A Young Muslim’s Guide to Religions in the World

Chapter Seven

The Far East as a whole, an area which embraces China, Japan and Korea, has a cultural physiognomy so distinctive that it is impossible to understand the outlook of any of these countries in terms of the religious experience of either the Middle East of India or Europe. While the three countries must not be lumped together, it is China, territorially the largest unit of the three, which has exercised over the whole region an influence which has been pervasive and profound. Chinese culture has formed the bedrock on which the edifice of Japanese and Korean civilsations was based. Even where they seem to differ most markedly from China they remain indebted to it. The scripts they use to this day are derived from the ideographs China employs for its many languages, which on this account appear to outsiders to be one single language.
China is today the most populous country in the world with a population estimated to exceed one billion. The boundaries of present day China include areas which at one time or another have had a separate political existence. Nor is the country racially uniform, though because of the world’s habit of referring to ail races living on the other side of the great Himalayas as yellow races, this multiplicity is not always taken into account. The Mongolians, the Manchurians, the Hans, and there are many others who feature in the racial mosaic which is China. But they ail bear the stamp of a unifying culture which is
recognisable as an entity different from the culture of India and the Middle East.
Cut off from the south-west by the Himalayan chain and trom the east by the sea China has been less subject to foreign influence than other areas. Chinese culture remained for centuries a thing apart.
Buddhism, Christianity and Islam entered China at different dates. Each won large numbers of converts calculated in millions, but they did not produce on the surface of Chinese life those visible undulations which elsewhere help determine the religious identity of different groups. Whatever a Chinese’s religious affiliations, he appeared little different in his social manners from neighbours who followed other religions. Chinese art and architecture, whatever the beliefs of those who created them, present no striking contrasts resembling those which mark off Hindu from Muslim architecture and painting in general. Their cuisine was the sa me for ail classes; and so was their dress. Here again India is characterised by a pluralism which has no parallel even in Europe. One cannot speak of a common style of cookery in India nor of a common dress by which to identify the Indian per se. Nowhere in the world has culture been so divisive as in the subcontinent.
To understand this singular phenomenon, one has to reckon with two factors: on the one hand, the pervasive influence of the Indian caste system and the doctrine of untouchability which is its corollary and, on the other, the impact of Confucianism and Taoism on Chainese life irrespective of whether a Chinees follows Buddhism or Christianity or Islam.
No country or society in the world has been without class divisions, but they have ail been on economic lines, the rich differentiated from the poor by social barriers. What makes the Hindu caste system unique is the theory that such distinctions are based on the law of Karma, the status of each persan being determined by the sum-total of his deeds in a previous birth, sa that if a low caste individual were able ta cross the hurdles of poverty he must remain content ta stay at the bottom of the social scale because of birth. This created an effective obstacle ta social mobility except ta a limted degree within the caste system. An improvement in a man’s economic position or intellectual acheivements could not help him ta transcend the· social divide. China on the other hand had nothing of this kind. There was an aristocracy undoubtedly, a ruling class that governed for successive generations, but the absence of a rigid caste system made it possible ta cross class barriers by dint of personal merit or the acquisition of wealth.
This China owes ta the teachings of bath Con-fucianism and Taoism. Whether ta categorise them as religion in the conventional sense is an open question. Neither the one not the other is concerned as religions are concerned with man’s salvation in the after-life. They prescribe duties whose aim is ta regulate social behaviour and ta ensure social arder. Heaven is taken for granted in bath systems, but no attempt is made ta define it clearly. What matters is how one conducts oneself on earth, hos one contributes ta the maintenance of an orderly society in which every one has his rights guaranteed.
