Bathing Baby Buddha

The Eighth Day of the Fourth Month 四月初八 is celebrated as the Buddha’s Birthday. Falling on the 3rd of May 2017 the festivities are sandwiched between China’s 1st of May International Labor Day 國際勞動節, a public holiday that lasts until the 2nd of May and marked by a long weekend, and Youth Festival 青年節 on the 4th of May. May Fourth commemorates the student-led anti-imperialist demonstrations of 1919 that, along with the inspiration of the October 1917 Russian Revolution (the centenary of which is celebrated by some this year), contributed to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

Buddha’s Birthday in the hand of Yan Zhenqing 顏真卿 of the Tang dynasty. Source: Stele of the Many Pagodas 多寶塔碑 (the full name of which is: 大唐西京千福寺多寶佛塔感應碑文) from the 3rd of May 2017, Palace Museum Calendar 故宮日曆.

The birth of Siddhārtha Gautama, later Śākyamuni Buddha 釋迦牟尼佛, is celebrated with the ceremonial bathing of statues of Baby Buddha. Centuries after Siddhārtha’s birth, the Christ Child was said to have enjoyed an immaculate conception; the Buddha’s biological origins are marginally more prosaic, although his appearance in the world was no less miraculous: his mother dreamed of a white elephant entering her, and legend has it that she gave birth to the future Enlightened One (Buddha; 佛陀 in Chinese, 佛 for short; also written 浮屠) from the right side of her body.

Various traditions hold that at the time of Siddhārtha’s birth Celestial Beings and Rainbows appeared in the Heavens and that the Dragon King himself bathed the newborn in scented water. Therefore, in the world of Chinese Buddhism 漢傳佛教, the day is also known as the festival for Bathing the Buddha 浴佛節/灌佛會, as well as 龍華會.

Baby Buddha, Ming dynasty.

It is recorded in the Compendium of the Five Lamps 五燈會元, a Chan Buddhist text dating from the Southern Song, that:

As soon as the Respected One was born with one hand pointed heavenward and the other earthward he took seven steps and looking in all four directions he declared: In the Heavens and on Earth, I alone am the Most Honoured. 世尊纔生下,乃一手指天,一手指地,周行七步,目顧四方曰:天上天下,唯吾獨尊。

On the Eighth Day of the Fourth Month, temples in China and throughout the Buddhist world are open to worshippers and the public and many organise ceremonies for the bathing of Baby Buddha statues with sweetened and flower festooned water. Placed in lotus ponds (each step the infant Buddha took is said to have created a lotus flower) the child Buddha statues have one arm pointing heavenward and another at the ground, known in recent centuries as 指天畫地佛, a reference to the story about the Most Honoured One quoted above.

Just as the expression ‘point to Heaven and gesture towards the Earth’ 指天畫地 remains a common expression, although it usually means to be arrogant or unencumbered by concern for others, so too does the sentence ‘I alone am the Most Honoured’ 唯我獨尊 feature in popular culture meaning an unassailable sense of self-worth. Given the importance of cycles in Buddhist thought, and the fact that the significance of these two expressions would appear to have strayed from their rather humble origins, it may be some time before ‘what goes around comes around’.


The trickle-down effect of Chinese prosperity is like manna to institutional Buddhism. Lay devotees, more anxious for salve and salvation in the world of hypermaterialism assuage their piety with munificence that showers down on monks, lamas, Dharma Masters, shrines and temples alike. Just as in the lands of Christendom and Islam, China and Taiwan (not to mention Thailand) now too boast extravagant modern religious structures and gargantuan votive images. In their garish pomp they overshadow the simple message of Buddha: All is Suffering and Liberation from the endless Cycle of Rebirth and Becoming is only possible for those who disavow the material, eliminate desire and worldly aspirations, people who help others along the way and, through sheer dint of contemplation of Emptiness, achieve Nirvāṇa निर्वाण 涅槃 (literally ‘blowing out [of the candle of Being]’).

For power holders and commercial interests alike the contemporary Buddha Boom is a blessing, both commercially and politically. In the People’s Republic of China, patriotic Buddhism is extolled and guided with enthusiasm by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA 國家宗教事務局) and its institutional partners (the Chinese Buddhist Association 中國佛教協會, the united front bureaucracy, official media outlets, the army, police, party committees and paramilitary forces), and even schismatic Tibetan beliefs 藏傳佛教 are dragooned into service. It has even been reported that a Buddhist monk by the name of Youming 有明 had an impact on China’s Chairman of Everything, Xi Jinping, when he was a fledgling Party bureaucrat. There have even been persistent rumours that China’s First Lady, the former songstress Peng Liyuan 彭麗媛, is a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism. But, as in the 1950s, when Buddhists were press-ganged into supporting China’s involvement in the devastating bloodletting of the Korean War, religious figures are first and foremost obliged to support the state and its policies. As recently as March 2017, during the Two Congresses seasons in Beijing, Chengfa 誠法, the monk-head of the Buddhist Association, extolled Buddhism for the role it could play in the Party’s vaunted One Belt One Road 一帶一路 global strategy.

Caesar gets his cut of the offerings from the laity and, as long as the message of the bonzes is about peace, unity, harmony and stability, the otherworldly remains happily in sync with the China Dream on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As historians and commentators have long noted, since the revival of Confucian orthodoxy dating from the Southern Song dynasty, Buddhism, be it as a philosophical system or as a popular religion, flourishes during periods of dynastic uncertainty, political stress and social anomie. In this regard, perhaps the Buddha Boom is a more reliable indices than secular market indicators of the state of China’s atman.


