A Guidance Through Religion in Ancient China

If a foreigner had come to the cosmopolitan court of China in the Eighth Century A.D. and asked a gold-robed courtier, “What is the official Chinese religion?” the courtier would have replied, “The proper and seasonable worship of the gods of the mountains, rivers and seas and of our noble ancestors, as laid down in ancient books.”

The origin of this religion goes back to prehistoric times when the earliest peoples of China sought answers to the same basic questions that have baffled primitive men the world over: what is the unseen force that brings darkness and light, winter and summer, drought and rain, life and death; what must man do to appease this force?

The men of Ancient China recognized the presence of this indefinable force. They believed that all things, even those that seemed to be inert, possessed it to some degree and that some things possessed it in outstanding amounts. A misshapen, moss-covered stone might be full of this unseen force; there were also men who radiated a magnetic force as indefinable as that emanating from “holy” stones-they too had exceptional reservoirs of this power, concentrated in their blood.

In earliest times it was believed that this mysterious force was an integral part of the physical creature-it had nothing to do with disembodied spirits roving the air. To say that a tree stump contained spiritual power did not mean that it was the physical home of a ghostly being. It meant that the stump itself had an energy in it that could, in some mysterious way, affect other beings, like the electricity in a charged wire.


A pottery head with a painted animal-like mask, thought to represent a Stone Age shaman, is a relic from China’s era of animistic religions. It adorns a lid that may have covered a funeral urn some 4,000 years ago.

Gradually, personality came to be attached to elements of nature that appeared to radiate this spiritual power and that were close and familiar to a tribe. A “friendly” mountain that sheltered a settlement was believed to have the power to protect the settlement and was given a name; a local stream that appeared to the tribal leader in a dream and in which someone later drowned was believed to have the power to destroy and was also personified. In this way, the concept of the power of an unseen force began to find expression in the worship of individual nature spirits.

To the Chinese tribes of prehistory and to the men of the Bronze Age, the era that began with the Shang Dynasty some 3,500 years ago, the great deities were those nature-spirits who inhabited the dominant features of the landscape. Hill-gods, earth-gods, river-gods, sky-gods, wind-gods, thunder-gods were created when the abstract power inherent in them became so evident that men recognized it and gave them names. In time these gods ranged from the simplest forest-imps and river-maidens, whose good will was sought by villagers and travelers, to the gods of the cloud-gathering mountains, worshiped by the king himself.

One of the oldest and certainly the greatest of the deities was the sky-god Tien. In the very early days Tien was thought of as a great king in the sky, more magnificent than any earthbound king, more brilliant and more terrible. Later, many viewed him as an impersonal dynamo, the source of the energy that animated the world.

Among those in the next rank of nature-deities was-not unexpectedly-the “Sire of the Ho,” the god of the Ho, or Yellow River. At regular intervals this mighty lord was offered a human sacrifice, a richly clad girl who, with a raft for her bridal bed, was floated out into his wet domain, never to return. An ancient hymn to the “Sire of the Ho” describes his palace of fish scales and cowries, and then the sacred ceremony:

You mount a white turtle, Oh! your train is striped fish!

l rove with you, Oh!

by the aisles of the Ho.

In the chaos of a sweeping thaw, Oh! down we shall go.

We join our hands, Oh! as eastward we move.

They escort the lovely one, Oh! to the south estuary.

Waves in steady surges, Oh! come to welcome us-

Fish, in swishing tumult, Oh! are bridesmaids to me.

The world of spirits also included another class of potent beings: ghosts, the spirits of former kings and heroes as well as the helpful souls of one’s own humble ancestors. They too had mysterious power and could have great influence on the welfare of the living. Ordinary ghosts were generally called kuei, meaning originally “effigy, puppet, strange or fearful manlike creature.” The souls of some important men, however, achieved a higher spiritual status so that they could hardly be distinguished from the gods of nature, since a human soul might become the protective god of the field, the grove or the stream over which he had watched in his lifetime.


The Rain Spirit of the ancient Chinese was the dragon, the sacred symbol of the East and the “gatherer of clouds” whose beneficence was essential to a rich harvest. The bronze beast shown here is thought to be a lamp dating from the Han Dynasty.

