Over the past few days, I also found myself in a conversation among Christians about whether there is truth in Buddhism. I referred people to an article I wrote many years ago for the Taiwan Missionary Journal, but not everyone was able to open it. So I thought I would copy it here.
|"Blessing" on a pine tree, Fragrant Hills, a traditionally |
Buddhist mountain outside of Beijing. Does Buddhism bring
Anyway, here's the article. If I were to answer the question more directly, I think I would point to even more that is of value, and not necessarily in just an instrumental case. (Only God fully knows ends from the beginnings, after all.)
The Dharma, the Gospel, and Chinese Culture
Popular Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh has written movingly about what he
called "rootlessness," and the danger that conversion to religions from the outside might
separate people from their own cultural heritage. Young people in the modern world
are like "hungry ghosts," he noted, because they lack a sense of connection with
previous generations. "In our time, society is organized in such a way that we create
thousands of hungry ghosts every day. . . We have to help hungry ghosts to be less
hungry, to go back to their family and tradition, to be reintegrated." (Thich, 180-185)
In a related context, the Dalai Lama has warned against putting "a yak's head on a
sheep's body," confusing traditions that conflict. (Dalai Lama, 1996, 105)
The Christian is likely to argue, in response, that truth is more important than
tradition. Anyway, the world is becoming unified, whether we like it or not: isolation
is not longer an option. But the need for "rootedness" to one's traditions is intensely
felt by many Chinese, and is one of the primary reasons Chinese reject Christianity.
How can we as Christians show Chinese that we are not calling them to the life of a
hungry ghost or a mad science project? One of the great needs of our time is for a
culturally-transcendent ideal that saves local values, that integrates indigenous traditions
within a system of universal truth.
The purpose of this paper is to consider how Buddhism and Christianity root
themselves in the pattern of story, ritual, and symbol that is the Chinese culture. My
thesis is that while Buddhism appears more "Chinese" than Christianity, (a fact that is
partly our fault), Christian missions is, or should be, the solution both to the need for
rootedness, and for cultural transcendence. Both by tapping into the deepest truths
within every culture, and by unifying many aspects of tradition in one truth, The
Gospel, believe, affirms and fulfills Chinese culture in ways that no merely human
teaching could, that of Siddhartha Gautama being a case in point.
2. Three models of indigenization
In general, three fairly distinct models of relating a belief system a new culture are available missionaries of all faiths. The first is to popularize the new belief by borrowing elements of native tradition that tend to transform the original belief. (syncretism) For example, early Chinese Buddhists adopted the Chinese story of Miao Shan. Miao Shan was a virtuous young woman whose father resented her goodness and her refusal to marry his (highly dubious) choice of suitors. Martyred for her virtue, she descended into Yin Jian. But when her presence threatened to transform hell into
paradise, (a disaster in the eyes of the Powers-That-Be)she was expelled to the land of the living. When her father became sick, she used her own eyes to create healing medicine for him. By means of this story Buddhists (who identified Miao Shan with Guan Yin) adopted a Chinese commitment to filial piety that radically contrasts with the more negative attitude towards the family typical in early Buddhist literature.
Syncretism is like dropping a spoonful of food coloring in a pond. While it
may alter the tinge of the water, it does not radically disrupt the action of the ripples
on its surface, still less the chemical composition of the water as a whole.
But what is added, is diluted. Myths adopted in order to make a foreign faith
more acceptable, overwhelm the core values of the faith itself. The Marxist myths of
Lei Feng in China, the adoption of bloody Tibetan gods by the Tantric Indian Buddhist
Phadmasambhava, and the substitution of a Guan Yin figure for Mary among hidden
Christians in the Goto islands of Japan, are examples of this process. When confronted
by new cultural challenges, all belief systems tend to undergo a similar metamorphosis.
