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Chinese Buddhism by Joseph Edkins

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At the present time, when foreign intercourse with China is increasing every year, and our knowledge of that country is extending in proportion, an account of the history and literature of Buddhism in that land will perhaps find more readers than at any former period. The traveller will not fail to inquire why this Indian religion has sunk into such helplessness and decay as he observes. The philosophical historian naturally will wish to know the causes of the vast extension of Buddhism, and of its present decline. The Christian missionary would willingly learn the amount and nature of the religious feeling possessed by the monks, and the strength of the opposition which the religion of Christ has to expect during its propagation, from them and from the Buddhist laity. Especially the statesman needs to be informed how far the Chinese people are likely to be offended by the introduction of Christianity, and whether the opposition to idolatry which it excites will strike at any of their most dearly-cherished prejudices and beliefs.

A religion that has extended its sway over so many Eastern nations, and whose converts far outnumber those of any other sect in the world, deserves minute investigation. The present sketch will be necessarily too brief to do justice to the subject, but it is hoped some results will be brought forward that may assist the foreign observer to explain the great and long-continued success of the Buddhistic system, the causes of its growing weakness, and the many indications of its hopeless decay.

Among European scholars Remusat and his successors in the study of Chinese literature have bestowed considerable attention on Buddhism, and their labours have been rewarded with many interesting and valuable results. Especially is the world indebted to Burnouf and St. Hilaire for their work in this field of Buddhist inquiry, and lucid exposition of their results. The aid to be derived from their investigations has not been neglected in the account now given to the reader. Further, the most direct means of gaining information is to study some parts of the voluminous works extant in Chinese on this subject. The numerous Indian priests who came to China early in the Christian era were indefatigable translators, as is shown by what they have bequeathed to their disciples. These monuments of the highly civilised race that spoke the Sanscrit language, give to the inquiry a special literary interest. They were till lately inaccessible in their original form. The European students of Sanscrit for a long period sought in vain for an account of Buddhist doctrines and traditions, except in the writings of their adversaries. The orthodox Indians destroyed the sacred books of their heretical brethren with assiduous care. The representations they give of the views of their opponents are necessarily partial, and it may be expected that what Colebrooke and others have done in elucidating Buddhism from the polemical writings of the Brahmans, would receive useful corrections and additions as well from Chinese sources as from the Sanscrit manuscripts of Buddhist books obtained by Hodgson.[1]


An extended critique of the Buddhist literature of China and the other countries professing Buddhism, such as Burnouf planned and partly accomplished for India, would be a valuable contribution to the history of the Hindoo race. The Power of this religion to chain the human mind, the peculiar principles of its philosophy, its mythological characteristics, its mode of viewing human life, its monastic and ascetic usages, all result from the early intellectual development of the nation whose home is south of the Himalayas. In the Buddhist classics it is not the life of China that is depicted, but that of Hindostan, and that not as it is now, but as it was two thousand years ago. The words and grammatical forms that occur in their perusal, when deciphered from the hieroglyphic Chinese form that they have been made to assume, remind the reader that they spring from the same stem of which the classical languages of Europe are branches. Much of their native literature the Buddhist missionaries left untouched—for example, the highly-wrought epic poems and dramas that have recently attracted the admiring notice of Europeans; but a large number of fables and tales with a moral are found in Chinese Buddhist books. Many specimens of this peculiar mode of composition, which, originating in Greece, was adopted by the Hindoos, and spread into the various literatures of modern Europe and Asia, have long since been made to wear a Chinese garb.[2] Further, the elements of grammar and the knowledge of the alphabet, with some important contributions from mathematical science, have reached China through the same medium. Several openings are thus presented into the old Hindoo world. The country where speculative philosophy, with grammatical and arithmetical science, attained greater perfection than anywhere else in ancient times, is seen spreading its civilisation into the neighbouring countries, and producing remarkable and permanent changes in the national life of China. To witness this, as may be done in the Buddhist books, cannot be regarded as devoid of attraction. The very existence of Buddhism is sufficient evidence of the energy of the Indian race as it was long ago. The Mongols, Thibetans, and Singhalese, with the inhabitants of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, combine with the Chinese and Japanese to prove by the faith they still maintain in Buddhism the enthusiasm of its first missionaries, and their Power to influence mankind. Buddhism was not always that decrepit and worn-out superstition that it now appears.