In all, there was a vast multitude of spirits who had to be noticed and appeased, and all Chinese, from the peasant planting his crops to the king planning a battle, depended on the wisdom and good will of the nature and ancestor gods. Proper communication between living men and these exalted spirits was by prescribed ritual that, if properly performed, was believed to bring about the well-being of all.

Basic to this ritual was contact with the world of spirits through a shaman-or rather a shamaness, since most mediums in Bronze Age China were female. The shaman is familiar to us as the American Indian medicine man, the medium whose spirit-possessed body speaks divine wisdom to common men. The shaman, whose chief function in arid northern China was to bring rain, did not supplicate the deity like a priest; he was believed to be physically but temporarily occupied by the deity who descended from his home beyond the clouds to visit the world of men. In a trance or paroxysm, the shaman spoke with the voice of the spirit and danced to bring rain. An ancient shamanistic chant describes such a holy woman-sweet-smelling and clad in a splendid ritual dress welcoming the God of the East as a mistress welcomes her lover:

Bathed in hot orchid water, Oh! hair washed in perfumes!

Dressed in many floral colors, Oh! like the best of blossoms!

Other religious practices reflected in their violence man’s terror of the unseen forces at work in his world, powers that were close to the sources of life and death. The worship of the spirits in ancient times was by no means a matter of polite ritual performed by literate mandarins with engaging manners. Knightly mourners screamed and leaped by the biers of deceased friends to drive away harmful ghosts; shamans were burned publicly to bring rain to drought-stricken fields; women danced naked to exorcise unwanted dragon-spirits.

Most dramatic were the blood sacrifices, which are very old in China as they are elsewhere in the world. The animals and servants sacrificed at the tombs of the Bronze Age lords gave their blood, which was believed to contain the mysterious spiritual power, to their dead ruler, and in this way they gave him life. Holy bells and swords were consecrated by pouring life-giving blood on them, and the sanctity of feudal oaths was confirmed by smearing blood on the lips of a juror.

These primitive beliefs and ancient rituals were superficially modified with the refinements of human sensibilities during the Classical Age-the era of Confucius and other itinerant sages-that began around 600 B.C. Some of the gory but venerable customs assumed a civilizing gloss or passed from accepted upper-class practice into the shadows of ill-recorded peasant custom. With the fall of the Chou Dynasty some 300 years later, the identity of many of the early gods disappeared. But while some of the savage gods of the earliest peoples appear to have vanished, these too may have continued to live on in the faith of the common people, ignored by the literate class.

In the Third Century B.C., the powerful rulers of the newly established Han Dynasty began to organize an official state religion based on the centuries-old tradition of worship of nature-gods and ancestral spirits. This official cult was set up to insure the power of the emperor and his appointees over the vast populace of a rapidly expanding empire. To avoid “irresponsible” interpretations of the wishes of the great gods of antiquity-interpretations that might disagree with imperial policies-a system of officially approved worship defined the true gods and appropriate rituals.

The gods of the Han court ranged in dignity from the gods of the Five Directions-North, South, East, West and Center-down to a miscellany of nature spirits, believed, not always correctly, to have been worshipped in earlier times. The state cult of Han was conceived as a revival of the good rituals of the past, but, in fact, it was a composite and artificial system in which old gods hobnobbed with the young ones and almost forgotten provincial deities were given new and universal honors. Private communication with the gods through a shaman was discouraged and sometimes prohibited; even in official circles the use of shamans was reserved For occasions of extreme peril.

This state religion was artificially connected to a body of moral doctrine and beliefs thought to have been approved by Confucius. What the state religion actually had in common with Confucian ideas was respect for the good old days and for the ancient values said to have been endorsed by the founding fathers of Chinese civilization. But the antiquity of many of these beliefs was counterfeit.


A wandering sage, Confucius taught the value of proper manners and filial piety, and preached that kings were responsible for the public welfare. Though not widely recognized during his lifetime, his ideals lastingly influenced the culture of China.

The so-called Confucian classics were, in fact, compiled long after the death of Confucius by disciples of his disciples, and were edited and interpreted in Han times by government scribes; but they purport to reflect the views of the great sage of antiquity on history, religious rites, morals and standards of behavior. The state officers of Han times accepted these interpretations and associated them with the standardized pagan nature-worship of the state cult as a part of the acceptable way of life for a Han gentleman. We in the West sometimes call this way of life, which includes both reverence for the” ancient” books and the “ancient” gods, “Confucianism.”