A similar process of watering down has been blamed by some for the disappearance of
Nestorian Christianity between the Tang and Song dynasties in China. A number of
syncretistic new "Christian" cults have also appeared in mainland China recently that
join indigenous occult practices to a magical use of the Bible. (Bi, 1992, Lambert, 1992,
The second means of enculturalization is to describe new truths in familiar
language, underlining agreement between traditions, and translating beliefs into a new set
of icons. (contextualization) This is better from a Christian point of view. The Hebrew
name Yahweh was translated Elohim, Theos, then God, as faith crossed cultural borders,
without any necessary change in theology. Early Jesuits like Matteo Ricci were adept at such translation, though unfortunately they concentrated on the Confucian aristocracy,
to the neglect of popular tradition. Buddhism similarly adopted and retooled the Taoist
term Wu Wei to describe detachment. During the Song, Buddhist monks adapted literati
painting styles to promote Zen realization. The Buddhist monk Mu Qi's naturallistic yet
suggestively impressionistic paintings, such Mother and Baby Gibbon in a Tree and
Persimmons, evoked the universal in the familiar with stunning brilliance; they "point to
transcendance" yet "let the viewer know that all knowledge is but the foreground of
something deeper and greater," as the Catholic historian of Zen, Heinrich Dumoulin, put
it. Yet even while building artistically on established traditions, Mu Qi painted scenes
you might come across on any foggy day on the outskirts of Hangzhou.
The third and most radical, but typically Christian, method of enculturalization is
to take the simplest and most basic traditional expressions of spirituality, and describe
the "foreign" faith as a deepening or working out of meaning inherent in those icons or
myths. One traces the Gospel to the deepest roots of the culture, bringing out new life
and truth that, in retrospect, seemed latent in those roots from the beginning. Don
Richardson popularized and developed the term redemptive analogies to describe this
kind of insight.
This idea was not a novelty. As every attentive reader of the New Testament
knows, early Christians saw the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a fulfillment of
many aspects of the Jewish tradition: Passover, atonement sacrifice, Messianic prophecy,
the Exodus, episodes in the lives of Job, Joseph, Moses, and David. In addition, the
idea that Christianity came not to "do away with" non-Jewish cultures, but to "fulfill"
the best in them, is a persistent (if often overlooked)theme in the writings of Paul,
Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and other early church fathers. The ways in
which Christianity rooted itself even in "pagan" cultures still seem remarkable two
thousand years later, and help explain why Christianity caught on in Europe, Africa,
Polynesia, and parts of Asia. (See Chesterton, 1925, Richardson, 1981, Pelikan, 1985,
Marshall, 2000) Native peoples frequently saw the life of Jesus as a fulfillment of
ceremonies, myths, even prophecies, within their own cultures, rather than "yang jiao," as the Chinese put it, an alien and irrelevant set of dogmas.
Clement, a second Century Christian philosopher, described Greek teachings as a "tutor" to bring the world to Christ. The various sects, he said, were not simply wrong.
In fact, "All are illuminated by the dawn of Light." Each held a fragment of the truth,
a piece of the puzzle that Christ, the Logos, had come to join. Just so, Chinese
culture has shattered the Dharma, and the Dharma has fractured Chinese culture, and the
Gospel joins these broken pieces of truth together.
2. The importance of indigenization
Ireland is Catholic and Scotland is Presbyterian because England is Anglican, and
Poland is Catholic because her neighbors have been Orthodox, Lutheran, or Marxist.
The same dynamic influenced the form of Buddhism that caught on in China, in a way
that illustrates the challenge before us as Christians.
Two Tibetan Buddhists were given power in China under Kublai Khan: Sangha
as head of government, and Yang-Lien-chen-chia under him. Yang was a devote
Buddhist who expropriated Taoist temples, used forced labor to build more Buddhist
temples, and even dug up and desecrated the tombs of the Song emperors. (Rossabi, 16)
(These insults reflect, perhaps, the situation ethics of esoteric tantras like The
Symposium of Truth: "If for the good of living beings or from attachment to the
Buddha's interest, one seizes the wealth of others, one is not touched by sin."
(Snellgrove, 176) One member of the Chinese sangha (Buddhist community) described Tibetan monks leaving palaces on horse-back, crowds of syncophants surrounding them, and likened their
"hautiness" to that of "kings and grandees." (Herbert Franke, 317) Christian
missionaries, of course, have been known to "get on their high horses" in the same way,
resulting in the same combination of public deference and private contempt.
