, on the other hand, is how to act in such a way that the gods will grant one's wishes, or how to ensure that the gods will do what mankind wants and needs.

Second, their basic approach to both religion and philosophy is ethical in nature. The primary concern is how to lead a good life on earth, how to construct a society, a family, a government, that creates the best life for all people. Thus their concerns with gods and spirits are in the ways these beings help or hinder the construction of a good life on earth. While both Daoism and Buddhism developed the idea of multiple heavens and hells and an after-life connected with these places, neither tradition emphasized the after-life over this life on earth. The after-life was usually a secondary consideration. Thus the focus was on bettering people and thus bettering society.

Third, all of the Chinese traditions: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, were ultimately concerned with the perfectibility of humankind. The main interest was in how to become a better person. The Confucian ideal person was a Sage, an individual who, like Confucius himself, had so perfected his nature that everything he desired was automatically the ethical and correct way of behaving; his personal desires and the welfare of society became the same. The Daoist ideal of the "realized person" takes this perfectibility a step further. Not only does the "realized person" always act in a generous and ethical way on earth, but he/she will become an immortal and will not die but will transform into a being with special powers to aid and assist others even after the decay of his/her mortal body. The Buddhist ideal person, one who conquers all his desires so that he lives and acts in a desire-less state, will jump out of the cycle of rebirth and attain Nirvana (a state of luminous joy in which there is no more rebirth) or, more likely, will become a Bodhisattva, a being who postpones entry into Nirvana and who chooses to be reborn in the world again and again, to help and save other people. In all of these traditions, the ideal person is not one who serves a god best, but one who conquers his own desires to become someone who serves other people.

Fourth, the Chinese are not particularly concerned with myths of the origin of the world or of people; they do have such myths but they are of little real importance. Their interest rather is in how to live in harmony and peace with the world and with other people. Thus they posit an impersonal force, termed "heaven" (Tian) which is ultimately concerned with the correct functioning of the world. This correct functioning is termed "Dao" (sometimes written Tao, but Dao is the spelling used in China today) which is the force or the impulse which causes all things to happen naturally. The Chinese believe that human beings must align their actions with this natural force, this Dao. Thus there is not a separation between moral law and natural law, there is not one law that governs how the physical world operates and another governing how mankind should behave. These are different parts of the same law, the same Dao. All religion therefore, tries to realign mankind with the Dao, with the natural way man is supposed to act. All problems, all ills, all evils, come from a distortion between the cosmic Dao and the human Dao. To correct this imbalance is the main function of religion.

According to the Chinese world view, the Dao causes the world to operate properly; but the Dao itself can only act by division; thus it divides into two complementary forces, generally termed Yin and Yang. The symbol of these forces is usually a divided circle (click on a yin-yang symbol). These forces are complementary and require each other for action; it is the interaction of these forces that enables the Dao to function. Thus, any imbalance in the relation of these forces can cause problems. For example, in Chinese medicine, illness is caused by the imbalance of these forces: too much Yin or too much Yang, in the body. Harmony and balance is needed in all things.

When Westerners first became aware of Chinese ideas of the role of man, the role of gods, the essentially humanistic and rational way of approaching the world, many European thinkers felt that these ideas were superior to Western ideas and they felt that the Chinese were interested in Philosophy rather than Religion. This has fostered a belief, which can still be found in writings today, that the Chinese are not religious, that they are only philosophical. This is completely incorrect: one has only to visit a Chinese Daoist temple, a Buddhist monastery or a Confucian temple and watch the people, to realize that the Chinese are very concerned with both religion and philosophy. In fact, they don't make the sharp distinction between these that is common in the West. For the Chinese, whether one discusses religion or philosophy, both are transformative, both aim to change people and thus both are essentially religious in nature. (The Chinese use different words to refer to a Confucian temple and a Daoist or Buddhist one, but it is hard to find a different word in English so both words are translated "temple").

