| THE ABDUCTION OF
Henry C K Liu
Part I: The
Race Towards Barbarism
Part II: That
Old Time Religion
This article appeared in AToL on
July 11, 2003
From the fall of the Roman Empire to the 15th century, Islam was the
dominant civilization outside of China. The Islamic world of this
period was more advanced, with greater wealth and a higher level of
culture than the Christian West. Islamic scholars preserved the texts
of the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists by translating them
into Arabic and Latin, which Renaissance scholars emerging from the
Dark Ages relied on for sources and scholarship on antiquity. Arabs
made path-breaking advances in mathematics, astronomy, medicine and
philosophy, and transmitted to the West much of what they had learned
from China. The West through the interpretation of Arab eyes
rediscovered much of Western antiquity.
Mohammed the Prophet entered Mecca in AD 630 and established Islamic
rule. The growing forces of Muslim, 121 years from that date, after
having conquered Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Persia and much of
Byzantium, decisively defeated the Tang Chinese army in 751 at the
famous Battle of Talas, between modern-day Tashkent and Lake Balkhash.
The Arab victory was aided by a branch of Muslim Tujue (Turkic) tribes
known as Karluks, who launched a surprised attack on Tang forces from
the rear. The Battle of Talas halted Chinese expansion into Central
The Chinese refer to Arabs as Dashi, from the Syrian word Tayi
or the Persian word T'cyk. The Arabs conquered Samarkand in the
8th century. For five centuries thereafter, Samarkand flourished under
the Omayyad Arabs as a trade center between Baghdad and Changan, the
capital of dynastic China, until advances in sea transport in the 13th
century finally rendered the Silk Route economically obsolete. Chinese
prisoners captured by Arab forces at the Battle of Talas in 751
eventually introduced the art of paper-making to Arab lands and
subsequently to Europe, but only after Arab paper-makers, jealously
guarding the secret from Europeans for five more centuries, had sold
paper to Europe at handsome profits in the interim. A process to make
paper from vegetable fiber had first been invented by Cailun in China
during the Han Dynasty in 105. The first paper mill outside of China
was established by Arabs in Samarkand six-and-a-half centuries later in
751. The invention of paper greatly facilitated the development of
language, graphic arts and culture, first in China, then in the Arab
world, and then in the West.
The scientific and industrial revolutions vastly increased the wealth
and power of the West from the middle of the 19th century. After the
defeat of the Islamic Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Middle East
was taken over by European powers and broken up into colonies and
protectorates. Today, despite decolonization, nationalism and oil
riches, this region remains poor and underdeveloped, not because
modernity bypassed it, but because modernity arrived in the form of
neo-colonialism. Westernization in these lands has produced miserable
results, forcing the Islamic world to the conclusion that the solution
may be a renewal of the Islamic faith that reigned in the days of their
former greatness. The West derides this view as a rejection of
modernity, notwithstanding historical evidence of the Arab world having
embraced science and technology at a time when the best minds in the
West were still prisoners of the flat-Earth doctrine.
The clash-of-civilizations theme exaggerates unity in outlook, values,
ideas, and loyalties among people who share the common history and
culture that define a civilization. Modern wars have been fought mostly
within Western civilization, while easy imperialistic conquests have
been the order of the day between Western and non-Western
civilizations. Samuel P Huntington wrote: "The central characteristics
of the West, those which distinguish it from other civilizations,
antedate the modernization of the West." Thus the modernization of
other civilizations is not in conflict with rejection of
Westernization. The scholar Bernard Lewis, in seeing hatred of
modernity as the main driving force in the wider context of Islamic
terrorism, is confusing modernity with Western culture.
The rejection of modernity occurs in every nation and civilization. The
history of the West, dominated by the rise of Christianity, is strewn
with wars of resistance against modernity. The history of Christianity,
the main thread of Western history, is a continuing saga against
modernity. The US "war on terrorism" itself is a continuation of this
resistance in its emphasis on force rather than understanding. By
abducting the concept of modernity as a monopoly of the West, Western
scholars obstruct true modernity in a diverse world. Modernity is
defined by the West as a collection of Western values arbitrarily
deemed universal - the secular culture of circular rationality,
materialist science, alienating individualism, technical innovation,
amoral legalism, selective democracy and exploitative capitalism that
Western imperialism has spread worldwide in different forms and to
varying degrees. Religious fundamentalism is currently enjoying
unprecedented influence over secular politics within the United States,
as exemplified by President George W Bush's proclamation that God, not
the US constitution, told him to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. While the
separation of church and state is still a governing tenet in the US,
separation of religion and politics is non-existent.
Modernity, a new version of Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden" of
old-fashioned imperialism, has been brought to the world by
neo-imperialism, to disarm resistance to Western neo-imperialist
encroachment. Opposition to exploitative policies and actions of the
imperialist West is dismissed as irrational hatred of modernity.