In the early 20th Century, coincidental with the fall of the Manchurian dynasty, a revival of esoteric Buddhism began, forwarded in part by the politically-motivated patronage of a number of Tibetan lamas, in part, by the efforts of the retired KMT general who took the name Neng Hai, and in part by the reformist measures of the monk Tai Xu. (Welch, 1968) As the roles once played by ruling Mongols and Manchus and their Tibetan confederates on the one side, and subject Han Chinese on
the other, have been reversed, esoteric Buddhism has become "cool.". A few people have joined new esoteric Chinese sects like True Buddha and Black Sect Tantra. The Daai Lama in particular (who has made efforts to reach out to the overseas Chinese community)and Tibetan Buddhism in general, have gained a lot of sympathy by their perseverance under hardship. A nun I interviewed in a Chinese Zen temple in Seattle lambasted the True Buddha sect, founded by Taiwanese Lu Shengyan, for its
non-vegetarian diet. "They can teach what they want, as long as they don't call it Buddhism." But when I pointed out that Tibetan Buddhists also eat meat, she quickly excused them by noting that since Tibet's climate made the growing of vegetables difficult, eating meat was permissible for Tibetans.
Christianity is unpopular in many Asian countries not because Jesus is alien to
Asian people, (it is not)but because he is associated with an alien and powerful culture.
Christianity prospered in China best after the missionaries left. In countries like Taiwan,
where Christianity is still associated with Westerners, t is our responsibility as Christians
to get down off our high horses, to go the extra mile (on foot, if need be)to show
Christ in Chinese culture.
3. Buddhism became Chinese by attempting to reinvent the Gospel.
The story of the young prince who left his father's palace to seek enlightenment and end the sufferings of all sentient beings, is well-known. Even evangelical Christians have testified to the psychological effectiveness of meditation and the training in mind and body Siddhartha taught. (Cathoway, 1976) The doctrines of karma, reincarnation, impermanence, emptiness, "no self," and compassion in the Buddhist sense, and the Four Noble Truths -- the fact of suffering, its cause, and the details of Buddha's solution -- make for complex philosophy. Christians can affirm some of
Buddha' insights, sometimes with appropriate qualification -- the deceitfulness of riches; the impermanence of earthly pleasures, the need for renunciation to gain joy. Christian song writer Michael Card expressed the Buddha's feelings well when he sang, "It's hard to imagine the freedom we find, from the things we leave behind."
As is the habit of intellectuals who discover neglected truth, however, I believe Siddhartha oversimplified. All is impermanent? (Even God?) Selfish desire is harmful? (What desires, precisely, are helpful, then, and under what conditions?) Passion is an obstacle to happiness? (The sutra Defeat, part of the early monastic rule for Buddhist monks, punishes sex between married partners exactly the same as the ugliest perversion. Is passion, then, equally culpable in all situations?) The history of Buddhism is a grand quest to right the balance, to redeem good things too dogmatically rejected, and
rediscover subtleties overlooked. Buddhism adapted itself to the Chinese "market" by adopting ideas that are absent from, or even antithetical to, the teachings of Siddhartha -- but not to Christianity.
Mahayana Buddhism and Divine Grace
Buddha, influenced perhaps by the new Advetic doctrine of an impersonal and
remote Brahma, did not speak of God. He warned against relying on any savior but
the self. "Raise yourself by your own efforts, O bhikshu; be your own critic. . . Be
your own master and protector." (Dharmmapada, Chapter 25) F. N. Farquhar noted that
while Advetic and Buddhist philosophy spoke of an impersonal ultimate reality, Indians
quickly reacted against this doctrine. The new doctrine of divine incarnation:
"Found its way (into) almost every division of the Hindu people, and into every
corner of Eastern Asia. . . . Nor can there be any doubt as to what element in
the doctrine it is that has given the movement its power: it is the belief that
God actually appeared as a man, was born, and lived and died among men." (Farquhar, 1913)
For thousands of years, Chinese hoped for a Savior -- "Sheng Ren," Confucius
called him. For Mahayana, the revised form of Buddhism that caught on in China, this
impulse was expressed in the doctrine of Boddhisattvas. Buddhist thinker C. N. Tay explains:
"The Lotus states in moving dramatic terms that Kuan-yin protects merchants bearing precious jewels from robbers, sailors from shipwreck, criminals from execution. By his help women obtain the children they desire. If one thinks of Kuan-yin, fire ceases to burn, swords fall to pieces, enemies become kindhearted, bonds are loosed . . . beasts flee, and snakes lose their poison." (Tay, 35)
The educated Buddhist, Tay believed, should interpret these tales as "iconographic
possibilities," poetic images by which a Buddhist stilled his fears and reconciled himself
to trouble, rather than an objectively existing being who solves them. But he admitted
most Chinese wanted a Savior who was more than a metaphor.
