I grew up in China in the 1960s. Many of you will, I am sure, know what a strange time that was in China. Just about everything was turned upside down and Buddhism was very much a synonym for anything that was bad about our society. Buddhism was regarded as feudal, reactionary, and as something that gave China a lot of its evils. In primary school we had compulsory classes on political studies three times a week, during which times we studied Mao’s work, and religion was a target of attack. Communism regarded Buddhism, I would say, as the main competitor for the control for faith, for the control of people’s minds. Indeed, we had a saying, `One more Buddhist, one less Communist.’ Throughout China, even today, the one thing you will definitely see in most villages and cities, big and small, is a temple. It could be as small as a few square metres, or as big as a palace. This became, and still is I think, the symbol of Buddhism.
Very soon after 1949 when the Communist Party came to power, one of the first things it did was to remove two symbols of Buddhism — the monastery (the outward symbol), and the monks and nuns who wore orange robes and who could be seen throughout the country. Prior to 1949 China had a quarter of a million temples, but by the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 there was only about a hundred. These were not preserved because they were Buddhist temples; they were preserved because they were important historical, archaeological and cultural monuments dating back a thousand years, if not more. The other form of destruction was the physical removal of great masters and teachers. We have a saying in China: If you want to kill a snake, you have to cut off the head. The great masters used to have and still have an extraordinary number of followers and it has been a consistent policy of the Government to remove them. First, they were sent to labour camps, and then to prisons, and then they were killed. I think now the whole country has no more than five really good teachers from pre-1949.
With this as the policy, you can imagine what we studied in school during these political sessions. For me, I think the indoctrination was very successful. I clearly remember learning about the causes of China’s past sufferings and why Mao was regarded as a saviour. In my home town we had a temple in the four corners of the city, big temples, and then another one right in the centre. I remember the teacher saying to us one day, `Look at all those Bodhisattvas and Buddhas in the temples. What did they do for China? What did they do for the people they were supposed to save? Nothing!’ It was true that before 1949 the Chinese suffered a lot, not only because of the poverty but because of the incessant wars between old warlords. Quite a few of them were supported by foreign powers — American, British, French, German, and the Japanese. So, the teacher asked us, `If these Buddhas were supposed to have saved the Chinese, why is it that we still suffered from hunger, illness and war? What do you think we should do with these Buddhas? Just smash them!’ The continuous policy of the Cultural Revolution, therefore, was to destroy these symbols.
In quotations — supposedly from sections of the sutras — it says clearly that if you pray fervently, continuously, and make offerings to these Bodhisattvas, they will save you. So, why didn’t they? What happened? Therefore, Mao must be right! Only Mao can save the country from wars, poverty and illness.
Not just me, but most Chinese born after 1949 are atheists. This sort of successful indoctrination, I think, influenced at least two generations. My father was very much a Communist, a veteran Communist, who joined the Party in 1933. To him Mao was the saviour. The teachers told us three times a week what Mao did for us, and my father confirmed it.
In our family my grandmother was the symbol of the old beliefs. She was very devout. I think she was typical of her generation, but perhaps more so because she had a very tough life. Within one year, seven of her children died of smallpox, and then her husband died. Unfortunately, in the villages in China, if you suffer some kind of misfortune, you become a major outcast. You are basically regarded as someone who has done something wrong in a previous life, which is why you are now being punished. That seemed to be very much the belief. So, she was told to pray. In her village — as in most Chinese villages — there was the temple to the Goddess of Fortune, the temple to the Goddess of Mercy, and the temple to the Buddha. My grandmother served and helped those temples. I think she was happy. At least she didn’t despair — although she did have to give away my mother and uncle to other families because she believed that whatever it was she had done in the past would catch up with her and take away these two children as well. She therefore gave her two remaining children to people who had an extraordinary number of their own sons and daughters, with the belief that her children would be safe in such a family. She was then literally alone and it was only after 1949 that my mother, then in her teens, began to often visit my grandmother.