The most important text through which Confucian ideas were linked to the state religion, a compendium called the Analects, purports to be a record of some of the dialogues Confucius had with his pupils. The Confucius of these conversations emerges as an advocate of the practice of ritual for its own sake, whether it involved conduct in court or conduct in a temple. According to the Analects, Confucius himself “sacrificed to the gods as if the gods were present,” but when someone asked him about the significance of an ancient state ceremony, he confessed, “Truly, I do not know.” A lover of ancient things, he believed that it was important to preserve old rituals because the practice of the rituals had its own value.

Thus the state religion, based essentially on the ancient gods and rites, is Confucian only in the sense that its form had been prescribed by the interpreters of books associated with Confucius and his age, not because Confucius founded it or was considered its chief deity. In fact, in his own time, Confucius had seemed to some men merely a loquacious bumbler, a self-serving pretender to exclusive understanding of ancient wisdom. An anti- Confucian polemicist wrote of him:

He eats without tilling, dresses without

weaving. Wagging his lips and clacking his

tongue, he presumes to be a source of Right

and Wrong in order to delude the masters of

Under Heaven.

In his own lifetime, Confucius had been only one of many itinerant wise men; in Han times he was regarded as an authority on customs and morals and it was almost inevitable that he, like other heroes, should later be deified. By the first Century AD. an irregular worship of Confucius, not very different from that accorded local heroes, gathered momentum. In time, the master was known to all as a divine being whose coming had been foretold by miracles and whose worship was approved, along with that of some other great men, in the official calendar of gods.

The official Confucian state religion organized and maintained by the national government in Han times was considered to be responsible, controlled and temperate, while the remnants of the folk religion that did not fit into the state plan were thought of as irresponsible, uncontrolled and intemperate. Local cults were ruthlessly exterminated and temples of wayside gods were destroyed; all religious authority was focused in the capital city and all unorthodox belief was treated as mere superstition. It was the regular duty of officers of the state to destroy manifestations of the popular cult, but this policy was never wholly effective. Popular religion had grown out of the primitive roots of ancient folk belief, and the common people secretly continued to turn for assistance to such favorites as the pig-like thunder-gods, the slippery fish-deities and and the brutal forest-trolls.

At the same time as the government scribes were consolidating and standardizing ancient beliefs, some of the upper class elite, including Liu Ch’e, the great Han emperor of the Second Century BC (also known as Wu Ti), became deeply immersed in the body of esoteric doctrines, practices and pursuits that we call Taoism.

This many-faceted system had grown out of the same folkloric and traditional base as did the tribal and liturgical tradition of “Confucianism.” But the selection and emphasis of each were different. The Taoists maintained the shamanistic way, preferring to preserve the intimate relationship between those Under Heaven and their gods. They rejected the priestly hierarchy of the bureaucratic Confucian magistrates and their rigid and confining approach to the divine world.

The word “tao,” after which this body of belief is now named, means literally the way, or the path; figuratively it can mean basic way of life or underlying order of nature. The Taoist use of the term emphasized the latter.

The most revered Taoist book is a poetic but obscure work called the Lao Tzu, which was claimed by the Taoists as their own because they saw in it certain fundamental concepts that were congenial to their ideas. The Lao Tzu pictures the tao, the way, as a great inexhaustible womb, the origin of all individual beings and experiences:

The Way is an abyss:

however you may use it, it needs no filling.

A gulf, Oh! seemingly the ancestor of the Myriad Creatures!

Fathomless, Oh! seemingly it will endure.

The second great Taoist classic, the book called Chuang Tzu is said to be the work of a Chou Dynasty sage named Chuang Chou and is less enigmatic. It is full of delicately conceived allegories emphasizing flux, metamorphosis and the interchangeability of life forms:

Long ago, Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. He was elated as a butterfly, well pleased with himself, his aims satisfied. He knew nothing of Chou. But shortly he awoke and found himself to be Chou. He did not know whether as Chou he dreamed he was a butterfly, or whether as a butterfly he dreamed he was Chou.

