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Kannon (Guan Yin)

China, Cont.

Consolidating new lands that had been acquired through war and pioneering presented difficult but routine problems; the problems which confounded the Shang were those presented by lands within their original territories.

The Yellow River basin, being annually refertilized by the rich mongolian silts that were brought by summer flood and winter wind, was marvelously productive. In response to this generosity, the population had increased rapidly; and in response to this increase, huge chunks of forestland had been converted to farmland. As these farms extended into areas that were beyond the river's capacity to water them, the Shang devised irrigation systems. But, as more and more farms were situated farther and farther from the river, these rudimentary irrigation systems were disastrously insufficient.

Outlying farms depended entirely upon rainfall, and the only rains that fell upon the entire basin were the occasional tail-ends of storms in the China Sea. Hardy wild grasses, native to the area, had adapted perfectly to the climate; but the crops introduced by the farmers wanted a bit more in the way of pampering. The god of rain, a capricious and miserly deity whose niggardly ways had previously been a sore but manageable irritation, now became as wretched a troublemaker as the river god. And the river god had become even more incorrigibly concupiscent since the destruction of the forests had worsened the flooding problem by adding the run-off silts of soil erosion.

Fortunately, the supply of virgins, while not unlimited, was at least adequate for the rutting river's needs. But rain presented different problems. Difficulty with the river was as ancient as the Hua people, themselves. But rain did not become a problem until there was already in place an enormous number of shamans.

At the Shang seat of government, at the first indications of drought, a great rain dance was performed under the open sky. It was an appeal, not to the rain god - he had already proved obdurate, but to the supreme being, the sky, itself.

Led by the king, the living Son of Heaven and shaman extraordinaire, the people solemnly swayed, rhythmically imploring the great spirit to intercede on their behalf and command the rain god to do his job.

If no rain was forthcoming, the 'pity' ploy was used. The king slowly removed his robes and exposed his delicate body to the broiling sun. And if the sight of his son's sunburned body wasn't enough to make tears cascade down the divine cheeks and onto the parched earth, then, clearly, the spectacle was just not pitiable enough.

A surrogate for the king was chosen and in an attempt to raise the pity-quotient a great fire was lit and the surrogate Son of Heaven was roasted.

But in the provinces, removed from the Heavenly scion's presence, the dance was choreographed differently. The people chose a shaman whose oracular talents had clearly demonstrated divine affection; and during the public dancing and shaman stripping, they waited for the clouds to form. But if the sky remained a coldly indifferent blue, they lit a fire and, hoping that the pleas for rain might command more attention if they came from one of the gods' old, familiar throats, they proceeded to reduce the shaman population by one. Being favored by divinity had its occupational hazards.

If the loss of a favorite pair of vocal chords could not make the god lacrimose, nothing could.

Learning the divine will was the Shang king's singular obsession. How could he prevent the attacks of northern horsemen? What should he do to keep peace among the tribes? And why-oh-why did Heaven put too much water in one place and not enough in another?

Shamans from all over the kingdom converged at court to help the king discover clues to the divine intentions. But the shamans, who liked the pay and loved the attention, wanted a bit more in the way of job security. They saw it clearly in their best interests to devise a better way to reconnoiter the heavenly landscape.

Divination, using instruments that were more easily disposed of than their larynxes, was the obvious answer. Segments of turtle carapaces or sections of animal bones (the shoulder blades) were designated "yes" "no" or "undecided" and the shaman, after stating a given question, applied a hot poker to the bone or shell which, responding to the intense heat, cracked. If the targeted god was adamantly negative, the crack went directly to the "no" section. If, on the other hand, he was affirmatively inclined, the crack went directly to "yes". If he couldn't make up his mind or didn't particularly care to commit himself either way, the crack went to the undecided section. It was an ingenious solution; but it was also limited. For there were lots of questions that just could not be answered with a simple yes, no, or maybe.

And so the shamans drew little pictures on the bones to represent actions, numbers, or the names of persons, places and things.