My father and mother got married in 1958, and right after that my father tried to my grandmother from praying — they were all living in the same house by this stage. The temples had already been shut down, but he told her not to pray at home by burning incense or praying out loud. He was an officer in the army until 1964 and the military was the stronghold of Communist control. He couldn’t allow people to see that he had a reactionary mother-in-law. My grandmother, however, continued to pray. She did it quietly, in the dark. I was always on my father’s side — very much so — and so whenever I caught her saying a prayer I would say to him, `Oh, grandma is doing that wicked thing again.’ Then the whole family would pounce on her. My mother was, of course, very worried about my father’s career and she would say, `How many times have I told you not to do this? Do you want us all in prison?’ And my sister and I would say, `You know, we should put a straw hat on you and parade you around the streets like all those bad guys. Then you won’t do that again!’ Things would stop for a while, but before long she would revert to this kind of praying again — partly, I think, not because she was worried about herself, but because she was worried about us.
In those days there were many campaigns, one after another. Right after the Revolution, for example, we as the new Government, the Communists, would make sure that none of the old people stayed on, by that I mean those who served in the old Government — the landlords who were regarded as the class enemies, the bureaucrats who were in the old Government, and people who served in the old army. All these people were rooted out, millions of them. Then the industrialists — the owners of shops or factories — were the next target; that was in 1954. After that, in 1957, it was the turn of the intellectuals. A million of them were sent to labour camps, just because they spoke out. Then of course there were the people who were sent to the countryside to be re-educated. These are the bureaucrats in the new Government. In each of these campaigns Mao’s target was three percent of the population. China had 600 million people in 1949, so three percent each time was quite big. My grandmother was constantly worried that my father would become one statistic in the three percent because he was from a landlord family.
I remember seeing a diary my father kept during the Korean War — he was in Korea for eight years, right from the outbreak of the war to 1958 when China’s army finally came back — and an entry was made at the frontier of the battlefield. He said, `Today we had a meeting and the Party asked us to look into our families. I was thinking about my father being made a landlord in 1950 just after the Revolution, and I thought it was slightly unfair because he only had a quarter of an acre of land and two helpers.’ There were not many rich people in the village and somebody had to be made a target, so that was my grandfather. My father thought it was unfair, `because,’ he wrote, `I don’t think he treated people that badly. Now, though, through the study of the Party policies, I know we must be firm against the reactionaries, against the enemy of the people. I must be on my guard and draw a line as far as my own family are concerned.’
This was written at the height of the Korean War in 1952. It showed the extent, I think, of his belief in the Party and it affected me and my siblings very much. As a result, we also drew a very clear line as far as my grandmother was concerned. Although she loved us — I knew that very clearly because I shared a bed with her from the age of three months to eighteen years when I went to University — I never had any sympathy for her beliefs, never. I always thought she was the outcast; she was the weirdo. She rarely talked. She couldn’t see very much anyway because when her children died she cried for about a week. Probably as a result of that, her hair became snow white and she became half blind. In the end she spent all her time cooking and looking after us because my parents were so busy making the Revolution. They would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, pray to Chairman Mao and read a passage from his Little Red Book, and then they would bow to him and pledge their loyalty to him. They would then go to work and return at 7 o’clock in the evening. They would bow to Mao’s poster again — one hung in every single sitting room in China — and say, `Oh, I must confess, I had this thought today which wasn’t right, and I was too selfish, and I quarrelled with my comrade.’ Only after such confessions and self-criticisms could they go to bed. All four children in my family were therefore brought up by my grandmother, but none of us loved her that much.
This was really how we in China looked upon Buddhism for, I think, about thirty years from 1949. The reason I began to take a fresh look, just like millions of Chinese, is that about six years after the economic reforms started in 1985 the Party said, `Okay, religion is not going to die,’ as they had predicted, `so we had better leave some room for it.’ They then began to repair monasteries that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and to allow monks to return, still with many restrictions. Each monastery is permitted only a certain number of monks by the Party, for example. As soon as they began to allow this, however, religion started to grow with a vengeance — not only Buddhism, but also Christianity, Catholicism. I think a lot of you are also aware of the Falun Gong organisation which regards itself as a branch of Buddhism. It has a huge number of followers among retired Chinese as well as high-ranking Chinese officials.
