Sacred Texts  Buddhism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Chinese Buddhism, by Joseph Edkins, [1893], at

p. vii


THE number of Buddhists in the world has been much exaggerated. Formerly it was stated to be four hundred millions; and this incredibly large estimate led to careful consideration. Dr. Happer, resident for more than forty years in Canton, thinks that in China the tonsured Buddhist priests are twenty millions in number, and he declines to allow that the rest of the Chinese can be rightly called Buddhists. Dr. Gordon, of Japan, a good authority who has carefully studied Japanese Buddhism, considers that it would not be fair to represent only the tonsured Buddhists as followers of the Buddhist religion in Japan; yet it is a fact that few of the laity in China and Japan make and keep Buddhist vows. The same is true of Tauism. The most of the population of China claim to be Confucianists, and conform occasionally to Buddhist and Tauist ceremonies. The rich Chinaman calls himself a Confucianist, and therefore he must count as such. But he subscribes to the rebuilding of Buddhist temples and pagodas, because he thinks the act will bring him prosperity. He worships Tauist idols more than those in Buddhist temples; but he adores the Buddhist images also on certain occasions. He conforms to three religions, but on the whole he is made by ancestral worship properly speaking a Confucianist. His religious faith

p. viii

is a sad jumble of inconsistent dogmas. As to becoming a tonsured priest, he never thinks of it, unless he grows weary of the world and aspires to monastic life as a relief from social cares and domestic sorrow. Let us include lay Buddhists who keep their vows at home, and rate the whole number of those Chinese who take Buddhist vows, monastic or lay, at forty millions. The Tauists may be roughly estimated at fifteen millions, and the Confucianists at 320 millions. It is ancestral worship that gives the Confucianists so large a preponderance.

The schoolmasters are all Confucianists. None of the books used in education are Buddhist or Tauist. Of newly published works, ten per cent. may be Buddhist and ten per cent. Tauist. These include exhortations to virtue, and treatises urging to charity. There is no demand for Buddhist or Tauist books. Eighty per cent. of all books newly published count as Confucianist, or as belonging to general literature. Booksellers, as a rule, keep no Buddhist or Tauist books. On the whole, it seems better to allow the Chinese claim, and class 320 millions of them as Confucianists. To go to school is to become a Confucianist, and even those who have no book-learning worship their ancestors.

Yet Buddhism is powerful in China by its doctrines. It has made the Chinese idolaters, and besides this it has taught them the wind and water superstition which has proved to be an effective barrier against civilised improvements and a most thorough hindrance to true enlightenment. For these two reasons, after all that can be said, still it is a Buddhist country, and the people are idolaters and the victims of Hindoo superstition. The art too is Buddhist. The favourite subjects of artists are Buddhist or Tauist. Here the ascetic element prevails, and that

p. ix

familiarity with nature which marks the true Buddhist. The lion, a Persian animal, is the symbol of victory, and is a common ornament in temples as symbolical of Buddha's success in argument. The lotus also is symbolical of Buddha's appearance as saviour. He rises suddenly from the sea of misery, an object of beauty to thousands who are rescued by his powerful teaching from their hopeless delusions. The lovely flower, the padme, is an indispensable ornament to Buddha's throne. Buddhism taught the Chinese and Japanese artists to paint animal and vegetable forms and carve them in temples. Through this medium ideas of Assyrian and Greek art found their way to these Eastern races, and elevated them. Buddhism, by introducing to China notions of Western art, has conferred a positive benefit, and she has also inspired multitudes with a sort of hope of deliverance from suffering. Since the first edition of this book was published, several thousands belonging to Buddhist and Tauist sects in North China, having already an undefined longing for redemption stirring within them through Buddhist teaching, have found that redemption in the doctrines of the Bible and accepted the Christian faith. Buddhism alone could only awaken aspirations after belief. Christianity coming after it satisfies those aspirations.

