A Case Study in East Asian Religions

Oracle bone inscriptions are an important piece of evidence into the religious life of the Chinese under the Shang Dynasty (1750-1050 BCE) (Ludwig, 160). These inscriptions were made on the shoulder blades of animals (usually oxen) and on tortoise shells, and used for divination. These bones usually have questions inscribed into them by Shang Dynasty diviners about concerns of the people, such as sacrifices, weather, war, hunting, travel and luck. After the diviner’s question had been inscribed onto the bone, it was then heated and the patterns of cracks made on the bone were somehow interpreted into “yes” or “no”. A few of the known oracle bones even have the interpreted answer and the eventual outcome inscribed into them. Oracle bones were first discovered in the ruins of the Shang capital, Anyang, in the late 19th century. At that time they were seen by the Chinese as ancient relics made of dragon bones which could be ground up and used medicinally. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the full meaning of the oracle bones caught the attention of scholars.

Mencius lived from roughly 372-289 BCE, and is most often credited as the chief interpreter of the Confucius tradition. His writings rank second only to Confucius himself in importance within that tradition (Ludwig, 166). Mencius’ most important contribution to the Confucius tradition was his self titled work containing his own teachings (Fieser, 162). “Mencius believed that the first rule of humane government (jen-cheng) is to provide for the basic needs of the people, and he agreed with Confucius that rulers should rectify their own behavior and cultivate moral awareness” (Fieser, 162). He also taught that human nature is basically good, but that it becomes corrupted by negative influences (Fieser, 162). However, Mencius also taught that the human nature is always good, no matter how badly tainted it has become. With proper education, one can cleanse the negativity from his nature, and return to his natural state of goodness (Fieser, 162). Like Confucius, Mencius believed that the mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon rulers, and that it would topple a corrupt ruler as well. During his time, these ideas were frightening to the Chinese rulers, and he was never given any positions of real importance.

The Zhuangzi is a Daoist text written by the Daoist Zhuangzi who lived from roughly 369-286 BCE. It is from this text, more than any other, that the now recognizably Daoist images of the “free, unimpeded, nonconventional, roaming Daoist saint” came to be (Ludwig, 168). The text itself is a collection of fables and parables written by Zhuangzi to teach the important lessons of the Dao. In the Zhuangzi, he taught that humanity’s largest goal should be to become totally identified with the Dao. According to the text, the Dao embraces all things, and is in a constantly changing and transforming process (Ludwig, 168). One was not to react to these changes with pain or pleasure, but rather he should accept them as the natural process, and go along with them as such (Ludwig, 168). He enjoyed writing stories about ugly, deformed people as representation of the freedom and naturalness of the Dao (Ludwig, 168). For example, the Zhuangzi tells a story of a terribly disfigured man named Ziyu who, when asked if he disliked his condition, proceeded to explain how time is wasted lamenting on one’s “misfortune”. Instead, one needs to realize that “nature can not be affected by sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients called release from bondage” (Ludwig, 168). The foremost message of the Zhuangzi is that “living with the Dao frees one from the limitations imposed by normal, conventional life”, which transcends human limitations (Ludwig, 168).

In Shinto, it is usually thought that kami are held as the equivalency to gods and goddesses. However, kami are much more than this. Kami are the spirits infused into every aspect of life. They take shape in mythical beings, awesome forces of nature, important humans and every living thing (Ludwig, 286). According to Shinto ideology, the kami created everything and infuse everything. The Shinto creation story tells of the kami Izunagi and his wife Izunami who dipped their staffs into the primordial ocean, and when they lifted these staffs from the ocean, the drops falling from them formed the islands of . Izunami and Izunagi then descended upon these islands and populated them with the divine race of the Japanese people. This story illustrates the far reaching infusion of the kami into the very land of Japan. Another example of the power of kami in Japanese society can be illustrated in the role of the Japanese imperial family. As the story goes in the Kojiki and the Nihongi, the first emperor of , Jimmu Tenno, (the word Tenno translates as emperor) was the direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun kami, and leader of all other kami. Since the Japanese imperial family is said to be able to trace its roots back to Jimmu, they were seen as the direct descendants of the kami. This created a super power structure in the Japanese government until the end of World War 2 in the mid-20th century when the emperor was forced to renounce his divinity.

A koan is a Zen saying or riddle derived from the writings of Chinese masters and is used in mediation (Ludwig, 286). A koan is given to a disciple by his master in Zen and Chan Buddhism, and the disciple is told to meditate on the koan for a given amount of days, then to return to the master with his answer. During the meditation, the disciple should experience a sudden breakthrough interpreted as an awakening in his spirit. There is no logical or correct answer to a koan, so the master decides if he likes the answer or not based on his own ideas. For example, it was written by Master Haikuin to, “Listen to the sound of one hand clapping” (Ludwig, 256). A popular koan is derived from this writing: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. This question can not be answered using normal logic, and it is thought that by concentrating on a question such as this, the mind’s conceptual concentration gradually breaks down until the disciple experiences the “great doubt” and the “great death” which, according to Master Hakuin, results in the “great enlightenment” (Ludwig, 257).