Kipling (1865-1936) confused Western materialist advancement with moral
superiority, as measured by a standard based on virtue. Kipling's
romantic portrayal of the model Englishman as brave, honorable,
conscientious and self-reliant, while popularly accepted in the
English-speaking West, would be generally rejected in the East by those
with direct exposure to the breed as being still unwashed of
animalistic instincts. The idealized image would be recognized as being
a wishful manifestation based on Kipling's apologetic colonial
mentality toward his social betters in his home society. It is also a
compensation for Kipling's own inferiority complex derived from his
love-hate relationship with the richness of Indian culture, to which he
was attracted but which he was unable to appreciate fully because of
his deep-rooted racial prejudice as a product of Western culture.
The "white man's burden" is a world view for justifying imperialism.
The term is the name of an 1899 poem by Kipling, the sentiments of
which give insight into this world view.
The first verse of the Kipling poem reads:
Take up the White Man's burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
In this view, non-European cultures are seen as childlike and devilish,
with people of European descent having a sacred and selfless obligation
to dominate them in perpetuity for their own good and salvation.
The poem was originally published in a popular US magazine (McClure's).
It was written specifically to address US isolationist sentiments after
the Spanish-American War in 1898, from which the United States would
emerge as a world power of consequence. Kipling wrote this poem
specifically to help sway popular opinion in the US, so that a
"friendly" Western power would hold the strategically important
Philippines after the collapse of the Spanish empire in Southeast Asia.
The view and the term by now are widely regarded as racist.
Nevertheless, it served the purpose of allowing colonization to proceed
in the context of US anti-colonialism self-image and to legitimize
historical racism in the United States.
The colonial powers relied on the excuse of "civilizing" indigenous
peoples to rationalize colonialism. Archeological findings in South
Africa were suppressed for fear that the existence of sophisticated
urban culture in southern Africa prior to European colonization would
pose a threat to the argument that white rule was necessary to
"civilize" the region.
The term "white man's burden" is sometimes used in the present time to
describe double standards toward those of European descent because of
perceived responsibility or culpability for historical wrongs. It is
the main moral argument for affirmative action in the United States.
Increasingly vocal demands are heard from the black community and the
nations of indigenous people in the US for an official apology and a
program of restitution to address such historical wrongs perpetrated by
one people on others.
Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting the culture and
language of one national civilization in another for the purpose of
political and social control. This can take the form of active, formal
policy, such as in education and job opportunities, or a general
attitude of superiority complex.
Empires throughout history have been established using war and physical
compulsion. In the long term, the invading population tended to become
absorbed into the dominant local culture, or acquire its attributes
indirectly. Cultural imperialism reverses this trend by imposing an
alien culture on the conquered. One of the early examples of cultural
imperialism was the extinction of the Etruscan culture and language
caused by the imperial policies of the Romans.
The Greek culture built gymnasiums, theaters and public baths in places
that its adherents conquered, such as ancient Judea, where Greek
cultural imperialism sparked a popular revolt, with the effect that the
subject populations became immersed in the conquering culture. The
spread of the koine (common) Greek language was another large
factor in this immersion.
The prayer-book rebellion of 1549, when the English state sought to
suppress non-English languages with the English-language Book of
Common Prayer, is another example. In replacing Latin with English,
and under the guise of suppressing Catholicism, English was in effect
imposed as the language of the Anglican Church as a dominant societal
institution. Though people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or
understand English at the time, the Cornish language fell into disuse
as a result. The Cornish people protested against the imposition of an
English prayer book, resulting in large numbers of protesters being
massacred by the king's army, their leaders executed and the people
suffering harsh reprisals.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the dominant English
establishment attempted to eliminate all non-English languages within
the British Isles (such as Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic) by
outlawing them or otherwise marginalizing their speakers. Many other
languages had almost or totally been wiped out, including Cornish and
Manx. "Cultural imperialism" is a term first applied to the British
Empire, with its many measures to impose the conquering culture on the
conquered. These ranged from pound-sterling hegemony, to the preferred
social status given the game of cricket and English dress codes, to
mandatory use and teaching of English, further to establish Britain's
control on nations and territories within the empire. Language
imperialism is the basic element in cultural imperialism. The
discriminatory practice of proper elocution is a component of in-group
As exploration of the Americas increased, European nations including
Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal all raced
to claim territory in hopes of generating increased economic wealth for
themselves. In these new colonies, the European conquerors imposed
their languages and cultures on lands whose indigenous population was
too large or too established to annihilate. The same took place in
Africa and Asia. The record of US policy and abuse of native Americans
is atrocious, going beyond cultural imperialism to genocide.
During the late 18th, the 19th and the early 20th centuries, the
Swedish government continually repressed the Saami culture. Repression
took numerous forms, such as banning the Saami language and by forceful
removal of many cultural artifacts, such as the magic drums of the naajds
(Saami shamans). Most of the drums have not to date been returned. Even
as late as the 1960s the Sweden-Finnish people of the Torne Valley had
their native Finnish dialect banned from use in schools and public
Cultural imperialism since World War II has primarily been connected
with the US. Most countries outside the United States view the
pervasive US cultural export through business and popular culture as
threatening to their traditional ways of life or moral values. Some
countries, including France and Canada, have adopted official policies
that actively oppose "Americanization". Representatives of al-Qaeda
stated that their attacks on US interests were motivated in part by a
reaction to perceived US cultural imperialism.