Guan Yin became the most popular goddess in China. She was the Heavenly
Queen who conquered the Monkey King, and having conquered him, made him a loyal
vassal. Her figure adorned hot springs, fishing harbors, and temples. She rescued
drowning fishermen, it was said, blunt the blows of swords, and turned bad men to
good. Her thousand raised arms symbolized the common people felt for a salvation
that they knew could only come from outside themselves, despite orthodox Buddhist
beliefs to the contrary.
Buddhists themselves see the connection between this lovely myth and Jesus.
The Dalai Lama called Jesus "either a fully enlightened being, or a bodhisattva of very
high spiritual realization." (Dalai Lama, 2000) Christian missions transformed Asia by
copying the acts of healing, mercy, and teaching modeled by Jesus. (see Marshall, 2000)
As early as the late 16th Century, Japanese shogun Nobunaga noted with concern the
contrast between Buddhism and Christianity on this score:
"The methods (of the foreign temple)are very peculiar. In Buddhism,
contributions are made to the temples; but who ever heard of a temple that gave
alms to the people. This new religion is gaining too much influence over
peoples' hearts. I am considering the question whether it would not be better to
destroy the temple and send the barbarians home." (Cary, 249)
The Dalai Lama (1990, 190)and D. T. Suzuki (Calloway, 147-8) suggest, by contrast, that Buddhists reinterpret compassion in response. Buddhist charitable organizations like Ci Ji multiply the affect of the impact of Jesus' example by their competition in good deeds.
The stories of Jesus have two qualities distinct from those of Guan Yin that should recommend them to Chinese. First, Chinese share with the Jews a concern for historicity. (Confucius: "I can describe the customs of the Yin, but lack enough data on the Song to describe them." (Analects 3-IX) The stories of incarnations in the Indian tradition, or of Guan Yin in Chinese legend, do not fit Confucius' criteria for a flesh and blood Sheng Ren who brings tangible help, or for any honest person's need to
go beyond myths to empirical reality.
The White Lotus Sect and Revolution
Another advantage of the Gospel, odd as it may sound, is its intolerance.
While occasional Buddhist sects like Bai Lian (White Lotus) preached rebellion, or (more often, perhaps)were accused of preaching it, Buddhism never succeeded in grass-roots social transformation in China. Since the time of Mo Zi, a radical critique of social injustice has, on the other hand, often been linked to theism. Mozi, the first Chinese egalitarian, believed that love of man followed from the fact that God is love.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the revolutionary founder of the Ming, built a Temple of Heaven in Nanjing, and his son built the present Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the center of the worship of the Supreme God. The reformist Tai Ping rebels saw themselves as returning China to its ancient worship of "Huang Shang Di." Even the rebels of the Water Margin received a stone from Heaven as an emblem of their brotherhood and righteous cause. In modern China, Christianity continued this tradition. A high percent age of early revolutionaries against the Qing were Christians (Gu Weiming, 1996), as
were, of course, Sun Yat-sen, Jiang Jieshi, and Li Denghui. A joint confession of faith between four major Chinese house church groups in November of 1998 stated that "We are opposed to the unity of Church and state or the intermingling of the Church and political power," (Lambert, 1999) The loyal independance of mainland Christians to church and state suggests the hope that the Church may serve China as the basis of a healthy civil society.
At best, early Buddhism called for rulers to be "compassionate." (Ashoka was an outstanding example of one who took that advice.) But if all things are appearances, and equally a reflection of the one reality, why struggle to free the oppressed? It is hard to see how monism can serve as the basis for social reform, and easy to see how it can justify oppression.