Buddhist novice nuns.jpg

Having said thus much by way of preface, it is time to introduce to the reader's attention the founder of the religion. No way of doing this suggests itself as more suitable than to translate from the opening scene of a popular Buddhist work called the "Diamond Classic" a few passages, where he appears in the midst of his disciples, instructing them in some of the principles of his system. The time, according to the Singhalese chronology, was in the sixth century before Christ. The place is Sha-wei,[3] a city in Central India. The hero is Shakyamuni himself, i.e., Buddha or Julai. The subordinate characters are the Bikshu[4] or religious mendicants, who are so denominated because they beg instruction for the mind and food for the body. They consist of two classes, says the editor of the Diamond Classic. Those who have abandoned vice and are aiming at virtue are the small Bikshu. Those who are released from both alike are great Bikshu. Among the latter, who have gone deeper than the others into the profundities of Buddhist doctrine, are included those called Bosat and Lahan, or, as these characters are now pronounced by the Chinese, Pusa and Lohan.

The chief minister of the king having at Rajagriha heard Buddha's instructions, and been deeply impressed by them, wished to invite him to some suitable dwelling. Jeta, the king's son, had a garden. The minister offered to buy it. The prince said by way of jest that he was willing if he would cover it with gold. The minister, who was childless, obtained gold-leaf and spread it over the garden. The prince then gave it him free of cost. According to another account the minister ordered eighty elephants loaded with gold to come immediately. The prince, admiring the doctrine which had so affected the minister as to make him willing to give all this gold for a hall to teach it, gave it for nothing. In a house "in this garden, which lay outside the city Sha-wei, Buddha with his disciples, 1250 in number, assembled. It was the time of taking food. Buddha put on the robe" called seng-gha-li, and with his pat[5] or "mendicant's rice bowl" in his hand, entered the city to beg for food. When having gone from door to door he had finished his task, he returned to his lodging-place. "His meal being ended, he put his robe and rice vessel aside, and washed his feet," for it was the practice of this religious reformer to walk with naked feet. "He then sat cross-legged on a raised platform," remaining some time in meditation before he began to teach.


“At that time the aged Subhûti, who was sitting among the crowd of disciples, arose. With his right shoulder uncovered, and kneeling on his right knee, he raised his joined hands respectfully, and addressed Buddha in the following words:—"Rare is it to meet with the world's honoured one,[6] Julai,[7] who in the best manner protects his disciples (Bosat), keeps them in his thoughts, and gives them his instructions. World-honoured sage! (Shï-tsun) if good men and good women exhibit the unsurpassed just and enlightened heart, how should they place it firmly, and how should the evil risings of the heart be suppressed and subdued?" The words in italics, corresponding to the Sanscrit anutara samyaksambuddhi,[8] are written with Chinese characters in the text, and are explained by the commentator as consisting of an, "not," utara, "superior," samya, "right and equal," sambodi, "rightly knowing." Buddha replied, "The question is a good one, and you have truly described my disposition. It is thus that a resting-place can be found and the heart controlled." The words ju-shï, "thus," says the commentator, refer not to what precedes, as in Chinese syntax, but to what follows, according to the usage of Sanscrit grammar. Subhûti then expresses his anxious desire to hear the instructions of the sage, who consequently addresses his disciples called Bosat and Great Bosat (Ma-ha-sat). "All men, whether they resemble in their nature oviparous animals," that are light and fly, or imitate the moral dispositions and reflecting habits of "the mammalia, or are like the fish," sprung from spawn, instinctively following the multitude in the path of evil, "or are of the same class with animals born by transformation," and pass through remarkable changes, should enter that state which is final and unchangeable[9] —the Nirvâna,[10] "Whether they still think" on the phenomena of the sensuous world "or have ceased to think," i.e., become so far enlightened as to pay no attention to passing scenes, "or are neither with thought nor without thought," that is, have become entirely indifferent to life or death, appetite or aversion, love or hatred, "they should thus seek salvation in destruction." Why do not all living men obtain this immeasurably great release? "If the Bodhisattwa (Bosat, he who knows and feels) has for his aim self, or man, or the world of living things, or old age, he is not a true Bodhisattwa." Buddha now bade Subhûti resume his seat, and went on to inform him concerning the fixed place of rest for which he had inquired. "The Bodhisattwa in action should have no fixed resting-place for his thoughts. In what he does he should not rest on colour, sound, smell, taste, collision, or any particular action. He should not rest in forms of things, that is, allow himself to attend to any special sensational phenomena. If he thus acts, his happiness and virtue will be boundless." Buddha is asked by his disciple for a further explanation of this doctrine. He replies by inquiring if the four quarters of space can be measured by thought. Receiving a negative answer, he says that the same is true of the doctrine that the Bodhisattwa in acting without regard to particular objects obtains great happiness and virtue. He then asks if with the material body and its senses Julai or Buddha can be truly perceived. No, says the disciple, for body and form are not truly body and form. Buddha himself replies by denying the existence of all matter in the words "whatever has form is an empty delusion. If any one sees that all things having forms are not forms, i.e., nothing, he then truly perceives Julai" in his formless and matterless reality; that is, has attained to a profound understanding of Buddhist doctrines. In these few passages from the Kin-kang-king or "Diamond Sutra," some of the most prominent doctrines of Buddhism are brought to view, viz.:—(I.) The happiness of the Nirvâna or state of unconsciousness which frees him who attains it from the miseries of existence. (2.) The mischievous influence of human life, with its struggles after particular forms of happiness, and of the sensuous world with its deceptive phenomena. (3.) The non-existence of matter, to be convinced of which is to take the first grand step on the road to Enlightenment.

