Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Filial Piety and the Sigalovaada Sutta in China

In preparation for my upcoming trip to China I'm boning up on Chinese Buddhism - an area where I am woefully ignorant.

As we know, Buddhism has changed to accommodate the particular cultures it has encountered through time. I am currently reading "The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism" by Kenneth Ch'en. In his chapter on Ethics he states that one of the greatest challenges Buddhism hit in China was the cultural propensity toward filial piety, Hsiao.

At first the Buddhists in China simply countered each claim that they were anti-hsiao, pointing to Chinese history to support the righteousness of their practices, such as shaving the head. Eventually though, a more 'positive' stance was taken, meaning that the Buddhists began reaching into their own scriptures and emphasizing those that supported filial piety. Chief among these is the Sigalovaada Sutta, which was translated numerous times by Chinese Buddhists (see p.19).

Several other texts were found as well, including Jataka tails, the lives of Saama (Pali, Shan-tzu in Chinese and Shyaama in Sanskrit) and Moggallaana (Pali, Mu-lien in Chinese and Maudgalyaayana in Sanskrit).

Only at page 50 do we move past the discussion of filial piety and on to Ancestor Worship, a closely related topic. Here we find the following:
  1. There are no known notices of (Buddhist?) clerical participation in memorial services prior to the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.).
  2. The first likely occurred in 628 CE.
  3. The Chinese Buddhists subscribed to the same post-mortem description as the Tibetans; (the Sarvastivadin, I believe) wherein the 'soul' enteres an intermediate state where it may remain for seven days or seven times seven / 49 days. Buddhists in China turned the Confucian idea of memorials to celebrate gratitude for the departed into necessary merit-generating events to get the 'soul' of the dead to a good location.
Page 55 begins the discussion of the 5 precepts and the Chinese Buddhist attempt to harmonise these with the 5 Norms of Confucian thought:
  1. human-heartedness
  2. righteousness
  3. propriety
  4. knowledge
  5. trust
Usually the 5 precepts were paired directly with these, but in some cases the 2nd precept (not to steal) is paired with the fourth Norm (knowledge), the 3rd (not to commit adultry) is paired with the 2nd Norm (righteousness), and the 4th precept (not to lie) is paired with the 3rd Norm.

The chapter concludes that Buddhism's wide acceptance in China is demonstrably due to its flexibility and creative assimilation of the existing norms (quite literally).

The next chapter is on Politics... ohh, ahh. More on that hopefully before I fly...