Chinese Religion


#1

This is a spin-off from the “Satan Worship” thread in the open forum.

Can anyone tell me how “the other side” is thought of in folk belief, either traditionally or in contemporary practice?

In “great tradition” Buddhism, the Western Pure Land is the Buddha realm established by Amitabha. When practioners of Pure Land die they are met my Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, and Dazhishi (Maha-something or other in Skt.), who escort them to the pure land. In the pure land all the hindrances to enlightenment of this world are absent and the practioner can devote im or herself to pracitce under Amitabha’s guidance. There’s no particullar significance to the fact that it’s in the West (although some commentators have seen it as signifcant). There are many prue lands each with a geographical designation, but Amitabha’s was the only one that really took off in the long run.

Now in the pure land of “great tradition” belief, there’s no need for paper money or anything of this sort, which is why I’d like to know how it’s thought of in folk belief. It seems to me that Chinese folk religion and Buddhism are related but seperate religious languages with a lot of terms that seem to be cognates but actually have quite different meanings.


#2

Hey Grizzly,

I am glad someone started a new thread on a religious topic.

In relation to the “Greater Vehicle” tradition, I think that there is more to be said in relation to the different sects’ beliefs than what is only found in the Qing-tu (Pure Land)sect. There are quite a few Mahayana sects out there.

That being said, I am curious as to where your information comes from in relation to the Pure Land afterlife beliefs. Is it specifically textual, or based on discussions with a Pure Land monk/believer? From a textual point of view I believe that you are correct, but many of the texts were written during a time when Buddhism was in intense competition with (and often against)Chinese Popular beliefs. There was a definite need to define what was permissible and what was not for believers. However, this is often not really the case with modern day Buddhism.

It seems that the success of a foreign religion on Chinese soil has much to do with how well it is “absorbed” by Chinese Popular Religion. It may even be that there is a case to be made for there being no real religious differentiation in the religious life of China. What I mean by this is that regardless of the religious sects one belongs to (and very often it is more than one), one ultimately practices Chinese Religion, freely moving among beliefs and practices, based on one’s religious agenda. Now obviously this may not be the case with the better educated monks of a specific sect. However, I was personally surprised at the amount of monks who still burned money etc., even higher up on the monastic food chain.

Now as to the practitioners of the Pure Land sect being met by Amitofo (Amitabha) and associated compadres at the gates of the Pure Land of the West, this is correct. However, from my readings this is only the case for the most pious of believers. It is for the most part a case of one’s merit being judged accordingly.

The case of the afterlife of Chinese Religion is one that is as complicated as the pre-modern imperial bureaucracy ( and the modern “communist” one in Mainland China as well). When an individual dies, he/she is hauled before the courts of the underworld with the Lord of the Underworld Tudigong sitting in judgement. The case is evaluated and then sent to the proper office for processing. After being processed, the person is sent to the appropriate level of the underworld (or the Heavens {this includes the Pure Land}), all which is based on accumulated merit. However, some accounts have this processing being helped along by Bodhisattvas, or in the Daoist case, Immortals. For the most pious, there are even cases that upon the instant of death, completely by-pass any such processing, proceeding immediately to the Daoist Heavens, or the Pure Land of the West.

The Celestial (and Underworld) bureaucracy is inhabited by many beings, both Buddhist and Daoist in nature. The accounts of these realms are numerous, and depending on the author’s personal beliefs, can be more Daoist or Buddhist in nature.

As to your comment on the Buddhist and Popular religious languages being cognates with quite different meanings, this is sometimes the case. However, Chinese religious language has since the time of ther Han dynasty (and possibly before) been one that freely utilizes correlative systems of cosmology, and gives many different meanings to many a sign, god, etc., based on context.

I hope this is of interest.

Regards,

Tssuila


#3

Tssuila,

This was basically picking up on something that Still down Under had mentioned. I had not been aware that Amitabha’s pure land had been appropriated into the folk cosmology, so I was curious to know something more about the folk beliefs in that regard.

My expertise is basically in “great tradition” Buddhism (by which I mean Redfield’s great vs. little tradition i.e. scriptural vs. folk, not Mahayana, though that’s my specialty too), so what I had in mind were basically the texts, not so much believers. At the same time though, in the last few years though I think the number of what we might call great tradition Buddhists has grown considerably. Here I’m thinking about organizations like Dharma Drum, Foguang Shan, etc. and their followers. I think there’s a fair amount of lay people now who would make a distinction between Buddhism and 民間信仰.

As for being drawn into Chinese religion being a prerequisite for sucess, I’m not so sure about that. It seems to me that in being assimilated it was also subordinated. Also, though I don’t know enough about the relevant periods to say for sure, it would seem to me that that process of assimilation coincides with the development of Buddhism’s image problem in the Ming and Qing.

