Buddhism and Buddhists in China
By Lewis Hodus
Public Domain Books
IX. Present-Day Buddhism
1. Periods of Buddhist History
The history of Buddhism in China may be divided into four periods. Buddhism entered China, as we have seen, in the second century B.C. The first period, that of the translation and propagation of the faith, ended in 420 A.D. The second period, that of interpenetration, lasted to the beginning of the T’ang dynasty, 618 A.D. The third, the period of establishment, ended with the close of the five dynasties, in 960 A.D. The fourth period, that of decay, has extended to the present day.
2. The Progress of the Last Twenty-five Years
There are signs of a revival of Buddhism in China. Whether this is a tide, or a wave, only the future can reveal. In 1893 Dharmapala, an Indian monk, stopped in Shanghai on his way back from the Congress of Religions in Chicago. It was his purpose to make a tour of China, to arouse the Chinese Buddhists to send missionaries to India to restore Buddhism there, and then to start a propaganda throughout the whole world. He addressed the monks of Shanghai. Dr. Edkins, the veteran missionary, acted as his interpreter. Dharmapala was surrounded by a horde of curious monks who were more interested in his strange appearance and in the cost of his garments than they were in his great ideals. They were also feeling the iron heel of the Confucian government and at once inquired about the attitude of the government toward such an innovation. Dharmapala did not go beyond Shanghai.
Japanese Buddhists, especially the members of the Hongwanji sect, have taken a deep interest in Chinese Buddhists. Count Otani once visited the chief monasteries of China. Numerous Japanese Buddhists have made such visits. In 1902, the Empress Dowager, fired by a reforming zeal, decided to confiscate Buddhist property and to use the proceeds for the spread of modern education. The Buddhist monasteries put themselves under the protection of Japanese monks in order to hold their property. When by 1906 the Empress Dowager saw the consequences of her edict, she at once issued a new edict, reversing the former one, and the Japanese monks took their departure.
The Japanese Buddhists have been fired by missionary zeal for China. In many of the large cities of China are the temples of the Hongwanji sect. Established primarily for the Japanese, these temples are intended to serve as points of departure for a nation-wide missionary work. The twenty-one demands made upon China included two significant items in the last group which the Chinese refused to sign: “Art. 2: Japanese hospitals, churches and schools in the interior of China shall be granted the right of owning land.” “Art. 7: China agrees that Japanese subjects shall have the right of missionary propaganda in China.”
Under Japanese influence there was established in 1907 at Nanking, under the leadership of Yang, a lay Buddhist devotee, a school for the training of Buddhist missionaries. The students were to go to Japan for further training, and the more promising ones were to study in India. This project was discontinued after the death of Yang on account of the lack of funds.
When the republic was established Buddhism felt a wave of reform. The monasteries established schools for monks and children. A magazine was published which appeared irregularly for several numbers and then stopped. A national organization was formed with headquarters at Peking. A survey of monasteries was begun. The activities in lecturing and propaganda were increased, but Yuan Shih-kai issued twenty-seven regulations for the control of Buddhist monasteries, which markedly dampened the ardor of the reformers.
The world war which accentuated the spirit of nationalism had the added effect of stirring up Buddhist enthusiasm. There are at present signs of new activity among them in China.
3. Present Activities
While Buddhism may be standing still or even dying in certain parts of China, it is showing signs of new life in the provinces of Kiangsu and Chekiang and in the large cities. Such revival in centers subject to the influence of the modern world shows that Buddhism in China as in Japan has sufficient vitality to adjust itself to modern conditions. Let us consider some of these activities.
(a) The Reconstruction of Monasteries.–During the T’ai Ping rebellion, which devastated China in 1850-1865, the monasteries suffered with the towns. Not only were the monasteries burned to the ground, but their means of support were taken away and the monks were scattered. There are still many of these ruined monasteries in the Yangtze valley and in southern and western China. Quite a number of them have been rebuilt. Perhaps the most notable example is that at Changchow which was destroyed during the rebellion. Today it is the largest monastery in China, having about two thousand monks. In Fukien several new monasteries have been built in the last few decades. In the provinces of Chekiang and Kiangsu, in the large cities and about Peking there are building activities, showing that the monasteries are feeling a new wave of prosperity.
