Indiana University Bloomington

The Invisible Buddhist

Hannah Murray, religious studies and English
Written for REL-B230:, Introduction to Chinese Religion
Instructor: Prof. Michael Ing

For centuries, Confucianism and Daoism remained the traditional religions of China. When the Indian-native religion Buddhism was first introduced into China, it was seen as a barbaric threat. In order for Buddhism to successfully spread throughout China, its surface differences between Confucianism and Daoism needed to become “invisible.” However, there are certain principles of Buddhism that are vital enough that they cannot be made “invisible” in order to remain compatible with Daoism and Confucianism. In this essay, I will analyze how Mouzi’s Disposing Error utilizes ecumenism as a way of assimilating, or making “invisible,” Buddhism while Huiyan’s A Monk does not Bow Down Before a King defends the vital aspects of Buddhism that set it apart from Daoism and Confucianism. I will explain the importance of Buddhism remaining invisible as a way of sustaining in China, then I will provide examples of invisibility through Mouzi’s ecumenist approach to Chinese Buddhism, and finally I will demonstrate how Huiyan defends the innate differences of Buddhism that cause its “visibility.”

By invisibility, I do not mean a literal disappearance, but rather a metaphoric merging of Buddhism into Daoism and Confucianism, where the once apparent distinctions of Buddhism are diminished. As Buddhism makes a fluid assimilation into Chinese culture, the focus shifts from the “visible” or noticeable differences of Buddhism, such as monks shaving their heads and living in celibacy, to the common truth shared by all three faiths, following the Way. The Way is a guide toward living a fulfilled human existence, which is a concept all three religions attempt. Finding the common truth among distinct religious traditions is also known as ecumenism, a strategy of religious reconciliation. This metaphoric invisibility could be seen as a way of lessening the clear distinctions in Buddhism in order to make it seem not as much of a foreign threat to the Chinese. Utilizing ecumenism when introducing Buddhism into China is important because many in China were inhibited in their understanding of foreign religions, such as Buddhism, due to an exclusivist attitude toward any philosophical systems they could not call their own (de Bary 420). Exclusivism, or the denial of religious reconciliation, prevents individuals from seeing the similarities of foreign religions by focusing rather on the differences as a potential threat.

The primary conflict of accepting Buddhism in China was that it was not inherently Chinese, and thus could potentially be seen as a betrayal of China. Individuals felt that they were faced with a binary decision of either being a good Chinese or a good Buddhist. However, Mouzi demonstrates in Disposing of Error that by seeing past the “visible” differences between Buddhism and other Chinese religions, it is possible to see all religions striving to find the right way to live and thus embody both a good Chinese and a good Buddhist. One complaint some Chinese citizens had toward Buddhism was the injuries the monks would inflict upon their own bodies by shaving their heads (423). Confucian explicitly denounced the act of harming the body, viewing it as a gift from individuals’ parents. By inflicting any sort of harm to the body, it would be considered an incredible disrespect to the parents who gave the body. This concept of complete devotion to individuals’ parents, or filial piety, is a central component of Chinese thought. The Chinese found the act of Buddhist monks shaving their heads to be “[a violation to] the sayings of the sages and out of keeping with the way of the filial” (423). However, Mouzi counters this by quoting Confucius as saying, “There are those with whom one can pursue the Way…but with whom one cannot weigh [decisions]” (423). Chinese society can still pursue the Way with the aid of Buddhist monks even if they do not base all of their life decisions off of the monks. In Mouzi’s response, he also references an early king by the name of Taibo mentioned in the Confucius text Classic of Filiality. Taibo cut his hair as well as tattooed his entire body, yet Confucius still approved of him, claiming, “his might well be called the ultimate virtue” (423). Even though Buddhist monks stray from the traditional Chinese appearance, it does not mean they lack virtue.

Another demand of filial piety is to provide descendants in honor of individuals’ ancestors. According to Chinese tradition, younger generations maintain a duty to “continue” their line or else they are considered unfilial for remaining “childless” (424). At that time, Buddhist monks would take vows of celibacy, rejecting not only wives or children but also wealth and property. Mouzi recalls that while “wives, children, and property are the luxuries of the world, [simply] living and doing nothing are considered the wonders of the Way” (424). Mouzi quotes Laozi, the mythical founder of Daoism, saying, “Of reputation and life, which is dearer? Of life and property, which is worth more” (424)? Mouzi questions the priorities the Chinese have, and whether tangible luxuries such as progeny and wealth are truly what the Way entails. Mouzi also mentions a number of historical figures that are praised by Confucius even though they either remained childless or renounced material possessions. These figures are still revered for practicing the Way although they did not follow the rules of filial piety. Similarly, Buddhist monks transcend material desires in order to “accumulate the goodness and wisdom” of the Way (424). The surface differences between Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism lessen to a state of “invisibility” as Mouzi demonstrates how all three religions reject the impermanent luxuries that hinder following the eternal wisdom of the Way.

Filial piety is a principle not only applying to the personal, but also to the public. The Chinese government was seen as representing the fatherland or, literally, the primary caregiver to its residents. Acting out against one’s father or fatherland was considered negligence toward filial piety. When Buddhist monks refused to bow down to Chinese rulers, it exhibited how Chinese Buddhists attempted to preserve the qualities unique to Buddhism, such as transcending the worship of earthly leaders. Huiyuan, a Buddhist monk, justifies this “visible” difference between Buddhism and Chinese tradition in his treatise, A Monk does not Bow Down Before a King (427). Huiyuan’s use of the household metaphor serves to depict two types of Buddhists: those “remain[ing] in their homes…obedient to the transforming powers [of temporal leadership]” and those who are “lodgers beyond the earthly [secular] world” (427). The latter is a Buddhist who lives outside the household realm by rejecting earthly attachments, such as physical vanity and ownership, and is rendered incapable of “conforming to the secular pattern” of worshipping a leader of the secular world. Huiyuan argues that although the monks do not maintain the “gravity of natural relationships” they do not violate filial piety by collectively letting “all people be” (428). Buddhists do not allow their filial piety to be limited to their immediate family, but rather view the entire human race as a collective family, with all members equally worthy of their respect. Since earthly kings remain “within the household” of the secular world, they do not possess the power to transcend earthly suffering, which monks who have “left the household” maintain (428-429). This view is unique to Buddhism because it rejects a focus on the natural and social worlds, which Chinese culture traditionally favored (Adler 83).

Through Mouzi justifying Buddhism’s different teachings as filial piety, all three faiths blend together in their practice of the Way. Yet Huiyuan argues that despite Buddhism’s unique method of worship, it still demonstrates a desire to pursue the Way. Through an ecumenist lens, all three religions strive to live a way of life in accordance with morality, and, whether the Way is defined as Buddhism’s Eight-fold Path or Daoism and Confucianism’s Dao, it is merely a difference in language describing the same truth.


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