From the mid-1980s when I left university, Buddhism grew fast. From 1985 to 1995, just in a decade, about 25,000 temples were rebuilt in China, mostly in the coastal areas, rich areas where people give large donations. If the Party allows it, I think each village could have three monasteries. The joke of it is, however, that the principal task of a Party official in charge of religious affairs in China is to try to stop monasteries and temples being built in a particular place. If you, as a Party official, allow a temple to be built in your village, you won’t get promoted. If a certain number of temples are built or repaired in your county, then you won’t become promoted to the municipal level. In the case of a city, you won’t go up to the provincial level. The Party officials therefore compete with each other to see who is the most notorious in cutting down the number of temples being built.
The problem I find with this growth and the extraordinary growth of Buddhism in China now, is that it is being taught in the same way it was before Communism attacked it thirty years ago. Many people go through the doors without really knowing much about it. That was understandable earlier because after all there were no masters to guide them, but what is interesting is that the monks in the monasteries are still teaching Buddhism in the exactly the same way. Basically, if you come and make your offering, if you are good, then, `Don’t worry, the Bodhisattvas will take care of you. You don’t need to do anything else.’
I remember once with my grandmother, almost as a joke, but also to poke fun at her, I said, `If I rob a bank and give half the money to the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, will she protect me?’ My grandmother was very annoyed and said, `How could you say such a stupid thing?’ But then she thought about it for a while and said, `I’m sure she would protect you.’ I said, `God! What is this thing?’ But as one began to reflect on the extraordinary degree of destruction brought on by the Cultural Revolution, brought on by the Communist Party, one started to question, `They were wrong in many things, so were they also wrong in their attack on Buddhism?’ That was just me trying to ask a very rational question. But, as to what Buddhism really is, apart from what the monks preached to the people who came through the doors of the monastery, I don’t know.
It wasn’t just the Communists who attacked certain aspects of Buddhism. One might question other forms, `Theravada Buddhism might be good for you. After all they regard Buddha as human, and teach that it is only through our own efforts that we realise enlightenment.’ But in China Theravadan Buddhism is never talked about much and if anyone mentions it, it is always with disdain, `Oh, it’s so selfish. Don’t even think about it.’
It think it was these sorts of questions which made me begin my search, and the search for me naturally led to a figure whom I knew so well as a child, who most Chinese knew, not just Chinese, but most Asians. He might also be known in the West. He is called Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) or Tripitaka. The Chinese know him as the monk in a famous novel — the most widely read novel in China, a classic entitled The Monkey King. In this novel a monk is on his way to India to fetch scriptures and is accompanied by a monkey, a pig and a novice. After eighty-one gigantic battles with devils who try to sabotage their efforts, they finally bring the real sutras back to China. Then they become enlightened themselves.
It was not the monk that really impressed me as a child, it was the monkey. The monkey was really better than Superman. His eyes were said to be like the sun and moon, so he could see everything. With one somersault he could leap eighty thousand miles. He could turn himself into an insect and disappear into the hair or stomach of his enemy. He could make himself into a giant. He was magical! The Monkey King was one of the few books — apart from Mao’s Little Red Book — that was still allowed in my childhood, the reason being, Mao regarded the monkey as a symbol of rebellion. A lot of Red Guards called themselves after the monkey: `The Magical Monkey’, or `The Magical Scoundrel’, or `The Magical Monkey King’. Little did they know that they created more havoc and more harm than the monkey could have ever imagined.
The monk in The Monkey King was very weak, so weak that he couldn’t even tell right from wrong. He was always in trouble and it was always the monkey who saved him. I would say, `Oh, what a stupid chap.’ When I grew up and went to University, particularly at Oxford, I began to learn more about this figure. He was extraordinary; I think he was one of the most extraordinary travellers in history. He was born in ad 600 in central China along the Yellow River, and by the time he entered the monastery at the age of thirteen — his brother was also in the Pure Land monastery — and from his biography, you get the feeling that he was really interested in Buddhism from very early on. When he was twenty-seven he decided to go to India. Buddhism had been in China for six hundred years. Most of the sutras had been translated and were indigenous to the Chinese schools of Buddhism. There was Pure Land Buddhism, the Zen schools, T’ien-T’ai (a very scholarly school), and the Yogacara which is called the `Mind Only’ school. So, Buddhism was well developed at that time. Because there were so many different schools, however, which didn’t really get on together — each one claiming theirs was the fastest way to enlightenment, the only way for the true disciples of the Buddha — I think he was a bit confused. For example, Zen in his mind was a Chinese way of looking at things, whereas the Indians, by comparison, were and are today, far more philosophical. The Chinese are very down-to-earth. We want practical results; we don’t want to spend too much time trying to things figure out. Even when we spend time on something, we want an instant result. That is why Zen appeals to the Chinese. But Hsuan-tsang said that this couldn’t really be how the Buddha taught his disciples. So that was one of the most important reasons for his decision to go to India. Also, he wanted to go on a pilgrimage to see the holy places and to experience the teachings at its fountainhead. His journey took him almost nineteen years — about five or six years on the road and studying in India for the rest of the time.