The great aim of all Taoists was to conform to the way of nature. They believed that all attempts to behave in accordance with strict codes of discipline, either personal or governmental, were artificial and tended to deform human nature and thereby waste life. Their aim was to enhance vitality and life and ultimately to create a new, refined and immortal body that would leave the mortal body to take part in the bliss of paradise.

This longing for supernal life led to a great popularity of alchemists and magicians in the Han capital cities. These wonder workers streamed to the courts and were welcomed because it was believed that those who had the power to refine crass material substances must also have the power to create the changes needed to make man immortal.

They brought with them a complex symbolism based on red, their holy color, which represented the furnace of the alchemists and its beautiful, red-garbed patron goddess. One of their colorful sym­bols was their sacred bird, the Manchurian crane, with the red spot of divinity on its crown. Most important was cinnabar, a red compound of mercury and sulfur that was believed to have magic powers because it could be turned into a silvery liquid and then back to a solid; some even believed that it could be turned into gold, the one substance known to be indestructible.

The Han Taoists also prescribed various practices to strengthen life essence- yogalike gymnastics, magic elixirs prepared by alchemists, and dietary rules, such as the avoidance of cereals. The First Century philosopher Wang Chung described Taoist practices in this way:

They dose themselves with the germ of gold and jade, eat the finest fruit of the purple polypore fungus. By eating what is germinal their bodies are lightened, and so they are capable of spiritual transcendence.

A being who had attained, by whatever means, this state of “transcendence” was called a hsien, a word that connotes taking flight from the material world, breaking mortal bonds and escaping spacial restrictions. The immortal hsien, similar to angels, were popularly styled “feathered folk,” and their winged or feathered images appear in the art of the period. The book of Chuang Tzu pictures them as delicate, white-skinned superbeings:

These are divine persons dwelling there, whose flesh and skin resemble ice and snow, soft and delicate like sequestered girl-children; they do not eat the five cereals; they suck the wind and drink the dew; they mount on clouds and vapors and drive the flying dragons-thus they rove beyond the four seas.

In late Han times, Taoism spread from court circles and became a popular revolutionary cult, known as Yellow Turban Taoism; it promised immortality to ordinary men. The revolutionaries led by three rebels, the Chang brothers, attempted to overthrow the Han Dynasty and establish a Taoist state. Hundreds of thousands of destitute peasants flocked to their banner and joined the strange Taoist church that they established and made attractive to common men. Great mass ceremonies were held in which incense and music established the atmosphere for public confession of sins, prayers for other sinners, holy exaltations and sometimes uninhibited orgies. This army of exalted salvationists was a major factor contributing to the fall of the Han empire; but soon afterwards the movement disintegrated. However, Taoist speculation on transcendental matters remained a way of life for a growing number of educated recluses and anxious aristocrats. In the age of division that followed the collapse of Han it attracted a great many refugee intellectuals. They flocked to the south, and in this warm, genial environment developed their love of nature, poetry and landscape painting, all reflecting Taoist concern with the natural world and the important truths about eternity that may be found in it.

Between the Third and the Sixth Centuries, when China was torn by internal strife and the northern area was overrun by hordes of barbarian nomads, centralized government could not survive. With the collapse of the bureaucracy came the fragmentation of the “Confucian” state religion that had been so closely linked to it. Taoism, in spite of its temporary popularity, could not by itself fill the void left by the disintegration of the classical society of Han. Into this vacuum poured the riches of Indian Buddhism, a religion whose chief aim was the elimination of human suffering.

Buddhism is named for its reputed founder, an Indian prince of the Sixth Century B.C. who came to be known as the Buddha, a word that signifies the Enlightened. The official story tells that the Buddha was a rich and pampered youth, who, aghast at the sight of suffering and death, sought and found escape in a belief in the illusory nature of the world. He preached that man’s attachment to things, to possessions, to worldly hopes of every kind was all in vain-man loves that which does not truly exist and suffers when these things slide like sand be tween his fingers: “Each and every entity that has being is like a dream, an illusory bubble or shadow-it is like the dew, and also like the lightning.” Once freed from desire and from attachments to material things, man could achieve the condition called “nirvana” and abandon the final illusion-the belief that the ego, the individual personality, is a real entity.