This introduction into the Buddhist sphere of thought makes the system appear to be based rather on philosophy than on any religious principle. More will subsequently occur to confirm the correctness of this opinion. With regard to the real character of Buddhism, piety towards the Ruler of the world does not form either its foundation or the result to which it aims to elevate its votaries. It will be seen that, while striving to escape from the evils incident to life, and from every selfish aim, it is nothing but selfishness in an abstract philosophical form, stripped of the grosser qualities which are manifested in the common course of human history.


In enumerating the various kinds of sensations conveyed to our minds by the senses, a verb "to strike or pierce," ch‘u, is employed in place of "touch," the familiar term of our own popular philosophy. All these sensations are said by the Buddhists to be produced by the respective organs with which they are connected. They are called the six kinds of "dust" or "worldly things"—the unwelcome accretions that attach themselves to our garments as we walk through the world. "Action," fa, said to emanate from the "will," yi, is classed with them as the sixth mode assumed by worldly phenomena.

The preceding specimen of Buddha's teaching, surrounded by his disciples in a city of ancient India, is sufficient to introduce the subject. The principal facts in the life of that sage will now be detailed. Buddha will be here represented as he appears in the Chinese biographies. They describe him as a sort of divine man, possessed unbounded magical Power, and visiting the most distant spots, as, for example, the paradises of the gods, in an instant of time.

In giving an account of Chinese Buddhism, I feel the importance of exhibiting Shakyamuni in the form which is familiar to the Chinese devotee. It is well, in our picture, to retain the details of a marvellous nature which have been so abundantly added by the Northern Buddhists to the simplicity of the first narrative. Man cannot live without God. This was an effort to recover the divine. When God, through the absurdities of polytheism, was pushed out of view, the substitute was Buddha, the perfect sage, the model ascetic, the patient and loving teacher, the wonder-working magician, the acknowledged superior of gods and men. Such was the conception worked out by the Hindoo mind to take the place of the old polytheism of India, and accepted by all the Buddhist nations north of Shakyamuni's birthplace. In the history of religions it is of extreme importance that this fact should be recognised and appreciated.


  1. During his residence in Nepaul. Of these works, the Lotus of the Good p. 3 Law, in Chinese Miau-fa-lien-hwa-king, has been translated by Burnouf, Paris, 1852. The Rev. S. Beal, Professor of Chinese in University College, London, has translated from Chinese A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures, and The Romantic Legend of Sâkya Buddha.
  2. Of these works Stanislas Julien has translated Les Avadanas, consisting of tales and apologues. 1859.
  3. Sha-wei was on the north of the Ganges, about 200 miles above Benares. It is also written Shravasti. All the upper part of the valley of the Ganges was embraced in what was known as Central India.
  4. This Sanscrit word is pronounced according to K‘ang-hi Bi-k‘u. The orthography here adopted for Chinese and Sanscrit words, agrees nearly with that of Sir T. Wade and of the French writers on kindred subjects. For ou, the oo of Morrison, u is here written.
  5. In modern Chinese the t is dropped and the a (a in father) changed to o. In Sanscrit the word is pâtra.
  6. A title of Buddha—Shï-tsun in Sanscrit, Lokês’vararâja (Eitel's Handbook of Chinese Buddhism), or Lokadjyesht‘a, v. Remusat's Mélanges Asiatiques, vol. i. p. 164.
  7. Julai is the Chinese translation of Tathagata. It means literally "thus come," and is explained, "bringing human nature as it truly is, with perfect knowledge and high intelligence, he comes and manifests himself."
  8. These words are pronounced in old Chinese a nu-ta-la sam-mia sam-bo-di, and in Mandarin a neu-to-lo san-miau san-p‘u-t‘i.
  9. Without remainder, Wu-yü.
  10. Nit is translated by the commentator "go out if," and ban, "harassment." By the French Sinologues it is identified with Nirvâna, the happy condition of perfect rest at which the Hindoos aim. The dictionary Ching-tsz-t‘ung, says, that "the p. 7 Chinese equivalent of this Sanscrit term is, to announce that he is at rest, and that it is applied to describe the death of Buddha, because his is not a true death like that of other men, whose tsing-shin (soul) does not die." The sound ban was selected, it may be, by a Hindoo who pronounced the word Nirbana. It is called in some translations Nirwan. The Hindoo translator would pronounce Nirwana. The Chinese character used for ni was called nit in some parts of China, and nir in others.