He started from Xi’an, the City of the Terracotta Army, travelled through what is today Western China, the desert, crossed the Heavenly Mountain into today’s Kurdestan, into Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, and then into the Ganges Plain. From Northern India he studied for six or seven years. Then he went all the way down along the eastern coast into today’s Tamil Nadu. He wanted to go to Sri Lanka where he thought there were many great masters of the Theravada. From there he returned to Nalanda where he studied. This was the biggest monastic university in the world at the time. Finally, he returned to China in the Spring of ad 643 (he left in 627). Before returning, he spent two years on the road.
The more I read about him, the more I discovered just how amazing this man was, not only because of what he achieved for himself, but because of the kinds of difficulties he faced. We can imagine how difficult it was to travel in those days for that many years. He suffered many hardships — avalanches, kidnappings, hold-ups by bandits and being lost in the desert — yet nothing could stop him. Nor could the fame he earned along the way detain him from returning. His one aim was to benefit the Chinese with what he had learnt. When he did finally return in 645, he spent the next twenty years translating just some of the sutras he had brought back, and re-translating sutras that had already been done by Indian or Central Asian monks which he didn’t think were accurate and that is why some of the misunderstanding happened. In 665 he died, having translated only about one tenth of what he had brought back with him. But I think he had no regrets. He made the Emperor propagate all that he brought back throughout the Chinese Empire. Today a lot of the temples you see in China and I think in most of our cultural heritage, date back from his time, the Tang dynasty. From the Lung-men giant Buddhist statues along the Yellow River to the Tun-Huang caves — consisting of 490 caves and thousands of square metres of murals from ad 400 to ad 1100 depicting a thousand years of predominately Buddhist themes of Chinese society — I would say, dated back mainly from that period, and a lot was due to his efforts. And I asked myself, `Why didn’t I know about him? He regarded the whole pilgrimage of his nineteen years, I think, as a process of striving for his enlightenment, a path to enlightenment. Because of all the problems and difficulties he conquered, I think he believed he was closer to enlightenment. I went on the journey, but for me the search and the quest for a better understanding of Buddhism was not a physical journey. Although my journey was hard, it was not a patch on his. I followed the exact route he took, but I was only on the road for a year. Central Asia today, particularly Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan are a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, and northern India, where the Buddha spent forty years teaching and where he died, is one of the poorest and most violent regions in the world. Western China is also very much affected by this, almost like a spill over of the Central Asian fundamentalism. Huge upheavals are taking place there, uprisings every month, except the Chinese are so quick in suppressing things that nothing is reported in the press here.
I have learned a lot about aspects of Buddhism that were never told, that were never revealed to the public. All we knew was that if we were hungry, Bodhisattvas could not help us, and Mao did. We all thought that if we got enough food, we would never suffer again. We know that is not true, but I did believe for a long time that when we had enough to eat, we would be happy forever. When I was growing up, we never quite had enough to eat. My family, like the rest of China, lived on rations for thirty years. We were allowed two ounces of oil a month and half a pound of pork, and the year’s clothing ration was only enough for one outfit, and that went on for thirty years.