Confucianism is the aider of the two. Confucius was a contemporary of the Buddha, barn in circa 551 B. C. His real Chinese name is K’ung Fu-tze, but it is by the Latinsed form of it that he is known in the world outside China. According ta some accounts his lineage was noble; according ta other accounts he was the son of an ordinary soldier who died when he was only three. The family is said ta have been thrown by this circumstance into dire poverty for some time. Confucius was able however to recieve a good education. He married at nineteen and lived until 501 B. C. on what he earned as a teacher in the state of his birth, Lu. In 501 B. C. he attracted the notice of Duke Ting who appointed him to the governorship of a small town called Chung-tu. His service won him renown as an efficient and honest official capable of enforcing the law impartially and controlling ail subversive elements. Promotion followed; he was made a minister. In this post also he achieved great fame as a just man, adored by ail alike. But there were also enemies who procured his fall from grace by offering the Duke of Lu bribes in the form of 80 dancing girls and 120 fine horses. Confucius was dismissed. He spent the next twelve years as a wandering scholar with a small band of friends. Offers of employment came sometimes, but he would not accept anything which would not assure him a free hand in the discharge of his duties, but no one would agree to his terms. In 483 B. C. when he was seventy he was invited back to Lu by a new Duke. Confucius was now too old to accept any new post and devoted his time to the revision of the ancient Chinese classics. He died in 479 B. C. and was given a public fune~al. His tomb is a place of national pilgrimage.
The dates about Confucius’s birth and death are conjectural. Sorne scholars also contest the accuracy of the facts about his career and question whether he at ail held any important positions. But these disputes about the truth or otherwise of achievements attributed to Confucius do not affect his importance in the ethical and moral history of the Chinese people. For over two thousand years it has been the Confucian code which has regulated life in China, especially among the classes who dominated society, the bureaucracy, the rulers and any one who wished to rise to a higher rank. He has been responsible for whatever happened. If he contributed to the country’s progress’ in certain respect he was also condemned for the inertia which in later centuries led people to turn their faces away from new ideas. It is significant that after the Communist revolution in 1949 deliberate efforts were made to wean the Chinese from what they called the enervating influences of Confucian teachings.
Confucianism such as it is based on the five King or the five classics. They are Shu King which deals with histo’ry; Shi King, a collection of ancient poems; Yi King, a book of mystical diagrams used in divination. Li King, which deals with rites and ceremonies; and Ch’un Chu’iu, a chronicle of events in Lu, confucius claimed to have written the last book; the others he edited and revised.
The Confucian canon includes in addition to the five King Four Shu. The tirst Shu, which is called Lun Shu, consists of the Analects of Confucius, a series of aphoristic sayings attributed to him. The other Shu are Ta Hsias; Chung Yung; and the works of Mencius, Confucius’ successor, Chung Young, believed to be the work of a grandson of Confucius, Tzu Szu, elaborates the doctrine of the Mean and underscores the need for Harmony and Equilibrium.
To the Five King and Four Shu the Chinese owe their ideas of social order, their notions of morality, and ail those concepts and theories which for several thousand years have constituted the foundation of Chinese life, supplying the equivalent of a supernaturally inspired scripture. They were studied by the educated classes, the rulers, the bureaucrats; it is in their light that conduct was judged, policies framed, relations with the outside world determined.
The philosophy these books outline or elaborate is in its essence a philosophy concerned with life on this earth. It is said that Confucius took ‘heaven for granted without defining what it meant. He sacrificed to the ancestors but he refused to talk about spirits. He held that the cultured gentleman should follow the Middle Way and aim at moderation in ail things. His ideal was the Superior Man who lives in harmony with nature and honours heaven. Although he refrained from defining his idea of heaven, it is clear that he did not believe visible phenomena to be the whole truth about existence. There is something beyond the visible which must not be ignored. But there is no reference to a Supreme Deity who must be adored and prayed to.
Ancestor worship, a custom Confucius conformed to and thereby helped to legitimise, is today regarded as an integral part of the Master’s teachings. Ancestor worship is an aspect of respect towards the elderly which Chinese ethics imphasises. It takes two forms: the ritual burning of incesnse before altars in temples and the offering of food and drink beside their graves. Confucius is said to have discouraged the custom of offering worship to ail ancestors of the Chinese people; each family was asked to limit its adoration to its own forbears. To forget one’s ancestors was, according to him, the worst form of ingratitude.