This latest chapter in New Sinology Jottings considers the Sino-Buddhist Culture War that has ebbed and flowed for nearly two millennia, as well as various abiding aspects of Buddhism in China. My own interest in Buddhism dates back to teenage years spent reading Charles Luk 陸寬昱, D.T. Suzuki 鈴木大拙貞太郎, Lobsang RampaSwami Vivikenanda, Hermann Hesse, Lama Anagarika Govinda, Edward ConzeMax Müller, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, among many others, and learning about Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and Indian thought and religious practice, an undergraduate career studying with the great linguist J.W. de Jong and Tissa Rajapatirana (although Tissa enticed me more with the sensual poetry of Kālidāsa than the sober compositions of Aśvaghoṣa) and a rudimentary training in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Therefore, below we also note the complex and often-forgotten tradition of translation that helped shape Chinese letters and culture over the last two millennia. After all, even the Chinese words for past 過去, present 現在 and future 未來 are of foreign origin, translations from Sanskrit 梵文.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Eighth Day of the Fourth Month of the
Dingyou Year of the Rooster 2017

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844


The first reference to a birthday celebration in China comes in the context of popular temple festivals to commemorate the birth of the Buddha. The passage refers to the early third century:

On the Birthday of the Buddha festival [literally, washing the Buddha image], they prepare a lot of food and wine and spread mats on the road extending in an unbroken line for several miles. The crowds that come to watch and join the feast numbered nearly ten thousand people. The total cost was numbered in hundreds of millions. 每浴佛,多設酒飯,布席於路,經數十里,民人來觀及就食且萬人,費以巨億記。…

Starting in the Tang, it became the norm to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday on the 8th of the 4th month.

— Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual, Fourth Edition, 2015, p.165.

Photograph by Lois Conner.


On a Bone from Buddha’s Body: A Memorial to the Throne

Han Yu 韓愈

translated by Herbert A. Giles

In this famous Memorial to the Throne in which he calls on the ruler to reject Buddhism, Han Yu (退之, 768-824), a Tang dynasty writer and poet, gives voice to a kind of elite Chinese Orthodoxy, or something akin to what in more modern times is called Fundamentalism (原教旨主義 in Chinese). His objections to Buddhism, which very much reflect nativist rejections of the religion that long predate his memorial, do not touch on the philosophical underpinnings of the Mahāyāna credo or Buddhist teachings related to compassion, universal salvation or transcendence. They focus rather on the transactional deficiencies of this foreign, heterodox cult.

Han argues that the Throne should at least expect to gain material benefit from their beliefs, in particular longevity. Here he plays on the emperor’s vanity, and is guilty of lèse majesté in suggesting that if the emperor persists in supporting the Buddhist cult of relics he threatens his own longevity. In the process he appeals to the teachings of China’s homegrown sages. Reaching back into the dark recesses of myth, he claims Chinese rulers of yore were all long lived, proof that their ritual behaviour and kingly virtues bestowed upon them a munificent earthly existence. If dedication to Buddha cannot extend life to the century mark, the writer declares, as well as vouchsafe the continuity of the dynasty, his teachings are invalid. Short-lived monarchs 運祚不長 (literally ‘fated good-fortune was but short-lived’) are a sure indication of the failures of this foreign belief. Furthermore, Buddha, apart from his barbarian origins, alien speech and dress, had no understanding of the hierarchical bond between ruler and ruled, father and son.

It is easy to sympathise with Han Yu’s disgust with the Buddhist cult of relics and the practice of physical mutilation by zealots but he is less convincing when he rejects without a moment’s consideration the complex ideas of Buddhists as mere ‘delusive mummery’ 詭異之觀 and ‘ridiculous beliefs’ 戲玩之具. Nonetheless, Han’s courage in remonstrating with the throne, his superior moral stance, or 固窮 as it is expressed in The Analects, is a quality once extolled by disciples of the Chinese Master, but in little evidence among his modern-day apostles and their foreign lickspittles 幫閒.

Patrons at court saved Han Yu from being sent into exile. His writings and advocacy not only of the teachings of Confucius and the Sage Kings, but also the written style of pre-Han times, would have a profound impact and would influence the rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty. As China’s party-state promotes an official China Story and continues to propagate Confucius Institutes around the world, the style and message of Han Yu provide a sobering lesson for those interested in one strand of long-lived intellectual pusillanimity.


Your Majesty’s servant would submit that Buddhism is but a cult of the barbarians, and that its spread in China dates only from the later Han dynasty, and that the ancients knew nothing of it. 臣某言:伏以佛者,夷狄之一法耳,自後漢時流入中國,上古未嘗有也。

Of old, Huangdi sat on the throne one hundred years, dying at the age of one hundred and ten. Shao Hao sat on the throne eighty years and died at the age of a hundred. Zhuanxu sat on the throne seventy-nine years and died at the age of ninety-eight. Digu sat on the throne seventy years and died at the age of a hundred and fifty. The Emperor Yao sat on the throne ninety-eight years and died at the age of a hundred and eighteen; and the Emperors Shun and Yu both attained the age of one hundred years. At that epoch the Empire was tranquil, and the people happy in the attainment of old age; and yet no Buddha had yet reached China. Subsequently, the Emperor Tang of the Yin dynasty reached the age of a hundred years; his grandson Taimou reigned for seventy-five years; and Wu Ting reigned for fifty-nine years. Their exact ages are not given in the annals, but at the lowest computation these can hardly have been less than a hundred years. Wen Wang of the Zhou dynasty reached the age of ninety-seven, Wu Wang reached the age of ninety-three; and Mu Wang reigned for one hundred years; and as at that date likewise the Buddhist religion had not reached China, these examples of longevity cannot be attributed to the worship of the Lord Buddha. 昔者黃帝在位百年,年百一十歲;少昊在位八十年,年百歲;顓頊在位七十九年,年九十八歲;帝嚳在位七十年,年百五歲;帝堯在位九十八年,年百一十八歲;帝舜及禹,年皆百歲。此時天下太平,百姓安樂壽考,然而中國未有佛也。其後殷湯亦年百歲,湯孫太戊在位七十五年,武丁在位五十九年,書史不言其年壽所極,推其年數,蓋亦俱不減百歲。周文王年九十七歲,武王年九十三歲,穆王在位百年。此時佛法亦未入中國,非因事佛而致然也。

The Añjali Mudrā Śarīra Pagoda of Famen Temple 法門寺合十舍利塔, opened at the time of Buddha’s Birthday, May 2009. Designed in the shape of prayerful hands it is a reliquary for a Buddha bone (śarīra 舍利子) held at the Famen Temple, which itself dates from the late-Han dynasty.