Writing began, then, not as a means to record inventories, signify ownership, or to engage in any kind of commercial accounting; nor was it devised as a means by which men could accurately communicate with each other and have a permament record of the messages conveyed. Had this been the case then more efficiency, clarity and uniformity of line would have informed the initial efforts. But this was not so. Writing, in China, began as a divinatory discipline. It was intended to be esoteric, as cryptic as the symbols of fortune tellers and astrologers are even today. The baffled ignorance of clients contributes greatly to any conjurer's mystique.

To complicate these literate beginnings, each clique of shamans had its own idiograms.

But many shamans, particularly the mystics who were unimpressed by courtly clients and their literate interrogations, continued in hallowed ways to communicate with the ancient gods. Women, in particular, cultivated a rare spirituality and, lost in blissful trance, acquired carnal knowledge of the four great directional gods. The god of the East, the direction from which the rains came, was the most important of their divine paramours. And, since such women were sure to command the attention of this master of the rain, they were frequently burned. Fire and white ashes became forever associated with the eastern god.

But the sacrifices of so many humans, animals, and objects of art and craft did little to lessen the burdens on the living. The floods, the droughts, the marauding northmen, the insatiable ancestors, the plethora of gods, the worsening intertribal wars, the confusing advice of conflicting divinations, and the corruptions which such quackery and fraud occasioned, all contributed to the Shang's collapse.

By the dynasty's fall in l028 B.C., the population of spirits had put the airways into virtual gridlock. It was the kind of paralysis that made foreign invasion inevitable. Powerful westerners, the Zhou, swept in and cut their way through the traffic.

And, as the Xia kings came by way of the seeds that were so important to early farmers and the Shang kings came by way of the protected egg that answered militaristic needs, so the Zhou kings became the immaculately conceived sons of heaven by way of a god's footprint into which a Zhou lady stepped. The divine footprints would lead them out of the chaos.

The Zhou moved quickly to establish order. They replaced tribalism with feudalism, appointing their relatives to the vacant positions of defeated chiefs, and then enfeoffed both them and the chiefs that had been their allies. People were no longer members of a tribe: they were vassals. In the new system, the people belonged to the land; the land belonged to the barons; and the barons belonged to the king or so he liked to think.

With the exception of the four directional gods, the sky, and the irrepressible ancestors, the Zhou Son of Heaven evicted the armies of spirits that had tenanted his kingdom. Professional shamanism was 'officially discouraged,' i.e., professional shamans were executed. Order meant conformity and conformity could be obtained only through an organized, literate priesthood - a priesthood that was bound by standardized ritual, ceremony, and, above all, codified divinatory pronouncements. Benevolent despots, the Zhou realized that the kind of order they wished to mandate had to emanate from qualities inherent in each individual and group. Personal responsibility and not bribery of spirits was what they sought. The divine footprint into which their queen had stepped marked the path of virtue.

Not once in all the Shang's obsessive interrogation of the spirits had the word virtue (de) appeared. Rebounding from such neglect, virtue became the Zhou's motto even as order became the operative word of their decrees.

Believing that human nature was inherently good and that error resulted more from confusion than from deliberate intent, they created The Book of Change, the Yijing (I Ching), an extraordinary instrument which, even three thousand years post-publication, remains one of the most cunningly contrived works in all of religious literature.

On its surface, the book appears to be a divinatory almanac, the illusion of supernatural involvement being facilitated by the random selection - through tossing sticks or coins - of one of sixtyfour hexagrams, each of which has its own specific textual advice.

To be effective, an oracle must be bold, brief and cryptic; and the Yijing is precisely that. It identifies the nature of the inquiring person's problem in opening lines called 'The Judgment' and proceeds to suggest, in lines called 'The Image,' a winning strategy.

In fact, the book is a psychological tool designed to cut through the emotional thicket of confusing data which often confronts a person who must make a difficult decision. The underlying assumption, of course, is that the person subconsciously knows which course of action is preferable or morally superior but that he is unable consciously to see this choice because the pros and cons of argument have momentarily confounded him. The Yijing, through its cleverly ambivalent coachings, tricks him into seeing the choice he unknowningly prefers. It does not matter which of the sixtyfour hexagrams he 'draws.' All of the advice is slanted towards benign or moral conduct. In its vague but authoritative manner, the book counsels emotional restraint, caution, respect for life, and so on, and especially to someone who is agonizing over a decision, miraculously serves to clarify an ethical and desirable choice.