Confucius himself became gradually an object of worship as a national idol. The custom of offering sacrifices to him is said to have begun with the Hans in the second century B. C. Elaborate rites were evolved in course of time. A Confucian temple contains tablets dedicated not only to Confucius but also to his four associates, Yen Hui, Mncius, Tseng Ts’an, and Tzu Szu. In addition, such a temple houses the tablets of the 12 Sages, the ancestors of Confucius, 70 worthies and 60 Confucian scholars. Dedicatory offerings are made twice a year in spring and autumn and include grain, incense, wine, and the ceremonies are rounded off with the sacrifice of a sheep, an ox and a pig, to the accompaniment of solemn music and dancing.
Although Confucius did not reject the idea of heaven, it is not to be equated with the concept of god as we understand it. Confucian thought is neither theistic nor mystical. Its chief strength lies in its emphasis on man’s perlectibility. Confucius believed that every man has in him the four principles of benevolence, justice, propriety, and wisdom, and he has only to obey the law within himself to be perlect. This is the opposite of the Christian doctrine of original sin, but it is not the same thing as the Islamic theory that every child is born in a state of innocence. While Islam believes that man is potentially capable of achieving the highest good, it postulates that he can do so only by submitting himself to the discipline and faith received from Revelation. For this there is no place in Confucian teachings.
Confucianism may be said to bear a resemblance to Islam in one respect. Islam lays down that salvation is to be won not by renunciation, not by withdrawal from society, but by the active pursuit of one’s social duties as defined in the code known as the Shariah. The Shariah is however meaningless without faith, for virtue as a concept is according to Islam unsustainable without the basis that faith in God provides.
The influence of Confucianism in Chinese life is attributable partly to the tact that the Chinese are by temperament not given to mysticism. They ascribe to ethics, practical ethics as reflected in social conduct, much greater importance than other communities do. Filial piety, a concept Confucius both inherited from the past and elaborated by his own teachings, occupies a greater place in the Chinese scale of values than it does elsewhere.
Alhtough, according to the best authorities, Confucius never regarded himself as the founder of a religion, he himself was elevated by his followers in later centuries to the rank of a god or prophet to be adored and worshipped with the same veneration as is paid to God or a Prophet.
Next to Confucianism, the most important ethical code is that of Taoism. The word Tao means something like ‘way’, and the teachings which have been given the generic name of Taoism are popularly ascribled to a man called Lao Tsu whose historicity has been questioned. He is said to have been born in the 6th century B. C. and is regarded as the author of Tao Te Ching, the classic from which the principles of Taosim are derived.
It Confucianism is concerned mainly with man’s duties in the present world, so is Taoism in a different way. It too eschews any attempt to define or postulate a heaven or an after-life, but it is more renunciatory in its approach to life. It does not prescribe any rules as to how to live in harmony with the world. The greatest virtue is humility. Man must avoid getting entangled in things; leave politics alone, be contented, and not be anxious to run after innovations. Effort and striving are deprecated as wasteful of energy. The power of Tao is like water; it flows incessantly, pervades everything and wears down even the hardest rocks. The less government and education people have the better, for education, if carried beyond a certain stage, breeds discontent which is undesirable. The ideal person is he who stays at home and refrains from efforts to improve his surroundings; he submits to things as they are as gracefully as possible.
The five important precepts are: not to kill; not to drink alcohol; not to tell lies; not to commit adultery and not to steal. Parallel to them are the ten Virtues: filial piety; loyalty to teachers and rulers; kindness to ail creatures; patience and reproof of ail wrong-doing; self-sacrifice in the cause of the poor; manumission of slaves; free planting; digging wells and making rodas; promoting welfare and teaching the ingorant; studying the scriptres and making offerings to the gods. Who the gods are is however left underfind.
