Origins of Chinese Religions and Philosophies (abbr)

· Chinese Culture, Philosophy, Religion
Authors

Origins of Chinese Religions and Philosophies (abbr)

Often the perception of religion in China is quite different from that of the Islamic or Judeo-Christian faiths. Many people from China also understand their religions with a different concept from that of Western views and we will attempt to analyse the reasons for this. The origins of Chinese religion and culture come from different roots, and this must be appreciated to attempt to compare these cultures.
(The authors views are presented in “Bold Italics.”


Shang Di Supreme God of Heaven

[Abbreviated from: http://knol.google.com/k/mbp-lee/origins-of-chinese-religions-and/1l23x9udotn1a/157#]

The Shamanistic Origins of Taoism

By Elizabeth Reninger,

The beginnings of recorded historical China lie some 5,000 years ago, when a tribal people settled along the banks of the Yellow River — its source high on the Tibetan plateau, its mouth at the Yellow Sea. These people were hunters-gatherers, and farmers. Millet was most likely their first grain cultivated; rice and corn and wheat coming later. Evidence exists that they were also potters and musicians, and that they produced the world’s first wine.

The Wu – Shamans of Ancient China

Their relationship to the cosmos was a shamanistic one. At least some among them were able to communicate directly with plants, minerals, and animals; to journey deep into the earth, or visit distant galaxies. They were able to invoke, through dance and ritual, elemental and supernatural powers, and enter into ecstatic union with them. The class of people most adept at such techniques became known as the Wu – the shamans of ancient China, (Shang Dynasty ca. 1600-1046 BCE).

Kuan Yin Goddess of Mercy

The Three Sovereigns & Five Emperors

The leaders of this pre-dynastic era were the legendary Three Sovereigns, or “August Ones,” and the Five Emperors – morally perfected sage-kings who used their magical powers to protect their people and to create conditions for peaceful and harmonious living. The wisdom, compassion and enlightened power of these Beings was beyond mortal comprehension; and the benefit they bestowed upon those they governed, immeasurable. The Heavenly Sovereign, Fuxi, is said to have discovered the eight trigrams – the bagua – which is “the foundation of the Yijing (I-Ching,) Taoism’s most well-known system of divination. The Human Sovereign, Shennong, is credited with the invention of farming, and the introduction of herbs for medicinal purposes. The Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, is known as the father of Chinese Medicine.

(It is here clearly established that the basis of Taoism came from early Chinese shamanism the basis of the Taoist religion and her gods.) 

Yu The Great

It was under the reign of Emperor Shun that the legendary “Yu The Great” was challenged to subdue the flooding of the Yellow River, a task which – through some combination of magical and technological prowess – he accomplished with great success. He subsequently designed a system of dikes and canals which proved to be of great and lasting benefit to his people. The “Pace of Yu” – the dance-steps which transported him mystically to the stars, where he received guidance from THE DEITIES – is practised even today in certain in certain Taoist traditions.

Shamanism: The Roots of Taoist Practice

There is much, in fact, from this early period of China’ history, and in particular its shamanistic world-view and practices, that is reflected in the subsequent emergence of Taoism.There is much, in fact, from this early period of China’s history, and in particular its shamanistic world-view and practices, that is reflected in the subsequent emergence of Taoism. Spirit-travel to planets, stars and galaxies is a practice found within the Shangging sect of Taoism. Taoist magicians use talismans to invoke the powers and protection of supernatural beings. Components of many Taoist rituals and ceremonies, as well as certain forms of qigong, are oriented toward communication with the plant and animal kingdoms. And the practices of Inner Alchemy are designed to produce, from the very bodies of its practitioners, the mystic wine of ecstatic spiritual union.

Zhuangzi’s Butterfly

Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) – one of the earliest and greatest of the Taoist philosophers – wrote about a dream he had, in which he was a yellow butterfly. And then he woke, to discover that he was a man. But then he wondered: now am I a man who just dreamt he was a butterfly; or a butterfly who is now dreaming that he is a man? In this story we find, again, elements of the shamanistic experience: dream-time, shape-shifting, flying, communication with non-human realms of being.

