Yu Hai, who is 48 years old and working in a foreign company, comments, “I miss Mao’s era when everybody was equal, pure-hearted and sincere. In those years, we didn’t need to worry about unaffordable medical fees, the ever-rising price of gas, water and oil, unemployment and big mortgages.”
Nowadays, there are more and more reports about violence in newspapers and on websites. One of the most extreme cases concerned a 15-year-old girl who kidnapped her cousin and demanded US$ 25,000. “She is dying to make big money in the shortest amount of time,” reported the Oriental Morning Post at the time.
Furthermore, mental disorders were the most common type of disease in China in 2005. At present, there are a total of 16 million psychotics in the country. The occurrence of the disease used to be 2.7 cases per 1,000 Chinese citizens in the 1950s, but the rate has jumped to 13.47.
Some people are turning to religious practice since they are not satisfied with the contemporary world and are suffering heavy pressures. Similar situations have developed throughout history. An emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) insisted on “stilling your temper through Buddhism.” Chen Bin, director of the Institute of Religious Studies at Sichuan University, gives another example. “Sakyamuni meditated on the meaning of human existence and suffering. To relieve the human mind of the dark shadow over life and death and attain ultimate mental bliss, he clearly explained the causes and effects of people’s afflictions, and through his personal experiences formulated a series of techniques to achieve inner peace and ultimately nirvana.”
In modern times, researchers have used electroencephalograms (EEG), electrocardiograms (ECG) and other equipment to show that dhyana is helpful in relieving nerve disorders and improving people’s metabolism, immunity and digestion. “There are as many as 12 methods in Buddhism to teach people how to control desire. Some have been adopted in Western clinical psychology,” says Chen Bin.
All religions are born of concerns of the human mind, so why is Buddhism preferred by many Chinese? Lou Yulie, a famous expert on religious issues from Peking University, explains that Buddhism has both influenced, and been influenced by, traditional Chinese culture during its 2,000 years in China.
Around the first century AD, Buddhism started to spread from ancient India to central China via the Silk Road, and drew the attention of royalty. With the support of emperors, many sutras were introduced into China, and dignitaries from India were invited to preach Buddhist teachings. In the same century, the first Buddhist shrine in China – the White Horse Temple (Baima) – was built in Luoyang, Henan Province.
During the first millennium, Buddhism was highly praised by Chinese royalty, but rejected and disputed by common people, who preferred Confucianism and Daoism.
Confucianism preaches person-oriented ethics and focuses on the temporal world of the present. In contrast, Buddhism values otherworldliness and believes in karma. To protect Confucian ethics and Chinese conventions, Confucians criticized Buddhist doctrines and practices, such as tonsure, celibacy, and almsgiving. The Buddhist concept that “everybody is doomed to die” was also fiercely denounced by Taoists, who have long pursued immortality. As a result, Buddhism was banned in China on four separate occasions in history.
Lou Yulie considers these episodes symptomatic of a conflict between Indian and Chinese culture. “Gradually Chinese Buddhism abandoned concepts and regulations that did not fit Chinese society, and introduced new doctrines,” Lou points out. “Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, prompted the development of Chinese Buddhism by introducing Confucianist concepts into the religion.” Huineng believed that everybody had a Buddha nature and could become a Buddha. He insisted that Buddhist followers could attain Buddhahood without reciting sutras and observing other ceremonial rituals, as long as they could keep Buddha in their heart. His propositions were well received by politicians, scholar-bureaucrats and common people. What’s more, Huineng reconciled Buddhist doctrines with Confucian ethics, such as filial piety. Having passed through these cultural barriers, Buddhism finally became popular and spread quickly in China.
“Chinese intellectuals are split between Confucian secularism and the transcendental naturalism of Zhuangzi. When encountering frustrations in reality, they tend to renounce the temporal world for a life of seclusion, though it may be mental rather than physical,” says Fang Litian, director of the Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Religious Theory, Renmin University of China. Having researched Buddhism for nearly half a century, Fang has his own opinions on the religion. “Buddhism accommodates the spiritual needs of people, raising their mental realm to a higher level without isolating them physically from the real world. This is an art of life that the wisdom of Buddhism has bestowed on intellectuals.” Therefore, Buddhism was quite popular among scholar-officials in dynastic times. Buddhism helps people maintain psychological balance even when meeting setbacks. In this way, it is a necessary supplement to secularism.
Over 2,000 years, Buddhism has also revitalized Confucian culture. According to Buddhism, death means entering Sukhavati (the Pure Land), providing an instructive supplement to Confucian culture, which values life and fears death. Many scholars believe that the Confucian school of pragmatic philosophy during the Song and Ming dynasties was a response to the influence of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.
Buddhism is also preserved in many masterpieces of literature and art in China. The four-toned pronunciation of modern standard Chinese was formed from the prevalent Indian style of sutra chanting.
Yu Hai worships on bended knees in every hall of the Guanghua Temple, since he believes no matter which Buddha or Bodhisattva you worship, “What you experience is spiritual catharsis and guidance in life.”