Edward Said of Columbia University, one of the pioneers of
post-colonial studies, has written extensively on the subject of
cultural imperialism. His work highlights the misconceived assumptions
about cultures and societies and is influenced by Michel Foucault's
concepts of discourse and power. Foucault views the intellectual's role
as no longer to place himself somewhat ahead and to the side in order
to express the stifled truth of the collectivity. Rather, it is to
struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object
and instrument in the sphere of knowledge, truth, consciousness, and
discourse. In this sense theory does not express, translate, or serve
to apply practice: it is practice. But it is local and regional
and not totalizing. This is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed
at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and
insidious. It is not to awaken consciousness that we struggle but to
sap power, to take power; it is an activity conducted alongside those
who struggle for power, and not their illumination. Colonialism, the
political theory governing imperialism, is based on a belief that the
mores of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized on the
basis on power. This colonial mentality explains why former colonies
such as Hong Kong cling to the myth of the superiority of their
According to Said, the Orient signifies a system of representations
framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western
learning, Western consciousness, and Western Empire. The Orient exists
for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West.
Orientalism refers to the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and
cultures, generally by Westerners. It is a mirror image of what are
inferior and alien ("Other") to the West. Although this term had been
abandoned as archaic by the late 20th century, Said argues that the
term should be redefined to apply to any current study of such
societies to correct current accounts of the Middle East, India, China,
and elsewhere that reflects long-held Western biases. The discourse and
visual imagery of Orientalism are laced with notions of power and
superiority, formulated initially to facilitate a colonizing mission on
the part of the West and perpetuated through a wide variety of
discourses and policies.
Critical theorists regard Orientalism as part of an effort to justify
colonialism through the concept of the "white man's burden", and to
wield the sword of modernity against allegedly "backward"
civilizations. A critical theory is an account of morality that is
sensitive to the historically contingent nature of the culture that
spawned it: by adopting a hypothetical stance toward their own
traditions and on this basis grasping their own cultural relativity,
participants in the formation of a critical theory take a questioning
stance toward their own practices while nonetheless avoiding the
paralysis of moral relativism. The current coercive application of the
Western concept of democracy, rule of law, individual freedom and
market fundamentalism as universal truth is a legitimate target of
Promoters of this Western version of modernity see its birth in the
West through a radical transformation of its past. The West of the
Middle Ages, built around a world view of Christian Scholasticism, was
a society of religious philosophy, feudal law, and an agricultural
economy. Out of this past, the Renaissance and Enlightenment produced a
substantially new mentality of science, individualism, industrial
capitalism and imperialism. The cultural foundation of this new
mentality is that reason, not revelation, is the instrument of
knowledge and arbiter of truth; that science, not religion, leads to
truth about nature and life; that the pursuit of happiness in this
life, not the quest for spiritual fulfillment, or suffering in
preparation for the next, is the cardinal purpose of existence; that
reason can and should be used to increase human control through
economic and technological progress; that the individual person is an
end in him/herself with the capacity to direct his/her own life, not a
communal member of society with a prescribed social role; that
individuals should be encouraged to indulge in inalienable rights to
freedom of thought, speech, and action; that religious belief should be
a private affair rather than a collective awareness, that intolerance
is a social disease, and that church and state should be kept separate.
As the West grows stronger, tolerance of other cultures and of those
within the West itself who refuse to participate is viewed increasingly
as a sign of weakness. Domination takes on sophisticated, less visible
forms. National sovereignty is pushed aside in the name of replacing
command economies with markets, warfare with trade, and rule by king or
commissar with token democracy. To resist neo-imperialism is to resist
modernity. This view justifies the new empire of the sole superpower,
self-proclaimed inheritor of Western civilization.
Yet this view of modernity misreads history. Thomas Aquinas (1225-71)
benefited intellectually from his exposure to translations of works of
Aristotle from Greek into Latin by Arab scholars to whose world view he
became much indebted. He also profited intellectually from the rise of
universities in Europe during 12th and 13th centuries, notably the
University of Bologna (1088), known for its studies in law, the
University of Padua (founded by dissidents from Bologna), the
University of Paris, and Oxford University, all founded as centers of
learning in theology, not science. In this new intellectual milieu in
Europe, Aquinas applied Aristotelian syllogism as interpreted by Arab
minds to medieval mysticism of revelation. His Summa Theologica
(1267-73) was a systematic exposition of theology on rational
philosophical principles worked out by the ancient Greeks as modified
by Arab precision and algebra, which pioneered the use of variables in
problem-solving in logic.
Up to that time, while Scholasticism, as advanced by St Augustine
(354-430), would vindicate reason in theology, it would carefully
differentiate between theology and philosophy. It would do so by
confining theology, proceeding from faith, to investigations of
revealed truths, while it would limit philosophy, based on reason, from
concern with truths that transcended reason. Revealed truth would be
proclaimed as discoverable only through faith.