The Buddhist religion was in fact introduced during the reign of Mingdi of the Han dynasty; and that Emperor sat on the throne but eighteen years. After him came rebellion upon rebellion, with short-lived monarchs. 漢明帝時,始有佛法,明帝在位,才十八年耳。其後亂亡相繼,運祚不長。

During the Song, Qi, Liang, Chen, Yuan and Wei dynasties, and so on downwards, the Buddhistic religion gradually spread. The duration of those dynasties was comparatively short, only the Emperor Wudi of the Liang dynasty reigning for so long as forty-eight years. Thrice he devoted himself to the service of Buddha; at the sacrifices in his ancestral shrines no living victims were used; he daily took but one single meal, and that composed of fruits and vegetables; yet he was harassed by the rebel Hou Jing and died of hunger at Taicheng, soon after which his dynasty came to an end. He sought happiness in the worship but found misfortune instead; from which it must be clear to all that Buddha himself is after all but an incompetent God. 宋、齊、梁、陳、元魏已下,事佛漸謹,年代尤促,惟梁武帝在位四十八年,前後三度捨身施佛,宗廟之祭,不用牲牢,晝日一食,止於菜果,其後竟為侯景所逼,餓死台城,國亦尋滅。事佛求福,乃更得禍。由此觀之,佛不足事,亦可知矣。

When Gaozu [Li Shimin, founding emperor of the Tang dynasty] obtained the Empire he contemplated the extermination of this religion; but the officials of that day were men of limited capabilities; they did not understand the way of our rulers of old; they did not understand the exigencies of the past and present; they did not understand how to avail themselves of His Majesty’s wisdom, and root out this evil. Therefore, the execution of this design was delayed, to your servant’s infinite sorrow. 高祖始受隋禪,則議除之。當時群臣材識不遠,不能深知先王之道,古今之宜,推闡聖明,以救斯弊,其事遂止,臣常恨焉。

Now your present Majesty, endowed with wisdom and courage such as are without parallel in the annals of the past thousand years, prohibited on your accession to the throne the practice of receiving candidates, whether male or female, for priestly orders, prohibiting likewise the erection of temples and monasteries; which caused your servant to believe that the mantle of Gaozu had descended on Your Majesty’s shoulders. And even should prohibition be impossible, patronage would still be out of the question. 伏維睿聖文武皇帝陛下,神聖英武,數千百年已來,未有倫比。即位之初,即不許度人為僧尼道士,又不許創立寺觀。臣常以為高祖之志,必行於陛下之手,今縱未能即行,豈可恣之轉令盛也?

Yet your servant has now heard that instructions have been issued to the priestly community to proceed to Fengxiang and receive a bone of Buddha, and that from a high tower in the palace Your Majesty will view its introduction into the Imperial Palace; also that orders have been sent to the various temples, commanding that the relic be received with the proper ceremonies. 今聞陛下令群僧迎佛骨於鳳翔,御樓以觀,舁入大內,又令諸寺遞迎供養。

Leshan Buddha 樂山大佛, Tang dynasty. Photograph by Lois Conner.

Now, foolish though your servant may be, he is well aware that your Majesty does not do this in the vain hope of deriving advantages therefrom; but that in the fulness of our present plenty, and in the joy which reigns in the hearts of all, there is a desire to fall in with the wishes of the people in the celebration at the capital of this delusive mummery. For how could the wisdom of Your Majesty stoop to participation in such ridiculous beliefs? 臣雖至愚,必知陛下不惑於佛,作此崇奉,以祈福祥也。直以年豐人樂,徇人之心,為京都士庶設詭異之觀,戲玩之具耳。安有聖明若此,而肯信此等事哉!

Still the people are slow of perception and easily beguiled; and should they behold Your Majesty thus earnestly worshipping at the feet of Buddha they would cry out, ‘See! the Son of Heaven, the All-Wise, is a fervent believer; who are we, his people, that we should spare our bodies?’ Then would ensue a scorching of heads and burning of fingers; crowds would collect together, and tearing off their clothes and scattering their money, would spend their time from morn to eve in imitation of Your Majesty’s example. The result would be that by and by young and old, seized with the same enthusiasm, would totally neglect the business of their lives; and should Your Majesty not prohibit it, they would be found flocking to the temples, ready to cut off an arm or slice their bodies as an offering to the God. Thus would our traditions and customs be seriously injured, and ourselves become a laughing-stock on the face of the earth;―truly, no small matter! 然百姓愚冥,易惑難曉,苟見陛下如此,將謂真心事佛,皆雲:「天子大聖,猶一心敬信;百姓何人,豈合更惜身命!」焚頂燒指,百十為群,解衣散錢,自朝至暮,轉相仿效,惟恐後時,老少奔波,棄其業次。若不即加禁遏,更歷諸寺,必有斷臂臠身以為供養者。傷風敗俗,傳笑四方,非細事也。

For Buddha was a barbarian. His language was not the language of China; his clothes were of an alien cut. He did not utter the maxims of our ancient rulers, nor conform to the customs which they have handed down. He did not appreciate the bond between prince and minister, the tie between father and son. 夫佛本夷狄之人,與中國言語不通,衣服殊制;口不言先王之法言,身不服先王之法服;不知君臣之義,父子之情。

Supposing, indeed, this Buddha had come to our capital in the flesh, under an appointment from his own State, then your Majesty might have received him with a few words of admonition, bestowing on him a banquet and a suit of clothes, previous to sending him out of the country with an escort of soldiers, and thereby have avoided any dangerous influence on the minds of the people. But what are the facts? The bone of a man long since dead and decomposed, is to be admitted, forsooth, within the precincts of the Imperial Palace! 假如其身至今尚在,奉其國命,來朝京師,陛下容而接之,不過宣政一見,禮賓一設,賜衣一襲,衛而出之於境,不令惑眾也。況其身死已久,枯朽之骨,凶穢之餘,豈宜令入宮禁?

