Chinese Buddhism, by Joseph Edkins, , at sacred-texts.com
The Sung philosophers differ from Confucius—Five periods of Chinese intellectual development—The Sung writers changed the old cosmogony—The Han writers had already done so—Diagram of the Great Extreme—Other pictorial illustrations—Avoidance of the doctrine of a personal God—Materialistic philosophy of nature—New view of divination.
THE Sung philosophers were separated about fifteen hundred years from Confucius. During this long period differences might well spring up, which accordingly we find.
In reverence for antiquity and the inculcation of the five constant virtues, in teaching the principles of perpetual and universal morality, and in drawing the attention of their countrymen to the ancient models of wisdom and virtue, they agreed with Confucius.
In their cosmogony, their philosophy of nature, their attitude in regard to the ancient practice of divination, and in their explanation of the sovereign power in the world as an abstraction, they differed widely from Confucius.
Four great stages of literary and national development may be pointed to as intervening between the great sage and the age called that of the Sung ju. Each of them embraced the course of three or four centuries. The first is that of Mencius, Siün King, Meh Ti, and Küh Yuen. Orthodox philosophers, heretic philosophers, and a highly popular poet indicated the medley of unfixed thought in which, at
that time, the public mind was involved. It was a time of struggle for Confucian and orthodox doctrine, against various speculators in morals and politics who wished to advance some one principle to the detriment of others. But Tauist doctrine was growing yearly in strength.
The second is the Han period. A cloud of critical expounders of orthodoxy, fine historians, editors of the classics, astronomers, astrologers, alchemists, and Tauist philosophers marked this age. Though the authority of Confucius was upheld, and the classics maintained in profound veneration, the tone of speculation was predominantly Tauist. The air was rife with legendary lore. Tauist magic, the hermit life, the medicine of immortality were fervently believed in, and magicians were honoured with popular veneration. The fault of the age was its superstition. Its redeeming feature was its ardent and successful efforts for promoting the restoration of the ancient books and their use in the education of youth.
The third age was Buddhist. It was that of the six dynasties. The riches of the country were lavished on Buddhist structures. In all parts of the empire the people adopted this Indian religion. Hindoo astronomy and mythology, the knowledge of the alphabet and of tones, and the introduction of Buddhist metaphysics date from this time. The Buddhists became a power in literature, and founded a native school of Indian philosophy.
The fourth age was that of the T‘ang dynasty. It was a time of luxury and poetry. Han Wen-kung and the poets divided the admiration of the literati of the time between them. The books made in the department of criticism were tonic dictionaries based on the new Indian spelling; no sages appeared, no philosophers of name excepting Han Wen-kung. Such an age of mental inaction and enervating prosperity must be succeeded by a period of mental energy.
Such a period ensued. It was that of the Sung ju, the philosophers who now undertook the restoration of the
weakened Confucianism, which, while retaining its position, had lost its influence over men's minds. When they appeared on the scene, it had become impossible to retain the system of the ancient sages in its pure and simple form. The religion, the politics, the customs, and superstitions of the people had all changed. But much might, thought they, be done, and the review of their efforts and achievements is a most curious section in the history of humanity, and fraught with salutary warning. They proceeded under the combined influence of Buddhism and Tauism, to extend and reconstruct the ancient system of cosmogony.
As we read the Yi-king, the very essence of ancient thought, and the combined work of the most venerated sages, we fail to recognise a distinct cosmogony. Confucius speaks of the Great Extreme as the commencement "of changes. It produced the two figures. These produced the four images, and these again the eight divining symbols." This statement looks ambiguous and uncertain in its meaning. The eight symbols are eight arrangements of strokes. We think, then, of primary arithmetic. Is there much in it besides twice one is two, twice two is four, twice four is eight? Confucius, before and after this passage, is talking of divination. He continues to say: "The eight symbols determine good and ill fortune, and these lead to great deeds. There are no imitable images greater than heaven and earth. There are no changes greater than the four seasons. There are no suspended images brighter than the sun and moon. In preparing things for use, there is none greater than the sage. In determining good and ill luck, there is nothing greater than the divining straws and the tortoise."