Lastly, out of curiosity, does anyone know if what was going on in terms of popular, possibly millenial, Maiteya worship in the early 20th century. I read some pieces by Master Taixu about the Maitreya Pure Land from the 20’s and 30’s where he seems to asserting the orthodox version against some competing version, but he doesn’t describe it much.


#4

I’m quite interested in this topic because my girlfriend is basically a followerof this western land school of buddhism. Her sect is called jing-tu 淨土. She believes in the western land of Amitofo. How does this relate to Maitreya and how do you say Maitreya in Chinese? Is it milefo 彌樂佛 (and is he that fat happy bloke?).

Here’s what my girlfriend said about it: To get there you have to believe in it and lead a pure life and ‘read’ Buddha’s name a lot. When you arrive you get met by all the Budddhas and Boddhisatvas. The purpose is that because it’s so hard to open your mind on this earth that the western land is a place that can let us more easily achieve enlightenment and know everything about the universe. My girlfriend wanted to stress that Buddha and Amitofo is not a god or like a god.

Bri


#5
quote:
Originally posted by Bu Lai En: I'm quite interested in this topic because my girlfriend is basically a followerof this western land school of buddhism. Her sect is called jing-tu 淨土. She believes in the western land of Amitofo. How does this relate to Maitreya and how do you say Maitreya in Chinese? Is it milefo 彌樂佛 (and is he that fat happy bloke?).

Your girlfriend pretty much gave you the classic scriptural explanation of what it’s all about. One thing I can point out though is that 念 is not “read” here. The best translation in terms of contemporary practice is “recite.” The word is a translation from the Sanskrit smriti, which basically means mindfulness (like 想念 not 唸書 ) . In early pure land practice there were many different methods including visualization, now though it’s pretty much just recitation.

When Amitabha (Amituofo) was a bodhisattva he vowed that when he achieved Buddhahood he would have a pure land of such and such description, and over eons of bodhisattva (pusa 菩薩, beings on the path towards Buddhahood) practice he generated so much merit (功德 good karma) that when he achieved Buddhahood a pure land was created according to that description.

Your girlfriends quite right that he’s not a god. Although the pure land is created by his merit your practice is still the key to getting there. You could think of him as the founder and head counselor of a cosmic rehabilitation center. (Buddhism has always used medical metaphors.) Everyone is basically addicted to the three poisons of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Just as a junkie livin’ in a crack house would have a hard time kicking the habit, so too sentient beings living in this world have a hard time attaining enlightenment. Once you get to the pure land you don’t have all those distractions and you have the head counselor himself to guide you through the process.

Now as to Maitreya. Yes, he’s Milefo, or actually Mile Pusa. He’s actually the Buddha of the coming era (eons from now), so he’s not quite there yet. Like all bodhisattvas with one life left to go he’s currently hanging out in Tushita Heaven. His “courts” there are considered a pure land and by recitation of his name and other practices, most importantly ethical discipline, you can be reborn there. His pure land is unusual in that it’s not permanent and you don’t get enlightened there. When Maitreya comes down to our world for his last lifetime in which he attains Buddhahood, everyone in his pure lands is reborn here as well and is enlightened in one of the three Dharma assemblies he holds after his enightenment.

Maireya was pretty popular in the Tang (Xuanzang was a practitioner), but he was crowded out of the market by Amitabha. In the 20th century a lot of heavy hitters (Taixu, Xuyun, Yinshun) have advocated this form of pure land but it doesn’t seem to have caught on very broadly.

Is he the fat happy bloke? Kinda. In Indian and early Chinese art Maitreya is generally depicted as a prince–crown, regal bearing, slim. Then in the five dynasties period there was a fella in Zhejiang called Budai (“Hemp Bag,” because he always carried a hemp bag)(d. 916). He was sort of an itinerant “holy fool” type figure and was thought to be able to predict people’s fortunes and the weather. When he was about to die he recited a gatha (verse) strongly implying that he was a manifestation of Maitreya (It’s common for great bodhisattvas to manifest themselves in other forms to help sentient beings on the sly). This story spread and so stautes of Maitreya began to be made in his likeness: short, fat, foolishly happy looking, and carrying a hemp bag.


#6

Tssuila:
“From a textual point of view I believe that you are correct, but many of the texts were written during a time when Buddhism was in intense competition with (and often against)Chinese Popular beliefs.”

What texts (and period) are you thinking of and what’s the significance of the competition?


