While I was travelling through South-West China during the so-called spring festival (who knows why they call it like that, when it's actually in the middle of winter), I stopped in Leshan, a city in Sichuan province whose main attraction is a massive statue of Buddha, which is the largest carved stone Buddha in the world at 71 metres of height (although not the biggest statue of Buddha in general. This honour goes to the Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan, also in China, which is 128 meters tall).
I actually went to the city because I have a classmate who is from there who invited me to come and show me around. Next to this article you can see some photos of me and the 大佛 (Da Fo or Big Buddha). The statue was completed in 803 AC, and it is truly impressive. Even one toenail could accommodate a seated human. The city of Leshan is also quite pleasant and relaxed like Sichuan towns typically are. The Sichuanese are well known in China for their relaxed lifestyle, especially as compared to the Chinese of the East. The statue and the park around it were of course absolutely packed with Chinese tourists, and I had to wait an hour and a half in a queue before being able to go down the winding staircase at the statue's side which takes you down to the bottom of the statue.
In any case, rather than just bore you with accounts of my journey, I wanted to share some thoughts on Buddhism which visiting the statue inspired. While I was in Chengdu, I managed to find a book in English about Buddhism (one of the "very short introduction" series) and bought it. I thought that since I was going to visit a statue of the Buddha, it would be a good idea to read up on the subject first. Although I already knew a bit about Buddhism, the book gave me a clearer idea about the religion's main principles.
Personally I am an atheist, and I distrust organized religion as a concept. I think that nowadays there is really no reason to believe in the superstitious beliefs which religions promote, and that their main effect is to divide people, control them, discourage rational thinking and reinforce old-fashioned ideas with an irrational basis about sexuality, abortion, euthanasia etc.... However, just like most Westerners, before I came to China my exposure to religion was limited mainly to the Western monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Although I grew up in a non-religious family, my father comes from an Italian Catholic background, and my mother from a British Jewish one.
A lot of Western secularists who dislike the monotheistic Religions they are most familiar with have a much more ambivalent attitude towards "Eastern" religions, especially Buddhism. Many contrast "intolerant, expansionist" Christianity or Islam with "peaceful, tolerant" Buddhism. Some claim Buddhism is not even a religion at all, but a philosophy of life which can accommodate other faiths. Many Westerners, even ones who have no use for the religions of their own cultural tradition, feel attracted towards Buddhism, even though their actual understanding of it is often quite limited. Even much of what passes for Buddhism in the West is actually rather different from the Buddhism which can be found in Asia. According to some, most of Western Buddhism is really just the respectable face of new age mysticism. I certainly have a strong suspicion that a lot of the Westerners who consider themselves Buddhists actually turn Buddhism into what they would like it to be, removing the more superstitious, dogmatic and ritualistic sides of the religion which are in evidence if you look at the popular Buddhism of the Far East. Even Richard Dawkins, the champion of the new atheist movement which is taking the Anglo-Saxon intellectual world by storm, seems to think that Buddhism is benign and harmless in comparison to the three Monotheistic faiths, which he believes are actively harmful to humanity.
Buddhism in China
China is not a "heavily" Buddhist country, and never has been. Buddhism came to China from India in the second century BC. However, it has always had to coexist alongside other Chinese religions and belief systems. The traditional Chinese religion of Taoism (the only real religion to be born in China) and the social ideology of Confucianism (which as far as I can see is definitely not a religion) have also had a strong influence on Chinese thought, and Confucianism has usually been the ideology of those in power. Thus, the Chinese are far less influenced by Buddhism than the people of countries like Thailand or Burma, where Buddhism is central to the culture and identity. Buddhism is in fact based around an Indian philosophy, not a Chinese one, and it shows. When Buddhism came to China, it had to give greater prominence to Chinese values such as filial piety and accommodate ancestor worship before it could be accepted by the Chinese. What's more, the Buddhist view of life as suffering does not really fit in with the traditional Chinese view of life as something pleasant which should be enjoyed. In any case, Mahayana Buddhism did eventually flourish in China, and there are still quite a few adherents (although not the majority of the Chinese people by any means).
In sum, living in China I have not really been exposed to Buddhism in the way I imagine I would have been in a place like Thailand, or Sri Lanka. Out of all my Chinese friends, I do not know anyone who is a practicing Buddhist. In fact, most of them don't practice any religion, just like most urban Chinese people.
However, I am still curious about the religion, and whether it is really so "different" from Western monotheistic religious traditions. After having done some research, I can say that first of all, Buddhist theology certainly is very different from Christian or Muslim theology. The most basic difference is that Buddhism does not include any belief about a sentient god who created the universe and cares about us. The fact that Buddhism does not include this belief suggests that it is not such an "obvious" belief for human beings to hold as many Christians and Muslims seem to assume.
However, Buddhist philosophy is still based on the assumption that a certain supernatural, improvable event is a fact, namely reincarnation. As far as I understand, the whole edifice of thought which Buddha constructed is based around the idea that after death we reincarnate into a different being. In his view, human life is inescapably an experience of suffering. The basic cause of suffering is desire, or craving. If a person can manage to extinguish desire by eliminating delusion and achieve enlightenment, they can escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth and enter nirvana, a state which cannot be understood by the human mind, but sounds very much like a kind of paradise. The four noble truths of Buddhism expose this view of human life, and are the kernel of the Buddhist faith. Enlightenment can be achieved by following the so-called "noble eightfold path", which is supposed to be a guideline for achieving wisdom, ethical conduct and concentration. Some people may find consolation or meaning in the Buddhist view of life. However, to be honest it seems like a very pessimistic and negative one to me. Plus, if one does not believe in reincarnation, which as you would expect I don't, then what exactly is the point of the whole thing? Is it really desirable to live without desire?