Evidently the chief thought of Confucius is upon divination, which was the imitation of natural phenomena succeeding each other in a certain order. If we understand the eight divining symbols to be eight departments of nature, as heaven, earth, fire, water, &c., then we may
construct a cosmogony out of the formula above cited. But the aim of the writer was rather to describe the world as the object of the wise man's inquiries, and to point out that he must imitate the laws of phenomenal change which he observes in heaven and earth, and that he may obtain the most valuable results by divination. While the sage looks at his straws, one becomes two, two become four, and four become eight, as the effect of certain transformations. One of the kwa, or "symbolic sets of lines," is made up of three or six. Take the former. We find there, say the Chinese, heaven, earth, and man in miniature. So, say I, we may find there anything we like. When the cosmogonical idea enters then, it is indirectly, and it was not the primary sense. In the Shu-king there is a passage which speaks of the Hwang-ki, the "Emperor's extreme" of perfection. The sense in which ki was here used was of course moral. In Chwang-tsï we meet with the words, "To be earlier than the Great Extreme, and yet not to be high." The commentator says that the phrase "Great Extreme" here means "heaven, earth, and man, included but not yet separated." Hwai-nan-tsï, a Tauist of the Han, says, "To lead out his class to a position higher than the Great Extreme." Here is the budding of that cosmogony which fructified in the Sung philosophers. The Tauists did what the early Confucianists failed to do. They commenced a cosmogony. We find it still more developed in the Ts‘an-t‘ung-ki, a work written by the noted Wei Pe-yang of the Han. Here appears the first map of the Chinese cosmogony, and it wants the "Great Extreme." Bent into three concentric circles are seen the li-kwa, representing "fire," and the k‘an-kwa, representing "water." In the li-kwa, the middle is black and the sides are white. In the k‘an-kwa the middle is white and the sides are black. They rudely picture a fire giving out flames, and a shining river flowing between two banks. Below this are five small circles, representing the five elements, wood and fire being on the left, metal and water on the right.
This diagram was put to a fertile use by the Sung philosophers. They added to it a hollow circle, to represent the "Great Extreme" above, and two hollow circles to represent heaven and earth below. Afterwards Chu fu-tsï made a change. He thought he would improve the diagram by throwing out the elements and introducing in their place the great and little yin, and the great and little yang. He changed heaven and earth, "the two figures," into yin and yang.
The Sung philosophers, while they extended the cosmogony by adding the map of the "Great Extreme," added also all the maps printed in the ordinary editions of the Yi-king. These maps are not found in any text, nor as prefatory matter are they earlier than the Sung. The Buddhists brought the notion of pictorial illustrations with them from India. Before their time the Chinese made very limited use of illustrated diagrams. Probably the Buddhists took the notion from the Greeks, subsequently to the age of Alexander, when Greeks were in juxtaposition with Hindoos and other Buddhist peoples in Bokharia, Cabul, Afghanistan, and the Punjab.
There were, however, sketches of star groups to the Sing-king, "Star classic" (by Kan and Shï) of the Han dynasty, and the strokes of the eight and sixty-four kwa in the Yi-king, Ts‘an-t‘ung-ki, and other works. The arithmetical combinations called Ho-t‘u and Lo-shu were also probably represented by dots or stars. Geometrical diagrams were not known. Though Chen Kung was aware of the property of the right-angled triangle arithmetically, i.e., that the squares of three and four are together equal to the square of five, he never thought of expressing it by a diagram. It needed the Greek genius to initiate the conceptions of geometry.
The later Chinese writers were unconsciously influenced much more by Buddhism, a product of the Indo-European mind, than they ever acknowledged; and they would, under the impressions made on them, imitate the greater
effort of the imagination which they there encountered. Thus they tried to complete the thought of the old sages of China, to fill up their outline, and to form into distinctness the shadowy shapes of more ancient ideas. The round line to represent the T‘ai-ki, the circle half white and half black with the curved diameter which marks light and darkness, or yin and yang, are new; and the old notion of the four seasons, which was popular in the Han dynasty as explaining the four siang or "images," was given up for the great yin and the little yin and the great yang and the little yang, phrases new to the Confucian doctrine. We cannot wonder that they gave up the four seasons, for how could the eight kwa come out of the seasons? Others said that the four siang, or "images," were the animals that pass through metamorphoses, such as the tortoise, the dragon, and the dragon-horse that bore on his back the arithmetical scheme or magic square offered to Yü the Great. But why follow out these ideas? They were unknown to Confucius. They extended the cosmogony without introducing the idea of a personal Creator. This was due to the influence of Buddhism, and the fact that the ancient books had not the doctrine. The peculiar form of their cosmogony was due to Buddhist influence, which inculcates faith in a creating and destroying Fate, blindly impartial, entirely impersonal, and incessantly efficient. If Buddhism had been truly a religion adapted to draw man back to God, his Sovereign and Judge, the true doctrine of creation would have been taught in the Indian Shastras, and the Chinese writers of the Sung dynasty would probably have adopted the idea. But the perversity of Hindoo philosophy was better pleased with irresistible Fate as a substitute for the Divine Ruler.