T’ai Hsu, one of the leaders’ of modern Buddhism, is holding up an ideal program for Buddhism in this time of reconstruction. He proposes that there should be 576 central monasteries, 4608 preaching places, 72 Buddhist hospitals and 72 orphanages.
(b) Accessions.–Regarding the number of monks it is almost impossible to obtain any reliable figures. A conservative estimate, based upon partial returns, makes the number of monks about 400,000 and that of nuns about 10,000. The impression among the Buddhists is that the number of monks is increasing. That is quite probable in view of the rebuilding and repairing which is now in progress.
More significant is the number of accessions from the learned class. Many officials, disheartened by the present confused political situation, have sought refuge in the monasteries. Some of them are now abbots of monasteries and are using their influence to build them up. All over China there are Confucian scholars who are giving themselves to the study of Buddhism and to meditation. Some of the Chinese students who have studied in Buddhist universities in Japan are propagating Buddhism by lecture and pen.
(c) Publications.–Quite as significant is the increase in the publication of Buddhist literature of all kinds. Many of the monasteries have printing departments where they publish the sutras needed for their own use. In addition, there are eight or more publishing centers where Buddhist literature is printed. The most famous are Yang’s establishment at Nanking, the Buddhist Press in Yangchow and that in Peking. In these establishments about nine hundred different works are being published. The most noteworthy recent publication has been that of the Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka in Shanghai.
Among these publications are a few modern issues. The Chung Hua Book Company has published several works on Buddhism. Other books have been issued for the sake of harmonizing Buddhism with western science and philosophy. In this enterprise Japanese influence is visible. In 1921 a Shanghai press published a dictionary of Buddhist terms containing 3302 pages, based on the Japanese Dictionary of Buddhism. Other works also show the influence of Japanese scholarship.
Among the publications have appeared two magazines. One published at Ningpo, is called “New Buddhism.” This is struggling and may have to succumb. The other is known as the “Sound of the Sea Tide,” now published in Hankow. Moreover, in all the large cities there are Buddhist bookshops where only Buddhist works are sold. These all report a good business. This literary activity reveals an interest among the reading classes of China. Few such books are purchased by the monks. The Chinese scholars read them for their style and for their deep philosophy, but also for light and for help in the present distracting political situation of their country.
(d) Lectures.–Along with publication goes the spread of Buddhism by lectures in the monasteries and the cities of China. A few years ago Buddhist sermons, however serious, were only listened to by monks and by a few pious devotees. Today such addresses are advertised and are usually well attended by the intellectuals. Often many women are found listening. Monks like T’ai Hsü and Yuan Ying have a national reputation. Not only monks, but laymen trained in Japan are delivering lectures on the Buddhist sutras. The favorites are the Awakening of Faith and the Suddharma Pundarika sutra.
(e) Buddhist Societies.–With the lectures goes the organization of Buddhist societies for all sorts of purposes. There is a central society in Peking which has branches in every province. The connection is rather loose. Buddhism has never been in favor of centralization. Nor for that matter would the government have allowed it. The chief ends aimed at by these societies are fellowship, devotion, study, propagation, and service. Such societies, often short lived, are springing up in many quarters. They meet for lectures on Buddhism or to conduct a study class in some of the sutras. Occasionally the more ambitious conduct an institute for several months. Some spend part of the time in meditation together. Several schools for children are supported by these societies. They also encourage work of a religious nature among prisoners, distributing tracts and holding services. Such activities are especially appreciated by those who are to suffer the death penalty. The societies are also doing publishing work. The two magazines are supported by the members of the larger societies.
(f) Signs of Social Ambition.–Social work is a prominent feature of some of these Buddhist societies. They have raised money for famine stricken regions, have opened orphanages, and assist in Red Cross work. One of the largest Chinese institutions for ministering to people who are sick and in trouble is located at Hankow. Around a central Buddhist temple is a modern-built hospital, an orphanage and several schools for poor children. It may not maintain western standards of efficiency, but it certainly represents the outreach of modern Buddhism.
Perhaps their most far-reaching advance has been made because of the realization that leaders are needed and that they must be trained. Several schools for this purpose have sprung into existence. Such schools are necessarily very primitive and are struggling with the difficulties of finding an adequate staff and equipment and of obtaining the best type of students.