The Taoist canon consists, apart from Tao Te Ching, of two other books: Tai-shang Kan-ying Pien by Li Ch’ang-ling and an anonymous work Yin-chih W’en.
While theoretical Taoism is mostly silent about spiritual matters, popular Taoism which has exercised a powerful influence on Chinese masses concerns itself with such things as black magic, divination and alchemy, It was Chang Tao-ling, a man who belonged to the second century AD, who elaborated the rules which consititue the foundation of Taoist practices. He founded monasteris and nunneris, built temples, and established the Taoist church. He prescribed also the worship of a large number of gods and was responsible for Taoism’s recognition by the state. His descendants continued until very recent times to fill the position of Taoist Pope.
Chang Tao-ling was followed by three other teachers who helped in the evolution or formulation of Taoist doctrines. They were Wei Po-yang and Ko Hung who belonged to the third and fourth centuires and K’ou Ch’ien-chih of the fifth century. The first two borrowed heavily from Confucianism and also expounded the theory that there are two cosmic forces, the Yin and the Yang, negative and positive, which govern everything in the universe including the human body.
To k’ou Ch’ien-chih are attributed the numerous doctrines which together form a kind of theology, including names of deities to be worshipped, and which bring T~oism structurally closer to other theocentric religions. But there are important differences. There is, for instance, nothing like monotheism requiring belief in one supreme God. The Taoist pantheon is an elaborate system comparable in its plurality to Hinduism. A good Taoist must pay homage to many divinities, those who control the seasonal changes and spirits of the emperors. Among these the most importat is a trinity consisting of the deified Lao Tzu, the Jade Emperor, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and the Primordial Heaven-honoured one. One of the divinities is empress of heaven. Ali are powerful forces which need to be propitiated for the individual’s well-being.
Taoism became gradually so powerful that in 666 Lao Tzu was officially ranked above Confucius and the Buddha. His disciples also received posthumous titles of honour. But it is said to have lost this privileged position later.
Until the Communist revolution of 1949 Taoist temples dotted the Chinese landscape. Toaist priests were particularly popular among country folk who consulted them for auspicious dates and hours for the performance ot. man y duties. The priests who were believed to be well-versed in the working of Yang and Yin could advise on where to build houses, how to win success in love and business, where to bury the dead 50 that the corpses cou Id be protected trom the depredations of evil spirits, and what charms to wear as a protection against iIIness. Such priests belonged to two classes; Taoshins or regular priests who lived in monasteries and village priests who lived the same lite as ordinary peasants but attended temples for religious duties.
Although historically they were rivais, there were areas where Taoism and Confucianism overlapped, because of the influence they exerted on each other. The comparative absence of bigotry in China made it possible for the same people to be adherents of both creeds at the same time. Taoism was more quietistic, while Confucianism provided more explicit guidance on how to conduct public life. The Confucian classics formed the basis of the public examinations which regulated entry into the bureaucracy.
ln spite of the fact that both Taoism and Confucianism developed in course of time features bearing a strong resemblance to pagan religions elsewhere, it is their influence as ethical systems which has counted most in Chinese history.
For a fuller understanding of religious life in China it also needs to be borne in mind that Buddhism, Islam and Christianity had numerous adherents in pre-revolutionary China. The Muslim community numbered several millions; one of the earliest mosques in the history of Islam was founded in Peking. China also adapted Buddhism to its own traditions. evolving in Tibet a curious mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism of the Tantric variety and elements of spirit worship derived from Shamanism which was popular among the Mongols. Modern China includes Sinkiang which was predominantly Muslim, and Tibet until its incorporation into the People’s Republic in the fifties enjoyed “an autonomous status. Neither of these areas was directly influenced by Confucianism or Taoism. Buddhism had followers throughout the land. It was Mahayana Buddhism which appealed to the Chinese. Like Confucianism it exerted a profound influence on the development of literature and art. From China Buddhism spread to Japan, giving rise to a mystical school called Zen. But Mahayana Buddhism as practised on Chinese soil was tinged with Confucian thought.