One of the concerns of the Chinese from the beginning of time was divination: the attempt to foresee the future. The first kings were also shamans who had the ability to read cracks in bones and tortoise shells which had been heated and to explain how these foretold what was to come. In fact, the first Chinese writing has been found on these "oracle bones"; thus writing has a scared beginning. Today, in every Buddhist or Daoist temple or folk temple, one can find fortunetellers and various means of divination. The most sophisticated method of divination devised by the ancient Chinese has been adopted by both Confucianism and Daoism as part of their belief and action systems. This is the book called the Yi Jing (I Ching), a book of cryptic verses and saying related to 64 hexagrams, which are believed to cover all possible situations. The difference between the Yi Jing and other methods of divination, is that the Yi Jing does not predict the future; instead it explains the situation in which one finds oneself and gives one various possibilities for action to either avoid calamity or to achieve success. Thus, it is both a method of predicting the future and a psychologically focused book to help one to deal with difficult problems. The Yi Jing is based on the idea of randomness, of the interconnectedness of all things in the universe; thus, whichever one of the 64 hexgrams one obtains in "casting" the Yi Jing, is relevant to one's problem by the fact that it appeared at this time. Various methods of obtaining one of these hexagrams were developed from the earliest method using yarrow stalks, to a later method using coins, to a very modern method of using a computer.

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The term "Confucianism" has become almost synonymous with any discussion of the government and family systems of China (and Korea, Japan, and Vietnam). But what exactly is this all pervading system that seems to cover everything from education, to family, to government, to interaction with spirits, to funerals, to problem solving? Why is it so important and what are its ideas?

To answer these questions, we must look at a brief history of Confucianism and how it was applied. It begins with a man who was given the honorific name "Master Kong" (Kong Fuzi) in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. This man lived during a tumultuous time, a time of constant war between states, each seeking to conquer and rule the others. In face of the misery, poverty and uncertainty caused by these constant wars and their accompanying unethical and violent ways of acting, many thinkers tried to come up with solutions to the problem of how to attain peace and security. These solutions ranged from better equipped armies, to better military tactics, to dictatorial governmental policies, etc. Master Kong, however, came up with a very different solution and one which seemed most impractical. He proposed that the petty kings select ministers who were trained in ethics and that they themselves adopt an ethical approach to solving problems, an approach which considered the welfare of the people as its greatest value. Needless to say, while his ideas were valued and he was considered to be a wise person, he was unable to find a king who would employ him or put these ideas into practice! Thus, he devoted his time to teaching and accumulated many disciples.

Several hundred years after his death, his ideas, modified by those of several of his disciples, were finally adopted as official state policy. The man who adopted them, Han Wudi, (the military emperor of Han) was the most expansionistic and militaristic of the early Han emperors. Nevertheless, he felt that these seemingly impractical ideas of Master Kong and his disciples would help him to govern properly, would give him a core of loyal and well trained officials, would regulate the relations with the foreign states he was conquering, and would ensure a well ordered and prosperous society. Thus, from the beginning of the 1st Century B.C. and continuing until at least 1912 A.D. when the Imperial system was overthrown, Confucian ideas, in one permutation or another, formed that backbone of the Chinese state. These ideas were modified a number of times, including in the 12th , 14th and 16th Centuries, in a form that came to be known as "New' or "Neo" Confucianism. which sought to revitalize the philosophy/religion to meet modern situations. While Confucianism was officially debunked in the 20th Century in China, it was briefly revived by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai Shek) in the 30's and in Taiwan after 1949. Despite several decades of anti-Confucian rhetoric in China, its ideas still permeate Chinese society today.

What are the basic ideas of Confucianism? Essentially, Confucianism sees that a person is not an isolated individual responsible only to and for him or her self, but is enmeshed in a web of relationships from the moment he/she is born until after she/he dies. At birth a child joins a family, consisting not just of a mother, father and siblings, but of the generations gone before and those who will come after. During his/her lifetime, she/he becomes involved in more and more relationships: of friends, school-mates, colleagues, bosses, government members, neighbors, etc. A person plays many roles in his or her life; that of child, of parent, of sibling, of friend, of worker, of boss, of tax payer, of school mate, etc. Thus, the most important element in Confucian ideas is that everything in life is relational; one's success or failure in any situation depends upon one's relations to others. For example, success in a military campaign depends primarily on the Commander's relations with his soldiers; equipment and training are secondary. Likewise, success in a school depends upon one's relations to one's teachers and peers; innate intelligence is secondary.

