Buddhism was originally developed in India and brought to China over the silk road, and later to some extent through southeast Asia around the first century A.D.. This was during a time when the then reigning Han dynasty was in a state of chaos and Confucianism was being discredited by some intellectuals. The Chinese people therefore came to identify Confucianism with the failing dynasty, and sought a new ideology to take place of stale Confucian thinking. The exact date of the coming of Buddhism to China is unknown, but by 64 A.D. Buddhist monks had introduced written scripture into China.
At first Buddhism was not popular in China. Interest took several centuries to grow because of Buddhism’s incongruities with Chinese thought, as well as translation problems (Sanskrit to Chinese). Because Buddhism first entered through China’s trading routes with Central Asia, it was seen as the religion of foreign merchants. Consequently, Large scale translation of Buddhist texts did not truly get under way until the 6th to 8th centuries A.D. This resulted in the wider distribution of Buddhism being delayed several centuries.
Buddhism was difficult for the Chinese to accept because it was “mysterious and hard to understand. Not straight-forward like Confucian teachings, more like the ambiguity of Taoism” (Jin 1), also. it was foreign. Moreover, Buddhism did not focus on problems of state as Confucianism did, and because the study of Confucianism was required material for the exams of public office, practical males preferred its study to that of Buddhism. Moreover, the Buddhist stress on personal fulfillment (“even the Buddha left his family to search for revelation” (Jin 1)) seemed counterintuitive to the Chinese values of family and ancestor worship.
As the religion became more widespread the Chinese people began to adapt distinctly Chinese forms of Buddhism. There were three major types of Chinese Buddhism. The first was “Pure Land” Buddhism and it was started by Hui Yuan; this type of Buddhism focused on devotion to the Amitabha Buddha in the belief that after death they would be born again in Western Paradise (Pure Land). In this religion worship of the Bodhisattva Guan-Yin was also very important (Jin). Chan or Zen Buddhism was founded by Hui-neng. It was hostile toward all scripture and dogma. The Zen Buddhists meditated on illogical riddles in order to gain enlightenment (Jin). Chih-I founded Tien Tai Buddhism whose primary emphasis was placed on the recitation and study of the Lotus Sutra (Jin).
To thrive in China, Buddhism had to be transformed into a system that could exist within the Chinese way of life. Thus, obscure Indian sutras that advocated filial piety became core texts in China. Buddhism was made compatible with ancestor worship and participation in China’s hierarchical system. Works were written arguing that the salvation of an individual was a benefit to that individual’s society and family, and monks thus contributed to the greater good. (Wikipedia, Buddhism in China)
Popular Chinese Buddhism therefore, was fairly removed from the ideals that came from India. The basic ideas of karmic retribution, samsara, and nirvana came through intact, but in order to make Buddhism more palatable to the Chinese, it had to be adapted to their preexisting beliefs such as those previously mentioned. The portrayal of the netherworld in popular Chinese Buddhism highlights these changes in several ways. The Chinese not only translated Buddhist texts, but also began to directly associate the Buddhist ideas of the netherworld with those conceptions already popular in China.
To begin, the (pre-Buddhist) Chinese believed in “the [Taoist] concept of a world of the dead usually thought to be located beneath Mt. Tai in Shantung” (Gjertson #1, 118). However, according to Professor Gjertson, the idea of hell as a location for punishment was due to the influence of Buddhism, and was not see in literature until the 6th century, where it is seen in Taoist scriptures. Also in popular Chinese Buddhist works the hells take on the anatomy of the then current bureaucratic and physical structures of China. Or, as Gjertson in his article entitled “Popular Buddhism and Karmic Retribution” describes, “The nether world, at least superficially, was conceived as a construct physically and bureaucratically similar to the world of the living” (Gjertson 134).