Confucius said, ‘Pay all respect to spiritual beings, but keep them at a distance.’ And so, when the princes of old paid visits of condolence to one another, it was customary for them to send on a magician in advance, with a peach wand in his hand, whereby to expel all noxious influences previous to the arrival of his master. 孔子曰:「敬鬼神而遠之。」古之諸侯,行吊於其國,尚令巫祝先以桃茢祓除不祥,然後進吊。

The Foguangshan Buddha Museum 佛光山佛陀紀念館, Kaohsiung, Taiwan. This vast complex which opened in 2011 was built to house what is supposedly a tooth of the Buddha.

Yet now Your Majesty is about to causelessly introduce a disgusting object, personally taking part in the proceedings without the intervention either of the magician or of his peach wand. Of the officials, not one has raised his voice against it; of the censors, not one has pointed out the enormity of such an act. Therefore your servant, overwhelmed with shame, implores Your Majesty that this bone may be handed over for destruction by fire or water, whereby the root of this great evil may be exterminated for all time, and the people know how much the wisdom of Your Majesty surpasses that of ordinary men. The glory of such a deed will be beyond all praise. And should the Lord Buddha have power to avenge this insult by the infliction of some misfortune, then let the vials of his wrath be poured out upon the person of your servant who now calls Heaven to witness that he will not repent him of his oath. 今無故取朽穢之物,親臨觀之,巫祝不先,桃茹不用,群臣不言其非,御史不舉其失,臣實恥之。乞以此骨付之有司,投諸水火,永絕根本,斷天下之疑,絕後代之惑。使天下之人,知大聖人之所作為,出於尋常萬萬也。豈不盛哉! 豈不快哉! 佛如有靈,能作禍祟,凡有殃咎,宜加臣身,上天鑒臨,臣不怨悔。

In all gratitude and sincerity your Majesty’s servant now humbly presents, with fear and trembling, this Memorial for your Majesty’s benign consideration. 無任感激懇悃之至,謹奉表以聞。臣某誠惶誠恐。

Gems of Chinese Literature, 1922.

A votary image at one of the rebuilt temples devoted to the memory of Han Yu, a man celebrated as the first of the Eight Masters of Tang and Song Prose 唐宋八大家.

Patrons at court saved Han Yu from execution, but he was sent into exile. As Charles Hartman writes in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature:

He was among that small group of writers whose works not only became classics of the language — required reading for all those with claims to literacy in succeeding generations — but whose writings redefine and change the course of tradition itself … . And he was a major influence on the literary and intellectual life of his time, an important spokesman for a rejuvenated traditionalism that later emerged as Song Neo-Confucianism.

Today, as China’s party-state promotes an official China Story and spawns Confucius Institutes around the world, the style and message of Han Yu provide a sobering lesson for those interested in one virulent strand of China’s long-lived intellectual pusillanimity.

For a crucial text in Han Yu’s pro-Confucian anti-Buddhist and Taoist fulminations, see his True Faith of a Confucianist 原道, also translated by Giles. It ends with a call to arms:

[I]t will be asked, what is the remedy? I answer that unless these false doctrines are rooted out, the true faith will not prevail. Let us insist that the followers of Laozi and Buddha behave themselves like ordinary mortals. Let us burn their books. Let us turn their temples into dwelling-houses. Let us make manifest the Method of our ancient kings in order that men may be led to embrace its teachings. Thus, and thus only, will there be wherewithal to feed the widow and the orphan, to nourish the cripple and the sick;— and the scheme is feasible enough. 然則如之何而可也?曰,不塞不流,不止不行。人其人,火其書,廬其居。明先王之道以道之。鰥寡孤獨廢疾者有養也,其亦庶乎其可也。

On Teachers 師說, one of the best known essays by Han Yu, remains a basic text for students of Chinese and Chinese literature. It has been translated into English by various hands.


For many, however, the sterile teachings of Confucius and China’s worldly sages failed to address what Karl Marx in the above calls the ‘soul of the soulless condition’. Worldly aspiration and longevity are central to the materialist underpinnings of orthodox Chinese life, but metaphysical yearnings, be they couched in the language of Lao-Zhuang, the various schools of Buddhism, or later Christianity, continue to bedevil China’s power holders and cultural patriots. In a refutation of Han Yu’s hysterical anti-Buddhism, the Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元, 773-819), a friend of Han’s, offers a graceful embrace of the foreign creed in terms clearly articulated much earlier in a text known as Master Mou’s Settling of Confusion 牟子理惑論. Liu is regarded as the second of the Eight Masters of Tang and Song Prose and, temperament aside, his literary and stylistic affinity with Han Yu has led the pair to be known by the shorthand Han-Liu 韓柳.

Beauties of Buddhism 送僧浩初序

Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元

translated by Herbert A. Giles

My learned and estimable friend Han Yu has often reproached my penchant for Buddhism and the intercourse that I hold with its priests. And now a letter from him has just reached me, in which he blames me severely for not having denounced the religion in a recent address forwarded to another friend. 儒者韓退之與予善,嚐病予嗜浮屠言,訾予與浮屠遊。近隴西李生礎自東都來,退之又寓書罪予,且曰:「見《送元生序》,不斥浮屠。」

In point of fact, there is much in Buddhism which could not well be denounced; scilicet, all those tenets which are based on principles common to our own sacred books. And it is precisely to these essentials, at once in perfect harmony with human nature and the teachings of Confucius, that I give in my adhesion. 浮屠誠有不可斥者,往往與《易》《論語》合,誠樂之,其於性情奭然,不與孔子異道。

Han Yu himself could not be a warmer advocate of moral culture (as excluding the supernatural) than was Yang Xiong; and the works of the latter, as well as those of other heterodox writers, contain a great deal that is valuable. Why then should this be impossible in the case of Buddhism? Han Yu replies, ‘Buddha was a barbarian.’ But if this argument is good for anything, we might find ourselves embracing a criminal who happened to be a fellow-countryman, while neglecting a saint whose misfortune it was to be a foreigner! Surely this would be a hollow mockery indeed. 退之好儒,未能過楊子,楊子之書,於莊、墨、申、韓皆有取焉。浮屠者,反不及莊、墨、申、韓之怪僻險賊耶?曰:「以其夷也。」果不信道而斥焉以夷,則將友惡來、盜蹠,而賤季劄、由餘乎?非所謂去名求實者矣。