The 13th century was a critical point in Christian thought regarding
the relationship between faith and reason. The intellectual community
in Christendom at that time was torn between claims of followers of
Averroes (1126-98), Arabian philosopher from Cordoba in Spain, and
claims of followers of St Augustine, troubled youth turned zealous
convert, founder of Christian theology and spokesman for Christian
Efforts of followers of Averroes in the 13th century to separate
absolutely faith from truth clashed with the traditional claim of truth
being exclusively a matter of faith. Such a claim had been made for the
past nine centuries by followers of St Augustine, whose contribution to
the evolution of Christianity was considered second only to that of St
Paul, apostle to Gentiles and the greatest missionary apostle. Paul
laid down the relentless approach of Western evangelism by applying to
his missionary zeal the same vigor and intolerance he showed toward the
persecution of Christians before his epiphany on the road to Damascus.
Averroes, Latin name for Abu-al-Walid Ibn Rushd, whose commentaries on
Aristotle would remain influential for four centuries until the
Renaissance, attempted to circumscribe the separate limits of faith and
reason. He asserted that both could process truths and that the two
separate realms need not be reconciled because they are not in
conflict. Siger de Brabant of the University of Paris, leader of the
Averroists, claimed in 1260 that it should be possible, as a matter of
veracity, and tolerable, as a license in intellectual soundness, for a
concept to be true in reason but false in faith or visa versa.
The doctrines of the Averroists, which include denying the immortality
of the individual soul and upholding the eternity of matter, ended up
being officially condemned by the Catholic Church.
St Thomas Aquinas, nicknamed Dumb Ox because of his slow and deliberate
manner of speech, brilliant father of Neo-Scholasticism, aiming to
resolve the dispute between Averroists and Augustinians, would hold
that reason and faith constitute two harmonious realms in which the
truth of faith complements that of reason, both being gifts of God, but
reason having an autonomy of its own. The existence of God could
therefore be discovered through reason, with the grace of God.
The theological significance of this momentous claim by Thomas Aquinas
cannot be over-emphasized. It would save Christianity from falling into
irrelevance in the Age of Reason, sometimes referred to as the
Enlightenment, and preserve tolerance for faith among rational thinkers
in the scientific world. The Thomist claim remained unchallenged for
five centuries until David Hume (1711-86) pointed out in his Inquiry
into Human Understanding that since the conclusion of a valid
inference could contain no information not found in the premise, there
could be no valid conclusion from observed to unobserved phenomena.
Hume let the logic air out of the Thomist natural-theology balloon, and
in the process showed that even general laws of science could not be
logically justified beyond their own limits, perhaps even including his
own sweeping conclusion. Hume, the empiricist, would logically
determine that logic is circular and goes nowhere: a classic position
of Taoist skepticism.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) emancipated man's command of knowledge from
Humean skepticism. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant
emphasized the contribution of the knower to knowledge. While
acknowledging that the three great issues of metaphysics - God, freedom
and immortality - could not be logically determined, he asserted that
their essence is a necessary presupposition. In his subsequent
publications, Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Critique
of Judgement (1790), Kant asserted as a moral law his famous
categorical imperative requiring moral actions to be unconditionally
and universally binding to absolute goodwill. Goodwill is singularly
absent in imperialism, classic or neo.
Notwithstanding the enlightened breakthroughs of English Protestant
empiricists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume, and
perhaps in reaction to them, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni
Patris in 1879. It declared Scholasticism, as modified by Thomas
Aquinas, to be official Catholic philosophy. Unwittingly, Scholasticism
legitimized the independence of secular politics from Church control.
If reason and faith constitute two harmonious realms in which the truth
of faith complements that of reason, both being gifts of God, but
reason having an autonomy of its own, then politics and religion can
also belong to separate realms in which morality of religion
complements virtue in politics, but politics having an autonomy of its
own. It provided the theological rationalization for the separation of
church and state.
Thus when Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt and prolific author of great influence, wrote: "An all-out
offensive, a jihad, should be waged against modernity so that ... moral
rearmament could take place. The ultimate objective is to re-establish
the Kingdom of Allah upon earth," he was rejecting not modernity but
the modernity of the West. Qutb was not preaching for suffering in
preparation for the next life as Western scholars such as Bernard Lewis
allege, he wanted his civilization back and he wanted it now.
Qutb did not write out of ignorance of the West. His fundamentalism was
formed during the two years he spent in the United States, which seemed
to him "a disastrous combination of avid materialism and egoistic
individualism". Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), while admiring the
energy and versatility of Americans, also thought they were too intent
on making money and would be condemned to a commercial culture. In
Tocqueville's opinion, Americans' notion of equality was derived from
their "general equality of condition" rather than from moral commitment
and that their equality might eventually be endangered by the
domination of a new industrial class. Mawlana Abu'l-A'la Mawdudi
(1903-79), the founder of the fundamentalist Jama'at-i Islami in India
and Pakistan, was also militantly opposed to individualism. In an
Islamic state, he wrote, "no one can regard any field of his affairs as
personal and private".