Buddhist scholar Dharmachari Jhanavira described a Japanese monastic system of
what could only be called institutional child abuse. He seemed to regret that "the
present configeration of sexuality" in the West makes the hope of reestablishing such a
system "inconceivable." Quoting from the Dhammapada, he portrayed the lack of an
absolute moral standard in Buddhism as an advantage:
"The deed which causes remorse afterward and results in weeping is ill-done. The deed which causes no remorse afterwards and results in joy and happiness is well done. . . ' Motivations were skillful or unskillful, not in relation to a Creator deity's designer realistic agenda, but in terms of the degree to which they resulted in a lessening of desire." (Jhanavira, 2001)
As Jhanavira rightly noted, the anger with which Catholic priests raled against
perversion among Japanese monks underlines the differing assumptions of Buddha and
Christ. While Buddhists use the term "compassion," the meaning they attach to it is
the monist intuition that beings are not, after all, distinct. Thus Buddhist liberation,
like Marxist, was largely a matter of definition. The Diamond Sutra describes the role
of a Bodhisattva as follows:
"All the bodhisattva-mahasattvas, who undertake the practice of meditation, should cherish one thought only: 'When I attain perfect wisdom, I will liberate all sentient beings in every realm ofthe universe, whether they be egg-born, wombborn, those without form, those with perception, those without perception, and those with neither perception nor non-perception. . . And yet although immeasurable, innumerable, and unlimited beings have been liberated, truly no being has been liberated. Why? Because no bodhisattva who is a true bodhisattva entertains such concepts as a self, a person, a being, or a living soul. Thus there are no sentient beings to be liberated and no self to attain perfect wisdom." (Mo Soeng, 142)
If this is the case, then when confronted with injustice, better to react not with
anger (like Jesus in the temple), but by meditation. Christians, by contrast, do indeed
see the righting of wrongs as part of the Creator's "agenda." Jhanavira might not
approve, but I think Confucius would have.
Perhaps the tolerance of Buddhism also obstructed spiritual liberation. One of
the founding myths of Tibetan Buddhism is the story of how Phadmasambhava defeated
the demons of Tibet -- and then having defeated them, made vassals of them. The
autobiography of the Dalai Lama's mother, Diki Tsering, suggests that this approach did
not solve the problem. She describes her experiences with a type of ghost called
"kyirong," to which she attributed the deaths of four of her children, and which she
called "the most frightening experience of my life." (Tsering, 54) Such experiences seem
miles away from, and strangely irrelevent to, the philosophical writings of her most
famous son. But both from the Dalai Lama's description of the state oracle, and from
watching the thing itself on video, I see little difference between Tibetan Buddhism
oracles, and spirit mediums (tang ki)in Taiwanese folk religion. Both practices suggest
compromise or even collusion with the powers of evil, rather than the kind of victory
over them that we are in need of.
Tantra and the Art of Love
Buddha showed little sympathy for the family. Jhanavira admits that Buddhism
came into sharp conflict with East Asian cultures due to its disinterest in procreation, "
which was, after all, seen as the mechanism whereby beings were chained to a constant
round of rebirth."
In 1996, after a retreat at a temple in Puli, forty young people decided to stay and become nuns. After scenes of parents falling on their knees and begging their children to come home were broadcast on television, an interesting editorial appeared in Freedom Times, noting that such conflicts had increased over the past few decades among "educated young Buddhists." (As the Chinese community in Taiwan has urbanized, and Taiwanese have come to have more in common with Siddhartha, a move towards more orthodox Buddhism has occured. (Laliberte) The editorial pointed out:
"In the value system most people hold to, leaving your family is a serious violation of
the natural human order."
But at the same time,
"People shouldn't forget that the principle teacher of Buddhism, Siddhartha, himself was a man who, abandoning his wife, escaped from the palace of his father in the middle of the night."
Buddha also used 'magical powers' to prevent a worried father from meeting his son. Caught between
respect for Buddhism and tradition, the editorialist gave the former a typically Chinese
"The final purpose of Buddhism is to mitigate human suffering. If practitioners
begin by making a lot of people suffer, isn't this a betrayal of the original purpose of
the founders of Buddhism?"
Note the words, "People shouldn't forget." Why should such a reminder be necessary in a country where most people call themselves Buddhist? Precisely because, in embracing Buddhism, China did choose to forget this aspect of Buddhist teachings.
But in recent years, Taiwan has attained a measure of Siddhartha's own prosperity, with MTV for dancing girls and BMWs for elephants, to the point that even middle class teenagers can despise (like the American Baby Boom generation in the Sixties)the emptiness of material pursuits and the "grasping" tendencies of parents who grew up in a poorer and "less enlightened" Taiwan. Education, urbanization, and prosperity all weaken family ties, leading to the popularity (for the first time?)of something that resembles orthodox Buddhism.
Jhanavira admitted that Buddhism "did not validate women as mothers," nor at all, for that matter, but saw them as inferior and degraded beings. Tantrism represented a deliberate, but extreme, reaction to Buddhism's radical rejection of sex -- the idea that sexual union could be a psychic shortcut to enlightenment. But the Chinese, schooled by Confucianism to value modesty, were turned off by the ritual antics of Tibetan monks. The Gospel affirms the tantric idea that sex could be a symbol of union between the individual and God. But it defines that union in terms of the loyalty,
fidelity, and monogamy that Chinese traditionally valued, rather than momentary bliss between person of no permanent "attachments." The Christian concept of marriage as an image of Christ and the church thus bridges two traditions, the esoteric Buddhist and the Confucian, that are otherwise separated by a deep chasm.