In taking example from the Buddhists in this particular, the Sung philosophers were the more willing, inasmuch as the teachers of Tauism had preferred the doctrine of spontaneous growth, to represent the origin of the world. The tendency of their speculations was to shut
out God from the world, so far as His being in any sense an active Creator.
This remark brings me, by a natural transition, to speak of the difference between Confucius and the Sung philosophers in regard to their philosophy of nature. In ancient China, the notion of five elements was already in existence, but it was not till the Tauists of the Han developed the doctrine that it assumed its modern form. It is remarkable that, after so great an interval, no gleam of a true science of nature should have entered into the intellects of the Sung philosophers. They were too much devoted to antiquity, and too lacking in independence, to shake off the yoke of a materialistic nomenclature.
The minds of Confucius and Mencius were warmed by moral considerations. Political and social questions were to them deeply interesting. They accepted the divination of the "Book of Changes" because Wen Wang and Cheu Kung were the saviours of the state and the advocates of benevolence and integrity. If divination by straws had been introduced, subsequently to the epoch of those sages, by men not taking the rank of sages, the moral instinct both of Confucius and Mencius would have absolutely refused all countenance to it.
Like credit cannot be claimed for the Sung philosophers. Wei Pe-yang, the Tauist of the Han dynasty, and others from whom they drew ideas, were not the representatives of a system which made morality its centre, but of alchemy and a doctrine of self-cultivation which inculcated physical aids instead of the simple teaching of genuine morality.
The extension of a physical philosophy weakens moral and religious sentiment. The alchemy and astrology of the Han made the Chinese nation less disposed to religious reverence. The occupation of the mind with materialistic ideas and aims obscures the spiritual vision and appetite. It was in this way, to no small extent, that the Chinese nation was prepared to receive Buddhism, partly from religious indifference, and in part also from a desire for
fervency in ritual and the acquisition of new spiritual objects on which to fix the soul's gaze. A thousand years more and Buddhism had had its trial, and been found wanting. What, then, should have been the course to be steadfastly pursued by the Confucianists of the Sung period? Undoubtedly, if they desired to follow the example of the sage, they should have opposed tooth and nail the Tauists and Buddhists. Both these religions are defective in the moral element, and that is the very soul of the Confucian system. They would have then done for the superstitious and heresies of their time what Confucius and Mencius did fifteen centuries before. When Luther, in Europe, made a stand for pure doctrine and against asceticism, he did what might to some small extent have been done by the Sung philosophers. Instead of this, they bowed their heads to superstition, allowed idolatry to increase in the land of Confucius, and raised no voice against it.
The most melancholy example of decay in moral and religious instinct is in the denial of a sovereign moral ruler in the universe, and the identification of God with reason and with primeval vapour. This is practically done by Chu fu-tsi, and he is on this account sharply condemned by writers of the present dynasty. The ancient Chinese understood by T‘ien either the personal Ruler of the world, or the physical firmament. Chu fu-tsï said T‘ien is nothing but li, "reason;" and elsewhere he identifies li with k‘i, "vapour." Such was the unhappy result of the spread of the Tauist physical system and the Buddhist atheism in China.
The last thing I shall mention is the different attitude of Confucius and the Sung philosophers in regard to divination.
When Confucius lived, the ancient magic was still in existence, and, if we take for granted the statements of the Kia-yü, he practised it himself. However this may be, he praised it to the skies in the Yi-king. Nothing
was to be compared with the straws and the tortoise for solving difficulties in politics, and for unravelling the enigmas of nature. He believed in divination because of its antiquity and the great names connected with it. The whole of it was swept away about the time of Ts‘in Shïh-wang, B.C. 220, not by that emperor himself, for he highly venerated it, but from want of faith on the part of the people. It is said that the reason was that the books were lost which taught the rules. If so, it was not by order of Ts‘in Shïh-wang. Want of faith is the more likely reason. The Sung philosophers certainly did not believe in the benefits attending the use of the straws and tortoise in divining, or they would have recommended to the reigning emperor that the old divination should be restored. The Sung writers do not in so many words deny the efficacy of divination. Their object is plain. They wish to veil the weaknesses of the ancient sages. It is necessary to do this in order to maintain the reverence accorded to the sages. They would not like to acknowledge the superstition of these much-admired men. But if driven closely in argument, the modern Confucianist admits the uselessness of divination, and that he himself is without faith in it.
If we are to believe the modern literati, the faults of the Sung ju are numberless. I have chosen a few of their novelties and heresies for the consideration of the student of Buddhism and the other religions of China.