The lines I admire in Buddhism are those which are coincident with the principles enunciated in our own sacred books. And I do not think that, even were the holy sages of old to revisit the earth, they would fairly be able to denounce these. 吾之所取者與《易》《論語》合,雖聖人復生,不可得而斥也。

Now, Han Yu objects to the Buddhist commandments. He objects to the bald pates of the priests, their dark robes, their renunciation of domestic ties, their idleness, and life generally at the expense of others. So do I. But Han Yu misses the kernel while railing at the husk. He sees the lode, but not the ore. I see both; hence my partiality for the faith. 退之所罪者其跡也,曰:「髡而緇,無夫婦父子,不為耕農蠶桑而活乎人。」若是,雖吾亦不樂也。退之忿其外而遺其中,是知石而不知韞玉也。吾之所以嗜浮屠之言以此。

Again, intercourse with men of this religion does not necessarily imply conversion. Even if it did, Buddhism admits no envious rivalry for place or power. The majority of its adherents love only to lead a simple life of contemplation amid the charms of hill and stream. And when I turn my gaze towards the hurry-scurry of the age, in its daily race for the seals and tassels of office, I ask myself if I am to reject those in order to take my place among the ranks of these. 與其人遊者,未必能通其言也。且凡為其道者,不愛官,不爭能,樂山水而嗜間安者為多。吾病世之逐逐者唯印組為務以相軋也,則舍是其焉從?吾之好與浮屠遊以此。

The Buddhist priest, Haochu, is a man of placid temperament and of passions subdued. He is a fine scholar. His only joy is to muse o’er flood and fell, with occasional indulgence in the delights of composition. His family―for he has one[2]―follow in the same path. He is independent of all men; and no more to be compared with those heterodox sages of whom we make so much, than with the vulgar herd of the greedy, grasping world around us. 今浩初間其性,安其情,讀其書,通《易》《論語》,唯山水之樂,有文而文之。又父子鹹為其道,以養而居,泊焉而無求,則其賢於為莊、墨、申、韓之言,而逐逐然唯印組為務以相軋者,其亦遠矣。李生礎與浩初又善。今之往也,以吾言示之。因此人寓退之,視何如也。

Gems of Chinese Literature, 1922.

Not long after this, during the reign of the Wuzong Emperor, a wave of anti-Buddhist repression led to the closure of temples, the forced return of monks to lay life and the confiscation of the vast wealth accumulated by the Buddhist clergy. While tax evasion, rather then Confucian sobriety, may have been the real reason behind imperial ire, the impact on Buddhism in China was profound, and although it enjoyed high status during periods of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, its overall influence waned.

Meeting at Tiger Stream

Liu Zongyuan’s was the voice of a relaxed Chinese humanist; it represents a syncretic approach to divergent views both of life and of the after life. One of the most famous depictions of the harmony between Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism is recorded in the Biographies of Eminent Monks 高僧傳 by Huijiao 慧皎 of the mid sixth century. As Lin Yutang 林語堂, the mellow master of twentieth-century Chinese humour puts it:

Three Laughs at Tiger Stream.

The abbot courted his [Tao Yuanming’s] friendship and one day he invited him to drink, together with another great Taoist friend. They were then a company of three; the abbot, representing Buddhism, Tao representing Confucianism, and the other friend representing Taoism. It had been the abbot’s life vow never to go beyond a certain bridge in his daily walks, but one day when he and the other friend were sending Tao home, they were so pleasantly occupied in their conversation that the abbot went past the bridge without knowing it. When it was pointed out to him, the company of three laughed. This incident of the three laughing old men became the subject of popular Chinese paintings because it symbolised the happiness and gaiety of three carefree, wise souls, representing three religions united by the sense of humour.

— Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937.

Although this account, based on a story recorded by Huijiao about the three friends — the monk Huiyuan 慧遠, a Taoist by the name of Lu Xiujing 陸修靜 and the reclusive poet Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 — joined by laughter, is an impossible fabrication since there three lived in different eras, the spirit of (and hope for) good-humoured fellowship has found form for centuries in poetry and art. The spirit of ‘three faiths joined as one’ 三教合一 is summed up in the saying ‘Three Laughs at Tiger Stream’ 虎溪三笑.


Standing at forty-eight metres the world’s tallest Amitābha Buddha was completed in 2013. It is not far from the Tiger Stream of Donglin Temple, Lu Shan, Jiangxi province.

The reclusive monk Huiyuan is also famous for other reasons: having founded the Donglin Temple 東林寺 near Lu Shan he encouraged the veneration of and meditation on Amitābha Buddha 阿彌陀佛 which laid the basis for practices related to the Lotus Sutra 妙法蓮華經  सद्धर्मपुण्डरीकसूत्र and the rise of the influential Pure Land School 淨土宗. He also published correspondence with the great translator Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什, 344-413CE) on the basic tenets of Buddhism, as well as the treatise ‘A Monk Does Not Bow Down Before the Ruler’ 沙門不敬王者論 (404CE). The latter made him extremely unpopular with dynastic rulers and Confucian bureaucrats. Buddhism further alienated believers from the tradition since it encouraged believe in life after death and reincarnation, as well as requiring monks to leave home to live in monasteries and sever the bonds of filiality. Huiyuan’s admonishment held sway for centuries but, with the resurgence of Confucian orthodoxy and the demands of dynastic power, Buddhist monks learned to kowtow to their secular rulers.