These ideas appealed to some Taoists who themselves thought that all sensations and experiences were misleading. Accordingly, when Buddhism, enriched by its passage through the Greco-Indian and Greco-Iranian civilizations of Afghanistan and Central Asia, entered the Middle Kingdom in late Han times, Taoism took the foreign teaching under its auspices, Some early devotees of Buddhism regarded it as an exotic form of Taoism and the Buddha as identical with the supposed author of the Lao Tzu. In fact, according to one Chinese legend, he had traveled to India centuries before and founded the Buddhist faith. Even technical Buddhist terms were translated from Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, into traditional but misleading Taoist expressions; for example, bodhi-Sanskrit for “Enlightenment”-became tao, meaning “the way.”

Chinese Buddhism would probably have remained an exotic form of Taoism if it had not been for the constant intercourse between China and India maintained by devoted Buddhist monks, who, like Christians on pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem, renewed contact with the pure source of doctrine. During the age of division and invasions following the collapse of the Han Dynasty, the Buddhist schools of thought multiplied, and their monasteries filled the land-refuges for the dispossessed, quiet sanctuaries for the wise and hideouts for tax evaders and escaped slaves. Pious aristocrats gave the institutions golden statues and large tracts of land, and gradually the monasteries acquired their own battalions of slaves, their own water mills, their own shops.

In southern China emerged the important offshoot of Indian Buddhism known as Chan. and later as Zen in Japan. Its great leader in the Seventh Century was Hui-neng, a native of the far south and one of the first great men of China not of Hua, or Middle Kingdom, birth. His superiors once called him a barbarian, an allegation he did not deny, but his blunt and rugged personality and his willingness to speak directly to despised and rejected men were never forgotten. His sect laid little emphasis on the study of books and the uses of reason; he preached that release from illusion could come suddenly, even to an uneducated man. Through him, Buddhism became a light to the non-Chinese heathen.

In the Seventh Century, China was reunified under the great medieval dynasty of T’ang, and with the return of a strong central government and a huge bureaucracy came once again an official state religion, a Confucian cult that was very similar to the official religion established in Han times. Although the state religion was once again dominant, now there were Taoism and Buddhism to complement it.

By T’ang times, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism became known as the Three Doctrines. Although some thinkers held that they were basically the same, especially in their views of the spiritual destiny of man, still, the emphasis was different in each.

Confucianism, the T’ang official cult, was conservative, like the state religion of ancient Rome, and emphasized man’s duties to his fellow man and to his gods. An official account of Eighth Century state ritual still survives and tells us plainly who were the great gods of the T’ang pantheon-the spirit-kings who controlled events in human society and its natural environment. They were, first, the gods of Heaven and Earth, not too clearly defined, but the great sources of being.

Typical of this class of deities was the newly elevated God of the South Sea, who presided over the sea that led from Canton to the Indies and beyond, bringing the wealth of many nations to the world of T’ang. His temple stood on a windy coast some distance from Canton. There, attended by swarms of wriggling sea creatures, he was offered vegetables, cereals, dried meats, salt and libations of wine as the local magistrate honored him on behalf of the distant emperor in the capital of Ch’ang-an. After such gods came the lesser gods of mountains and waters and finally the spirits of inferior stars, mounds and barrows.

Even in medieval times the official cult continued to reflect some of the most ancient rites of the nature religion on which it was based. During an Eighth Century drought the archaic rain dance, which has antecedents traceable to the beginnings of Chinese history, was performed; clay images of human beings were exposed to the hot sky, replacing the living scapegoats of antiquity. In this same period, a high government minister sent shamanesses to perform religious rites in all parts of the realm. One of them was exceptionally beautiful and kept a court of several dozen young men. She and they were put to death by an overzealous local official who, it seems, did not relish this revival of the ancient wise-woman. Such barbaric aspects of the old nature-religion were never entirely lost.

While Confucianism stressed the efficacy of ancient ritual in determining man’s fate, Taoism emphasized the search for immortality through man’s understanding of nature, and few men of T’ang times were uninfluenced by this dream. Many medieval Chinese, some of them in high places, worshiped the legendary author of the Lao Tzu and devoted themselves seriously to the search for immortality and exhausted their resources in purchasing expensive reagents for the manufacture of elixirs. Even emperors, who served as heads of the official Confucian religion, honored Taoist books and practices.