#7
quote[quote] One thing I can point out though is that 念 is not "read" here. The best translation in terms of contemporary practice is "recite." [/quote]

Yeah, I put that “read” in quotes because I couldn’t remember the English for that sense of 念

Thanks for the info. You seem very informed, but if you have any questions you want to give a ‘believer’ for her perspective, I’ll pass them on for you. My girlfriend was kinda thrilled that someone was interested int his stuff.

bri


#8

My understanding with bodhitsvas in the Mahayana buddhism is that they are those who have reached enlightenment in this world, but postpone their transcendence (for want of a better word) to assist others on the path. yet you speak of them as being on the other side and returning? Is this jsut two diiferent offshoots or did I misunderstand something?


#9

Can anyone tell me how “the other side” is thought of in folk belief, either traditionally or in contemporary practice?

Now in the pure land of “great tradition” belief, there’s no need for paper money or anything of this sort, which is why I’d like to know how it’s thought of in folk belief. It seems to me that Chinese folk religion and Buddhism are related but seperate religious languages with a lot of terms that seem to be cognates but actually have quite different meanings.[/QB][/QUOTE]


As Christianity fused with pagan worship back c fourth century, Buddhism and folk religion have fused and “evolved” and are often not distinguishable. (I know this hasn’t actually addressed the question )

As for having several religions and swapping between them, this is what us westerners often misunderstand about Chinese. how they can “value honesty” and in the next breath be quite deceitful from our perspective. A quick swing from Buddhist purism to Confuscists strategies.

This is very different from the Satan Worship thread in that there is a lot more actual information here. Need some time to digest. (and sleep).

Very stimulating. Thanks.


#10
quote:
Originally posted by still down under: My understanding with bodhitsvas in the Mahayana buddhism is that they are those who have reached enlightenment in this world, but postpone their transcendence (for want of a better word) to assist others on the path. yet you speak of them as being on the other side and returning? Is this jsut two diiferent offshoots or did I misunderstand something?

Yes and no. They delay full and complete enlightenment (anaturasamyaksambodhi)in order to save sentient beings. That’s basically true although there’s differing ideas on this of course.

For one thing, bodhisattva is originally simply a future Buddha. Since we’re all gonna get there in one life or another, we’re all bodhisattvas.

More strictly speaking, the bodhisattva path is a ten step process (this can be divided into as many as fifty three stages). At the first stage of the path one is still very much an ordinary being. One has bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings but that’s about it. Lots of people are considered to be at this stage. Some Buddhists in Taiwan use “pusa” (bodhisattva) as a polite form of address for fellow believers for this reason.

Tenth stage bodhisattva are the great ones: Guanyin, Manjusri, etc. They are virtually enlightened. Because of the merit generated by eons and eons of practice, they have various supernatural powers. This means amongst other things that they can manifest in any world and in any form. If you look at the Lotus or other such scriptures, there’re always bodhiasattvas from other worlds coming to attend the sermon.

There’s really no “other side” in Buddhism. Just other worlds or other perspectives (a hungry ghost lives in this world with us but percieves it very differently), and a tenth level bodhisattva can move among them freely.


#11

Suffering is caused by desire.
Bodhisattvas have rid themselves of all desire except the last one–the desire to become enlightened. This is the hard one.


#12
quote:
Originally posted by TUpei: Suffering is caused by desire. Bodhisattvas have rid themselves of all desire except the last one--the desire to become enlightened. This is the hard one.
quote:
originally posted by Grizzly: At the first stage of the path one is still very much an ordinary being. One has bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings but that's about it. Lots of people are considered to be at this stage.

Well if I wasn’t confused before I certainly am now.

Anyway, no time for this world at the moment, lots of things to do in other worlds.


#13

The word bodhisattva has multiple usages. Most of the time it only refers to the big ones (Guanyin et al). In the broadest sense it refers to a future Buddha and since according to most Mahayana scriptures we’ll all get there eventually everyone is in that since a bodhisattva. The slightly more strict usage that I mentioned before refers to those who are on the bodhisattva path, that is, those who are actually making some effort, however imperfect, to reach that future Buddhahood.

Originally, “bodhisattva” refered to Shakyamuni Buddha in his previous lifetimes. There’s a whole class of scriptures in the Pali canon called the Jatakas that relate these previous lives. Most of the time the Buddha is some animal who does some deed exemplifying some virtue, which was part of his eons of practice towards Buddhahood. Originally he was the only bodhisattva except for Maitreya.

In the early Mahayana movement people started to take Buddhahood as their own spiritual goal (previously arhatship was it). Thus in order to become a Buddha one wanted to do what Shakyamuni did. This meant emulating his career as a bodhisattva, particullarly in the cultivation of the “six perfections”: giving, morality, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. Thus anyone 2000 years ago in India or in contemporary Taiwan, practicing in this way is a bodhisattva.