The Heart Sutra

Prajñāpāramitā Hdaya Sūtra

प्रज्ञापारमिताहॄदय सूत्रं

In the Mahāyāna 大乘 tradition of Buddhism, the Buddha was born not merely in the physical realm, but in Absolute Wisdom, the Womb of Wisdom. This concept of birth is summed up in one of the most famous, and oft-recited texts of northern Buddhism, The Heart Sutra 心經, short for The Sutra of the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom. Its message, which melds well with elements of Lao-Zhuang 老莊 philosophical Taoism, have played a role in Chinese thought and culture ever since it appeared. Its origins are still contested; there is even a view that it was composed or back-translated into Sanskrit from a Chinese original. Whatever the truth, this simple text, and its most memorable, and oft-repeated, line ‘Form is Emptiness, and Emptiness is Form’ 色即空, 空即色 रूपं शून्यता शून्यतैव रूपम्, have resonated through Chinese culture for some 1500 years. Among the numerous resonances of its ideas in poetry, prose and art, it also profoundly influenced China’s most famous novel, The Story of the Stone 石頭記 (aka The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢), the opening chapter of which contains the theme of the book:

As a consquence of all this, Vanitas, starting off in the Void (which is Truth) came to the contemplation of Form (which is Illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth) 從此空空道人因空見色,由色生情,傳情入色,自色悟空。

— trans. David Hawkes.

[Note: the term ‘wisdom’, prajñā in Sanskrit and 般若 in Chinese, occurs frequently in this text, and in Chinese Buddhism generally. Despite appearances to the contrary, 般若 is pronounced bōrě.]


आर्यावलोकितेश्वरो बोधिसत्त्वो
गंभीरायां प्रज्ञापारमितायां चर्यां चरमाणो व्यवलोकयति स्म ।
पञ्च स्कन्धास्तांश्च स्वभावशून्यान्पश्यति स्म ।


Avalokita, The Holy Lord and Boddhisatva,
was moving in the deep course of Wisdom which has gone beyond
He looked down from on high,
He beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

इह शारिपुत्र रूपं शून्यता शून्यतैव रूपम् ।
रूपान्न पृथक्शून्यता शून्याताया न पृथग्रूपम् ।
यद्रूपं सा शून्यता या शून्यता तद्रूपम् ।
एवमेव वेदानासंज्ञासंस्कारविज्ञानानि ।


Here, O Śāriputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form;
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness;
whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form,
the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

The Heart Sutra in the hand of Zhao Mengfu, part I, with imperial seals, including those of the Qianlong 乾隆 and Jiaqing 嘉慶 reign periods of the Qing dynasty

इह शारिपुत्र सर्वधर्माःशून्यतालक्षणा
अनुत्पन्ना अनिरुद्धा अमलाविमला नोना न परिपूर्णाः ।
तस्माच्चारिपुत्र शून्यतायां न रूपं
न वेदना न संज्ञा न संस्कारा न विज्ञानं ।
न चक्षुः श्रोत्र घ्राण जिह्वा काय मनांसि
न रूपशब्दगन्धरसस्प्रष्टव्यधर्माः
न चक्षुर्धातुर्यावन्न मनोविज्ञानधातुः ।
न विद्या नाविद्या न विद्याक्षयो नाविद्याक्षयो
यावन्न जरामरणं न जरामरणक्षयो
न दुःखसमुदयनिरोधमार्गा न ज्ञानं न प्राप्तिः ।


The Heart Sutra in the hand of Zhao Mengfu, part II.

तस्मादप्राप्तित्वाद्बोधिसत्त्वानां प्रज्ञापारमितामाश्रित्य
विहरत्यचित्तावरणः ।
चित्तावरणनास्तित्वादत्रस्तो विपर्यासातिक्रान्तो निष्ठनिर्वाणः ।


Therefore it is because of his non-attainmentness that a Bodhisattva, through having relied on the perfection of wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

त्र्यधवव्यवस्थिताः सर्व बुद्धाः प्रज्ञापारमिताम्
आश्रित्यानुत्तरां सम्यक्सम्बोधिं अभिसम्बुद्धाः ।


All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect enlightenment because they have relied on the perfection of wisdom.

The Heart Sutra in the hand of Zhao Mengfu, part 3.

तसाज्ज्ञातव्यं प्रज्ञापारमितामहामन्त्रो
महाविद्यामन्त्रो ऽनुत्तरमन्त्रो ऽसमसममन्त्रः सर्वदुःखप्रशमनः ।
सत्यममिथ्यत्वात्प्रज्नापारमितायामुक्तो मन्त्रः


Therefore one should know the prajñāpāramitā as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, allayer of suffering, in truth — for what could go wrong? By the prajñāpāramitā has this spell been delivered.

तद्यथा ।
गते गते पारगते परसंगते बोधि स्वाहा ॥


It runs like this:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond
O what awakening, all hail!

इति प्रञापारमिताहृदयं समाप्तम् ॥


This completes the Heart of perfect wisdom.

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and Chinese;
trans. Edward Conze, The Heart Sutra

The mantra: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā  गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा. In Chinese: 掲諦掲諦波羅掲諦波羅僧掲諦菩提娑婆訶. Recitation of this mantra is said to ward off all kinds of evil.


When we read the Taoist thinker Zhuangzi it is little wonder that proponents of Chinese Buddhism used his ideas to make their foreign creed appealing to Chinese elites:

Now I am going to make a statement here. I don’t know whether it fits into the category of other people’s statements or not. But whether it fits into their category or whether it doesn’t, it obviously fits into some category. So in that respect it is no different from their statements. However, let me try making my statement. 今且有言於此,不知其與是類乎?其與是不類乎?類與不類,相與為類,則與彼無以異矣。雖然,請嘗言之:

There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is nonbeing. But I do not know, when it comes to nonbeing, which is really being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something. 有始也者,有未始有始也者,有未始有夫未始有始也者;有有也者,有無也者,有未始有無也者,有未始有夫未始有無也者。俄而有無矣,而未知有無之果孰有孰無也。今我則已有有謂矣,而未知吾所謂之其果有謂乎?其果無謂乎?