Often, someone’s death was likened to a live person being called to serve an office. For example in the story of Tuan Tzu-ching in which one of two inseparable friends, Liang, dies suddenly and when he arrives in the ghost realm he discovers that the position of Chief Clerk (a very prestigious position) has become available. Liang immediately suggests his (living) friend Tuan for the position. King Yama, the king of the dead, then looked at Tuan’s record and discovered that Tuan was not scheduled to die until he was ninety-seven, and he was then just thirty-two so he allowed Liang to visit his friend and invite him to take this office in the netherworld. Tuan agrees, and three days later he dies in order to take up his new position as Chief Clerk in the netherworld. This story shows a person literally dying in order to gain a bureaucratic appointment.
Mentioned in Tale Number 19, “Sui Jen-ch’ien”, is a description of the physical similarities between the netherworld and the world of the living. A ghost explains to a man that he serves as administrator of Lin-hu. The man, inquires of the whereabouts of the area and the name of its king and is told, “The state of Lin-hu comprises everything northwest of the Yellow River… The capital is northwest of Lou-fan, in the desert. The King used to be King Wu-ling of the Chao, but he now controls this country. Everything is under the administration of Mt. Tai and every month the highest ministers are sent there to attend court” (Gjertson #3, 196). Directly referenced here are specific locations in the netherworld which seem to correspond to the living world. The ghost says, “the King used to be King Wu-ling of the Chao, but he now controls this country,” this must mean that King Wu-ling controls the corollary land, metaphorically “under” that of the living country to which it seems they refer.
The idea of karma, that a person would be judged by their actions, whether they be morally right or wrong is and idea obviously intrinsic to the Buddhist faith; the belief
“[t]hat the acts were judged, and the appropriate retribution assigned, in a nether-world court administered by an extensive staff of officials and their assistants is, however, a feature uniquely Chinese” (Gjertson #1, 143). In a tale taken from Tang Lin’s Ming-pao chi for example, a man if brought before a judge of the underworld and accused of cooking six eggs as well as killing two ducks and two oxen, for this, the judge decides, he should be punished. The man protests, crying out loudly, “This office is being grossly unjust!” (Gjertson #2, 301) The man explains that they have not heard his good deeds, and since the judicial system is indeed a fair one, they are heard, but still his evil deeds outweigh his good, and he is sentenced. This clearly exemplifies the idea of a Chinese judicial system governing the popular Chinese Buddhist workings of karma.
In conclusion, the Buddhist religion has proved that it can accommodate in many ways, the Chinese people. Upon its arrival in China it satisfied a need of the people for a new religion under which to unite at the tragic fall of an empire. During this turbulent period in China, two major developments took place in Buddhism. One group consisting mostly of the sophisticated gentry dwelled on the philosophical and mystical aspects of Buddhism, while the other group dominated by rural farmers followed Buddhism in their own superstitious and simple ways imparting to it in the process a peculiar Chinese character.
Buddhism stretched even more to allow for translation using Taoist terminology because the Chinese language did not possess a conceptual apparatus adequate for the abstract thought of Buddhism. The use of these familiar Taoist concepts contributed significantly to the spread of Buddhism in China. Buddhist teaching were changed in many ways to accommodate traditional Chinese sensibilities, but the religion changed China as well, leaving in its wake years of rich culture and traditional Buddhist writings that no longer exist in their original Indian form.
(#1) Gjertson, Donald. Popular Buddhism and Karmic Retribution. Also “Sui Jen-ch’ien”, K’ung K’o”, and “Chang Fa-i”. From Miraculous Retribution: A Study and Translation of T’ang Lin’s Ming-pao chi, Berkeley: University of
California Berkeley, Berkeley Buddhist Study Series Volume 8, 1989.
(#2) Gjertson, Donald. “The Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tale: A Preliminary Survey,” in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 101.3, 1981.
Jin, Shunde. Buddhism In China. (handout for Chinese 231 Traditional Chinese Culture, Ohio State University, 1998). http://www.cohums.ohio-state.edu/deall/jin.3/c231/handouts/h10.htm
Wikipedia. Buddhism in China. Local Interpretation of Indian Texts. Updated: 3/31/2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_China#Relation_to_Confucianism