Modern Asia cannot be fully understood without a thorough awareness of
Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Western influence, from Christianity
to liberalism to Marxism, has only been an ill-fitted costume over an
ancient culture deeply rooted in Confucian values, Buddhist
enlightenment mercy and Taoist paradox. Feudal culture in China has
aspects of what modern political science would label fascist,
socialist, democratic and anarchist. As a socio-political system,
feudalism is inherently authoritarian and totalitarian. However, since
feudal cultural ideals have always been meticulously nurtured by
Confucianism to be congruent with the political regime, social control,
while pervasive, is seldom consciously felt as oppression by the
general public. Or, more accurately, social oppression - both vertical,
such as sovereign to subject, and horizontal, such as gender prejudice
- is considered natural for lack of an accepted alternative vision.
Concepts such as equality, individuality, privacy, personal freedom and
democracy are deemed antisocial, and only longed for by the
deranged-of-mind, such as radical Taoists. This was true in large
measure up to modern times when radical Taoists were transformed into
radical political and cultural dissidents.
Buddhism (Fo Jiao) first appeared in China officially in AD 65.
Some evidence suggests that it might have been imported to China from
India as early as 2 BC. Since its introduction, Buddhism has permeated
Chinese society and its economic life, despite periodic suppression by
the state. It had affected the customs of all levels of society by the
time of the Tang Dynasty some six centuries after its introduction.
Buddhist temples, monasteries and shrines had been established in every
part of the empire. The services of sengs (Buddhist monks)
became indispensable for all social events, performing religious
ceremonies for funerals and weddings, blessings for newborns,
administering temples for the faithful and attending family shrines for
the elite. Sengs functioned as preachers, teachers, scribes,
artists and even doctors. Often they would become top advisors to the huangdi
(emperor), and many sengs would even become powerful political
figures both at court and at the local level.
The name Buddha (Fo) is a Sanskrit word meaning Enlightened
One. It is the appellation conferred by the faithful on Indian Prince
Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC), who came from the southern foothills
of the Himalayas.
Buddhism originated at the end of 5th century BC in the valley of the
middle Ganges in India. The religious sect first rose as a plebeian
reaction to claims of spiritual and social supremacy by Hindu Brahman
priests who were the ruling elite of the Indian caste system. Since
that time, Buddhism has spread across political, social and ethnic
boundaries as one of the three great religions of the world, the other
two being Christianity and Islam.
Curiously, acceptance of Buddhism remained sporadic in India, its
birthplace. The incorporation of Buddha by Hinduism as the ninth
incarnation (avatar) of its god, Vishnu, seriously adulterated the
autonomous uniqueness of Buddhism in India. The Muslim invasion of
India from the 11th century gradually but effectively obliterated
remaining Buddhist communities there. Similarly, Christianity remains a
minority religion in the Middle East, its holy place of origin.
Kanishka, an ardent patron of Buddhism, was king of the Kushan Empire,
which dominated northern India during the 2nd century AD. He was also
known in history as the sponsor of a Greco-Buddhist style of sculpture,
labeled by art historians as the Gandhara school, typified by
curly-haired seated Buddha statues, which became the dominant Buddhist
art form in East Asia. A gilded bronze Buddha of the Gandhara school is
on display at the Harvard Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
More significant, Kanishka was instrumental in introducing Buddhism
into Central Asia, whence it spread first to China, then Korea and
The branch of Buddhism that diffused into East Asia would take on
different characteristics from the early sects of Buddha's own time. It
would come to be known as Mahayana (Dasheng, meaning major
vehicle), the scripture of which is written in classical Sanskrit,
distinguishing itself from the older Hinayana (Xiaosheng,
meaning minor vehicle), the scripture of which is written in a
vernacular dialect (Prakrit) known as Pali. Hinayana Buddhism,
remaining closer to ancient Buddhism, is practiced widely in Southeast
The Sermon of the Turning of the Wheel of the Law, delivered by Buddha
at Sarnath around 500 BC, elucidates the secret of a happy life by
means of the Four Exalted Truths:
Truth I: Existence encompasses sorrow.
Truth II: Sorrow emanates from desire.
Truth III: Sorrow subsides when desire wanes.
Truth IV: Desire can be alleviated by following the Gracious
This Gracious Eight-Spectrum Path consists of:
Spectrum 1: Virtuous conviction.
Spectrum 2: Virtuous resolution: to renounce sensual pleasure, to harm
no living creatures and ultimately to achieve salvation.
Spectrum 3: Virtuous speech.
Spectrum 4: Virtuous conduct.
Spectrum 5: Virtuous involvement.
Spectrum 6: Virtuous effort: to keep the mind free from evil and
devoted to good.
Spectrum 7: Virtuous contemplation.
Spectrum 8: Virtuous meditation: to achieve an awareness of internal
selflessness and external detachment.
Buddhist concerns are more ethical than metaphysical, focusing on human
suffering, which is considered as inherent in life itself. Suffering
can be dispelled only by abandoning desires such as ambition,
selfishness, envy and greed. This approach to life is the diametrical
opposite of the Western concept of modernity.