Unlike Buddha, Jesus did preach an absolute moral standard. Christianity does
not merely affirm the family, but deepens the concept of what family loyalty means
(Marshall, 1996). Christ's standard, and the subversively respectful way Jesus treated
women, is why, as the famous Chinese scholar and reformer, Hu Shih, admitted, the
Gospel achieved what Confucianism and Buddhism had not for Chinese women:
"'Let women serve as oxen and horses.' This saying is not sufficient to describe
the cruelty and meanness with which Chinese have treated women. . . . Our holy
Scriptures were of no saving value. . . Suddenly from the West a band of
missionaries arrived. Besides preaching, they also brought new customs and new
ways of looking at things. They taught us many things, the greatest of which
was to look at women as people." (Gu Weiming, 313)
Zen and the Kingdom of God
Reginald Blyth notes that, in Indian literature, "Zen is painfully absent." The riddles of Zhuang Zi and the paradoxes of Lao Zi introduced an element into Chinese tradition that would be developed in Zen -- and in Christ. Kenneth Leong called Jesus "One of the greatest Zen teachers." (Leong, 32)
"In contrast to the teachings of many Buddhist philosophers who are often caught
up with abstractions and abstruse metaphysics, Jesus' teachings are poetic and not
pedantic, simple and not laborious, intuitive and not analytical, humorous and not
Leong was particularly attracted to such sayings as that to enter the Kingdom of
God, one must become as a child.
One attraction of Zen is that it allows many practitioners to see, as we seldom
take the time to see after childhood, the beauty of a flower or a bird. A Zen
expressed this state of mind by saying he wanted to "give thanks to all things." This
brings to mind the suggestion of one of C. S. Lewis' characters that a misplaced
preposition was responsible for what was wrong with the world. We would say no,
give thanks for all things -- having found Someone to give thanks to.
Zen was also practical in a Chinese way. T. S. Elliot notes that, in contrast
with upper-class Greek (and, one might add, Brahminic) thinking, that depended on slave
owning or caste priviliges, Christianity affirmed the nobility of labor. (Elliot, 126) So
Zen, in its own way, affirmed that, "In the chopping of wood and the carrying of water,
there lies the wonderful Tao."
Lao Zi, the founder of the Chinese tradition that led to Zen, noted, "A Sage . . .
abandons his life and so preserves his life. Is it not through this lack of selfishness
that his amibitions will be realized?" (Lao Zi, 7)) Christianity twice tried to win China
through strength (gunboat diplomacy, and the Tai Ping rebellion). But only when the
Gospel was stamped out, that it took root. Christianity fulfills the best in Zen in part
because Jesus teaches us in Zen fashion, but even more, because at the heart of the
Gospel is the paradox of ultimate strength made perfect through weakness. The
ultimate riddle of divine love is Christ on the cross.
Buddha saw no need for sacrifice. This is probably not because (as Huston Smith seems to imply)sacrifice was unknown to him; in fact, the Rig Veda, the most ancient collection of Indian Scriptures, is almost an anthology of the purposes and means of sacrifice. Almost three thousand years ago, Buddha and the mystics who wrote the Upanishads recoiled from the slaughter of animals. Yet three millennia later, when Gandhi visited the temple of Kali in Calcutta, he had to call again for an end to it. He wrote, thinking of the Buddha,
"To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. . . It is my constant prayer that there may be born on earth some great spirit. .. who will deliver us from this henious sin, save the lives of the innocent creatures, and purify the temple." (Gandhi, 208)
Yet even today, Chinese and Indians both sacrifice, and Indians try to wash their
sins away in the Ganges River. Perhaps it was precisely the unwillingness to
differentiate between animals and humans, and the tendency among intellectuals to
denigrate this need we all share for unmerited grace, that rendered the example of the
Buddha, and the pleas of Hindus like Gandhi, ineffective. French sociologist Rene
Girard notes that, in societies around the world, a "scapegoat" serves as a means of
allowing regeneration of society by the catharsis of transferred recrimination. The death
of Jesus both punctured the unjust illusions of society, (placing the blame on the
"winners", where it belonged) and also served as the means by which God turned the
devil's own weapon against him. (Girard, 1996) Buddha never ended sacrifices in China
because he did not understand them: the awesome imperial ceremonies on the summit of
Mount Tai that stretch back through Qing to Tang to Han, and is lost in the mist of
pre-Confucian legend, the annual sacrifice at the Temple of Heaven, or the display of
pigs in a village temple at New Year. Jesus, who saw one man as worth more than
many doves, pigs, or lambs, nevertheless put an end to animal sacrifice. Gandhi's
prayer for the lambs was answered before his birth but by the "Lamb of God, who
takes away the sins of the world." As in so many other ways, Christ did not put a
full stop to ancient practice, did not simply abolish the Law and the Prophets, but
brought them to a natural and redemptive fulfillment.