How the so-called “celestial bodhisattvas” came about is a matter of debate. One scholar has argued that they were originally simply spiritual exemplars and literary devices in the early Mahayana scriptures. In the Prajnaparamitas etc. all they really do is question the Buddha and get praised for their practice, wisdom, etc. There’s no suggestion of them interacting with believers or of any sort of cultic activity. That doesn’t come until much later.

Another theory is that the cult of celestial bodhisattvas emerged from the cult of Maitreya. He had a following long before the Mahayana. Since he’s chilling in Tushita heaven waiting for his crack at complete and unsurpassed enlightenment, his current status is actually that of a god. As such, he has a certain amount of power and early on there was cultic activity with people seeking his help and intervention. Some think that this sort of thing either evolved into the cult of the bodhisattvas or perhaps was transfered onto the literary bodhisattvas of the early Mahayana scriptures.

Really though it’s almost impossible to know.

To really make you confused, there are some scriptures that say that Manjusri, or Guanyin, or whoever, is actually not a bodhisattva. They attained Buddhahood long ago and only manifest in this form in order to save sentient beings. It’s worth remembering that the Mahayana scriptures were composed by adherents of various schools and sects in various places over the course of centuries. Thus if some of these things seem like they don’t fit together neatly, it’s often because they don’t.

Anyway, I don’t know if that helps or not but that’s my two cents.


#14

Moderator’s note:
I’ve moved Grizzly’s excellent questions from this post to separate threads, because “Chinese religion” can cover so much ground that the thread could become hard to follow otherwise.


#15

I’m sorry guys if I’m repeating anything or if I’m in the wrong thread, but I don’t have a lot of time to completely digest it all right now. But it’s a very interesting discussion!

Thanks grizzly. I think you hit the nail on the head in that many of the writings are compilation of thoughts.

from the reading Ive been able to squeeze in it appears to me that originally Budhism didn’t have a hell. One worked towards enlightenment. Re-incarnation could be a punishment by coming back as a lower life form. I was wondering if it was folk religion that originally had the thought of burning money to save ancestors and was later incorporated into some buddhist thinking/beliefs.

Perhaps a reason for terminology being similar but different in meaning. Our lecturer indicated that the Chinese language didn’t have words for the buddhist concepots to directly translate across. So perhaps they gave it their best shot and of course their perspective and understanding would have been influenced by folk religion. (which is as broad as it is wide.) Maybe they don’t see a difference, or their ability to change and swap doesn’t present this as a problem, taking it to understand what best fits the circumstance. But certainly for us who are looking in seeing folk and buddhism as seperate. We try and understand it in terms of how they are different. Perhaps they see it in terms of similarity.

This is all very general and perhaps a bit uneducated, but I would be interested in any feedback.

PS Mr Moderator. To which threads did you shift Grizzly’s questions?

Good question. “Taoist monks” and “little back-alley temples”
–the moderator


#16

I have been thinking a lot recently about this thread. Aside from some down-time internet wise, this is one of the reasons I have not until now responded.

The crux of the issue for me is the “Great Tradition” concept. From what I have found on the Internet concerning it, I am at major odds with it.

Grizzly, do you happen to know of a site that has Redfield’s complete paper on this theory of religious interpretation? Or even better, do you have it (on computer or in book form)? I like to be well informed on something before I choose to disagree with it. It would be nice to read the original.

Please let me know…

As for the texts that I was referring to previously, I do not have the kind of research materials here that would allow me to find them. In addition, I am quite sure that your knowledge on Buddhist texts exceeds mine own, in that my specific speciality is Daoist texts. However, I do specifically recollect several Buddhist texts from the Late Six Dynasties to the Tang that criticized the “Popular” religious practices of the time, as well as quite a few Daoist rites (the “heqi” ritual of group copulation of the early Celestial Masters being one of the more interesting ones). Sorry I can’t be more specific, I just don’t have the resources here to do so.

Regards,

Tssuila


#17

I’m afraid I can’t locate the article on-line. Frankly, I read it in Anthropology of Religion back in college and although I know where in my papers to look for it (7500 miles away), I don’t even remember the title. I think it was in the textbook, which may have been called “A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion.” Or maybe it was a photocopy. My apologies.

At any rate, I was basically using the terms simply as convenient designations. I wouldn’t want to make a fetish out of it. Generally I think that reifying your categories of analysis is a mistake. I realize that the two are not always distinct and there is mutual influence, but I still think that it’s an occasionally convenient framework.

I look forward to your thoughts.

Grizzly