BUDDHISM - The Han dynasty (B.C. 200-A.D. 200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Han dynasty (B.C. 200-A.D. 200)

THE introduction of Buddhism into China must now be considered, especially under its literary aspect.

So early as B.C. 217 we read of Buddhist priests, Shih-li-fang and others, coming to China. The "First Emperor" seems to have looked upon them with suspicion. At any rate, he threw them into prison, from which, we are told, they were released in the night by a golden man or angel. Nothing more was heard of Buddhism until the Emperor known as Ming Ti, in consequence, it is said, of a dream in which a foreign god appeared to him, sent off a mission to India to see what could be learnt upon the subject of this barbarian religion. The mission, which consisted of eighteen persons, returned about A.D. 67, accompanied by two Indian Buddhists named Kashiapmadanga and Gobharana. These two settled at Lo-yang in Honan, which was then the capital, and proceeded to translate into Chinese the Sûtra of Forty-two Sections—the beginning of a long line of such. Soon afterwards the former died, but the seed had been sown, and a great rival to Taoism was about to appear on the scene.

Towards the close of the second century A.D. another Indian Buddhist, who had come to reside at Ch'ang-an in Shensi, translated the sûtra known as the Lotus of the Good Law, and Buddhist temples were built in various parts of China. By the beginning of the fourth century Chinese novices were taking the vows required for the Buddhist priesthood, and monasteries were endowed for their reception.

In A.D. 399 FA HSIEN started on his great pedestrian journey from the heart of China overland to India, his object being to procure copies of the Buddhist Canon, statues, and relics. Those who accompanied him at starting either turned back or died on the way, and he finally reached India with only one companion, who settled there and never returned to China. After visiting various important centres, such as Magadha, Patna, Benares, and Buddha-Gaya, and effecting the object of his journey, he took passage on a merchant-ship, and reached Ceylon. There he found a large junk which carried him to Java, whence, after surviving many perils of the sea, he made his way on board another junk to the coast of Shantung, disembarking in A.D. 414 with all his treasures at the point now occupied by the German settlement of Kiao-chow.

The narrative of his adventurous journey, as told by himself, is still in existence, written in a crabbed and difficult style. His itinerary has been traced, and nearly all the places mentioned by him have been identified. The following passage refers to the desert of Gobi, which the travellers had to cross:—

"In this desert there are a great many evil spirits and hot winds. Those who encounter the latter perish to a man. There are neither birds above nor beasts below. Gazing on all sides, as far as the eye can reach, in order to mark the track, it would be impossible to succeed but for the rotting bones of dead men which point the way."

Buddha-Gaya, the scene of recent interesting explorations conducted by the late General Cunningham, was visited by Fa Hsien, and is described by him as follows:—

"The pilgrims now arrived at the city of Gaya, also a complete waste within its walls. Journeying about three more miles southwards, they reached the place where the Bôdhisatva formerly passed six years in self-mortification. It is very woody. From this point going west a mile, they arrived at the spot where Buddha entered the water to bathe, and a god pressed down the branch of a tree to pull him out of the pool. Also, by going two-thirds of a mile farther north, they reached the place where the two lay-sisters presented Buddha with congee made with milk. Two-thirds of a mile to the north of this is the place where Buddha, sitting on a stone under a great tree and facing the east, ate it. The tree and the stone are both there still, the latter being about six feet in length and breadth by over two feet in height. In Central India the climate is equable; trees will live several thousand, and even so much as ten thousand years. From this point going north-east half a yojana, the pilgrims arrived at the cave where the Bôdhisatva, having entered, sat down cross-legged with his face to the west, and reflected as follows: 'If I attain perfect wisdom, there should be some miracle in token thereof.' Whereupon the silhouette of Buddha appeared upon the stone, over three feet in length, and is plainly visible to this day. Then heaven and earth quaked mightily, and the gods who were in space cried out, saying, 'This is not the place where past and future Buddhas have attained and should attain perfect wisdom. The proper spot is beneath the Bô tree, less than half a yojana to the south-west of this.' When the gods had uttered these words, they proceeded to lead the way with singing in order to conduct him thither. The Bôdhisatva got up and followed, and when thirty paces from the tree a god gave him the kus'a grass. Having accepted this, he went on fifteen paces farther, when five hundred dark-coloured birds came and flew three times round him, and departed. The Bôdhisatva went on to the Bô tree, and laying down his kus'a grass, sat down with his face to the east. Then Mara, the king of the devils, sent three beautiful women to approach from the north and tempt him; he himself approaching from the south with the same object. The Bôdhisatva pressed the ground with his toes, whereupon the infernal army retreated in confusion, and the three women became old. At the above-mentioned place where Buddha suffered mortification for six years, and on all these other spots, men of after ages have built pagodas and set up images, all of which are still in existence. Where Buddha, having attained perfect wisdom, contemplated the tree for seven days, experiencing the joys of emancipation; where Buddha walked backwards and forwards, east and west, under the Bô tree for seven days; where the gods produced a jewelled chamber and worshipped Buddha for seven days; where the blind dragon Muchilinda enveloped Buddha for seven days; where Buddha sat facing the east on a square stone beneath the nyagrodha tree, and Brahmâ came to salute him; where the four heavenly kings offered their alms-bowls; where the five hundred traders gave him cooked rice and honey; where he converted the brothers Kasyapa with their disciples to the number of one thousand souls—on all these spots stûpas have been raised."