Buddhism and the Pure Land
Like John Lennon, Siddhartha imagined a world without heaven. Buddhism was
part of the Upanishadic reaction against the ancient Indian desire to, as expressed in the
Rig Veda, "Unite with the fathers, with Yama, with the rewards of your sacrifices and
good deeds, in the highest heaven." (Rig Veda, 44) I once asked a young Dai
restaurant owner, the walls of whose restaurant were decorated with pictures of monks
and other signs of Buddhist piety, about his faith. "What do you see as the most
important aspect of Buddhism?" I asked. "When you die, you go to heaven," he replied. "If a child goes to be a monk, he can save his whole family to go to heaven and escape hell. It's like Chinese serving as soldiers." Such misconceptions, common even among Theraveda Buddhists, show how contrary to human desire the Buddhist idea of nirvana as "snuffing out of the candle" is. The most popular form of Buddhism in China is Pure Land, which encourages hope not for cessation of desire, but for its fulfillment.
I think there is a lot we can (re)learn from the various Buddhist traditions. The emptiness of material obsessions. The concept of presence: that now is the moment of salvation, or of happiness. To use truth as a lure, rather than a harpoon, like Jesus and other Zen "fishers of men." Spontaneity. To see Creation in a grain of sand, a carp, a persimmon. (If creativity is a hallmark of Zen, then what is more Zen than the "ordinary magic" of nature?) Not to be shocked by chickens in the temple, exorcisms,
or millenial cults, but to point through the honest needs that they express to their fulfillment in the Gospel. The art of adapting expressions of the truth to local conditions. (Contextualization, not syncretism.)
The history of Buddhism in China has been a gradual re-affirmation of truths in Chinese culture that point to Christ: God, heaven, redemptive sacrifice, the sanctity of marriage, the hunger for justice, patriotism, the hope for a Savior. Huston Smith notes,
"This religion which began as a sharp revolt against ritual, speculation, grace, mystery,
and a personal God . . . ended with all of these brought back in abundance." (Smith,
Indeed, item by item, China tried to invent the Gospel from scratch, as if to whittle a cross from a bodhi tree.
What would be more ironic and wrong-headed, then, than for us to see Buddhism as Chinese religion and Christianity as a foreign interloper? When we draw analogies between Christianity and Chinese culture, we're not pulling the wool (sheep or yak) over peoples' eyes, we're pulling it off so they can see what was there all along. When we say Buddhism became Chinese, in general we mean China created a syncretistic belief system that it called Buddhism. Buddhist thinkers also worked to
contextualize, but those efforts bore less fruit, I think, because the doctrines of Buddhism, rightly understood, were fundamentally out of sync with Chinese Culture.
Syncretism permitted the rapid spread of something that often had only the most tenuous relationship, or none at all, to what Siddhartha taught. This is true of many forms of Buddhism. All the branches of Buddhism compromised with indigenous culture, and with human nature, in their efforts to win China, and became something radically new, and often richer, in the process. This is true of Vajrayana among the Tibetans, Theraveda among the Dai, and Mahayana among the Han Chinese.
While Chinese may sip coffee at Starbucks or eat burgers at Mcdonalds, the modernization of China creates a deep longing for "soul food," for roots, for connection to one's past. Buddhist and Taoist temples remain as ornate bastions of Chinese culture and of ethnic identity. It is assumed, on the other hand, that "yang jiao" (as 80% of Taiwanese identified Christianity in a poll I took about ten years ago) cannot be performed apart from suits and ties, wooden pews, organs, 19th Century English hymns, and other symbols of Western Culture. White statues of Mary outside Catholic churches in Taiwan look like Guan Yin or Ma Zu, only with a Western nose. Many pastors sprinkle English or Greek into their sermons to remind their congregations of their esoteric knowledge of the divine (Western)tongues. With each word, with each hymn, a wedge is driven between Chinese culture and the Gospel.