Zhuangzi 莊子, ‘Discussion on Making All Things Equal’ 齊物論,
translated by Burton Watson


Accumulating Good Karma

On the eight day of the fourth month such people of the Capital as love virtue take several pints of green and yellow beans, and pick the beans up one by one, putting them down again a little distance away, reciting each time the name of (Amitābha) Buddha. When this ceremony is over, they boil the beans and distribute them (to anyone who happens to be passing by). The city people call this ‘giving away karma-accumulating beans’, because it is done to store up good carma in future incarnations.

According to Accounts of the Past Heard in the Precincts of the Sun 日下舊聞考, Peking Buddhist priests, and other people who would invoke Buddha’s name, kept a record of the number of invocations by counting beans, (as they were passed from one bowl to another) immediately (after each invocation). On the eight day of the fourth month, which is the Buddha’s birthday, they would cook beans with only a little salt, and would stop people on the street, inviting them to partake.

This was done so as to accumulate good karma, and to-day we still follow this old custom.

from Tun Li-ch’en and Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking

It may seem flippant to observe that the practice of ‘storing merit’ 化緣 by counting beans seems simply too actuarial, but the habit of making up elaborate enumerations for virtues, practices, meditational methods, Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, worlds, universes and so on worked well within a Chinese context that also favoured numbering everything from kingly reigns, the Five Elements and the Five Virtues to the Three Bonds of familiar relationships. In turn, this practice has fed into the modern Chinese obsession with statistics and numbered slogans, formulations and targets, all of which also happen to be well suited to the global neo-liberal turn.

Protecting Life 護生
Protecting the Heart 護心

The Buddha’s Birth is celebrated in various ways. Apart from the ceremonial bathing of Baby Buddha statues, believers and temples prepare vegetarian foods which are freely distributed. Special dishes are cooked by families of the faithful 居士 उपासक while others use the occasion to honour the vow of Non-Violence or Non-Killing 戒殺 अहिंसा, one of the Five Precepts, by visiting temples to release living creatures 放生. It is believed that when such acts are performed on auspicious days, such as the Buddha’s Birthday, the merit that accrues to the individual is multiplied. Such ceremonies are accompanied by blessings and prayers.

In the twentieth century, the most famous injunction against violence and killing was part of a fifty-year undertaking initiated by the artist, translator and essayist Feng Zikai 豐子愷 ninety years ago, in 1927.

From Paintings to Project Life: a Song-dynasty poem by Huang Tingjian in the hand of Dharma Master Hongyi and a painting by Feng Zikai.

Zikai, who has previously featured in China Heritage, formally converted to Buddhism in 1927, an event officiated over by Dharma Master Hongyi 弘一法師 (formerly Feng’s high-school teacher and mentor, Li Shutong 李叔同). Now a Buddhism layman Zikai, a lifelong vegetarian, began work a series of paintings related to the release and preservation of life. These paintings which cautioned the world against killing were added to over the years to mark Hongyi’s life. In 1927, Zikai produced ten paintings with poems written in the hand of Hongyi, and the project continued every decade thereafter until the time of the artist’s death in 1975, two years short of the half century. With these works Feng Zikai not only promoted the belief in ahimsa, non-violence, but they also gave form to a view summed up in the introduction to the first volume of Paintings to Protect Life 護生畫集 by the Confucian thinker Ma Yifu 馬一浮: the essential meaning of trying to preserve the life of other creatures 護生 was to realise that you are at one with all beings, and that only by understanding the importance of protecting and nurturing your own heart 護心 can you really be possessed of the moral strength and wisdom to protect other living things.


The doctrinal basis for ‘releasing life’ in China are usually traced to the Brahma Net Sutra 梵網經 or Brahmajāla Sūtra and the Sui dynasty (581-618), when fast days were first promulgated and bans placed on killing living beings. Again, as Endymion Wilkinson notes in his encyclopaedic account of things Chinese:

We know that Sui Wendi 隋文帝 (b.541; r.581-605) is recorded as having shown his gratitude to his parents on his birthday in 603 by introducing the Buddhist practice of forbidding the butchering of animals on that day (斷屠, i.e., 禁斷屠殺).

Chinese History: A New Manual


The precept of nonviolence admonishes lay followers of Buddhism and members of the clergy alike against killing, causing others to kill, offering others the means to kill, helping others to kill, or killing by uttering a spell. Ponds for releasing life, that is where fish were safe from human predation, had been a feature of Buddhist monasteries from the time to Emperor Yuan of the Liang dynasty (552-555). The practice of releasing life waxed and waned over the centuries. Dharma Master Hongyi asked in a sermon on the subject: ‘If you care for your loved ones, how can you bear to see them create bad karma by killing?’

Feng Zikai would continue his work on Paintings to Protect Life to the end of his days, the sixth and final volume appearing in Hong Kong in 1979, fifty years after the first volume was published and four years after the artist’s death.

In ‘Morning’ 清晨, an essay written in 1935, Zikai offers an insight into his reasoning behind encouraging the ‘sympathetic heart’ in others through nonviolence. In it he offers a minute description of the torturous labours of a group of ants that he has observed transporting a lump of rice dropped on the ground, talking of them as though they were human beings. He is joined by his daughter Ah Bao 阿寶, who shares his concern for the ants’ travails. The manager of the dye shop next door comes in and takes pains to avoid treading on the line of ants, crying out in relief when they are safe. Seeing how engrossed Ah Bao is in all this, Feng tells her what he means when he talks about the sympathetic heart, using the shop manager as an example:

From Paintings to Protect Life, vol.1.

He’s not against killing as such, and he enjoys eating meat; he’ll even kill chickens himself. [His actions just now] were a realisation of the value of sympathy. It is not against the law to kill ants, nor does it take any great effort; moreover, no one will attempt to revenge the dead. But anyone who has witnessed their thirst for life, their energy and unity, and their devoted struggle to survive should be able to sympathise with ants and to feel protective towards these tiny creatures. We are not calling for a ban on the murder of ants, far from it. After all, we don’t particularly want to encourage their proliferation. Yet a person who has witnessed such a scene and still goes out of his way to crush them must surely be a heartless and crazed individual. By this very act of cruelty they will have lost something that is [innate] to human nature. What I am concerned for is not so much the lives of those ants, but the sympathetic heart of humankind.

adapted from Barmé, An Artistic Exile


China Heritage draws inspiration from many sources, including from the Bamboo Grove. In our Rationale we quote at length Xi Kang’s famous letter and feature the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Other figures include the poet and retired official Tao Yuanming, mentioned above, who quit officialdom to live with his family on a farm near Lu Shan in modern-day Jiangxi province.