Another sign of new life has been the making of programs for the future development of Buddhism. One of the most comprehensive appeared a short time ago. For the individual it proposes the cultivation of love, mercy, equality, freedom, progressiveness, an established faith, patience and endurance. For all men it proposes (1) an education according to capacity; (2) a trade suited to ability; (3) an opportunity to develop one’s powers; (4) a chance for enlightenment for all. For society it urges the cultivation of cooperation, social service, sacrifice for the social weal, and the social consciousness in the individual. On behalf of the country it urges patriotism, participation in the government, and cooperation in international movements. For the world it advocates universal progress. As to the universe it specifies as a goal the bringing of men into harmony with spiritual realities, the enlightenment of all and the realization of the spiritual universe.
A Buddhist writer sums up the aims of new Buddhism as follows:
“Formerly Buddhism desired to escape the sinful world. Today Buddhism not only desires to escape this world of sin, but longs to transform this world of sin into a new world dominated by the ideals of Buddhism. Formerly Buddhism was occupied with erecting and perfecting its doctrines and polity as an organization. Today it not only hopes to perfect the doctrines and polity, but desires to spread the doctrines and ideals abroad so as to help mankind to become truly cultured.”
4. The Attitude of Tibetan Lamas
Not only the Chinese Buddhists, but the Lamas of Mongolia and Tibet are feeling the impulses of the new age. Quite recently an exhibition was held in the Lama temple at Peking which attracted thousands of visitors. Its object was to obtain money to repair the temple, and thus to give its work a fresh impulse. That these impulses are not necessarily hostile to Christianity is shown by a letter written by the Kurung Tsering Lama of Kokonor district to the Rev. T. Sörensen of Szechuan:
“I, your humble servant, have seen several copies of the Scriptures and, having read them carefully, they certainly made me believe in Christ. I understand a little of the outstanding principles and the doctrinal teaching of the One Son, but as to the Holy Spirit’s nature and essence, and as to the origin of this religion, I am not at all clear, and it is therefore important that the doctrinal principles of this religion should be fully explained, so as to enlighten the unintelligent and people of small mental ability.
“The teaching of the science of medicine and astrology is also very important. It is therefore evident if we want this blessing openly manifested, we must believe in the religion of the only Son of God. Being in earnest, I therefore pray you from my heart not to consider this letter lightly. With a hundred salutations.”
Enclosed with this letter was a poem written in most elegant language.
“O thou Supreme God and most precious Father, The truth above all religions, The Ruler of all animate and inanimate worlds! Greater than wisdom, separated from birth and death, Is his son Christ the Lord shining in glory among endless beings. Incomprehensible wonder, miraculously made! In this teaching I myself also believe–As your spirit is with heaven united, My soul undivided is seeking the truth Jesus the Savior’s desire fulfilling, For the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven I am praying. Happiness to all.”
5. The Buddhist World Versus the Christian World
Looking back over the last twenty-five years we see rising quite distinctly a Buddhist world growing conscious of itself, of its past history and of its mission to the world. This Buddhist, world has much more of a program than it had twenty-five years ago. Its object is to unite the Mahayâna and the Hînayâna branches of Buddhism and to spread Buddhist propaganda over the world. At present the leadership of this movement is in Japan. It is in part a political movement. There is no question that Christianity is not at all pleasing to the Japanese militarists. It is regarded by them as the advance post of western industrialism and political ambition. Quite naturally such leaders desire to make the Buddhist world a unit. It is also a social movement. The spirit of the Japanese Buddhist has been brought to consciousness by the new position of Japan. Japan is seeking to take its place in the world as a first rate power. By this not only will Japan’s industry and commerce profit, but its spiritual values must also be adapted to the world. The movement then has its spiritual side. Japanese travelers and people are going to all parts of the world. They carry with them the religious ideals which have been shaped by Buddhism. Buddhism in the past was one of the great religions of salvation with an inspiring missionary message. It is again awakening to this task of evangelization. Under the leadership of Japanese scholars and religious statesmen the Japanese are seeking to unite the Buddhist world so that it shall become a force in the new world. Japan is thus trying to give back what it has received in the past.
At present in Buddhist countries there is a strong force working against this movement. Nationalism is a new force to be reckoned with. Still even with the spirit of nationalism permeating every group, the Buddhist world is getting together and will strive to make its contribution to the life of the whole world.