Midway in his 44-year rule, Li Lung-chi, the greatest of the T’ang emperors (known also as Hsuan Tsung), came to believe in the Taoist hopes for a harmonious natural life and for the penetration of nature’s secrets. He gave new honors to Taoist gods and sages, especially to the supposed author of the Lao Tzu. Once he had a vision in which the latter appeared to him and told him where to find a true likeness of his countenance. The holy image was indeed discovered and made the basis of replicas that were installed in government temples throughout the realm.

So inspired was Li Lung-chi by Taoist belief in the sanctity of life, that he tried to abolish capital punishment and initiated measures for the humane treatment of animals. He also established an official examination in Taoist philosophy for the title of “Master of Mystic Studies,” which led to important positions in the government bureaucracy.

As Li Lung-chi grew older, the mysteries of Taoism absorbed him more and more. Possibly this intense preoccupation led to visions, for he once told his ministers that, while burning incense at a private altar, he had been wafted up to Heaven.

Nonetheless, his fervent belief resulted in a great improvement in the reputation of the ancient books of the Taoist faith and in preservation of the arts of natural living that Taoism cultivated.

Closely related to the Taoist dream of immortality was the Buddhist doctrine of salvation. It maintained that man’s hope lay in his understanding that ordinary experience is mere illusion, a doctrine that led many men to leave the everyday world for the serenity of monastic life. By medieval times Buddhist monasteries filled the land and even powerful statesmen and learned scholars made prolonged visits to these great centers of holiness.

The chief monastery in the capital city of Changan in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries was populated by monks “as numerous as blades of grass”. Its grounds were planted with pine trees full of spiritual power; its serpentine pond was beautified by sacred lilies; it owned many relics of great antiquity, rare images of the Buddha in jade and sandalwood and great libraries of holy scriptures conserved in lacquered cases.

But the Buddhist faith had its enemies who opposed it as an exotic, anti-Chinese fad and who saw its monasteries merely as tax-exempt estates tying up great wealth in gold on the skins of holy images. This view led to spasmodic persecutions; in the Ninth Century, holy images were ruthlessly melted down and rare books were burned without mercy. Although Buddhist power waned, its compassion and charity-manifested in hostelries for pilgrims, in dispensaries, hospitals for the intimate transfiguration. Each supplied a different answer to man’s most searching questions.

If a man asked, “What must I do among other men in this everyday world?” Confucianism supplied the answer: “Rely on the wisdom of the ancient sages, correctly interpreted.” The role of the Confucian gentleman was that of the responsible citizen, aware of his duties to his civilization and of his relationship to the eternal powers that both threatened and preserved him. This relationship was dramatized by the state religion and elucidated by the Confucian arts of philology and history.

If a man asked, “What is my place in nature?” Taoism supplied the answer: “You are part of it, and must understand its subtle ways-to your own advantage.” From this understanding came technology and natural science, a sense of the relativity of human values in the great scheme of things, an awareness of the idleness of ambition, and a vision of eternity anticipated in wild places, in gardens, in painting and in poetry.

If a man asked, “What can I hope for beyond this world?” Buddhism supplied the answer: “Search the holy scriptures for the truth about the illusions of appearances and the goadings of your passions.” It was possible to understand the very nature of existence itself, and to base a morality on that understanding; a Buddhist could contemplate the character of the mind and the possibility of real knowledge and find faith and hope beyond transient human codification.


A thousand buddhas, or “Enlightened Ones,” in a mountainside gallery at Mai-chi-shan in northern China, embody the message that all men can be saved.

Buddhism in Stone

During the First Century B.C., Indian missionaries in China began to preach the revolutionary word of the Buddha, the “Enlightened One” who had lived in India some 500 years earlier. Buddhism taught doctrines new to the Chinese: that existence is suffering, that the individual is repeatedly reborn to lead many lives and that the soul can escape into eternal peace by extinguishing the self. Unlike the social code of Confucianism or the more primitive nature worship of Taoism, the new religion charted a route to a world beyond the grave.

