A lot of religious fundamentalists insist that all social traditions that prevailed in the time and place where their religion was born are essential to the religion itself. The family values and sexual roles from the respective holy lands must be imported into new lands, and must never be allowed to evolve. So I feel it’s a bit refreshing to see cases where religions showed enormous flexibility in response to new cultures. And one of the best examples I know of is the role of Chinese women in transforming Buddhism.
When Buddhism first appeared in China, it seemed to be an all-male cult of Indian monks. At first, this Buddhism hardly spoke to China’s family men, much less to its women. To most Chinese people, the early Buddhist missionaries seemed irrelevant. Popular religion in China was a family and community affair. Women did most of the work tending temples, statues, and ancestral shrines. They did most of the cooking for temple feasts or death anniversaries. Women were the most involved in divinations about health, marriage, or children. They were the main teachers of spiritual tradition to the next generation. Basically, Han dynasty China was a civilization where family, progeny, sexuality, and community had central importance. All of this, the celibate male emissaries of Buddhism seemed to reject. As a Confucian critic named Zheng Yi later put it, “Let us look at Buddhism from its practice. In deserting his father and leaving his family, the Buddha severed all human relationships. Such a person should not be allowed in any community.”
Making Buddhism Chinese
The Buddha reportedly affirmed that women were capable of reaching enlightenment. But most male monks presumed that all enlightened beings had to be male, since a soul had to evolve beyond a lowly female birth before it could possibly reach nirvana. This traditional Indian prejudice naturally found its counterpart in China. Even some Chinese women accepted it. So, in the year 550 CE, a seemingly high class woman named Tao Jung paid a scribe to carve her words of penance on a temple colophon: “Results are not born of thin air: pay heed to causes and results will follow. This explains how the Buddhist disciple and nun Tao Jung—because her conduct in her previous life was not correct—came to be born in her present form, a woman, vile and unclean.” Some Buddhist scriptures denounced this sort of pious prejudice, and claimed that all sentient beings have equal potential. But Min Jiayin observes, “Unfortunately, when Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese, the passages containing the doctrine of equality were left out.”
The early world-denying version of Buddhism encountered a major difficulty in China: it had to compete with popular Daoism. And Daoist cults generally appealed to the whole family, partly because they featured a pantheon of goddesses, teachers, and spirit mediums. Besides that, farming villagers were seldom interested in “renouncing the world.” They were more prone to worship deities of nature than to wish for salvation from the earthly realm. The Indian monastic practice of begging for alms was so repugnant to Chinese values that the practice basically died out among China’s Buddhists. To compete successfully in China, Buddhism had to change. And it did change, with almost amazing flexibility. One of the first clues we have of this, is an image of the Queen Mother of the West, found on a clay brick from the late Han dynasty. She is seated on the ground, in a pose resembling the Buddha. She faces the viewer directly, and wears robes like those of a Buddhist monk. Perhaps the artist sensed an affinity between the Chinese and Indian images. Both were lords from the West (the direction of death), and both were guides to eternal bliss.
The competition of Daoism and Buddhism was mainly a positive contest for popular appeal. But unfortunately it was also a contest of appeal to the rulers. Over several centuries, leaders or lobbyists for each religion tried to gain official backing from the government. The Buddhists sucked up to sympathetic royals, faking evidence that Emperor Sui Yangdi (569–618) and Empress Wu Zetian (690–705) were incarnations of the Buddha. Sure enough, Empress Wu justified her seizure of power by circulating the Great Cloud Sutra, which predicted the reincarnation of the Buddha Maitreya as a female ruler. Meanwhile, certain Daoist worthies tried to get the government to ban Buddhist institutions, and during the 440s, 570s, 840s they pretty much succeeded. It didn’t help when Buddhist leaders got revenge in the 1200s. They secured patronage from the hated Mongol conquerors, who let a Tibetan cleric turn the former Song emperors’ palace into a Buddhist temple. Things could get almost as nasty as in Western religions.
Fortunately, competition can also produce good fruits. And in seeking to shed their own liabilities while stealing the Daoists’ advantages, the native Chinese Buddhists made a series of brilliant moves. In Zhan (Chan, or Zen) Buddhism, a series of Chinese teachers shed the Indian context of world-renunciation, and recast enlightenment as an awakening to life’s wonder in the present moment. The Zhan monks also worked rather than begged for their food. Similarly, the Sanjie Jiao sect renounced monastic living, downplayed reverence for texts, and taught that all life was filled with the Buddha nature. Rather than cutting off relations with society and nature, these Buddhists sought a better quality of relationship. The founder of Pure Land Buddhism made it sound quintessentially Chinese: “Those who rejoice in the Way of the Buddha invariably first serve their parents and obey their lords”. World-renunciation and monasticism still appealed to some people. But the sects which spread most widely promoted practices that family people could do in their daily lives, like chanting mantras. And then came the important innovation of creating Buddhist goddesses—most importantly Guanyin (Kuan Yin), the goddess of universal compassion. Basically, Chinese Buddhists melded Buddhism with Daoism, the way Zen melded with Shinto in Japan. The result was an Oriental Buddhism, which was “anti-worldly” only in its aversion to the “worldly ambition” of warlords. The emaciated yogi-like Buddhas of Indian imagery began morphing into fat, laughing Buddhas, akin to the Daoist Eight Immortals.