The cultural history of China and Japan has been so interlocked down the ages that one is led inevitably step by step into a consideration of Japanese religious beliefs in tracing the movement of Confucian and Buddhist ideas in China.
Cultural intercourse between the two countries has been continuous, and many scholars think that Japan owes to China even its system of writing. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that it was from the mainland that Buddhism and Confucianism travelled to the Japanese islands. Zen as a separate Buddhist sect is characteristically Japanese but it is sa id to have developed out of ideas carried to Japan from China by Eisai, a Japanese scholar.
Zen in recent times has gained a following in the West and is difficult to define or describe. It is said to be a system which teaches the initiate ta transcend the intellect and arrive at an understanding of things by means which are neither rational nor non-rational. Pure knowledge is what is achieved, a knowledge which clears ail mist away and gives the practitioner a sense of serenity and certainty. This enlightenment is called Sato ri in Japanese. Zen exposes ail systems as vain and fallacious; it does not prescribe meditation, nor does it discourage it. It uses laughter as a device whereby the initate rises above the categories which ol’dinary mortals employ to classify reality. Nirvana, the enlightenment which is beyond the world of the senses and Samsara, the phenomental world, are bath said ta be one. The initiate discovers that things are equally real and unreal, equally important, equally part of himself.
Satori is achieved in a flash of illumination. It may be won suddenly and may elude the seeker after years of effort. It has two branches: Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai recommends two devices which facilitate the achievement of Satori. One is the Mondo, a form of rapid question-answer between Master and pupil calculated ta accelerate the process of thought so that it transcends the intellect, and the other is the Koan, a compresssed form of Monda. An illustration is the story of the pupil who cries after having vainly waited seven days in the snow before gaining admission to the Master’s room: ‘Pacify my mind’. ‘Show me your mind’, says the Master. ‘1 cannot produce il’ replies the pupil. ‘So then 1 have pacified your mind’ was the Master’s comment.
Zen satisfies for many people the mind’s search for enfranchisement from the numerous bonds by which man seems imprisoned. It is said to enable the initiate to arrive at that condition of consciousness wherein, as Christmas Humphreys puts it, the pendulum of the Opposites has come to rest, where both sides of the coin are equally valued and equally seen. It is likened to the reaction of the aesthete to the presence of beauty, a reaction which is immediate and spontaneous.
The exponents of Zen use an idiom which would sound familiar to those who know the writings of mystics who have down the ages spoken of sensations beyond words, ecstacies which are inexpressible in language, a state of consciousness which lifts man to a level where ail limitations of time and space are transcended. This is as true of Muslim mystics as of Hindu and Christian. What is peculiar to Zen as an offshoot of Buddhism is that it is atheistic, whereas in Islam, Hinduism and Christianity the basis of mysticism is the effort to achieve a consciousness of the Divine.
Zen however is by no means the only Buddhist cult which flourished in Japan. Two others which are of equal importance in the religious history of the country are Shingon founded by Kobo Daishi (774-835) and the one named after Nichiren (122282). Nichiren was opposed to both Zen and Shingon.Shingon is regarded by many as a Boddhist heresy, for while claiming to be a development of both Zen and Shingon. Shingon is regarded by many as a Buddhist heresy, for while claiming to be a development of Buddhist thought it proceeds to supplant the Buddha himself by one of his adherents, Amida. It is to Amida that Shingonites direct their prayer. Amida is said to have postponed his own Buddhahood from a feeling of deep compassion for lesser men whom he promised the Buddha-Iand of Sukhavati, a paracise not unlike the conventional paradise which features in other religions. Here Amida presides to await the coming of ail men. Nichiren held that the real focus of a Buddhist’s devotion must be the Buddha himself, not Amida.