Since everything is seen as relational, there can be no absolutes in Confucian ideas. What is the proper way to act depends not on an objective situation (we have been attacked by terrorists), but upon one's relations to those involved (the victims, the perpetrators, their relatives, the governments, religious leaders, etc). In order to discover how to act one needs to access the situation in terms of the impact of one's actions on all the people involved, the probable outcomes in terms of continuing relationships of different types of action. How then, does one make a decision? To Confucians, one's past education and understanding of key values will guide this decision.

There are certain key values that Confucians use in making all decisions and these values do not change but the ways they are applied change. The first value is compassion for all involved in a given situation. The second is righteousness and justice for everyone involved in a situation. The third is propriety, what is the proper way to act while maintaining the relationships in which one is involved. The fourth is loyalty: how to act in this situation while supporting all one's possible conflicting loyalties. The fifth is to act with filial piety, considering the welfare of one's parents, and by extension, one's family, and one's country, not one's own wishes. The sixth is honesty and truthfulness.

Confucians stress that it is the nature of the person making the decision that is important; hence they stress education, transformative education, to mold persons in the values listed above so that they have the ethical tools for making decisions. Decisions then, are always ethical in nature, whether they are decisions about schooling for one's children, or response to terrorist acts. The same set of values applies to all actions and one derives the specifics from them.

To understand Confucianism in action, let's look at a couple of examples. In the West, when one person kills another, we try that person, find him/her guilty and subject him/her to punishment (life imprisonment, execution, etc). We consider that that is justice. To a Confucian, this is not justice because it has not dealt with the consequences of the crime. The murdered man may have been the family breadwinner and his wife and children now have no one to provide the necessities of life for them. This is the responsibility of the man who killed their breadwinner, and, by extension, his family. Thus, the murderer might still be condemned to death, but his and his family's goods might be confiscated and part of them distributed to the widow and her children to provide for their needs. Operating on the value of compassion, a Confucian would try to undo the effects of a crime as much as possible, as well as punishing the criminal.

Another example might involve relations between family members, for example a father and a son. The son has seen and fallen in love with a neighbor girl although he has yet to talk to her, given the separation of sexes in traditional China. He asks his father if the matchmaker could approach this girl's parents with a proposal of marriage. The father refuses, saying that he is arranging his son's marriage with the daughter of a wealthy businessman in a nearby city as this connection is vital to the family's business interests.
While in the West, the son might refuse his father's rationale that the marriage is good for the family, in China, the good Confucian son would acquiesce as marriage, after all, is for the benefit of the family unit, not the individual.

So far, Confucianism seems to fit the model of an ethical philosophy. However, when we look at its relation to death and the veneration of ancestors, the religious aspects are evident. When a member of the family dies, all members of the extended family go into mourning for a period consistent with the degree of closeness to the deceased. The closest relatives, the children, would observe the longest, (27 months) period of mourning. During this time, they would not work, not have sex, not eat nice food or wear nice clothes or engage in many enjoyable pursuits. The deceased would thus become an ancestor with a spirit plaque which is placed on the family altar. Each morning, offerings (fruit, rice, incense) would be made to the spirit plaque; all family events, such as a son's graduation or a daughter's marriage, would be reported to the ancestors. In addition, one of the most important holidays occurs in early spring, the Ching-Ming (Bright and Clear) festival. At this time, everyone tries to return home. The center of the festivities is visiting the graves of ancestors, to clean them (sweeping the graves), to talk over family business with their spirits, and to present offerings of food and drink for the spirit.

Moreover, each city had a Confucian temple. In keeping with the Confucian concern for education, these temples often doubled as schools. The temples had statues of Confucius and statues or pictures (engravings) of his disciples. Parents and children came to pray, to present offerings at any time they wished, particularly before a new school term or before the exams for the government service. The magistrate of the city made periodic offerings at the Confucian temple on behalf of his community, just as the emperor made offerings to Heaven on behalf of the country. Confucianism thus served as a social glue that kept all aspects of society integrated.