Naturally, when employed for purposes of prophecy the Yijing is as worthless as a cup of soggy tea leaves.

The Zhou, able now to place all military resources under one centralized command, took the initiative in action against northern barbarians and recalcitrant neighboring tribes. Having secured the peace, they moved immediately to undertake comprehensive irrigation projects, to dig canals for river drainage, to build roads and many public works, and to construct long stretches of walls along the northern forntier - not to keep out men, for men could easily climb the walls, but to keep out horses, for without their mounts the northmen were no threat at all.

At many places where the walls ended, garrisoned trading centers were established; enemy northerners obtained foods, pottery and metal implements while the southerners obtained horses for themselves. Horses were the single most prized possession in the Hua kingdom.

For five hundred years art and science flourished: poetry, painting, medicine, ceramics, metallurgy, textiles, astronomy, architecture. Society began to stratify: aristocratic ruling families, military men, educators, farmers, artisans and, at the absolute bottom of the heap, merchants.

The kingdom began to trade internationally. Seaport cities thronged with sales representatives from India, Tibet, Persia and the Levant.

But while the Hua treated foreign visitors with courteous tolerance they were not so well disposed towards their immediate neighbors. Achievement had made them incredibly arrogant toward those of less technological attainment. To the Hua, only the Hua were human beings.

Diet and some genetic commerce with the western provinces had given the Hua a different look from their northern cousins whom they now regarded as obvious barbarians... 'dogs' in the figurative sense. But the Mang people who lived south of the Middle Kingdom, in South China, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand, whose eyes were rounder, like a puppy's, and whose hair sometimes had an spaniel's wave or even a poodle's curl, were truly dogs, or half-dogs. In fact, according to Hua belief, a Hua king had once promised the hand of his daughter to anyone who could bring him the head of his enemy. A dog accomplished this feat and what could the king do? The dog, as considerate as he was brave, removed the mating spectacle to the south, far beyond the royal range of vision. By some accounts, the offspring were reptilian and simian as well as canine. (So authoritatively was this genesis tale publicized that a thousand years later southern peoples were still sacrificing to their ancestral dog. Chinese idiograms for southern peoples in current usage still contain these animal elements.)

Little by little, inexorably, the army of nature spirits returned to occupy Hua territory; but their effect was largely salutory. For not only did the nature gods serve to mitigate some of the more brazen antics of the ancestors, but, by fostering or renewing the idea of spirits in objects, it could be seen that to a dead rider, the spirit of a clay horse could carry him just as far as the spirit of a flesh horse; or that the spirit of a little paper chair provided as much comfort to the loins of an ancestral spirit as did a fullsized ottoman.

Relieved of much of his financial obligations to the dead, the average man prospered.

The king, too, found life easier. No longer the passive instrument of divine communication, the god-shaman, he became the principal actor, the god-priest, who officiated at ceremonies and conducted rituals. And he succeeded in his new role according to the exactitude with which he invested his performance. For the notions of sympathetic magic had thoroughly saturated his religious imagination. Like produced like. When a quality in one place was altered or engendered, a similar quality in another place responded similarly. (Today, for example, we still find in many societies, that pregnant women will not eat 'twinned' fruits and vegetables for fear of allowing the quality of twoness to enter their bodies and produce twins. A similar idea informs voodoo practices in which a doll modeled after a specific individual can, when pierced through its leg, cause pain to be felt in the leg of the human model.)

Therefore, if the Son of Heaven wanted order in heaven and on earth, he merely had to conduct all appropriate rituals with exacting order. If he erred in performing a ritual, then, somehow or someway, he would precipitate disaster.

Enthralled by the schemes of magical power, the Zhou kings, with prodigious precision, conducted their religious rituals conscious that every finger movement was duplicated elsewhere in the motions of heaven; and that every syllable uttered was a note in the music of the celestial spheres, a pitchpipe's cue that kept the earth and stars in tuneful harmony. The kingdom prospered all because order had been virtuously determined and ordained.

