Chinese and Buddhist Beliefs in the Medieval Chinese Netherworld
It was during the late Han dynasty during the first and second centuries A.D. that Buddhism first arrived in China. As the Han dynasty began to wane so too did the people’s faith in the associated Confucian beliefs. Many turned to the relatively new Buddhist principles. As Buddhism continued to develop in China, it influenced and was influenced by indigenous Chinese culture and beliefs. This interaction plays itself out and can be easily noted in the development of the netherworld, which we gain insight from through Buddhist miracle tales that speak of this netherworld. In order to sort this mix of ideas, we must first know those indigenous Chinese beliefs and those Buddhist beliefs.
In Pre-Buddhist China, there existed principles on good and evil behavior, retribution, transmission of consequences, beliefs on the World of the Dead and Mount Tai, and a structure of government. First, “it was widely thought that good actions would lead to reward, and evil actions to punishment”, even before the Han dynasty (Gjertson 122). Second, there was a belief of retribution that not only included punishment for oneself but also misfortune for one’s descendents, invoking a sense of collective familial responsibility or burden (Gjertson 124). From this, we get the transmission of consequences, be they blessings or misfortune, which are limited to one’s descendents. Next, in Pre-Buddhist China it was believed that under Mount Tai was the underworld, governed over by the Lord of Mount Tai. Note that this underworld was not a hell. Finally, this underworld also had a bureaucratic government.
In Buddhism, there existed the principle of karma, retribution, the five paths, samsara, and transfer of merit. Karma is one’s entire store of good and evil actions through one’s present lifetime and past lifetimes. It can be thought of as being related to the collective...