(For more information on Confucianism, please click on the following which is part of a web class from Suny Institute in New York)

For examples of filial piety, click on the following, which contains Examples of Filial Piety (14th Century CE)

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Daoism (or Taoism, although Daoism is preferred)

Like Confucianism, Daoism is a native Chinese tradition that is both a philosophy and a religion. In its philosophical mode, it became the preserve of the educated elite, of poets and administrators, of the retired and those experiencing difficulties in life. Daoist philosophy, centering on the mystical (and thus hard to understand) writing attributed to Laozi (Lao Tse) and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tse) stresses letting nature take its course, following the natural way. It attributes all ills to interference with nature and thus stresses that humankind should discard all contrivances and return to a simple state. It uses images of water (the softest of all things which wears away the hardest stone) to illustrate the virtue of non-contention. It uses feminine images to counter the more masculine images of a traditional Confucian society: in Daoist thought, the feminine always triumphs. Many well known Chinese ideas, including those of guerilla warfare and the martial arts, are based on Daoist principles of using weakness to overcome strength. (Mao Zedong once said of the Red Army, that it ran away 100 times more than it fought, which is why it was victorious).

Daoism was a fairly anti-establishment kind of philosophy; it advocated a natural lifestyle and opposed the Confucian stress on ethics and education. To Daoists, ethics were natural until civilization messed things up; thus the more education a person had, the less reliable she/he was, because he/she was more divorced from the natural way. Daoism is full of wonderful stories that illustrate its points. Perhaps the best known group of Daoist drop-outs was the group of early 3rd century poets who called themselves "The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove". They wrote poetry, drank, lolled around and seldom worked; instead they did whatever came into their minds to do. For instance, one of them walked around with a servant behind him, carrying a bottle and a shovel: the bottle was so he could drink wine whenever he felt thirsty; the shovel to bury him wherever he fell dead! Another was famous for lounging around his own house in the nude (in China, nudity was one of the biggest social no-nos). Once when a high official came to visit him, the man answered the door naked. The shocked official berated him for his rudeness in not wearing clothes; the poet replied "the whole world is my house, and this building is my trousers. What are YOU doing inside my trousers?" Another member of the group was seized with a burning desire to visit a friend in another town. Thus he hired a boat and had the boatman row him all night to the neighboring town. He arrived at sun-up, took one look at his friend's house and decided to return home: the desire to see his friend had left, so what was the point of knocking on the door? Due to acts such as these, Daoists, earned the reputation of being eccentrics and hence for wisdom and selflessness.

Daoism, however, did not remain a philosophy for the elite. It soon became a wide ranging and complex religious system with mass appeal. Some of the changes were spontaneous in reaction to changing social and political conditions, others were in direct reference to the threat to Daoism posed by a well organized Buddhism entering China. In the 2nd century A.D., the ruling dynasty, the Han, was in severe decline and chaos was erupting throughout the country, with bandits, rebels, invasions, misery and poverty increasing. A number of large scale messianic religious movements arose, the most important being a salvationist Daoist society, the Way of the Celestial Masters in the Western Part of China. The founder of this group, Zhang Daoling, believed that he had received direct revelations from Laozi, who will become deified as Lord Lao. This group was a mutual assistance community, in which people paid yearly tithes into a common treasury and in return received both financial and psychological aid. Healing was an important part of the program and the picture of Zhang Daoling on a white tiger came to be a symbol of healing. The group practiced the confession of misdeeds, in which these were written on paper and presented to one of the three lords of earth, water, or heaven (and buried, placed in streams, or burned); it was believed that misdeeds caused hardships and these confessions would insure good fortune.

From this beginning, Daoism grew and expanded with a number of other revelations occurring over the next several centuries and a number of different sects being formed. In all of these sects, similar ideas and rituals predominated; each had its own lineage of leaders, descended from a common founder, either through blood or through ordination ceremonies. In all Daoist activities, ritual was essential as a primary means of dealing with transition periods, such as birth and death. Implements were used in these rituals, including incense burners which carried messages to the gods in Heaven through the smoke; swords were used for both purification and exorcism. The robes and hats worn by the priest were covered with images symbolizing power over the cosmos. Scriptures multiplied with each revelation, as these were accompanied with writings, some of which were "discovered" and others of which were "dictated."

As Daoism progressed a pantheon of deities was created. These deities are of two kinds. The first were a group of "Celestial worthies" who were formed spontaneously from primordial energy at the beginning of the world. These are the supreme deities; each holds court in a celestial paradise and is supported by a hierarchy of lesser gods. By the 7th century, they were consolidated into a well-defined pantheon. The chief of these gods are the "Three Purities" and the "Three Officials," who can only be contacted through written requests by Daoist priests, who thus become essential mediators between people and these gods.

