Buddhism, one of the most famous religions, has more than 600 million followers across the world in the present day. Its core value focused on reincarnation, immortality, and spiritual practices, which required followers to separate themselves from the secular world. It was first introduced into China during the Han Dynasty (100 C.E.) and quickly spread out through China with support from the Han government. However, it met several problems even persecuted by the end of the later Tang Dynasty (600 C.E.). One of the reasons that caused these problems is that Chinese people during that period are not welcome toward outside cultures, because they lose territories and trade routes between the fights with foreign countries. During the same period, Han Yu , a Chinese scholar, wrote an article to encourage the emperor to ban Buddhism out of China. Thus, is the reason why Han Yu despises Buddhism simply caused by xenophobia? Even though Han Yu’s focus on Buddhism as a foreign religion may be interpreted as irrational xenophobia, a deeper reading of his writing reveals that Buddhism actually influenced the Tang Dynasty negatively. These impacts can be seen in his analysis of Buddhists’ relationships with authorities, Buddhists’ contributions to the society, and their relations with Confucianism.
First of all, in Han Yu’s analysis of the relationships between Buddhism and authorities, he points out that Buddhists directly challenged the emperor’s authority at that time. Specifically, Han Yu asserts that Buddhists “did not recognize the relationships between prince and subject” (Han Yu 107). In other words, Buddhism emphasized the notion of detachments, so they did not care about the relationships with the superiors. However, this kind of thought is contrary to the core values of the Tang Dynasty. At that period, it is the individuals’ duty to obey the following rules: “rule to ruled, father to son, and husband to wife” (Wiesner et al. 102-103). From the rule, it can be seen that all citizens and officials should show absolute loyalty to the emperor. In the Tang Dynasty, governments used a hierarchical system, which emphasized the notions of classes and obedience to superiors. Thus, challenging the authority will result in damages to the government structure, causing chaos. Moreover, some Buddhists even show their contempt in front of the emperor. Specifically, Buddhists refused to bow before the rulers because the Buddhists think they already left the secular world and only need to follow their own rules(Smarr, Lecture slides 16). Hence, this contempt towards authority is not tolerated by the Tang emperor and dramatically changed Chinese people’s attitude toward Buddhism. In general, through Han Yu’s analysis, it revealed that Buddhism directly challenged the emperor’s authority, negatively influencing the government structure, which can be regarded as one of the reasons why Han Yu focused on Buddhism.
Second, Han Yu analyzes the Buddhists’ contributions to the society, which states that they refuse to support the government in many ways such as unwilling to work and farm, or even refusing to pay taxes. For instance, Buddhists “throw away their clothes and scatter their money, old and young rush about, abandoning their work and place” (Han Yu, pp.107). It can be seen that after people are converted into Buddhists, they no longer work in their positions, which may trigger the chaos in the whole country. As it is known, the major support of the Tang Dynasty’s economy is agriculture; if more and more citizens or farmers refuse to work and cultivate food, the empire will become extremely unstable since there is no sufficient financial income. Furthermore, one of the major reasons that people would like to join Buddhism is that it is tax-free. However, during the Tang Dynasty, the government was in great need of money, because there are constant warfares around the borders, which indicates that the military expense during that period can be enormously high. If there were not enough money to support the army on the frontline, the country would lose borders and territories, and quickly fall apart. Therefore, it is unacceptable for the Chinese government to let monks or nuns spread their religions without making any contributions to the country. In general, Han Yu despises Buddhists because they refused to work and pay taxes to support the governments, adding a huge burden on the Tang Dynasty’s economy.
Finally, in Han Yu’s discussion of Buddhism and Confucianism, he contends that Buddhism strongly disagrees with Confucianism in some aspects. For example, Confucianism emphasizes the notion of filial piety, which means that individuals should show high respect to their parents or elders. However, Buddhists “did not recognize the sentiments of father and son” (Han Yu, pp.107). In other words, they believe that people should be separated from the secular world, and cut their relationships with other people, even parents. Thus, the ideological differences cause the constant conflicts between Buddhism and Confuciansim. At that period, Confucianism was a dominant religion and regarded as the foundation of society. For instance, Confucius’s texts were canonized as the standard textbooks for education of the Tang Dynasty. In order to gain a position in government or civil service, people have to thoroughly learn and understand Confucian ideas and values(Smarr, Lecture slides 14). According to this, it can be seen that Confucianism was the basis of the society during the Tang Dynasty. Therefore, challenging Confucianism will indirectly damage the social structure of the Tang Dynasty. In essence, Han Yu believes that the conflicts between Buddhism and Confucianism will exert a negative impact on the organizations of the society.
Some scholars may argue that the major reason that Han Yu focused on Buddhism was due to the irrational xenophobia, because he describes Buddhism as a “barbarian” foreign religion throughout his article. Also, Chinese people at that time were not friendly toward outside culture, because they lost lots of territory between the fights with foreign countries. For example, in 751 C.E., the imperial army of the Tang Dynasty was defeated by Mulism in central Asia. Meanwhile, empires in Korea and south Asian declared independence, which caused the Tang Dynasty to lose more territories and trade routes (Smarr, Lecture slides 16). Thus, these losses dramatically changed Chinese people’s attitude toward foreign cultures, so some scholars concluded that xenophobia is the major reason that Han Yu despises Buddhism. Admittedly, the fear of outside culture indeed makes Han Yu dislike Buddhism; however, that is not the only major reason, and others factors should be also taken into consideration. Besides the reasons mentioned in previous paragraphs, another factor is that Buddhists cannot fight in battles(Smarr, Lecture slides 16). These monks and nuns are totally useless when it comes to protecting the country. And the decrease in military power will undoubtedly influence the survival of the Tang Dynasty, which may partly explain why Han Yu focuses on Buddhism. In conclusion, xenophobia cannot be regarded as the only major reason to account for why Han Yu attacks Buddhism, and there exists more influential factors that should also be taken into account.
All in all, through the analysis of Han Yu, we can see that Buddhism actually exerted negative impacts on the Tang Dynasty. First, Buddhism challenged the emperor’s authority, which severely damaged the government structure. Second, Buddhists refused to make contributions to the country such as unwilling to work or pay taxes, adding burdens to the Tang Dynasty’s economy. Third, there are lots of ideological disagreements between Buddhism and Confucianism, which creates constant conflicts between them. And those conflicts negatively affect the structures of the society. From the three reasons above, we can see that Han Yu’s focuses on Buddhism are supported by reasonable arguments, not just because of irrational xenophobia. This also opens the possibility for future studies to find other potential reasons that may shape Han Yu’s attitude toward Buddhism.
- Janet, Smarr. “An LuShan rebellion, Late Tang Dynasty.” UCSD Department of MMW, Warren Lecture Hall, 17 Jan.2020.
- Wiesner, Merry E, Patricia B. Ebrey, Roger B. Beck, Jerry Dávila, Clare H. Crowston, and John P. MacKay. A History of World Societies. , 2018. Print.
- Yu, Han. ‘Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha.’ Changli xiansheng wenji: 106-107.