No one knows what Zhuangzi’s answer to his question was. What we do know is that even though historically the era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors – with its shamanistic world-view and practices — may be past, its mythological resonance is still palpable, and its essence quite alive, within the traditions of TAOIST WORSHIP AND PRACTICE OF TODAY.

Perhaps the Taoists are really shamans, just dreaming that they’re Taoists? [3]

Chinese Gods

People worshipped many different gods in ancient China. Some of these gods have been worshipped since the Shang Dynasty (about 1600 BC and 1046 BC). Other Chinese gods became popular later on.

Some of these gods are representations of the weather or natural forces like the sun or the moon or the rain or floods or drought.  For instance, the goddess Ba, the daughter of Heaven, is a personification of drought (she’s what drought would look like, if drought were a person.). Yu-huang is a sky god, and Fei Lian and Feng Po Po are wind gods. Lei-Kung and Lei-zi are the gods of thunder and lightning. Heng O is the moon goddess. Gong gong is the god of disastrous floods. Han is the god of the Han river – there were many such minor gods, each responsible for a particular river or mountain. Huo i is the god of millet, an important food in northern China..

Sometimes people made abstract ideas into gods, like Cai-shen, the god of prosperity, who you could pray to for success in business, for instance. Fan-kui is the god of butchers, and Sun-pi is the god of cobblers (shoe-makers). Fu-xing is the god of happiness, and Gong De Tian is the goddess of luck. Wei-tuo is the god of teaching.

Cheng-huang protects your city from enemies and brings rain for your crops, and help you get to Heaven after you die. Tsao Wang is the god of you hearth, who watches over your house. Every year he reports on how you have behaved and brings you good luck if you have been good and bad luck if you have been bad. 

Some gods are based on Taoist ideas, like the eight gods of the Ba Xian (or Pa Hsein,) who represent eight ways of being human: baeing young, being old, being old being rich, being a peasant, being an aristocrat, being a boy, and being a girl. (The way these are organized into opposites reflects the Taoist idea of Yin and Yang.)

Other Taoist gods include Bixia Yuanjin, the goddess of dawn and childbirth, and Chu Jiang, a god of the dead in the underworld. Some are based on great victorious generals, actual men who were remembered in this way. Kuan-Ti, the Taoist god of war, was a real general of the Han Dynasty.

Some Chinese gods are great Buddhists of the past, who are now in Heaven. Dha-shi-zhi, for example, broke the cycle of reincarnation with her great love, and now welcomes souls to Heaven in the form of flowers. Di-Cang is a great Buddhist who releases the souls of the dead from the underworld. Kuan-Yin is a goddess of Mercy, who helps childless women.[4]

(The origins of  the Chinese religion,Taoism, definitely goes back long before recorded Chinese history, even long before the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE.) It is entirely based on early primitive shamanistic ritual worship based on early man’s relationship with his natural environment and the extremities of the forces of nature. The early Chinese believed in a polytheistic worship, attributing each physical force under the control of a different deity. These early Chinese/Taoist gods and the ritual worship certainly pre-dates the Shang Dynasty and embraces the ancient practices of ancient Chinese shamanism, and it certainly pre-dates the philosophies of K’ung-fu-tzu, Lao Tzu, Mencius, Zhuangzi and many others by many hundreds of years. But these latter philosophers, mentioned, have had their influence and input into the religious life of China and Taoism by the absorption of some of the moral ethics from these philosophers, but the input of these sages were as moral/ethical philosophers rather than as prophets or strictly religious philosophers. This distinction differs from the input of prophets in the Abrahamic religions where their revelations were from god.
The purpose of this essay is to clarify the confusion of the origins of Chinese religion and to appreciate where it came from and how.