The second category of Daoist deities consists of "immortals", human beings who have purified themselves of mortal imperfections and become gods. The various means of doing this: study, self-discipline, dietary restrictions, alchemy, yoga exercises, etc, form a large part of Daoist writings and actions. To enable humans become immortals was the ultimate goal of most Daoist spiritual practices. The most famous were the "Eight Immortals" a group of 7 men and one woman who became patriarchs of the complete Realization sect of Daoism which developed in the 14th century. These immortals inhabited places on earth as well as in heaven, especially mountains or caves. Most mountains are sacred in China but five of them (called the 5 sacred mountains) located in the East, South, West, North and Center of China (the 5 directions) were directly linked to heaven.

Women play an important role in Daoism: as teachers who influenced its development, as practitioners in its rituals, and as goddesses, the embodiment of feminine (Yin ) energy. The most famous of these immortal goddesses is the Queen mother of the West, who inhabits a mountain in the Kunlun range and teaches the arts of immortality. One of the oldest goddesses in China, she pre-dates Daoism, which adopted her, and she guards the garden containing the peaches of immortality; these peaches mature every 3000 years; to find the garden and eat these peaches guarantees immortality. She was the head of a large pantheon of goddesses. Mortal women were ordained as Daoist priests and there are a number of records of Imperial princesses performing this function; they became religious instructors and scholars, founders of sects of Daoism and they could serve as nuns. Women had a vital influence on the growth of religious Daoism.

(For more information and some good pictures of Daoism, please click on the following: The Art Institute of Chicago)

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Buddhism is the third of the mix of great religions that shaped Chinese life and culture. Unlike Confucianism and Daoism, Buddhism was not a native tradition but originated in India and was brought to China over a number of centuries by traders, missionaries, and travelers. While it entered China during the Eastern Han dynasty (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it didn't become popular until the period of division in China (3-6th centuries). During this time period, China was divided into a number of independent kingdoms, split between native Chinese dynasties ruling in the South and nomadic conquest dynasties ruling in the North. It was a time of great uncertainty, of military rule, of the destruction of cities and livelihoods. However, this period was also one of intellectual and scientific change and growth and it was during this period of time that Buddhism gained a strong foothold in both North and South China, although for different reasons. To many Chinese, it offered an explanation of what had happened to their civilization and a response to the difficulties of the day.

Buddhism came to China with ideas and beliefs vastly different from those of native Chinese religions and its acceptance was a process of accommodation on both sides. Four main differences between Buddhism and Chinese ideas are: the Buddhist belief in reincarnation compared to the Chinese belief in a single life; the Buddhist insistence upon leaving society and entering the homeless celibate life of a monk or nun compared to the Chinese emphasis on family and continuing the descent line; the Buddhist belief in the non existence of a soul compared to the Chinese belief in both heavenly and earthly souls and the continuation of these souls' ability to influence events after death; the Buddhist belief in the independence of the monastic community compared to the Chinese insistence that all institutions are under the government. In all of these areas, Buddhism adjusted to Chinese society. Thus, the Chinese came to believe both in reincarnation and in the deceased becoming an ancestor; Buddhist temples became repositories for spirit plaques and memorial services to ancestors. The government passed laws restricting who could become a monk or a nun and forbidding children who had no siblings from taking this path. The government insisted that the monasteries were subservient to the state and indeed they came to be supporters of the government.

With the differences in culture, why did Buddhism appeal to the Chinese and why did it become so popular? To answer this question, we need to look at the basic ideas of Buddhism and what it offered as well as what the Chinese needed for a religion.