Detachment is key. Buddhists take vows against killing, stealing,
falsehood, unchasteness and intoxication. They practice self-confession
and try to live austere, ascetic lives with the objective of achieving
nirvana, a state of blissful detachment that, when attained
permanently, known as pari-nirvana, brings an end to the otherwise
never-ending cycle of earth-bound rebirths through transmigration of
the soul. The Four Exalted Truths of Buddhism have helped devotees deal
with the tribulations of life. The Third Exalted Truth, sorrow subsides
when desire wanes, has application to modern market economy. A basic
Buddhist tenet: the secret of happiness is not getting what you want,
but wanting what you get. So much for the concept of the pursuit of
happiness in Western modernity. For the Buddhist idea of happiness, if
you have to pursue it, you have lost it.
The reasons for China's popular embrace of Buddhism are complex and
have been subject to constant reassessment. One commonly acknowledged
reason is that Buddhism, while of foreign origin, shares commonality
with both Taoist and Confucian concepts that are indigenous to Chinese
culture. The passive side of Buddhism is Taoism, which practices
contemplation and promotes self-awareness. And the active side of
Buddhism is Confucianism, which advocates respect for authority and
submission to propriety. Furthermore, Buddhism has provided, as it has
evolved in China, elaborate, colorful ceremonies welcomed by one aspect
of the collective Chinese character, hitherto suppressed through
centuries of Confucian social restraint and Taoist self-denial.
Most of all, Buddhism fills a void left by traditional ancient Chinese
religious concepts, which are centered rigidly around the trinity: 1)
Heaven (Tian) - God. 2) Son of Heaven (Tianzi) - Emperor (sovereign).
3) The Hundred Surnames (Baixing) - People.
Heaven (Tian) is the abstract symbol of all things supernatural and
authoritative, much like the manner in which the imperial court is
referred to as the authoritative and decision-making body of the
secular empire. God, a term that has no exact equivalent in the
language of polytheistic Chinese culture, has its closest translation
as Tiandi (King in Heaven), who is the highest god. Heaven as a realm
is believed to be inhabited by a clan of gods and spirits (shen-gui),
with hierarchical ranks, headed by Tiandi, similar to the Greek
hierarchical community of gods headed by Zeus.
The secular huangdi (emperor) is the Son of Heaven (Tianzi),
and the people, known as the Hundred Surnames (Baixing), are
wards of huangdi. The people do not enjoy the privilege of
directly communicating with Heaven, the domain of gods headed by
Tiandi. The people's duty is to pay homage to the Son of Heaven, who
alone possesses the privilege of communicating with and thanksgiving to
Heaven. The most solemn ritual in Chinese feudal culture is the fengshan
rites. It is a ritual that confers Heaven's abdication of authority on
secular affairs in favor of huangdi.
Thus religion in China, before the arrival of Buddhism, had merely been
a spiritual subsystem of the secular world. It was a spiritual
extension of the rigid hierarchy of the ancient Chinese socio-political
realm. Buddhism provided a previously unavailable outlet of direct
religious expression for the common people. It introduced participatory
religious experience into Chinese society. Whereas, in the context of
the rigid Confucian social structure, Taoism (Dao Jia) provides
the Chinese people with introverted individual spiritual freedom,
Buddhism provides them with extroverted collective spiritual
liberation, independent of communal hierarchy. Taoism allows the
individual to contemplate privately, freeing him from the mental
tyranny of an all-controlling culture, while Buddhism allows the people
to worship independently, freeing them from the pervasive control of a
rigid secular socio-political hierarchy.
Religion in China has a different meaning than in the West. The term
"religion" in the Chinese language is composed of two characters: zong-jiao,
literally meaning "ancestral teaching". Until the spread of Buddhism,
religious experience for the Chinese people had been limited to
reverence toward the spirits of their departed ancestors. Buddhism
provided the average devotee with direct access to God without
requiring a denial of reverence for ancestral spirits. Until the
introduction of Christianity, the Chinese were not required by religion
to deny the spirituality of their ancestors. This demand for the
rejection of ancestor worship was a key obstacle preventing
Christianity from becoming a major religion in China. Incidentally,
even in Christian theology, "God" is translated in Chinese as Shangdi,
meaning "The King Above". It is a celestial echo of the supreme ruler
in the secular political system.
From its beginning, Buddhism took on an anti-establishment posture,
which it moderated as it developed in China but never totally
abandoned. Traditionally, in the early part of an emperor's reign, as
soon as his rule was firmly established, he would perform the elaborate
and formal fengshan rites. These Confucian rites of theocratic
feudalism involve the paying of tribute by Tianzi (Son of Heaven) as huangdi
(emperor), on behalf of his baixing, namely the people, to Tian
(Heaven) where the head god Tiandi (King in Heaven) reigns. Through the
fengshan rites, the huangdi received
tribute and accepted loyalty pledges from his vassal lords on behalf of
their many minions and subjects throughout the empire. Anyone besides
the huangdi performing religious rites directly to Heaven would
be committing forbidden acts tantamount to treasonous usurpation.
Buddhism broke the monopolistic hold of the huangdi on
religious celebration and opened it to all for the taking. Little
wonder Buddhism spread like wildflowers.
