Buddhism in China
It was written somewhere long ago that God sent 3 of his sons – Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed – to 3 different regions of the world to guide human’s spirituality. Today, Christianity with around 2.2 billion followers is being practiced mainly in the West. Islam with around 1.6 billion followers is being practiced mainly in the Middle East. Buddhism with around 0.5 billion followers is being practiced mainly in the East. All 3 religions provide essential social, humanitarian, and afterlife functions that have contributed greatly to the survival of the human species on Earth. Buddhism established its root in China around 67 AD. It attracted a lot of devotees seeking salvation from life’s pains and sufferings. But, Buddhism's main impact was in Chinese’s literature and art. Together with Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism has become another major school of thoughts that the Chinese have lived by to the present day.
Buddha was born in India as Siddhartha Gautama around 500 BC into a noble family. Despite his privileged upbringings, as he grew older, he was increasing affected by the pains and sufferings around the city he lived in. One day, he decided to abandon his comfortable living and started to seek salvation from the misery of human existence. In the countryside, he wandered around looking for solutions to all the misery he saw from the teachers and mystics he encountered. But, none of them could satisfy his longings. After 6 years of searching, he came to rest under a tree and vowed not to leave until he found the solution through contemplation and meditation.
After 49 days of surviving the elements, struggling with inner doubts and temptations, and enduring starvation, he arrived at a cure to the human misery and how to break the unending cycle of rebirth. He devised a list of simple instructions and set out to educate his countrymen. His mission lasted around 45 years till his death. For his efforts, he was honored as the enlighten one, the Buddha. During those times of travel, he had countless followers and his teachings were recorded into writings that lay the foundation to solidify and spread Buddhism as a religion to the present day. But, in India, having to compete against the more mainstream faith - Hinduism, Buddhism ran out of favor and disappeared around the 9th century. But his devoted followers were successful in spreading Buddhism to the neighboring countries. Today, Buddhism is being practiced in Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, Korea, and Japan.
During Buddha’s 45 years of educating and teaching to anyone who was willing to listen, his initial set of simple instructions had evolved into an elaborate and complex school of thoughts. There were no less than tens of thousands of writings documented the lessons devised for the different circumstances and the needs of the people from all walks of life. When Buddhism reached China around 67 AD, it was the richness in literary values of the translated writings that first attracted and impressed the Chinese. As time went by, Buddhism’s messages of kindness toward all living things, refraining from bad behaviors and hobbies, and living a vegetarian life free of illicit thoughts and carnal temptations started to work its way into people’s daily activities, thinking, and writings. Today, ordinary Chinese are no longer aware that a lot of the common concepts, language, and terminology have their origins in Buddhist scriptures.
Before the arrival of Buddhism, Chinese’s life was mainly guided by Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism taught people how to live and behave properly in society. Taoism taught people to learn and be one with Nature. There was no guidance to the pains and sufferings that people encountered during times of misfortune, injustice, famine, and war except to accept and endure the status quotes. In addition to the Buddhist scriptures that people read and practiced at home, there were also Buddhist temples where people could stay freely to live a life away from worldly troubles and temptations. In exchange for the free lodging in the temple, people had to submit themselves to a daily routine of studying the Buddhist’s teachings, performing meditation, and doing housekeeping activities. The Buddhist temple also survived on the donations of the devoted lay followers who believed in Buddha’s blessings, protection, and mercifulness. When Buddhism was at its most popular around the 6th century, there were around 30,000 temples of various sizes in China. Today, very few new temples are being built. Most of the efforts are in restoring and preserving the thousand years old temples for architectural and cultural purposes.
Inside every Buddhist temple, there were portraits of the likeness of Buddha. There were either in the form of wall painting or sculpture of various sizes (some reach 20 stories tall). To show their single-minded devotion to the practice of Buddhism, some people spent most of their lifetime creating hundreds of colorful and artistic artworks of Buddha in various poses on the wall of the caves or of live-sized Buddha figures carved into the face of the mountains, and translating the scriptures to other languages. Moreover, many gigantic Buddha figures several stories tall were sculpted out of single rocks or fashioned out of wood and plaster. Most of the handy works have survived a thousand years wear and tear. Today, those relics are preserved, protected, and admired by incessant tourists from around the world.
After 2500 years, Buddhism is still popular and relevant in the present world. People still practice its teachings of respecting the livings, doing good deeds, and cleansing oneself of bad thoughts. Although most of them will never attain Nirvana and become the enlightened one, they are contented to have a peace of mind and live a life without quilt. In China, today, very few people go to the Buddhist temple to become a monk or nun to practice Buddhism full time. Rather, people go there during special occasions to pray for protection and the granting of wishes. In return, people offer donations to the temple’s up keepings and practice the Buddhist’s teachings in their daily lives to their best ability. Together with Taoism and Confucianism, Buddhism completes the lifeline that guides the Chinese through the journey of life. Taoism teaches the Chinese how to be a silent and passive observer to learn how Nature works its wonders. Confucianism teaches the Chinese how to be a cultured and active participant in a civilized society. Buddhism teaches the Chinese how to have a peace of mind when facing life’s many un-pleasantries and the understanding that death will not absolve one’s bad intentions and evil deeds on Earth.