And to oversee all of this virtuous order, to manage all the public works and provide for the regulation of commerce, industry and education, and, of course, to collect taxes, fees and fines, a vast bureaucracy was established. There followed nepotism, graft, spite, extortion, bribery, jealousy, and not a little hate.

More and more the barons cared less and less for the king's order. More and more they saw themselves as sovereigns of their own states, charged by destiny to keep the cadence of the times. Men of action who appreciated precision more in military drill than in ceremonial chants, they grew restive in their capi- tals.

And so, while the Son of Heaven kept the sky from falling by keeping his head at the correct tilt, the new monarchs looked to each other's lands, lowered their lances and squared-off.

The Zhou kings who had succeeded so well in keeping order among the distant planets were inexplicably unable to maintain the slightest semblance of order in the center of the universe, their own Middle Kingdom. Civil war was the order of the day.

To combat the disorder of the warring states, two contesting groups of philosophers offered their assistance: the Confucians, who believed that man was inherently good, and the Legalists, who believed that man was inherently evil.

The Confucians saw civic order as a consequence of family order. Family relationships were natural relationships which involved inherent responsibilities. Thus, virtue consisted in dutiful conformation to these natural laws, i.e., dharma. Fathers naturally instructed their sons who naturally obeyed. Heaven directed its offspring, the king, who naturally complied. In like manner, the king's magistrates patron- ized and punished the childishly submissive common man who did as he was told - or else! - and dead ancestors rose to the challenge of guiding their living descendants who, of course, kowtowed in perfectly natural ceremoniousness.

According to this scheme, when an individual constrained himself and sacrificed his narrow interests to the larger interests of his family, there was harmony and prosperity in the family. And when such self-sacrificing morality was inculcated at the family level, honorable sons would rise to take positions of responsibility in the family of families, the government bureaucracy.

The Confucians left nothing to chance. Every person's conduct was governed by rules of deportment. Every possible human relationship was reduced to an appropriate dharma equation. Only friends were equals; everyone else was superior or subservient to somebody else: age over youth, male over female. Society was completely stratified. Laws, however, did not apply to the upper strata. Gentlemen were expected to settle their disputes honorably and in private; and Confucianism's celebrated Golden Rule was applied only to members of one's own class.

The virtues which Confucianism most extolled were calmness and scholarly refinement, a dispassionately maintained appreciation of decorous academics. Since conduct towards other people, dead and alive, constituted The Good, a man was required to examine his conscience not to determine how well he was faring in the eyes of one, supreme, ethical god whose commandments and judgments applied equally to all, but merely to determine how well he was behaving in the rather prejudicial eyes of his ancestors and in the equally colored estimations of other members of his particular pecking order. This unvarying, societal perspective conduced, as indeed it must, to superficial morality, to humanism robbed of empathy. Men of refinement did not hesitate to order a suspect of a crime beaten, or to have a few of his bones crushed, before questioning him, so as not to waste time listening to irritating denials.

And all the rectitude did nothing to lessen intrigue; for kinship took precedence over kingship. We find, for example, in the Confucian Analects (13:18), "The Duke of She told Confucius, 'In my country there is an upright man named Kung. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.' Confucius said, 'The upright men in my community are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.'" Thus, it was not merely permissible to cover-up the crimes of one's family, it was morally right and desirable to do so. And what happened when someone else was accused of the crime? Ah... too bad for him. Confucianism, in practice, did not always work the way it was designed. People who lived outside the family circle were quite likely to find intrafamily morality somewhat demoralizing.

Clearly, the families Confucians had dedicated themselves to preserving were those of the privileged classes to which they belonged. During the several hundred years of the Warring States Period (475-22l B.C.) major conflicts over usually trivial causes occurred on average every few years. Confucian overlords conscripted hundreds of thousands of ordinary farmer/family men to fight and die in settlement of their noble squabbles.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 2: China, Page 2 of 3

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)