By breaking down the hierarchical religious monopoly implied by
Confucian fengshan rites, Buddhism in its early history in
China unwittingly contributed to the crumbling of the foundation of a
feudal hierarchy already in decline. Buddhism's populist theology
bolstered the emergence of a secular structure in the form of a
centrally managed empire, replacing autonomous local authority. In this
new secular structure individuals could participate more freely in
social functions, unrestricted by traditional local hierarchy.
The Buddhist notion of nirvana runs parallel to the concept of the
Mandate of Heaven (Tianming). Ironically, by claiming that a state of
nirvana could be earned through religious devotion by any deserving
member of society, it implies that the Mandate of Heaven can also be
earned by any deserving hero. Thus Buddhism invited periodic and
recurring suppression from paranoid emperors who felt obliged to adopt
anti-subversive measures against Buddhism, in order to defend the
imperial claim on the Mandate of Heaven from challenges by ambitious
members of the aristocracy who were Buddhist devotees.
While Buddhism serves as the fountainhead of the idea of open access
for all to spiritual salvation, such universal access is dependent on
the grace of detachment as exemplified by Buddha. This idea is akin to
the detached central authority in an empire structure with the grace of
a distant emperor who is less involved with the details of daily living
of his subjects. It is less akin to the archaic hierarchical feudalism
of autonomous local lords who control every detail of the lives of his
fief. Thus Buddhism facilitated its own growth at the same time that it
provided the philosophical justification for the flowering of a distant
centralized political order in a complex, multi-dimensional society.
The development of such a benign centralized political structure, first
budding in imperial China in the 5th century, gathered unstoppable
momentum around the 7th century.
The Buddhist concept of universal open access to nirvana had
socio-political implications. It helped shift politics from being a
contest among competing feudal lords refereed by an arbitrating huangdi
to the beginning of an empirewide power struggle based on class
interests. Since people were no longer dependent on their feudal lords
for achieving the state of nirvana, they no longer felt inseparably
bound to their lords in secular life. Gradually, merchants in the
service of a particular feudal lord found stronger common interest with
other merchants in the service of competing lords than their
traditional commitment to clannish feudal loyalty. Before long, the
same became true for farmers, scholars, artisans and other tradesmen.
And with the tacit encouragement of expanding central power, people
began to look to the huangdi as a higher authority to champion
universal justice and to protect their separate class interests. They
also looked to Buddhism to enhance the moral posture of class
solidarity against the Confucian demand for absolute hierarchical
loyalty toward their local lords. Thus the spread of Buddhism ushered
in an age of strong central imperial authority on top of traditional
feudalism with local autonomy. Through the spread of Buddhism, an
empirewide standard now overshadowed fragmented local autonomy on basic
issues of proper human relationship, justice and social order.
Simultaneously, however, Buddhist insistence on a clear separation of
ecclesiastical authority from secular control caused constant conflict
between the central authority of the dragon throne and
independent-minded Buddhist fundamentalists. This conflict was
exploited by freewheeling members of guizu (the aristocracy)
for secular political purposes, particularly those in the south, where
greater physical distance from the capital translated into greater
The intellectual role of Buddhist institutions grew increasingly
significant and pervasive in Chinese culture. Sengs (Buddhist
monks) of various sects, in addition to their religious undertakings,
took to routinely writing philosophy, conducting schools and keeping
libraries. The independence of Buddhist teaching from forbidding
Confucian scholasticism was an important factor in Buddhism's popular
flowering in China. Buddhist curricula were admittedly overburdened
with time-consuming, mind-boggling theological studies, but the
discipline acquired from such study methods more than compensated for
the heavy investment in time and effort. Excellence in exegesis
requires scholarship, research methodology, creative logic and secular
evidential verification, qualities that learned sengs
cultivated. Buddhist seng-scholars soon dominated the fields of
mathematics, alchemy, medicine, astronomy and engineering. Buddhist
impact on Chinese philosophy was fundamental, introducing new concepts,
abstract terms and new words for the description and manipulation of
previously unfathomable ideas. Buddhism's influence in Chinese art,
architecture and literature was undeniably crucial. Such influence in
Tang helped liberate Chinese culture from Confucianism's stultifying
repression, particularly on new and creative ideas, much as Western
scientific methods would 12 centuries later.
In literature, Buddhist sutras (fojing), which were more widely
circulated and popularly read than abstruse and elitist Confucian
classics, paved the way for other new and lengthy secular literary
works, and prepared the reading public for acceptance of mixing prose
with verse, for handling of multi-dimensional themes and, ultimately,
for the birth of new literary genres such as the novel and drama.
Buddhist understanding of history and of the art of statecraft
challenged the staid monopoly of orthodox Confucianism on politics. And
Buddhists were increasingly recognized for relative objectivity in
their judgment of history and for innovative originality in their
approach to secular problems. In both military strategy and political
theory, Buddhist intellectual contributions played major roles in a
fragmented China's quest for reunification. In return, Buddhism
flourished under those rulers, such as those of the Sui Dynasty
(581-618), who were wise enough to employ universally potent Buddhist
ideas and apply them to political advantage, let alone exploiting
ready-made, broad-based support of mushrooming Buddhist communities all
over the fragmented political landscape.