Before the introduction of Buddhism, the Chinese drew their beliefs from a rich wealth of religious thought. The oldest, and some argue the most important, of Chinese beliefs is that of ancestral worship. It was thought that ancestors could be prayed to for betterment of this world, and their rank amongst other ancestors depended largely on their post-mortal treatment. Elaborate burial sites and rituals took place in order to secure the deceased’s place among the immortal and powerful ancestors. The Chinese would return to these sites (usually in the form of temples, or other structures) to pray and make offerings to the ancestors for better fortune.

The second system of Chinese thought came from Confucianism. Confucianism is difficult to classify because at its essence it was a moral code for the foundation and upkeep of a moral, humane society. It taught that the rulers held the mandate of Heaven (Tian), or the approval of Heaven, and were acting through the direct will of Heaven. However, should a ruler become corrupt and immoral, he would be seen as no longer having the mandate of Heaven, at which time he could be usurped, making room for the true ruler. Confucianism also taught of the importance of dominant and submissive roles in society to keep order through what is known as the Five Relationships. The Five Relationships that built the backbone of social order were the ruler and the minister, the father and the son, the husband and the wife, the young and the old and between friends. Confucianism holds to this-worldly concerns, with the family and the good of the nation being the most important goals to which all moral people should work for.

The third system of beliefs the Chinese drew from was Daoism. Daoism is the tradition based on the Dao de jing and the Zhuangzi, which included a variety of practices using priests, scriptures and techniques for prolonging one’s own life (Ludwig, 283). In this tradition, the Dao is the term representing the way of nature, or the source of all reality. It is indefinable and indescribable (Ludwig, 283). The goal of Daoism is to identify completely with the Dao on all levels of cognition and existence. Daoism teaches a doctrine of nondualism, asking its followers to release themselves from the shackles of conventional thought in order to realize the larger picture that, for example, life and death are all a part of existence and the Dao is the center of allexistence. Death is not to be seen with pain, nor life with pleasure. They are just to be seen as existence. According to Daoism, happiness can only be found by realizing the indescribable truth beyond all other truths of the Dao.

When Buddhism was introduced from India via the Silk Road in the first century CE, the Chinese traditional belief system hindered its spread in many ways. The Chinese saw the institution of the monastery the most problematic of all the strange new Buddhist customs. Since Chinese beliefs were based on the family, the nation, happiness and other this-worldly concerns, they found Buddhism to be very odd. Monks and nuns leaving their families, taking the vow of celibacy thus cutting off the family line, and not fulfilling the duties to take care of one’s parents as they age seemed to violate the Chinese ideals of the centrality of family (Ludwig, 171). The fact that monks and nuns begged for food and seemingly did nothing for the betterment of society went against the Chinese ideals of the importance of the welfare of the state, and the monks and nuns were often considered lazy and idle (Ludwig, 171).

As the Chinese began to accept Buddhism more and more, they developed new schools that would eventually be passed on to Korea, and through Korea to Japan. After the book The Awakening of Faith, Mahayana Buddhism began to flourish in China. They created the school of Tiantai, which was a Mahayana school based on the Lotus Sutra (in Japan, known as Tendai) (Ludwig, 283). They created another Mahayana school called Huayan which was based on the Garland Sutra (Ludwig, 285). The Chan school of Buddhism, which is known as Zen in Japan, is the most influential school the Chinese developed. It is a meditation school of Buddhism that was very influential in the arts (Ludwig, 282). The fourth school of Buddhism from China is the Pure Land Buddhism, or Jingtu, based on the Pure Land Sutras. This school teaches that mediation on the name of the Amitabha Buddha will lead to a person’s salvation and rebirth in the Pure Land. This form of Buddhism became very popular with the common people because it’s promise of rebirth and salvation (Ludwig, 171).

When Buddhism was brought to China, the Chinese philosophies had no real explanations for life after death or the causes of one’s present existence (Ludwig, 171). It was in these areas that Buddhism won over the Chinese. They liked law of karma, because it helped explain why people were born into the circumstances they are, be it royalty or slave (Ludwig, 171). The law of karma helped the Chinese understand the reasons for oppression, and taught them ways to release themselves from its clutches. They also liked the doctrine of samsara as an explanation of ultimate reality. They came to understand the concepts of rebirth, and the reasons behind it. They could then learn to free themselves from its bondage, and they liked the idea of being reborn in the heavens, or in the Pure Land (Ludwig, 171). The Chinese enjoyed worshipping the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and learning about the conceptual thought behind heaven and hell. After The Awakening of Faith, the Mahayana notion of the inherent Buddha-nature within each individual and that everyone is capable of salvation also greatly appealed to the Chinese (Ludwig, 171).

Overall, East Asian Buddhism is a conglomeration of Buddhism and indigenous religion. For example, in China a child becoming a monk can do a great deal of good for his family and his ancestors. He can pray for the family and accumulate merit for the welfare of the ancestors, build pagodas to honor his parents, chant scripture for the welfare of his family, and perform appropriate funeral rituals to honor the deceased and help release his soul from purgatory (Ludwig, 171). These concepts of honoring one’s family, past and present, in such manners are Chinese in origin that have been absorbed into East Asian Buddhism. In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism live in harmony. Ideas have developed that the kami are the protectors of Buddha’s law (Ludwig, 239), and thus are enshrined in some Buddhist temples (Ludwig, 239). The Japanese also believe that Buddhahood was the original essence of the kami, and could be worshipped as manifestations of the Buddha. It is clear that East Asian Buddhism did not suppress indigenous religion, but absorbed parts of it to create a religion that was distinctly East Asian.

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