In order to get a proper perspective of the evolution of Chinese religious ideologies and observe the input of non-religious and semi-religious philosophies into Taoism, it is essential to get a proper perspective to the time scale of events. Bearing in mind that the origins of Taoism is based on early shamanistic traditions and rituals going back to pre-recorded Chinese history, i.e. approximately more than 5000 years ago, let us put into context the time line of ancient Chinese philosophers: )

Buddhist (Hindu) Philosophy and its Influence

Buddhism in China: Beginnings

Buddhism first reached China from India roughly 2,000 years ago, during the Han Dynasty. Han Dynasty China was deeply Confucian, and Confucianism is focused on maintaining harmony and social order in the here-and-now world. Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasized entering the monastic life to seek a reality beyond reality. Confucian China was not terribly friendly to Buddhism.

However, Buddhism found an ally in China’s other indigenous religion, Taoism. Taoist and Buddhist meditation practices and philosophies were similar in many respects, and some Chinese took an interest in Buddhism from a Taoist perspective. Early translations of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese borrowed Taoist terminology. Still, during the Han Dynasty very few Chinese practised Buddhism.

Buddhism in China: Early Gains and Losses

The Han Dynasty fell in 220, beginning a period of social and political chaos in China. The northern part of China was overrun by non-Chinese tribes, and the southern part was ruled by a succession of weak dynasties. This chaos also weakened the hold of Confucianism among the ruling class.

In south China, a kind of “gentry Buddhism” became popular among educated Chinese that stressed learning and philosophy. The elite of Chinese society freely associated with the growing number of Buddhist monks and scholars. The dialog between Buddhism and Taoism continued, and the Taoist influence caused the Chinese to favour Mahayana over Theravada Buddhism.

In north China, Buddhist monks who were masters of divination became advisers to rulers of the “barbarian” tribes. Some of these rulers became Buddhists and supported monasteries and the ongoing work of translating the Sanskrit texts into Chinese. This separation of north and south China caused Buddhism to develop into northern and southern schools in China.

In the 5th century, the Wei dynasty of northern China absorbed the other tribes, and by 440 it controlled all of northern China. In 446 the Wei ruler, Emperor Taiwu, began a brutal suppression of Buddhism — all Buddhist temples, texts and art were to be destroyed, and the monks were to be executed. At least some part of the northern sangha hid from authorities and escaped execution, however.

Taiwu died in 452; his successor, Emperor Wencheng, ended the suppression and began a restoration of Buddhism that included sculpting of the magnificent grottoes of Yungang. [7]

 

Is Buddhism a Religion or a Hindu Philosophy?

It is neither a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly understood, for it is not “A SYSTEM OF FAITH AND WORSHIP OWING ANY ALLEGIANCE TO A SUPERNATURAL BEING.”

BUDDHISM DOES NOT DEMAND BLIND FAITH FROM ITS ADHERENTS. Here mere belief is dethroned and is substituted by confidence based on knowledge, which, in Pali, is known as saddha. The confidence placed by a follower on the Buddha is like that of a sick person in a noted physician, or a student in his teacher. A Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha because it was he who discovered the path of deliverance.

A Buddhist does not seek refuge in the Buddha with the hope that he will be saved by his (i.e. the Buddha’s own) personal purification. The Buddha gives no such guarantee. It is not within the power of a Buddha to wash away the impurities of others. One could neither purify nor defile another. The Buddha, as teacher, instructs us, but we ourselves are directly responsible for our purification. Although a Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha, he does not make any self-surrender. Nor does a Buddhist sacrifice his freedom of thought by becoming a follower of the Buddha. He can exercise his own free will and develop his knowledge even to the extent of becoming a Buddha himself.

The starting point of Buddhism is reasoning or understanding, or, in the Pali words, samma-ditthi.

To the seekers of truth the Buddha says:

“Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay — (i.e., thinking that thus have we heard it for a long time). Do not accept anything by mere tradition — (i.e., thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations). Do not accept anything on account of mere rumours — (i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation). Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything by mere suppositions. Do not accept anything by mere inference. Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons. Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions. Do not accept anything merely because it seems acceptable — (i.e., thinking that as the speaker seems to be a good person his words should be accepted). Do not accept anything thinking that the ascetic is respected by us (therefore it is right to accept his word).

