Faith by the Poor; Cult by the Wealthy

DBQ Essay: What was the appeal of Buddhism in Post-Classical China? Faith by the poor; Cult by the Wealthy Buddhism entered China by the first century A.D., spreading like wild fire following the end of the great Han dynasty in 220 A.D.

The Buddhist “Four Noble Truths,” the background of Buddhism, is very similar to the poor Chinese people’s experiences and views of the world; they believed that the world was full of sorrow, and the only way out of the sorrow was to remove all their earthly lusts. Buddhism also offered the poor peasants and lower classes a way out of the bottom of society, where they’d been for centuries. On the other hand, Buddhism challenged the power and authority given by the ancient Chinese beliefs of Confucianism to the scholars, emperors, and upper class. In fact, those who benefited from Confucianism often portrayed the newer Buddhism as an evil cult. However, to prove such a theory, input from the lower class, perhaps a poor farmer, is required. Nonetheless, it can easily be determined that the Chinese appeal to Buddhism varied greatly with social status; the poor were greatly drawn to the modest beliefs, but the wealthy and powerful cringed and revolted against the apparently equal rival to their ancient, beloved Confucianism.

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In order to see how Buddhism appealed to the Chinese, one must first understand the actual religion, basic beliefs, and ideal goals of Buddhism. First preached by Buddha in India sometime during the fifth century B.C., “The Four Noble Truths” form the backbone of Buddhism. The first truth, “The Truth of Sorrow” states that the whole world, and everything in it, is full of pain, suffering, and sadness.

The second truth states that craving and lust bring about delight and passion, which is where sorrow comes from. The third truth, The Truth of Stopping Sorrow, simply puts that in order to stop the sorrow, you must first completely stop the craving and passion; You must have no feeling. The fourth truth is The Truth of the Way that Leads to the Stopping of Sorrow. Zhi Dun elaborates on this fourth truth hundreds of years later and hundreds of miles away, in North China around 350 A.D.

Zhi Dun believes that if one serves Buddha, correctly obeys the commandments, recites Buddhist scripture, and vows to be reborn, then one will have completely stopped sorrow and reached Nirvana, the extinction of desire and individual consciousness. A Chinese scholar in 500 A.D. explained yet even more, teaching that The Way (Zhi Dun’s work) substitutes for luxuries and pleasures of the world. In summery, the world is full of sorrow, and Buddhists strive to let go of all feelings and luxuries, letting go of the sorrow. Due to similarities in the lower class’s life experiences and the Buddhist view of the world, Buddhism was a big hit to the Chinese peasants and lower classes.

Imagine a poor, Chinese farmer. His family has been poor for thousands of years. The only hope his family has is to grow enough crops to keep them alive through the winter, and maybe have some extras to sell, earning money for luxuries such as new clothing. A simple frost, a small drought, too much flooding, or even too much sun could ruin this for his family. That farmer most certainly would agree that the world is sorrowful. Watching his family work all day and starve the cold winter months would definitely give him the opinion that the world is full of pain.

The fact that Buddhism offered relief, a way out of the sorrow, appealed to many Chinese such as this poor farmer. All they had to do was get rid of earthly cravings and lusts, and this wouldn’t be too hard for those who had never had much to begin with. Zang Mi encouraged the peasants to follow Buddhism, saying that it was like Confucianism in the fact that they both encouraged good and punished bad. Buddhism’s similar view of the world and offering of Nirvana appealed greatly to the lowly Chinese peasants who had suffered for years. Buddhism was a way out of the endless poverty and the end of being trapped at the bottom of society for the lower class Chinese, and so they jumped at the chance to get out of the endless cycle.

Confucianism, the ancient Chinese belief system that had been in control for centuries upon centuries, demanded respect to everyone and respect of those in higher classes than you. As a result, the families who’d been in the lower class at one point in time almost certainly remained so for years. Buddhism demands that Buddhists rid themselves of all worldly lusts, passion, and delights. If everyone did this, then no one would be higher than another. There would be no social classes, and the poor would finally be equal to those who’d been above them for hundreds of years. As much as Buddhism appealed to the lower classes of China, those in Chinese power and authority saw the new ideas as a great evil, some going as far as to call it a cult.

Han Yu, leading Confucius scholar and official at the Tang imperial court, believed strongly that Buddhism is a cult. He believed that if Buddhism gained power in China, that there would be crowds who would be willing to destroy themselves for the religion, even cut off their own arms and legs. He also wrote that Buddha wasn’t Chinese; Buddha did dress, speak, or live like the Chinese did. He had never experienced Chinese culture, and so Buddhism most definitely wasn’t created for the Chinese. Han Yu finished his “Memorial on Buddhism” by writing that Buddhism was a cult, and evil planted in China, and they needed to get rid of it immediately.

Emperor Wu seemed to agree with Han Yu when it came to Buddhism. He taught that Buddhism would cause China to lose all of its strength, wealth, lords, parents, and partners. Confucianism required for everyone to respect those above them, and the emperor believed that if China turned to Buddhism, then that respect for those in power would be lost. Emperor Wu also believed that Buddhism would take away from China the order that Confucianism created. He said that Buddhist monks and nuns wait for others to feed and clothe them, not working at all for anything they need. The Chinese to whom Confucianism gave the most power desperately fought against Buddhism, calling the new ideas an evil cult.

To validate the conclusion that Buddhism appealed to the lower class, one needs evidence from the poor themselves. There are documents from scholars, emperors, and Buddha, but there is not a single piece of writing presented from someone of the lower classes. It is logical, given the similarities between to world views of Buddhism and the Chinese poor, that those in the lower classes turned to Buddhism, but we need evidence to prove such a theory. The lower classes quickly accepted Buddhism, but the highest classes despised the new influence. Chinese peasants shared world views and experiences with Buddhism’s opinion that the world is full of sorrow.

Buddhism also offered those in the lower classes a way out of endless poverty, which Confucianism had forced upon them for centuries. Meanwhile, Confucian scholars and Chinese emperors taught that Buddhism was an evil cult that needed to be kicked out of China. However, a piece of evidence from the lower class is needed to further prove this argument. Buddhism’s Chinese appeal was great with the lower classes, but those in power attempted to wipe it out.