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8.7: Buddhism

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    Shen Gua was right to liken Tang society to Indian society. In the Hindu system, a person was born into the caste he deserved based on whether or not he had done his duty in the previous life. The good or bad karma earned was carried on the soul and determined the next birth. Buddha taught, in contrast, that just as everything else in the universe was temporary, illusory, so there was no soul either. No individual soul carried karma to the next life: rather, acting with intention created karma that brought into existence other, new beings, born to suffer. Since the same soul is not reborn, social hierarchy with its inequities – power and glory for some, disgrace and hard work for others – does not embody cosmic justice for individuals. Individuals may do as they choose; there is nothing divinely-appointed about their social roles. This teaching was revolutionary in India, responding to the need of an increasingly wealthy merchant class for an ideology that allowed them to earn respectability.

    East Asian intellectuals made their own contributions to understanding karma. Tiantai Buddhism – the sort followed by the Sui founder – taught that phenomena lack an essential nature, but they do exist temporarily, so truth encompasses and transcends both existence and non-existence, and is immanent in everything: so everything can be saved – even dust, according to one teacher. Huayan Buddhism taught that all phenomena arise simultaneously from reciprocal causation – time itself is not real. It used the parable of a Buddha image surrounded by ten mirrors all reflecting one another. Which causes the others to reflect first?31 These and other doctrinal schools appealed East Asian intellectuals, the same sorts of people who had been studying the classics in depth, writing elaborate poetry, and debating the ins and outs of Daoist philosophy.

    But the teaching of no-soul is hard to accept. Furthermore, as Buddhists recognized, few men and women could devote their lives to pursuing enlightenment that would bring release from rebirth forever (nirvana) by becoming monks and nuns. Since those few, the clergy, benefitted all by creating no new karma, Buddhists taught that most people could improve their status upon rebirth by assisting others, especially monks and nuns. Monks and nuns formed the “field of merit” in which laypeople could plant “seeds” of good karma. Some early donors were frustrated to learn that their gives of money to feed and house clergy were simply piling up in warehouses. They were not earning good karma when their gifts were not used, they worried. Buddhist monasteries began making loans, sometimes to the poor who could not pay interest, but often to those who could pay interest. Such loans benefitted the monasteries by bringing income; the borrowers by financing their economic ventures; and the donors, whose “seeds” kept growing into more and more merit.32 These practices travelled along with other Buddhist ideas into in East Asia, where Buddhist monasteries became major financial and industrial enterprises.

    In India, karmic law (that action must have results) operated automatically. But from at least Han times, religion had already included the idea that judgement after death was carried out by an underworld bureaucracy that tracked good and bad deeds, and doled out punishments.33 Karma as the idea of punishment after death re-emerged. But whereas in Hinduism it was strictly individual, and in high Buddhist theory it affected beings born in the future and elsewhere, in East Asia karmic destiny, and especially the punishment for sin, was shared by living and dead members of the whole family, in both directions: the living inherited the burden of sin, but their wickedness could also make ancestors suffer. The need to mitigate the damage done to oneself and one’s family by one’s sins, even if one could not become a monk or nun and devote one’s whole life to spiritual pursuits, gave rise to a whole set of practices that offered comfort and strengthened Buddhism in a positive feedback loop.

    Everyone could contribute to Buddhism, and Buddhism had something for everyone. Once karma was re-attached to individual and familial souls, everyone could earn spiritual merit to aid ancestors and descendants, increase blessings in this life, and bring a better rebirth, perhaps in the Pure Land paradise. Laymen could earn spiritual merit not only by donating oil, silk, money, grain, money, land, labor, and other things to monasteries and temples, but also by making pilgrimages to sacred sites; copying and promulgating scriptures; paying to create, clothe, or re-gild statues of buddhas and boddhisattvas; undertaking charity for people other than monks and nuns, such as feeding or clothing the poor, attending to burials of abandoned corpses, taking care of orphans, providing people with medicine, etc.; making contributions to the community as a whole by building roads and bridges; road building, bridge-building; burning incense and offering non-meat sacrifices and prayers to Buddhist figures; releasing captive animals, birds, or fish; undertaking bodily disciplines like abstaining from meat, wine, onions, and sex, either on particular days or in old age; meditating on the Buddhist truth, on the Lotus sutra, or on the name of Guanyin; chanting scriptures or chanting the name of Guanyin, or of Amitabha. Everyone could do these practices.

    Figure 8.14. Reliquary in the shape of a coffin. Gilt bronze. Tang, eighth century. About 4 inches long. A reliquary holds a sacred relic of a saint or deity. Han Yu (768-824) criticized the huge festival that celebrated the Buddha’s finger bone: a relic. This object was meant to help the believer’s devotional state of mind. What do you think was the message of its shape? Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

    On the one hand, the participation of nearly all East Asians, from rulers to slaves, in Buddhism by about 700 greatly strengthened Buddhist institutions. By 534, for instance, the Northern Wei capital of Luoyang had over 1300 Buddhist temples of various sizes: 50 built by the dynasty, 800 by aristocratic families and officials, and smaller ones by wealthy commoners. The wealth did not go to monks and nuns individually (about 1% of the population): they were supposed to own only a robe, begging bowl, and staff. Rather, all donations and products belonged to the clergy corporately, so it was not liable to taxation or rules about inheritance. Corporate ownership of land and slaves – unknown in East Asia before Buddhism – enabled the monasteries to dole out charity, build roads and bridges, make loans, and run shops, flour mills, and oil presses. Wealth raised their social profile and attracted yet more followers.

    On the other hand, since individuals and families had the ability to earn merit that would improve their lives and rebirths, those who were born into the aristocracy must deserve it. They really were better than those born as commoners or mean people. So reasoned the aristocrats of Tang, Silla, and Hei’an.

    This page titled 8.7: Buddhism is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.