For a time the alien faith was a powerful force that shaped China’s thought and art. In the centuries of political turmoil that followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D., many disillusioned intellectuals embraced the doctrines of Buddhism and millions of peasants found solace in its other-worldliness. After the Tenth Century, the tide of Buddhism receded before a renascent Confucianism; but it left behind at various sites in the mountains of its adopted land some of the world’s most moving sculpture, monuments to the contemplative spirit of man.


(Top) At the Entrance of a cave stand two minor figures of Buddhist sculpture — a maidenly attendant and a King of Heaven who protected the Buddha from evil spirits.


Graven Guardians of the Faith

The custom of erecting Buddhist images in caves began in India and was brought by missionaries across Asian trade routes into China. In this new land, the doctrine and rich iconography of Buddhism satisfied a deep spiritual hunger. Rulers and wealthy families, hoping to earn merit for the afterlife, financed the carving of thousands of devotional images out of solid rock.

But Buddhism and its art were inevitably altered by their encounter with Chinese culture. Under the influence of Taoism and local Chinese folk religions, figures were added to the original Buddhist pantheon. Some of these figures were gentle and meditative. Others, like the Heavenly Guardian against evil shown at right, displayed a ferocity that bore little resemblance to the ascetic, quietly contemplative nature of Indian Buddhism.


Disciples of the Buddha often appeared in Chinese sculpture. At top is Kasyapa, a Hindu monk converted by the Buddha. The lohan (below) is thought to be Ananda, the youngest disciple.


Serene Followers of the Buddha

Repose, inwardness, imperturbability-these were the qualities of a man who accepted the teachings of the Buddha, and from the Sixth Century onward Chinese sculptors were masters at revealing such characteristics in stone. The human aspect of Buddhism was eloquently expressed in statues of the so-called lohans, who were actual apostles, disciples or missionaries of the Buddha. A Lohan was a man who had comprehended the essential meaning of the Buddha’s words-that an escape from the suffering of existence was possible only if worldly passions were completely extinguished. Buddhist devo­tions involved constant meditation on this theme. And worshipers at the shrines were deeply moved by the sight of prayerful disciples carved in rock, not gods, but men like themselves, who had achieved the calm detachment that was Buddhism’s goal.


A bodhisattva is portrayed in the typical stone statue as a figure with elaborately coif ed hair. Carved around 490 A.D., this example is located at Yun-kang, site of the earliest cave sculpture in China.

The Compassionate Bodhisattvas

As practiced in India, early Buddhism preached that every man must strive alone to escape into eternal peace from a cycle of reincarnation. The version of Buddhism that became popular in China was different. It elaborated on the concept of bodhisattvas-godlike beings, sometimes called “potential Buddhas,” who postponed their own salvation so that they could help living men find the true path. Various bodhisattvas were endowed with the power to dispel greed, to protect men against ghosts who might interfere with spiritual practices and to confer merit on the faithful. The worship of these compassionate spirits could fulfill even such worldly desires as financial success and a family of many children. So flexible was the concept that one Sixth Century emperor won the title of “Savior Bodhisattva” by his generous gifts to Buddhist temples.


An all-knowing colossus, a statue of the historical Buddha gazes from a cliff at Yun-kang. The head alone is 13 feet high.

The many Buddhas of China

Huge figures of Buddhas dominated cave shrines in China-not necessarily the Buddha, for the Chinese worshiped many divine Buddhas, as well as the godlike bodhisattvas. The historical Buddha who lived in India around 500 B.C., was regarded as a spiritual leader, to be emulated rather than worshiped. But the most popular Chinese form of the faith emphasized other Buddhas -literally millions of them, by some reckonings who dwelled in eternity as gods and had never been men. During the T’ang Dynasty-the height of the Buddhist age of China-most Chinese wor­shiped the Buddha Amitabha, Lord of the Western Paradise. It was popularly believed that a sincere utterance of Arnitabha’s name guaranteed a wor­shiper rebirth into this paradise, a radiant land made of lapis lazuli and dotted with jeweled trees.




Spiritual symbols are present in the statues of all Buddhas. The head knot indicates that the Buddha is all-wise. The hand position indicates that he is conversing. The “lotus” position of the feet, turned toward heaven, means he is meditating.



The gallery of divine figures at Lung-men in central China displays a 50-feet-high Buddha flanked by a bodhisattava and two guardians.

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