When people say "Buddhism is Chinese," to a large extent this is because Buddhism has become Chinese, watered itself down, in other words. When we say,"Christianity should become Chinese," we should mean, on the contrary, "The church needs to become more like Christ, and in being more Christ-like, it will become more Chinese."
It is our job, as Christians who care about China, to do in Asia what Clement, Origen, and Augustine accomplished in the Mediterranean world: to show Christ as the fulfillment of truths already known, and thus the basis for a synthesis and radical new unity between the best in Chinese culture. In so doing, the roots of the Gospel spread to China's glorious past, and provide nourishment for a tree of life that, God willing, in the future will give shelter to many good things, and in giving them shelter, join China into a new and organic community of truth.
On recent visits to Taiwan and Mainland China, I seem to notice more signs of Christians relating their faith to its roots in Chinese culture, both in terms of contextualization and of fulfillment. I saw some Spring Festival couples (Chun Lian) with Christian messages on doorposts in urban Taipei and rural Wenzhou. A professor gave me recordings of Hakka Christians songs he made. The Discovery in Genesis books, which trace latent Christian meanings in Chinese characters, seem popular too.
In mainland China, I've visited churches that use Spring Festival couplets, Chinese rock gardens, and folk art to communicate the Gospel. All of these are an aid to communicating our central message: of the Tao become flesh, who lived among us, and calls all men and women to Himself, that the will of God may be done "On earth, as it is in heaven."
Tucker Calloway, Zen Way, Jesus Way (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1976)
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993)
Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran, (Tomales, California: Nilgiri Press, 1985)
T. S. Elliot, "Virgil and the Christian World," from On Poetry and Poets, (London: Faber,
Mohatmas Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (New York: Dover Publications, 1983)
Andre Laliberte, From Corporatism to Pluralism: the Role of the Sangha in the Growth
of Civil Society in Taiwan; unpublished at the time of reading.
Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama (New York: Harp
er Perennial, 1990)
Dalai Lama, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Bosto
n: Wisdom Publications, 1996)
Dalai Lama Newsweek, March 27, 2000, "The Karma of the Gospel"
Herbert Franke, China Under Mongol Rule
Rene Girard, First Things, April 1996
Dharmachari Jhanavira Western Buddhist Review, V.3 "Homosexuality in the Japanese Tradition"
Tony Lambert, China's Christian Millions: The Costly Revival (London: Monarch Publish
Tony Lambert, Global Chinese Ministries OMF International, December 1997-January 19
Tony Lambert, China Insight, November-December 1992
Kenneth Leong, The Zen Teachings of Jesus (New York: Crossway, 2001)
Lao Zi, Dao Dejing
David Marshall, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (Seattle:
Kuai Mu Press, 1996)
David Marshall, Jesus and the Relgions of Man (Seattle: Kuai Mu Press, 2000)
David Marshall, "Gospel Art in Mainland China and the Sinofication of Christianity: Notes from Four Churches," Siebold University Journal, 2000
Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1985)
Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (now titled: World Religions) (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)
Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra (Boston: Wisdom Publications: 2000)
Donald Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, 176
Diki Tsering, Dalai Lama, My Son, (New York: Penguin Books, 2000)
Holmes Welch, The Buddhist Revival in China, Cambridge, MA, 1968
Bi Dan, 受望中華, May-June 1997
遠志明、老子ｖｓ。聖経 (台北：1997, 宇宙光
(顧卫 民, 基督教与中国社会, Peoples' Publishing Co. 1996,
自由日報 1996, Sep.5)
中国与教会, November-December 1992
C. N. Tay ( 僧) Kuan Yin: The Cult of Half Asia 観音ーー半個亜州的信仰 (Taipei: Tsai Tuan Fa Ren Hui Lu Publishing Company, 1987)
(Ironically, considering its pacifist reputation today, from the Tang dynasty on, one of the most attractive things about esoteric Buddhism has often been the magical military powers it offered. The Nationalists "recalled that when the Mongols tried to invade Japan in 1281, the Japanese had recited a mantra from the Jen-wang hu-kuo ching." (Scripture for Protecting the Nation.) (Holmes, 175))