“But when you know for yourselves — these things are immoral, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken conduce to ruin and sorrow — then indeed do you reject them.

(Buddhists know,) “When you know for yourselves — these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness — then do you live acting accordingly.”

(In order to achieve Nirvana. This certainly sounds like “moral philosophy.”)

These inspiring words of the Buddha still retain their original force and freshness.

Though there is no blind faith, one might argue whether there is no worshipping of images etc., in Buddhism.

Buddhists do not worship any image (or any representation of any god or Buddha) expecting worldly or spiritual favours, but pay their reverence to that it (Buddhist philosophy) represents.

(This clearly identifies that Buddhism is non-Theist therefore can only be a “moral philosophy.”)

An understanding Buddhist, in offering flowers and incense to an image, designedly makes himself feel that he is in the presence of the living Buddha and thereby gains inspiration from his noble personality and breathes deep his boundless compassion. He tries to follow the Buddha’s noble example.

The Bo-tree is also a symbol of Enlightenment. These external objects of reverence are not absolutely necessary, but they are useful as they tend to concentrate one’s attention. An intellectual person could dispense with them as he could easily focus his attention and visualize the Buddha. For our own good, and out of gratitude, we pay such external respect but what the Buddha expects from his disciple is not so much obeisance as the actual observance of his Teachings. The Buddha says — “He honors me best who practices my teaching best.” “He who sees the Dhamma sees me.”

With regard to images, however, Count Kevserling remarks — “I see nothing more grand in this world than the image of the Buddha. It is an absolutely perfect embodiment of spirituality in the visible domain.” 

(Kevserling’s remarks suggest that the “image of Buddha” is the subconscious human concept of their object of worship, a figurative god even when Buddhist doctrines does not recognise any image for worship.)

Furthermore, it must be mentioned that there are no petition or intercessory prayers in Buddhism. However much we may pray to the Buddha we cannot be saved. The Buddha does not grant favours to those who pray to him. Instead of petition prayers there is meditation that leads to self-control, purification and enlightenment. Meditation is neither a silent reverie nor keeping the mind blank. It is an active striving. It serves as a tonic both to the heart and the mind. The Buddha not only speaks of the futility of offering prayers but also disparages a slave mentality. A Buddhist should not pray to be saved, but should rely on himself and win his freedom.

“Prayers take the character of private communications, selfish bargaining with God. It seeks for objects of earthly ambitions and inflames the sense of self. Meditation on the other hand is self-change.” — Sri Radhakrishnan.

In Buddhism there is not, as in most other religions, an Almighty God to be obeyed and feared. The Buddha does not believe in a cosmic potentate, omniscient and omnipresent. In Buddhism there are no divine revelations or divine messengers. A Buddhist is, therefore, not subservient to any higher supernatural power which controls his destinies and which arbitrarily rewards and punishes. Since Buddhists do not believe in revelations of a divine being Buddhism does not claim the monopoly of truth and does not condemn any other religion. But Buddhism recognizes the infinite latent possibilities of man and teaches that man can gain deliverance from suffering by his own efforts independent of divine help or mediating priests.

Buddhism cannot, therefore, strictly be called a religion because it is neither a system of faith and worship, nor “the outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a God or gods having power over their own destiny to whom obedience, service, and honour are due.”

(But) If, by religion, is meant “a teaching which takes a view of life that is more than superficial, a teaching which looks into life and not merely at it, a teaching which furnishes men with a guide to conduct that is in accord with this its in-look, a teaching which enables those who give it heed to face life with fortitude and death with serenity,” or a system to get rid of the ills of life, then it is certainly (possibly) a religion of religions.[8]

CONFUCIANISM

Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (Kǒng Fūzǐ, or K’ung-fu-tzu, lit. “Master Kong”, 551–478 BC). Confucianism originated as an “ethical-sociopolitical teaching” during the “Spring and Autumn Period,” but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han Dynasty. Following the abandonment of “Legalism” in China after the Qin Dynasty. Confucianism became “the official state ideology” (not religion) of China, until it was reolaced by the “Three Principles of the People” ideology with the establishment of the Republic of China, and then Maoist Communism after the Republic of China was replaced by the “People’s Republic of China across Mainland China.