These are the basics of the faith, but if you dig deeper, you can find some aspects of Buddhism which are quite reminiscent of the monotheistic faiths of the West. For instance, there are the "five precepts", a basic code of ethical conduct for laypeople, which are basically: "don't kill, don't steal, don't commit sexual misconduct, don't lie and don't take intoxicants". Sound familiar? Then there are the "eight precepts", for laymen who want to be a bit stricter with themselves. They include abstaining from sex, singing, dancing, wearing perfume, eating at the wrong times and a few other petty prohibitions of this kind, as well as the more basic ones. Apparently in some Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand or Sri Lanka, laypeople will sometimes spend one day a week in a monastery, practicing these precepts. To be fair, all these precepts are not imperatives like the Christian Ten Commandments, but rather rules which laypeople may undertake voluntarily.
Of course, Buddhism has had a long and complex history, with schisms and different interpretations. It later split into at least two distinct schools, the Mahayana school which is the one followed in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Theravada school followed in South-East Asia and Sri Lanka. Tibetan Buddhism, followed all over the Himalayas and in Mongolia, is often considered to be another distinct school. Buddhism has also been very mixed up with other religions and practices in the countries it has reached.
Is Buddhism really so peaceful and tolerant?
On another note, is this common perception that Buddhism has been a uniquely tolerant and peaceful religion in practice actually true? Looking at its track record, the answer seems to be rather mixed to me. Yes, it would seem that Buddhists have historically been far less prone on imposing their beliefs on others or discriminating against others than Christians and Muslims. They do not purport to believe in a god who sends you to hell for not believing in him (or her?). However, Buddhists have also been quite able to fight each other for religious reasons. If you look at the history of Tibet, for instance, it is full of cases of different Buddhist sects fighting each other for control, just like Protestants and Catholics in Europe. It is not entirely true that Buddhists always grant total freedom to other religions when they are in power: for instance, in the benighted and isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan (often presented as some kind of "last Shangri-la" in the West) there are currently reports of religious discrimination against the Hindu minority and Christians, and non-Buddhist missionaries are barred from entering the country. Buddhism has also been the inspiration behind some quite bloody actions. To take an excellent example, look at this description of the "Mahayana rebellion" of China in 515 AC, which was called that way in reference to Mahayana Buddhism: "Using drugs to send its members into a killing frenzy, and promoting them to Tenth-Stage Bodhisattva as soon as they killed ten enemies, the Mahayana sect seized a prefecture and murdered all the government officials in it. Their slogan was "A new Buddha has entered the world; eradicate the demons of the former age", and they would kill all monks and nuns in the monasteries that they captured, also burning all the sutras and icons." (Quotation taken from here). The rebellion was eventually overcome, but one can't help be reminded of crusades and holy wars when hearing of people being promoted to the rank of Bodhisattva for killing ten enemies.
Even more to the point, Buddhism has sometimes been useful to those in power for the purpose of legitimizing absolute rule, and convincing the poor and downtrodden not to uprise or demand their rights, just like other religions have been. The idea of reincarnation was used in the past to justify poverty and suffering, since it was popularly believed in Buddhist societies (and maybe still is) that people who are born poor or in unfortunate circumstances are paying for sins committed in their previous lives. A few years ago the coach of the English football team showed how this kind of nonsense can still infect people's minds (see here). And having a religion which teaches people to see craving and desire as the causes of suffering and pushes them not to desire more material comforts could certainly be useful for the purposes of those who oppress them and steal from their pockets. In the history of Asia, there have been various oppressive Buddhist theocracies, the most glaring example of which is the one which use to exist in Tibet under the leadership of the Dalai Lamas (another place which many Westerners naively romanticize).
In spite of all this, it does seem to me that the record of Buddhism is far superior to Christianity or Islam's record of oppression and bloodshed. At least it hasn’t wiped out other religions and practices with the ruthlessness which Christianity displayed in the early middle ages. Moreover, in many ways the Buddhist vision of the world does seem to me more pleasant than the monotheistic one which originated in the Middle East. For one thing it is less guilt-ridden and not so fixated with mandating what people should do in bed. Sexual desire in Buddhism is seen as a hindrance to enlightenment, just like other kinds of desire, and monks are expected to be chaste. However, Buddhist scriptures don't go into detail as to what is acceptable and what is not, and leave it to the layperson to decide. I also find meditation an interesting practice which can apparently lead to some real changes in personality and perception.
All in all however, I think Westerners who are secular and opposed to religious obscurantism should stop giving Buddhism a free ride. Buddhism is essentially a religion, which in its practical application and its effects on society has not been all that different from other religions. It isn't surprising: after all, it was created about the same time as other world religions, in a society with a similar level of development and social structure. Although certain practices of meditation and exercise associated with Buddhism may be genuinely worth learning, the religion as a whole should stop being painted in such a romantic light by people who should know better.
(for a well argued criticism of Buddhism, see here)