Buddhism was founded in the 6th century B.C. by an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama. Brought up in luxury as a Prince in a small kingdom in what is now Nepal, the young prince, at the age of 29, became discontented with his life, renounced his kingdom, and left his wife and newborn child for the life of a wandering ascetic. After 6 years of struggle, he then renounced asceticism, ate and drank, and then sat underneath the Bodhi tree, vowing to remain there until he understood how to escape from the cycle of rebirth. While sitting here, he had a revelation which he interpreted to mean that he understood the true nature of existence and thus was freed from the cycle of rebirth. Hence he was called the Buddha, "The Enlightened One". He then spent the following 45 years preaching his ideas, setting up monasteries, and ordaining disciples. In the centuries after his death (called the parinirvana, as he entered that blissful and unexplainable state called Nirvana rather than being reborn), Buddhism spread throughout India, Southeast Asia and China. During this time it underwent many transformations, one of which was to divide into a number of different sects, based on different ideas of what the Buddha had actually meant in many of his pronouncements and on how to actually implement his ideas. Eventually these sects coalesced into three main divisions: Theravada, Mahayana and Tantrayana. Theravada became prevalent in Southeast Asia, Mahayana in China, Korea and Japan, and Tantrayana in Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, and Manchuria.

The basic ideas of Buddhism are expressed in the formula of the Four Noble Truths, and the eight-fold Path. The four Truths are: suffering exists as an inescapable part of life, suffering has a cause, that cause is desire for things to be different than they are, and this suffering can be eliminated with the elimination of desire. Desire can be eliminated by following the eightfold path: practicing Ethical Conduct (right speech, livelihood, and actions), Wisdom (right views and intentions) and Mental Development (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). In its original formulation, practicing these 8 virtues, could result in one having the same awakening to the true facts of life as the Buddha had, and would result in one escaping the cycle of rebirth by eliminating that which caused one to be reborn, one's Karma.

Karma is an Indian term that literally means actions. It came to mean that every action or thought produces effects and these effects impel one towards a new rebirth after death. Buddhism reinterpreted the idea of Karma to mean the effects of desire: that is, any action in which selfish desire was present would result in karmic accumulations and hence, rebirth. The goal then was to live in this world and act without desire; the way to do this was by following Buddha's 8-fold path. Once desire was eliminated, one would act out of pure motives free from worry or desire for a particular outcome for oneself; all of one's actions would be totally selfless.

In its original formulation, and one which has been maintained by the Theravada Path, Buddhism was an individualistic religion; each person was responsible for his/her own progress on the path. It was felt that the best way to eliminate desire was to enter a monastery, thus cutting ties with the world, which produces desire; monks and nuns did no work and thus were supported by begging and donations from the lay community to which they rendered services (educational, medical, soup kitchens, tree planting, etc). However, many people came to feel that this path was too difficult and soon an "easier" path, the Mahayana or Great Vehicle, arose. This path put more emphasis on the possibilities of lay people achieving enlightenment and in assistance along the way. Those who gave assistance were called Bodhisattvas: "Buddhas to be". These were ordinary human beings who achieved enlightenment but chose instead to be reborn to assist others to achieve enlightenment. Thus, they soon became beings to whom one could pray, not only for enlightenment, but for assistance in many worldly activities. It was the Mahayana form, with its flexibility and emphasis on lay life, that became prevalent in China. In China, it soon divided into a number of different sects, often with emphasis on a particular Buddha or Boddhisattva, or particular practices, such as meditation or recitation of a mantra (a phrase something like a Hail Mary said by Catholics).

(For more details on the Buddha, the path and the practice of Buddhism, please click on: The Big View: About Bugghism).

The Tantric form of Buddhism also became popular in parts of what is today China, specifically in Tibet and Mongolia. This Buddhist path, arose in the 6-7th centuries and was an outgrowth of the Mahayana. It is based on additional scriptures called Tantras, which posit a very direct way of attaining enlightenment, with the help of a teacher. The Tantras are considered so powerful that they are not to be studied alone but only under supervision and thus are written in language that is mysterious and difficult to understand. They stress total involvement of the body, mind and speech in the search for enlightenment. They stress the union of all things and thus often depict two aspects; a benign and a demonic, of the same person or event. Many particular practices arose in Tantric circles, most of which are still practiced in Tibet and surrounding areas today. Perhaps the most interesting is the idea that certain high lamas (a lama is a teaching monk) can chose their future reincarnations. Thus, this tradition has many "incarnate lamas" sometimes called "Living Buddhas" in the West. The Dalai Lama is the most well known of these lineages (he is the 14th Dalai Lama and hence the 13th reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, who in turn is seen as the incarnation of the Boddhisattva of Compassion.)