The core of Confucianism is “HUMANISM,” the belief that human being are teachable, improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavour especially including self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li.

Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community.
Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good.
Li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should act within a community.

Confucianism holds that one should give up one’s life, if necessary, either passively or actively, for the sake of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi.

Confucianism is Humanistic and Non-Theistic, and does not involve a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god.

On spirituality, Confucius said to Chi Lu, one of his students, that “You are not yet able to serve men, how can you serve spirits?”
Attributes that may be seen as religious—such as “ancestor worship, ritual, and sacrifice—were advocated by Confucius as necessary for social harmony; however, these attributes can be traced to the traditional non-Confucian Chinese beliefs of “Chinese folk religion (shamanism), and are also practised by Daoist and Chinese Buddhist. Using strict definitions of religion, Confucianism has been described as a ” science of
moral philosophy” and not a religion. But, Confucianism could be described as a “sociopolitical doctrine” having religious qualities. However there will be some who will integrate Confucianism philosophies with rituals from other religions and treat it as a religion, erroneously of course. Such is the nature of man.

(Thus we see that the void of a deeper religious philosophy in early Taoism was complimented by the early Chinese philosophers (Confucius) as well as the moral philosophy of Buddhism introduced during the Han Dynasty. So on the foundations of the ancient Taoist gods of shamanism and its rituals was imposed varying ethical and moral philosophies of Chinese sages of old. This is the reason there exists a vague demarcation between religious philosophy as related to revelations from god, and that of moral or ethical philosophy as espoused by moral philosophers.)

REFLECTIONS OF CHINESE RELIGIONS

Although the basis of the Chinese culture is based on her religion, her philosophies, her customs and values of life, her governance, her educational system, yet there seems to be vagueness about Chinese religious doctrines, based on the article above. There are many who claim that their religious beliefs are Confucianism or Buddhism. My immediate reaction is, “Is it possible to worship a moral philosophy without the concept of a supernatural being, a god?” It would certainly be difficult for those brought up with Abrahamic faiths to conceive. It would be like, “Admiring and worshipping the American Constitution, or Worshipping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or worshipping the Communist Manifesto, and claiming that they are worshipping that concept or philosophy and labelling it as a religious belief.” I agree, there are those who treat they loyalty to those concepts as though it were a matter of life or death, but it does not qualify such ideologies as religious ideologies. So it would appear that there is a vagueness and misconception of what constitutes a conventional concept of a religion and that of a “conviction.”

When someone says, “His religion is Confucianism, what does he really mean?” Does he worship and pray to “the philosophy of Confucius” or “to K’ung Fu Tzu” or possibly has in mind, “Yu-huang” or “Lei-Kung” or “Kuan-Yin” who are all gods and goddesses of the ancient Shamanistic religions of ancient China? So there is some overlapping of concepts of Confucianism and Shamanism. Do Confucian pray to a god or to no god? Do they even pray?

Similarly, the same applies to Buddhism. Do Buddhists pray to the “moral philosophy of Buddha,” “to the spirit of Siddhārtha Gautama,” to the image of “The Buddha,” or visualise mentally the gods, “Yu-huang,” “Lei-Kung,” or “Kuan-Yin,” who are all gods and goddessess of Shamanism.

What is portrayed in the Temples, and what is instilled in the minds of the people through their educational, and cultural exposure is a vague and unmapped region of the Chinese culture. There is no doubt that this vagueness exists from various discussions with people who have expressed their beliefs. There must exist millions of different perceptions of religions in the country as the permutations and combinations of the different mixtures and combinations of philosophies exists in China. The rituals and beliefs of various Temples too will vary considerably from one another.

So when we discuss religious beliefs in China we are discussing a very complex issue with Chinese religious beliefs and ritual going back over 5000 years. It would be folly to attempt to compare or equate Chinese religions with that of the Abrahamic religions. The basis and origins are entirely different.  

 

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