The Jewel in the Lotus is a comprehensive study of Buddhism in China. John Blofeld's in depth study of the subject has opened new areas of information that were not previously commonly known.
The author has carefully divided this book into two parts; One of the religion itself and the peoples beliefs; and the second a more detailed study of the different sects and the organisation within China. This book it must be mentioned was written well before the advent of Mao Tse Tung and communism in China. Therefore it may not relate to the exact condition of Buddhism on mainland China today. Of course it must be remembered that it fully represents the situation in Taiwan and most probably even in Hong Kong today.
Buddhism as is well know found its origins in India and soon spread through the sub-continent and Southeast Asia. Later on it spread north to Tibet, China and Japan where it subtly changed to suit the environment that it entered. Though the beliefs may not have changed in their basic forms the rituals and practices may have absorbed more of the local rituals and practices to make it more conducive to the local populations. One may note the absorption of Bon rituals into Tibetan Buddhism.
This book provides us with a very concise and detailed description of the practices and beliefs of the Chinese Buddhists as well as the organisation of the different sects within China. In the words of Christmas Humphreys it provides a very realistic approach to Buddhism in China and may thus be looked upon as a classic in this particular field.
Chinese Buddhism not unlike Japanese Zen Buddhism differs greatly from the Original Buddhism practice in the times of Gautam Buddha or Sakya Muni as he is often called. Whereas the Hinayana of India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia has been considered the purist form of the Buddha's teachings, both Chinese and Japanese Buddhism have become more subtle and sophisticated. This is most probably due to the fact that Buddhism has always tried to adjust to or in whatever environment it finds itself and the cultures and philosophies of both these countries are equally as old as those of India even though they may have different approaches to life and religious ritual. In these countries Buddhism has become a blend of the best of both.
There is a general tendency in the world to-day for the people of one country to wish for a closer understanding of the life and thought of the peoples of other countries. Indeed, there is a growing realisation that world peace itself is largely dependent on such mutual understanding, but whereas the study of a civilisation having a common origin with our own in Greece and Rome is comparatively easy, it is much harder to understand those civilisations which, until recently, have progressed on quite independent lines. The highly developed cultures which exist in the world at the present time may be broadly divided into those which owe their inspiration to Western, Chinese, Hindu and Moslem origins. Of these, owing to the progress of modem science, the first has become by far the most influential, but there are still many countries which owe much to China for their cultural development. These include Japan, Korea, Annam and, to a lesser extent, Mongolia, Thibet, and some of the countries of South-east Asia.
Chinese civilisation, as it was before the recent far-reaching changes resulting from the impact of the West, was a harmonious whole, consisting of a number of closely interwoven strands, not the least of which was Buddhism. Though the number of Chinese who are professing Buddhists is much smaller than is generally supposed in the West, Buddhism has undoubtedly had a profound influence on the development of Chinese civilisation for more than a thousand years, and its imprint can be clearly seen on the literature, art and philosophy of the country. Much of the subject-matter of Chinese painting and poetry is directly attributable to its influence, while Chinese sculpture is almost entirely a product of Buddhist imaginativeness. In the realm of philosophy and meta-physics Buddhism has permeated the minds of Chinese thinkers to such an extent that even the arguments of those who sought to combat its growth in China are based upon a system of logic largely acquired from the study of translations of Buddhist works. Moreover, the Chinese have a great capacity for absorbing ideas and institutions from foreign countries, and so moulding them that they begin to take on specifically Chinese characteristics. This was particularly so with Chinese Buddhism, which as early as the T 'ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) already appeared in a distinctly native garb and could no longer be looked upon as a purely foreign importation. An analogy may be found in the development of the Catholic Church, which, though owing its inspiration to Hebrew sources, has incorporated many ideas which had their origin in Roman culture.
To-day, Buddhism can hardly be considered a great religious force in China, but its influence continues to be by no means negligible and is manifested in the actions and thoughts of millions of people who would hesitate to describe themselves as Buddhists. Just as modern European civilisation would be largely incomprehensible to one who, even though he knew something of its Greek and Roman origin, was entirely unacquainted with the influence which Hebrew thought has exercised upon it through Christianity, so the understanding and appreciation of Chinese civilisation demand some knowledge of Buddhism, as well as of the native genius exemplified in the works of the Confucian and Taoist philosophers.
A considerable volume of literature on the subject of Buddhism exists in several Western languages, but it deals for the most part with that branch of the religion known as the Theravada or Hinayana School, which is prevalent in South-east Asia. The work which has been done on Mahayana Buddhism, prevalent in China, Japan, Thibet, Mongolia, Korea and Annam, is far from adequate, though in recent years increasing attention has been paid to it, especially to the Buddhism of Japan and Thibet. Books on Chinese Buddhism are remarkably few in number and, for the most part, somewhat out of date. The purpose of the present volume is to give an outline of Buddhism as practised in China to-day, though it has been impossible to avoid devoting a considerable pro-portion of the whole to the historical aspects of the religion, in order that it may be seen in its true perspective and in relationship to the original teaching of Gautama Buddha.
The division of the book into two parts has been made with a view to separating the more general matter from the technical. It is hoped that readers who find the latter somewhat arid may, nevertheless, derive pleasure from Part I and, possibly, from Chapters XV and XVI as well. I have placed the chapter on Mahayana Buddhism in Part I, despite its technical nature, because it follows on directly from Chapter II and includes a brief account of the introduction of Buddhism into China.
If the eye of any distinguished orientalist should happen to light upon these pages, he will no doubt find that they leave much to be desired, but if they succeed in interesting some readers to the extent of making them wish to pursue the subject further, or if they are deemed to throw some light on one important aspect of Chinese civilisation, their object will have been achieved.
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