The following passage refers to Ceylon, called by Fa Hsien the Land of the Lion, that is, Singhala, from the name of a trader who first founded a kingdom there:—

"This country had originally no inhabitants; only devils and spirits and dragons lived in it, with whom the merchants of neighbouring countries came to trade. When the exchange of commodities took place, the devils and spirits did not appear in person, but set out their valuables with the prices attached. Then the merchants, according to the prices, bought the things and carried them off. But from the merchants going backwards and forwards and stopping on their way, the attractions of the place became known to the inhabitants of the neighbouring countries, who also went there, and thus it became a great nation. The temperature is very agreeable in this country; there is no distinction of summer and winter. The trees and plants are always green, and cultivation of the soil is carried on as men please, without regard to seasons."

Meanwhile, the Indian Kumarajiva, one of the Four Suns of Buddhism, had been occupied between A.D. 405 and 412 in dictating Chinese commentaries on the Buddhist Canon to some eight hundred priests. He also wrote a shâstra on Reality and Appearance, and translated the Diamond Sûtra, which has done more to popularise Buddhism with the educated classes than all the material parts of this religion put together. Chinese poets and philosophers have drawn inspiration and instruction from its pages, and the work might now almost be classed as a national classic. Here are two short extracts:—

(1.) "Buddha said, O Subhuti, tell me after thy wit, can a man see the Buddha in the flesh?

"He cannot, O World-Honoured, and for this reason: The Buddha has declared that flesh has on objective existence.

"Then Buddha told Subhūti, saying, All objective existences are unsubstantial and unreal. If a man can see clearly that they are so, then can he see the Buddha."

(2.) "Buddha said, O Subhūti, if one man were to collect the seven precious things from countless galaxies of worlds, and bestow all these in charity, and another virtuous man, or virtuous woman, were to become filled with the spirit, and held fast by this sûtra, preaching it ever so little for the conversion of mankind, I say unto you that the happiness of this last man would far exceed the happiness of that other man.

"Conversion to what? To the disregard of objective existences, and to absolute quiescence of the individual. And why? Because every external phenomenon is like a dream, like a vision, like a bubble, like shadow, like clew, like lightning, and should be regarded as such."

In A.D. 520 Bôdhidharma came to China, and was received with honour. He had been the son of a king in Southern India. He taught that religion was not to be learnt from books, but that man should seek and find the Buddha in his own heart. Just before his arrival Sung Yün had been sent to India to obtain more Buddhist books, and had remained two years in Kandahar, returning with 175 volumes.

Then, in 629, HSÜAN TSANG set out for India with the same object, and also to visit the holy places of Buddhism. He came back in 645, bringing with him 657 Buddhist books, besides many images and pictures and 150 relics. He spent the rest of his life translating these books, and also, like Fa Hsien, wrote a narrative of his travels.

This brings us down to the beginning of the T'ang dynasty, when Buddhism had acquired, in spite of much opposition and even persecution, what has since proved to be a lasting hold upon the masses of the Chinese people.