On my journey, I think I found the other side of Buddhism, predominately the role of the mind. Buddhism is not as criticised or attacked in the historical Marxist approach, the materialistic approach which maintains that the mind is really not important and that our material condition determines everything. Some of the monks in the monasteries laid down their lives to defend their faith. The first example was at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda monastery, Xi’an — the symbol of Xi’an today. In 1986 the Government said that if the monastery did not have a monk after the Cultural Revolution it would be turned over to them and become a park. Despite the beatings, despite a government prohibition, the monk in that monastery continued to wear his robe, never returned home, and when all his colleagues were forced into marriage, he never gave in, he never married. While being beaten up, he recited Amitabha Buddha’s name, and when under house arrest — which he was most of the time — he would simply meditate. At the end of the Cultural Revolution he was the only monk in the monastery, and so this place remains a monastery. Today, he is buried in a small pagoda next to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built by Hsuan-tsang, the monk himself, about 1400 years ago. That monk would never have expected that.
A particular event involving my aunt also taught me about the importance of the mind. My aunt went to Western China, Xinjiang, the New Territory, in 1952. She went because she was told by the recruitment government officials that they were going to build enormous factories there and she would be a worker receiving a salary. At the time, she was desperate to leave the countryside, so she went. Of course when she got there, all she found was a desert, the second biggest desert in the world, next only to the Sahara. On arriving there, she was so shocked, she fainted. On asking where the factory was, she was told, `You have to build it; you have to build it in ten years. But now you have to turn the desert into fields.’ So that is what she did because she had to; there was no way she could escape. The people there were literally kept as prisoners. The only way out was to go to a railway station where you would be asked for your pass. If you hadn’t got one, you were sent back — not to work but to prison. So she couldn’t escape and spent the next fifty years there. She married and had four children, lovely children, but when I went to see her she was all tears. We spent three days together and she did nothing but complain and cry. She was full of sorrow, not only because her own life had been ruined, but because the lives of her children and grandchildren had also been ruined. Afterwards, I thought a lot about what she had told me, and I thought a lot about my grandmother. The Chinese government built a road in the desert, in the middle of nowhere because there was oil there and this now supplies half the country. Over the past fifty years a million women like my aunt went there to become wives to the two million soldiers who first arrived to conquer the place. These three million people turned the desert into the biggest production base in China. It supplied the Chinese with oil, coal, minerals, grain, cotton, and endless fruit. For the first two years they had nowhere to live and couldn’t eat until after the first harvest. For the rest of the time they just ate wild vegetables. The government said, `We’re not going to ship grain to you. You have to fend for yourselves.’
They achieved so much in the last fifty years; they turned the desert into an oasis, yet my aunt has been living in regret for all that time. She has become very bitter. The whole of the Chinese community at that place seems to be bitter, which is why today they are almost the enemy of the local people, the Uyghur muslims. They are living in a kind of castle created by themselves. After fifty years, my aunt doesn’t speak a word of Uyghur — she doesn’t want to. She never leaves the regiment and she never mixes with the local people. All she says is, `I want to go back.’ Of course she cannot; nobody is going to take her. She has endured so much hardship and yet she just couldn’t change that one thing, that little tiny thought in her mind. If she could, then she could be content. I think she will die a very miserable person. I look at her and cannot help but compare her to my grandmother who had so many reasons to be miserable, but wasn’t. That is what I began to learn. I think perhaps that is why Buddhism is very popular in the West. It is really the role of the mind which people are interested in. I would say that most Chinese today still don’t look at Buddhism in that way.
Comment from audience: I can certainly identify with you grandmother. I’m probably a very embarrassing grandmother as well because I tend to challenge my grandchildren in their philosophies and so forth. I wonder if your grandmother was unhappy because of the repression from outside, because she wasn’t answered in her prayers, or perhaps the Buddhism she was practising was not a satisfying one in some way?