The development of China's culture, politics and spirit cannot be fully
understood without taking into account the influence of Buddhism since
its importation around 2 BC. From the 5th century AD on, Buddhists both
contributed to, and in turn were affected by, the historic polarization
in China during the era of North-South Dynasties (Nan-Bei Chao
420-589), a period spanning the late phase of Six Dynasties (Liu Chao
220-589) that emerged after the fall of the glorious Han Dynasty (206
BC-AD 220) four centuries previously. Buddhism adapted itself during
this period in the south to a society characterized by the independence
of a transplanted guizu (aristocracy), with large estates of
client groups. Its ecclesiastical structure developed into a network of
loosely connected, but individually autonomous, monasteries.
It was therefore not surprising that the great southern seng
(Buddhist monk) Huiyun (334-416) wrote an anti-Confucian essay titled
"Treatise on the Exemption of Religious Institutions from Monarchial
Authority" (Shamen bujing Wangzhi Lun). Written in 404, the
treatise asserted the independence of religion from secular control. It
was among the earliest intellectual treatises on the principle of
separation of church and state.
During the era of North-South Dynasties, traditional central political
authority in the north forced Buddhism to seek support from the ruling
sovereign, who tended to be the sole source of secular favors.
For example, with transparent motive and shrewd purpose, Seng Fakuo
(died 420) of the Bei Wei Dynasty (Northern Wei 386-534), leader of the
Buddhist clergy in the north, claimed Emperor Daowu (reigned 386-409)
as the living reincarnation of Buddha. Seng Fakuo was bestowed high
secular titles during his life, culminating with a hereditary rank of
Buddhists of 7th-century China sought favoritism from the secular state
at the same time they asserted their independence and separation from
traditional imperial institutions by calling for Buddhist exemption
from taxation, military service and the long arm of secular law. This
inherently contradictory posture still would not have brought the wrath
of the dragon throne on Buddhists if they had not been simultaneously
engaged in secular factional intrigues and class politics.
Furthermore, growing abuse of religious privileges and laxity in
monastic discipline inevitably forced the dragon throne to adopt
intrusive measures of control on theology, and secular supervision of
ecclesiastic establishments. Also, proliferation of clerical ordination
and monasterial founding, much of which was less than legitimate if not
outright fraudulent, began to deprive the state of much-needed manpower
and tax revenue. The removal from the economy of large tracts of prime
land that would be donated outright, or under formulas of deferred
giving, or sometimes through fraudulent, tax-evading schemes, caused
serious economic imbalance in many areas. The sanctuary provided by
Buddhist monasteries to the lawless, to tax evaders and conscript
dodgers, as well as to political dissidents, also threatened the
totalitarian authority of the dragon throne and security interests of
the secular order.
The huge expense of Buddhist temple construction, the costly
maintenance of an ever-expanding clergy population and its associated
lay communities and the drain on the scarce supply of metal caused by
the casting of ever larger and larger Buddhist statues and bells
interfered with the secular state's own increasingly ambitious plans
for domestic capital construction and for arms production needed by
The growing economic power of Buddhist monasteries, often the main
socio-economic institutions in many regions, also had destabilizing
political implications. While Buddhism was repeatedly sponsored by
secular authorities for political purposes, official anti-Buddhist
pogroms, known as shatai (ecclesiastical cleansing),
systematically recurred throughout the long history of China. This
continued up to the Christian-supported 1911 Democratic Revolution that
established the Nationalist Republic, not to mention the subsequent
Marxist-Leninist People's Republic, particularly during the Cultural
Revolution of 1966-76.
The distressing phenomenon of shatai became even more complex
when other issues, such as xenophobia, backlash from social reform, and
preventive suppression of political revolts mingled with traditional
socio-political pressure for curbing Buddhist expansion into the
secular world. State persecution and state sponsorship of religion
proved always to be two sides of the same evil coin.
Gunnar Myrdal (1898-1984), Swedish sociologist-economist, in his 1944
definitive study The American Dilemma, for which he received
the 1974 Nobel Prize for Economics, having declared the "Negro" problem
in the United States to be inextricably entwined with the democratic
functioning of American society, went on to produce a 1976 study of Southeast
Asia: The Asian Dilemma. In it he identified Buddhist acceptance of
suffering as the prime cause for economic underdevelopment in the
region. Myrdal's conclusion would appear valid superficially, given the
coincidence of an indisputable existence of conditions of poverty in
the region at the time of his study and the pervasive influence of
Buddhism in Southeast Asian culture, until the question is asked as to
why, whereas Buddhism has dominated Southeast Asia for more than a
millennium, pervasive poverty in the region only made its appearance
after the arrival of Western imperialism in the 19th century.
Marxists and nationalists, many of both professing no love for
Buddhism, suggested that Myrdal had been influenced in his convenient
conclusion by his eagerness to deflect responsibility for the sorry
state of affairs in the region from the legacy of Western imperialism.
As theological apologists tried to rationalize social misery with an
accommodating theology to capture the appreciation of the secular
polity, Myrdal, social scientist, tried to blame indigenous religion
for the sins of secular geopolitics.
That which Western scholars identify as the process of modernity
appears to have occurred in China's history more than once.
of Law versus Confusicanism