Zen apart the other branches of Mahayana Buddhism virtually turn the religion into a theistic faith, with the Buddha or Amida substituted for God, a regular heaven and hell and numerous minor deities. They ail speak of Nirvana as their ideal, but the concept of Nirvana varies greatly from cult to cult. Belief in Karma and rebirth is however common to ail.
Buddhism has influenced and been influenced by the ancient Japanese cult of Shintoism to which the imperial family adheres. It is also looked upon sometimes as a rival, an outsider to be viewed with suspicion. But Shinto and Buddhism coexist along with such other faiths as Christianity and Islam.
Shinto means the way of the gods and is believed to have been impo.rted from China like almost everything else in Japan. It postulat~s no God but the number of divinities it encourages its followers to worship is uncountable. The ‘Shinto pantheon includes aJl past emperors, ail ancestors, tre’es, mountains,
wells, villages, cities, streams, hou ses and gates. There are no scriptures. The most improtant thing in Shinto is ancestor worship. Only born Japanese may join the Shinto church. From this point of view it seems to bear a resemblance to Hinduism in being éin exclusively nationalistic faith.
There are two types of Shinto: State Shinto and Sect Shinto. State Shinto is adoration of the emperor as a divine being. He is believed to be a direct descendant of the sungoddess Amaterasu-Omikami who in the divine source of the Japanese people. She was the daughter of the primaeval divinities Izanagi and Isanami who in this sense correspond to the Greek deities, Uranus and Gaea, the parents of the Tilans. The sungoddess is believed to have been the great-greatgreat-grandmother of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. Her principal shrine is the Grand Imperial Shrine at Ise to which ail emperors must report when they succeed to the imperial office. Before the de-establishment of the Shinto church after the Second World War, the number of shrines dedicated to the sungoddess was estimated to be 110,500 and the number of priests to be 15,800; they were maintained by the state. Theses shrines attacted thousands on festival days. Worship required hand-clapping, silent prayer and gifts. The divinities were prayed to for success in life, good harvests, profits in business enterprises, domestic peace and 50 on.
Although the emperor is no longer regarded officially as divine, there are sections in Japanese society who still believe him to be so. The imperial family has not ceased to pay homage to Shinto shrines and reporting to the ancestral spirits is still a part of the many rituals which it follows.
Sect Shinto is different from State Shinto in that it is the religion of the people as people and not as state subjects. It has numerous branches and before the Second World War had 18 million adherents. They were served by 121 priest5 working in 16,000 churches. While it was mandatory for every Japanese to subscribe to State Shinto, membership of Sect Shinto was voluntary. New branches are likely to grow according as new interpretations are sought to be placed on ancient rituals. Thus Shishino Nakaba who died in 1884 and was a Shinto priest founded what has become known as Fuso Kyo in which Mt Fuji features as a divinity. Similarly Mrs Nakayamas (1798-1887) who after an ordinary marriage had a vision of herself as the embodiment of the god Tenri founded a sect in the name of that god. The writings of these two form the scriptures of the sects they founded.
Tenri Kyo is often compared to Christian Science in that it maintains that the root of ail sickness and suffering is in the mind. A person who succeeds in ridding himself of the mind’s ailments, such as anger, covetousness, jealousy, may live free from iIIness to a great age.
As in China Christianity and Islam are represented in Japan. But bothsocieties differ from the south Asian subcontinent and the Middle East in attaching more importance to nationalistic values or ethics than to religion as it is understood elsewhere. Modern Japan, one of the most industrialised countries with an outward life-style little different from the life-style of the West, finds it still possible to cherish Shintoism with its elaborate pantheon of gods of various kinds. Even Zen does not regard the other cuits as false or unnecessary. It is owing to this that religious riots which are still a feature of public life in India and Pakistan are unknown in China as weil as Japan; rarely does one hear of religious or theological disputes. Their approach to these issues has always been different regardless of their political fortunes.

About ড. সায়েদ সাজ্জাদ হুসাইন