Tibetan Buddhism is very visual as well as very verbal. People use objects, such as prayer wheels, dorjes (thunderbolts), bells, etc on a daily basis. Temples have large prayer wheels which people can spin as they walk around the temple in a clockwise direction (a person's right side is pure and must always face the temple, the left side should always face away from the temple). Tibetan temples are filled with mandalas (elaborate symbolic paintings), statues, rugs, wall hangings, statues, offerings, etc. In front of Buddha statues, there are always butter lamps burning; people drape statues with prayer scarves as a means of worship. Study is verbal, with monks reciting in unison or engaging in debates on various points of doctrine. The debates are physical as well as mental, with elaborate hand and body gestures accompanying the statements.

(For detailed information on Tibetan Buddhism in all its forms, please click on the official site of the government of Tibet in Exile).

Another good site is PBS's dreams of tibet ).

For several images of Tibetan art:

Three examples of Tibetan art

When Buddhism first came to China it arrived over the fabled Silk Road, the several thousand mile long series of routes that linked China with India, Central Asia and eventually Europe. For several thousand years, peoples, goods, ideas and armies traveled this route. As Buddhism spread across China, it left many relics of flourishing cities, cave temples, paintings, scriptures, etc, many of which are being preserved today. Buddhism was adopted by Chinese of all stations for different reasons. For the educated Chinese, who had seen their dynasty collapse in corruption and invasion, it seemed to offer an explanation of why their world was turned upside down, and it offered techniques for living a good life in difficult times. For the poor, it offered both psychological and physical assistance; the wish-granting deities and savior Bodhisattvas, the brilliant festivals, colorful temples and ceremonies, as well as the very practical assistance given by the monks and nuns all combined to make Buddhism a powerful force. To the various nomad conquerors of North China, it offered support in ruling, especially with its notion of the ideal king, and it offered a non-Chinese tradition to those who were leery of being absorbed by those they conquered. In spite of the many difficulties in translation, in obtaining scriptures, in reconciling the differences between the Indian and Chinese world views, Buddhism flourished and became the third religious stream in Chinese civilization. Like Confucianism and Daoism, it was an inclusive religion and allowed its followers to also worship at Daoist and Confucian temples.

Buddhism in China divided into a number of different Sects, often based on a particular sutra (religious scripture) or a particular religious practice. The two most popular were Chan (better known by its Japanese name of Zen) and Pure Land Buddhism: these are the two forms that remain popular today. Chan focuses its attention on the act of meditation and enjoins mediation while performing ordinary activities such as eating or working. Chan stresses simplicity, self reliance, group living and meditation under the guidance of a master. Pure Land is salvational in nature. Aspirants do not aim for enlightenment but for rebirth in the Western Paradise, a land created by the Buddha Amitabha out of his infinite compassion for all beings. Rebirth in this heaven means luxury and delight, freedom from all trials, and promises eventual enlightenment. To attain this paradise, followers need only rely on and call upon the Buddha Amitabha. Followers recite, in temples or alone, the mantra "namu omitofo" (homage to Buddha Amitabha).

Buddhism brought with it a well developed series of heavens and hells and the idea that people could be reborn into 6 levels of being: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings. All of these states were transitional and only in the human birth could enlightenment, the cessation of rebirth, be attained (in animal form, one is too instinctual; as a ghost or hell being, too miserable; as a god or demi-god, one is too happy to seek enlightenment; only as a human does one have the combination of intelligence and suffering to make one seek out enlightenment).

Buddhist temples became centerpieces of worship and study; they also became key to funerals and soon took over the function of burial and remembrance. To have Buddhist monks at the funeral became an assurance of a good rebirth; to have one's spirit plaque in the temple, meant that one benefited form daily prayers. Buddhists undertook public work projects including bridge and road building, running hostels for travelers, orphanages and old age homes, etc.

Buddhism however, did not always have an easy time in China. It always suffered under the stigmatism of being a "foreign" religion and was persecuted a number of times. These persecutions were not religious in nature but economic, aimed at gaining the vast wealth the monasteries accumulated through tax exempt donations and at returning large numbers of monks and nuns to "productive" life. Daoism adopted the monastic life form Buddhism as well as certain ceremonies. Buddhism had a great impact on arts in China, both painting and sculpture as well as on literature and music.

(For more information, please click on the following link:
The Buddhist World)

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