According to historians, the name Guanyin is a translation from “Avalokitesvara,” who is a male bodhisattva described in the Lotus Sutra. Avalokitesvara could take any form to assist those who suffer. His name meant “The Lord Who Hears the Cries of the World.” But in China, Avalokitesvara (translated Kuan Shih Yin, or Guanyin) became female. It had to be a calculated response to popular demand.
In the Madonna-like image of Guanyin, the values of all Chinese religions could be honored at once. The Buddhist concern to relieve suffering through insight, the Daoist esteem for women’s spirituality, and the Confucian regard for social justice, all found expression in one beautiful female figure. This was an image the Chinese could relate to. She appeared in a white gown, which was the color of death, the West, and rebirth. Usually she holds either a scroll (the Lotus Sutra) or a lotus flower, symbolizing the flowering of mind and soul. Sometimes she is depicted with 1,000 arms, and the peacock’s 100 eyes are her eyes, the better to respond to all suffering in the world. Reportedly, Guanyin answers prayers for children, and the children she gives come wrapped in placentas white as snow. She is portrayed riding a lion-like creature called a hou, which in older myths was the mount of the earth’s guardian queen. And her switch of sex, from male Avalokitesvara to the female Guanyin, illustrates the wisdom of earlier Sutras. As a Chinese composition called The Precious Volume Amplifying the Diamond Sutra argues, “Do not ask about degrees of enlightenment; stop differentiating between those who remain in the household life and those who leave it, do not adhere to [the difference between] clergy and laity. One needs only to understand that in the mind there is fundamentally neither male nor female. Why must one cling to outer form?”
Even the emperor (Huizong, in 1119) officially recognized Guanyin’s sovereignty, appointing her as the goddess whose raft of salvation would bring all souls to safety. By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Buddhist temples across the country featured Guanyin as the primary focus of devotion. She eclipsed the Buddha, as Mary eclipsed Christ in cathedrals across Europe. As a recent visitor to Guanyin’s holy island of Putuo Shan somewhat inaccurately explained, “in India, Buddha was a man. In China she’s a woman.” Great Daoist pilgrimage centers, such as White Cloud Temple or Mao Shan made shrines for her. Images of Guanyin appeared in millions of homes and village shrines. These images in the places of honor showed a simple picture of what the villagers valued most.
Anyway, we can see how this melding of religious traditions created something greater. The spiritual tradition transcended the culture of its birth, and became trans-cultural. Other traditions have done this as well. Western Christianity shed much of its Middle Eastern context, though this took over a thousand years. More recently, Christianity grew yet more trans-cultural, and a Western version of Buddhism took shape in North America. Basically, there’s hope our religions can change and be better for it.
Cahill, Suzanne E. 1993. Transcendence & Divine Passion: The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, p. 23.
Ching, Julia. 1993. Chinese Religions, pp. 126–127
De Bary, William Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, Burton Watson, editors. 1960. Sources of Chinese Tradition, volume I, p. 478.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, editor. 1981. Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook, pp. 53–54.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. 1996. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, pp. 97, 116.
Griffith, Brian, 2012, A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization, pp. 200–204.
Hawkins, Bradley K. 2004. Asian Religions: An Illustrated Introduction, pp. 240–241, 249, 256–257.
Min Jiayin. 1995. “Introduction” and “Conclusion.” In The Chinese Partnership Research Group, Min Jiayin, editor. The Chalice & the Blade in Chinese Culture: Gender Relations and Social Models, pp. 596–597.
Muramatsu, Yuji. 1960. “Some Themes in Chinese Rebel Ideologies.” In Arthur Wright, editor. The Confucian Persuasion, p. 254.
Overmyer, Daniel L. 1985. “Values in Chinese Sectarian Literature: Ming and Ch’ing pao-chüan.” In David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski, editors. Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, p. 225.
Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.
Palmer, Martin, Jay Ramsay, and Man-Ho Kwok. 1995. Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, pp. 4–5, 17–21, 38, 42, 100.
Ward, Tim. 2004. “Buddha’s Sex Change.” In Sean O’Reilly, James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, editors. Travelers’ Tales, China: True Stories, p. 272.