As we have noted here, the peaceful coexistence of different Ways of Thought in China did not last. Buddhism continued its rise in influence following the end of the Wei-Jin Age of Disunity and became a predominant force in the court of the Tang dynasty emperors and although Buddhist schools and practice came under attack, relative to the sectarian strife rampant among People of the Book, China remained relatively tolerant of religious divergence, at least until the Qing dynasty, first with the repression of Christians, and later with the repression of everyone by the Christians of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the twenty-first century new Age of Extremes, the Three Laughs at Tiger Stream offers a spirit of generosity in an age of turmoil, religious fanaticism and shrill ideologies. The connect through words, ideas and sensibility with that past can carry us to a future, perhaps not a better future, but one in which the ephemeral can for a time at least be submerged in the eternal. The Buddha’s Birthday though a celebration that presages extinction provides also an opportune moment to reflect on traditions that transformed the narrow escapism of early canonical Buddhism into a universal belief in understanding, compassion and humanity.

Try and Make it to Cold Mountain

The monk-poet Jiaoran (皎然, 730-799) was active at a time when the stern ‘literary recidivism’ of Han Yu and his fellows, many of them champions of a movement to ‘revive culture through return’ 復古 to ancient exemplars was in relative abeyance. The monk favoured a more creative approach to the different poetic and prose forms and styles that had developed over the centuries. Although such eclecticism, or what the literary translator Stephen Owen calls Jiaoran’s ‘catholicity’, was (and is not even today) always popular, it swells the currents of change and possibility that lie behind much of China’s greatest works, be they produced by literati elites or artisans.

We end our meditation on Gautama Buddha with one poem by Jiaoran and two by Hanshan (寒山, 627-650; or, according to the literary historian Hu Shi 胡適, 700-780), famous for his accessible and often colloquial poetry that combined Taoist, mainstream Buddhist and Chan/Zen ideas.

Playful Poem

Yammering, squabbling — all of it
in a world bound by ‘true’ and ‘false’;
Who understands the peace of mind
I feel the whole day long?
A chance visitor sings wildly —
and why does he do what he does?
He wants only to force himself
to care about human affairs.






— translated by Stephen Owen


People ask the way to Cold Mountain.
Cold Mountain? There is no road that goes through.
Even in summer the ice doesn’t melt;
Though the sun comes out, the fog is blinding.
How can you hope to get there by aping me?
Your heart and mine are not alike.
If your heart were the same as mine,
Then you could journey to the very centre!


— translated by Burton Watson


Try and Make It

When men see Hanshan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at —
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
& I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
‘Try and make it to Cold Mountain.’



— translated by Gary Snyder

Those who by my form did see me,
And those who followed me by voice
Wrong the efforts they engaged in,
Me those people will not see.


The Diamond Sutra 金剛經, trans. Edward Conze

Recommended Material

For a two-part documentary film on Cold Mountain that features some of the translators quoted here, see here and here.

Rachelle M. Scott, Nirvana for Sale: Buddhism, Wealth and the Dhammakāya Temple in Contemporary Thailand, Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2009.

A Vocabulary

Buddhist Terms in Everyday Chinese


【魔】“魔”是梵語“Mara”的音譯簡稱。漢語本沒有“魔”字,開始翻譯佛典時,人們只好借用 “磨”字來表示。“魔”的本義是擾亂、破壞、障礙,指一切煩惱、疑惑、迷戀等妨礙修行的心理活動。後來,產生了一批由“魔”構成的詞:魔王、魔鬼、魔界、魔宮、魔道、魔戒、魔力、魔掌、魔障、魔術、魔方,甚至還有食品魔芋等等。
【作 繭自縛】自因自果。苦果、逆境,都是自己的惡業所招致,不必怨天尤人。
【執著】原為佛教語。指對某一事物堅持不放,不能超脫。佛教認為,眾生虛妄的執著是很多的,主要的 “我執”和“法執”。“我執”就是固執常一不變的主宰之“我”,從而產生種種“我見”;“法執”就是固執外境實有,從而產生種種虛妄分別的“法見”。
【一絲不掛】原是佛教用來比喻人沒有一絲牽掛。出自《楞嚴經》:“一絲不掛,竿木隨身。”現在指人裸體(本人在 Google上檢索,竟發現該詞已被篩選掉,真是“一絲不掛”也!)。
【一廂情願】源自佛教 《百喻經》。說一個愚人到都城裡游玩,愛上公主,相思成疾,幾至命危。現指單方面的願望和計劃。
【夢幻泡影】比喻人生無常,世事虛幻。《金剛經》“六如偈”雲: “一切有為法,如夢、幻、泡、影。如露亦如電,應作如是觀!”唐伯虎因以為號“六如居士”。
【當下】 本佛教用語,人能活著和感覺到的只有當下。當下就是現在的這一刻。
【安心】來自禅宗的一則著名公案。據《五燈會元》卷一載,禅宗二祖慧可曾向初祖達摩乞與安心法:“諸佛法印,可得聞乎?”達摩雲:“諸佛法印,匪從人得。”慧可曰:“我心未寧,乞師與安。”達摩雲:“將心來與汝安。”慧可遍尋不見心,便說:“覓心了不可得。”達摩說:“我與汝安心竟。” 慧可大悟。
【勇猛精進】很難想象這個積極入世的詞出自佛教,原指奮勉修行佛法。《無量壽經》卷上雲:“勇猛精進,志願無倦。” 現在指刻苦學習,不斷進步。
【法子】佛教用語,意為“步向正道”。日本女歌手酒井法子即以此取名。但令人遺憾的是,2009年 8月,酒井法子因藏毒及吸毒被警方逮捕,判處一年半懲役,並沒有“步向正道”。