The Karma and the twelve Nidanas or causes unveil to view the chain of a twelve-fold necessity which controls human life, an impersonal fate made up of causes and inevitable effects. This idea of destiny is suggested by events such as sudden death, sickness, and old age. In Isa. lxv. 12 (revised version) human destiny is said to be in the hands of the goddess Meni, as the Babylonians thought. But Meni means the "divider." The Greeks believed in the three Moirai, the Fates or the Dividers.

p. x

[paragraph continues] The idea of destiny in Babylon and Greece preceded the fact of personifying. So was it in Buddhism. First the twelve causes were taught under the control of Karma; afterwards, in Northern Buddhism, Yama, god of death, divided out, as it was said, human destiny and fixed the hour of death for every one. Since it is not a Vedic doctrine, this belief in an impersonal destiny is Babylonian, and is astrological, but the keen Indian intellect separated the astrological element from it carefully and made it purely metaphysical. There are five causes at work—existence, grasping firmly, love, activity, ignorance. There are seven consequences—bodily decay, birth, sensation, touch, the senses, colour, consciousness. Buddhist logic not believing in the outer world is here seen busying itself with the senses and the sensations which are the constituent elements of our phenomenal life. This is destiny stated in the language of Hindoo metaphysics, and when it proceeds to detail, all we can take hold of is our sensations, our consciousness, our emotions, and our activity. It would certainly be clearer if put in the language of Cousin or of Sir William Hamilton. It is truly a misfortune for the Buddhists that they have not had their philosophical dogmas expounded as our Western philosophers would expound them. In describing our environment Buddhism is pessimistic. Nothing could be worse than our delusions and our condition. In promising a cure, Buddhism adopts a most triumphant tone. Buddha discovered the remedy, and God had nothing to do with it. It is in every man's power to save himself. In this system the assertion that an impersonal fate, morally retributive, rules all men's destiny, and is the basis of the metempsychosis, is Babylonian. The transmigration of souls is foreign, and the moral basis of necessary law

p. xi

on which it rests is, in fact, both native and foreign. Buddha found his countrymen believing in the new doctrine of transmigration, and he himself believed it and shaped it into the twelve causes and effects. He did not resist or deny the Mesopotamian fate. He gave it logical form, and undertook to set men free from it by treating it as a delusion.

Science and philosophy on arriving in India originated science and philosophy in that country under new forms. Buddhism forsook the Veda religion so far as to omit all mention of the gods Varuna, Agni, and the Maruts. Buddha did not cite the Vedas as authorities. He built his system on the ideas he found current in Central India. For himself, he claimed to have discovered the highest truth. The cause of his atheism was the polytheism of the time. Its extreme anthropomorphism provoked a reaction in his mind against the idea of deity. The gods, thought he, are unequal to the task of saving men from delusion. There is a wisdom that can do it, and I have discovered it. To this confidence in his own insight he was led in part by the national love for argument, and for that variety of illustration in conducting argument which the collision between foreign and native thought had awakened. To this was to be added the effect of lonely meditation. The youthful thinker was thrown on his own resources in his chosen retirement. Shutting off all avenues by which other thoughts than his own could reach him, he waited for light till it came. He had a compassionate heart, and thus his natural disposition found its way into his system and marked his whole life-work as a national teacher. It is this enthusiastic sympathy for humanity which drew to him so many millions of adherents.

p. xii

That this is the real explanation of Buddhism as a phenomenon in the history of mankind, can be shown in many ways. Southern Buddhism is in its development of thought very decidedly more Hindoo than Northern Buddhism. The impact from Western philosophy produced a slighter effect in Southern India, communication being entirely by sea. Northern Buddhism branched out in a striking manner from the old root of Buddhist ideas, and the cause should be sought in its close conflict with Persian and Babylonian thought. The Persians, when they came down from the north, charged with Aryan conceptions and beliefs, to conquer their country, were powerfully influenced by Babylonian civilisation. The Zoroastrian religion was the result. They became earnest believers in their new faith, and this access of national zeal reacted on the Buddhists in North-Western India. A characteristically new, original, and popular modification of Buddhist thinking was soon produced.

Amitabha, the Buddha who leads to the paradise of the west, is a new Ormuzd, god of light, believed in by the Persians as the supreme deity, and promising his followers eternal joy in the paradise where he dwells. Buddhism, when it proclaimed general scepticism, opened the way for free speculation. The Buddhists found the Persians as earnest as themselves, and they incorporated the Persian view of a supreme god and a future life of happiness in their own system. Buddhism, by adopting the principle of contemplation and inward light, became mystical. The Paradise of the Western heaven was evolved by Northern Buddhists in hours of contemplation. The new teaching soon attained a widespread popularity. Continued studies in ancient Chinese philosophy have convinced me that the three religions of the Chinese

p. xiii

have all been greatly influenced by Persian ideas. First, the ancient Chinese learned dualism from Persia, and adopted it in the Book of Changes. They also adopted the worship of the sun and stars with astrology. Then they accepted the belief in a future life in early Tauism. Finally, Buddhism brought them a later form of the future life as developed in the worship of Amitabha. Mr. De Groot, in his comprehensive work on the religion of the Chinese, agrees with me in these views, and conversation with him in China led me to expand them still more. Tibetan Buddhism lays great stress on astrology, and by so doing points plainly to Babylon.