Response: I think it is good for grandparents to challenge their grandchildren. Even though they might not immediately accept it, later on they may begin to see something. It’s like a seed that will grow. My grandmother was more lonely than unhappy. She knew that none of us agreed with her, and she knew she couldn’t do whatever she thought was good for the whole family. I don’t think she felt that her prayers were not being answered. My father was from a landlord’s family and he was never promoted, but neither was he targeted or put in a labour camp or prison. He tried, probably doubly hard, I think, not to be a target. He tried to get on well and to work much harder than everybody else. So perhaps that was the reason he escaped the fate suffered by most people of his class background. My grandmother thought that it was because her prayers worked. Most landlords, shop owners and bourgeois went to prison, but my father did not. More than anything, my grandmother was lonely; there is no doubt about it. She often wanted to tell me stories, tales, or comment on how I should behave, how I should not be cruel to children from this so-called `bad’ family backgrounds. Often, I would just say, `Oh, shut up!’ I’m sure she wanted to talk to me, partly because she thought that was no way to treat human beings. People who were politically labelled `bad’ or `enemies of the people’ were treated like animals. Anybody could spit on them. We could call them names or throw stones at them because their fathers were in prison, or something like that. My grandmother used to give them leftover food or clothes we could no longer wear. I remember my mother constantly saying, `Stop your charity, otherwise you will get us all into trouble.’ And she did; she stopped giving them clothes, but she still gave them food whenever we made dumplings or steam buns. Anyone who came to our door would get whatever she could give them. But I think she was lonely. She didn’t want me to learn bad things. She wanted to share her thoughts and ideas with me, and in a way she succeeded because I do remember the Buddhist Jataka stories and things like that. The stories would always be very imaginative with some good person ultimately conquering everything, more interesting I think than Harry Potter. When there was nothing going on, she said, `Oh, I’ll tell you another story.’ There was no homework because you were not supposed to study. The more studying you did, the more likely it was you were going to turn against the government, so no study. The slogan was: We would rather have a Socialist weed than a Capitalist plant. Basically, even a Socialist weed is better than something that is useful, that is wrong by class definition. So, we never did anything except go into factories and the countryside to help the peasants. The poor peasants were so worried about us helping them! We simply couldn’t do anything, and if we cut ourselves it was their fault and it was their crime for supposedly trying to sabotage the Socialist Education Scheme. In the end we just stayed in or went home. So my grandmother told me many interesting stories, which I still remember today.
Question: My parents are both very Socialist and my grandfather was a Communist, actually, and so I was brought up in an atheistic background. Things have changed for me since, and I have come to believe in a Higher Power. I sometimes call it God. To me it’s just a word. I also practise some Buddhist meditation and follow the tenets of Theravadan, or I try to. My family will often `bad mouth’ any sort of religion. I know it’s a pale parallel to what went on in the Cultural Revolution, but I find that I can discuss Buddhism more with my mother than my quasi-Christian beliefs, or what I take from that religion. It’s easier for me to tell my mother that I’m going to a Buddhist centre rather than a Christian centre. I go to church sometimes, but I would not tell my mother about it. I find it interesting that there is nothing as intolerant as an atheist. When you were talking about your parents and all the people of their generation almost praying in front of the picture of Mao, and the readings, that sounded to me just like any other religious activity. Maybe what you are saying is that there are different ways to approach religion. You can either just make an offering and the Bodhisattva will look after you, or there is really engaging with it and using it as a tool for forgiveness, perseverance, tolerance and all those sort of positive things. You seem very interested in what it means to you, questioning its value.
Answer: I don’t think it is just religion. A painter might say of a tree, `Oh, that’s a beautiful image, isn’t it?’ A carpenter might say, `Oh, that’s good wood.’ Somebody who collects firewood might just say, `I want to cut it down.’ I think people look at things quite differently. There might be one definition; there might not be. I think with religion it is the same. Some people might approach it as a philosophy; some people might approach it as a way of life; others might approach it as a religion. It depends who you are and what you want out of it. Although people say there might ultimately be one thing, I would tend to think we are seeking different things from it, depending on who we are. As to whether an atheist is really against religion or against a `Super Being’ seems like a paradox, but in Communist China — the same as in Russia — the Communist belief I think is almost a religion.
First published in the February 2005 Buddhism Now.
A talk given at Sharpham Centre for Contemporary Buddhist Enquiry, Ashprington, Devon on 7 December 2004.
Sun Shuyun was born in China in the 1960s and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. She graduated from Beijing University and won a scholarship to Oxford. She is now a film and television producer. For the past decade she has been dividing her time between London and Beijing, making documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and international broadcasters. Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud is her first book
Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, ISBN: 9780007129744, Harper Collins, £11.99