The same is true of the Hindoos. Their cosmogonies are Babylonian. Their triad of gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, is based on a Babylonian model, just as the Chaldean triad of the higher gods is derived from the Accadian. Hindu sculpture is based on that of Greece. Hindoo arithmetic is Babylonian in origin. Babylonian thought was adopted by the Hindoos, because it was more refined and profound than their own. In the history of philosophy it is as true in Asia as in Europe that every new philosophy rests on its predecessors. The origin of each new philosophy can only be satisfactorily explained when attention has been adequately given to those systems of thought which, by their influence, tended to produce it.

Chinese Buddhism is Northern Buddhism, and it can only be suitably accounted for in this way. How necessary it is to make plain from what source the variations found in Northern Buddhism from the primitive standard have sprung, is clear from what one of my critics, Dr. Rhys Davids, has stated. In the Academy of October 2, 1880, he says that to speak of Buddha as "entering into

p. xiv

[paragraph continues] Nirvana" is an expression which absolutely contradicts the doctrines of the early Buddhists. My author says there are three Nirvanas—1, a pure nature, that of heretics; 2, purity gained by practising the methods of the greater or lesser vehicle; 3, the purity of Buddha's death. This I take from Kiau chêng fa shu, one of my best Chinese authorities. The reason is in the change which came over Buddhism through contact with Persia. Dr. Rhys Davids also assumes that the Chinese have only one date for Buddha's birth. I have carefully pointed out that they have at least two, one among them being B.C. 623, given in the Imperial dynastic histories. In fact, Northern Buddhism is undervalued by Pali scholars. It has gone through the purifying process of a thousand fights with Brahmins and other sects in India, with Parsees, Manichæans, and Christians abroad, and with Confucianists in China. The Chinese author thinks much of style, and possesses an immense répertoire of elegant phrases. The original Sanskrit is changed into these phrases, and comes to mean something much nearer to men's business and bosoms, and more polished in expression, than it did in the Indian form. The Chinese translator accepts no new idioms which can be avoided. Foreign lingo must be modified to suit Confucianist taste. It would be well if Dr. Rhys Davids would allow for the influence on Northern Buddhism of foreign systems of thought, and also take into consideration the qualities of the Chinese translators. He says Brahmajala does not mean "net of Brahma." The Chinese author says it does. I prefer to follow my authority, and leave my critic to prove that he is wrong. When the Sanskrit bears two or three meanings, the Chinese translator sometimes gives them all, wishing to get all he can out of his text. Dr. Rhys Davids, on the contrary, selects

p. xv

one and denies the others. He also expects me to follow the Pali as translated by Gogerly, vouched for by Dr. Rhys Davids himself as accurate. I think, however, it is better for me to follow my Chinese guides. Native Buddhist works by Chinese are, I believe, more entertaining and interesting than those written in Pali by Hindoos. In saying this, I fear I shall not get Dr. Rhys Davids to agree with me. But however this may be, what I give is taken from Chinese authorities, except where European writers are cited expressly. I began studying Chinese Buddhism more than forty years ago. Dr. Eitel, Rev. Samuel Beal, and Mr. Consul Watters followed me, and have done well. Before they began publishing, I had already pointed out that the Chinese Buddhist schools of authorship all spread to Japan many centuries ago, and were firmly planted in that country. It is surely worth the earnest thought of Pali students that Buddhism was developed powerfully in North-Western India under Persian and Christian influence so far as to allow of the teaching of a future life, and to treat the Nirvana practically as a euphemism for death. In this state Buddhism entered China. No sooner had it arrived than controversy commenced on immortality. The Chinese Buddhists contended vigorously for the immortality of the soul against the followers of Confucius. Pali Buddhism, if it had been propagated in China, would not, probably, have originated such a controversy. It was the Northern doctrines invigorated by faith in the immortality of the soul which gave Chinese Buddhism sufficient energy to found new schools.


Next: Preface