What forms did human beings’ interactions with the supramundane realm (including gods, spirits, ancestors, natural forces, and Heaven) take and who were the human agents of this interaction from the Shang dynasty to the Period of Disunion that followed the Han? Do you see any patterns or trends over this period? Do different modes of interaction correlate with changes in the social or political order, and if so how and why?
From the Shang dynasty through to the period of disunion which followed the Han, there is a great deal of belief in the supernatural including ancestors, gods, spirits and heaven among others. This is clearly demonstrated from the beliefs and practices of the people. They therefore, used several means to communicate or interact with the supramundane realm. During these periods, there were various forms of interactions including prayers and sacrifices to different powers which were done in almost similar ways in the different periods; by leaders and on sacred places and in all the cases, the leaders were expected to morally upright and with dignity for them to obtain favor with the higher power unlike the common people.
The Shang people worshipped a supreme god called Shang Di, who they believed ruled over the lesser gods of the moon, the rain, other natural forces and places, the sun and the wind. These people also worshipped their ancestors by sacrificing animals to them. These sacrifices were made by the kings who also used oracle bones to communicate with the ancestors. This was because they believed they were still connected to their ancestors and that for them not to have any problems, they had to properly worship them.
The Zhou people worshipped Tian (heaven) unlike the Shang who worshipped the ancestors and Shang Di (supreme god). They believed that the ruler of their kingdom was the “son of heaven” and that he was governed by divine right hence losing his throne would show that he had also lost his heavenly favors and his Mandate and hence misfortunes would even befall his family.
The Qin people believed in Shen (spirits), Yin (shadows) and their kingdom. They believed that the dead moved to another world that was parallel to the earth hence offered sacrifices in shrines and sacred places so as to get in touch with them. These sacrifices were to make them get blessings from the spirit world and to also to help the dead travel well and remain in their world. Sacrifices were made by a lead sacrificer who usually prepared for the ritual by fasting and meditating so as to distance himself from the worldly things. The Qin also believed in divination where they cracked bones or turtle shells to be able to foretell the future.
The Han people believed in spirits, deities and ancestors hence sacrificed animals and food offerings in shrines and other holy places like temples. These offerings were meant to sustain beings in the spiritual world. These sacrifices were made by the emperor; who was also the highest priest by virtue of his position, to the spirits, heaven and the main deities (the five powers). The emperor was expected to have high moral standards. It was also towards the end of this dynasty (Eastern Han) that Buddhism was introduced to China. Some of the early followers and practices of this religion are discussed later in this paper.
During the period of disunion: the era of the three kingdoms, Wei, Shu and Wu, Buddhism was the religion that was majorly practiced by the people. Followers and practices of this religion are discussed later in this paper. Below are some examples of the leaders who acted as mediums of interaction between the people and the supramundane realm during the dynasties mentioned above.
Zhang Jue, a faith healer, who called himself the ‘Great Worthy Leader’ had his Way of Great Peace made prayers and recited spells on behalf of the people. He “accepted many disciples, who would kneel, bow and confess their faults to him. He cured illnesses with holy water and prayers, and when the sick recovered, the common people came to believe in him.” (Buckley 83).This great belief is further demonstrated by the great number of followers that he had. We are told that he had several hundred thousand followers scattered through the commanderies and the kingdoms. This shows that he had quite a great influence on the people who equally chose to believe in him. This was during the Yellow Turban Movement.
From Zhang Jue’s “yellow movement,” he makes the rebels, “Yellow Turbans,” to kill people as a sacrifice to heaven. This shows belief in a higher power to which human sacrifices were made, probably to help them succeed in their endeavors and protect them.
Zhang Xiu (also a faith healer) is another person who was used as a human agent to interact with the supramundane realm, in this case through prayers made in written letters. He made people meditate on their faults to be forgiven. From his Way of Five Pecks of Rice, he had wine offerers, debauchers and demon clerks serve under him. They were in charge of the five thousand characters of the Laozi, helped people in recitation and were in charge of the sick respectively. We are told, “… prayers were offered by writing the name of the sick person and explaining the crimes he had confessed to. Three copies would be made, one sent to heaven…buried in the earth and one immersed in water.” (Hansen 84). He calls these letters to the three officials which shows belief in more than one higher power.
Zhang Lu, who succeeded Xiu, continued to preach the “rice religion” and he made those who refused to follow the religion to be offerers of wine. He therefore, was a medium through which communication could be made to the higher power through wine offering. He also punishes those who commit offences more than three times.
Another form of human beings’ interaction with the supramundane realm was through beliefs and practices of Buddhism where one had to take refuge in Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and the Samgha (community of Buddhists). This happened towards the end of the Han Dynasty and period of disunion. Buddhists were to abandon their families and things of the world and live together in a Samgha where they would practice self righteousness. Men who became monks and women who became nuns are examples of Buddhists. They acted as the medium between the common people and their higher being as seen through the prayers they made for their families, relatives and for goodness to other people. Seng Du is an example of a young man who left his normal life for Buddhism. In his letter to his former girlfriend, Tiaohua who also becomes a nun after reading it, he tells her that following the Buddhist path is for the sake of all beings in the three realms (Buckley 100). This shows that joining Buddhism was like being there for the sake of those who did not join, praying for them and their lives.
We also see that a lot of things happen through Seng Baozhi who also becomes a monk at a very young age. He communicated to people through his prophetic gift and through performing miracles, where he would say things or write poems about things that would happen in the future or he would do supernatural acts like appear in two places at the same time. This made him get many followers, both leaders and ordinary people. He makes prophecies on many occasions, for example, he told the General Sang Yan that he would be beheaded and about his chest rent and this happens after ten days. As emperor Wu says, “Though the trace of master Baozhi’s body is within this world, his spirit roves in the mysteries.” (Hansen 101). This just suggests that he was highly placed and viewed in the society because of his powers, gifts or communication skills with supernatural powers and acts. Baozhi also helped to direct prayers made by monk Fayun after which the long drought ended. This further demonstrates his connection to a higher power on behalf of the people.
Buddhists are greatly used as mediums to pray on behalf of others. The Celestial king Vaisravana for example, pays a thousand ransoms to the three jewels so that they can pray for his family and him, his servants and animals. We are told, “This money is used for copying sutras. It is accompanied by the prayer that the Celestial King attains Buddha hood; that the disciple’s family, servants and animals may be blessed with long life…,” (Buckley 102). This shows the king’s belief in the ability of those practicing Buddhism to intercede to the spirits on their behalf.
There are other followers of Buddhism who also make prayers for their families, friends and for themselves: nun Daorong prays that she neither gets sick nor suffers anymore and that her parents, present family and close relatives experience joy and that all they seek may come to pass. She also includes those with knowledge in her prayers. This shows that she wished them all well and knowing that through her faith she had the power to intercede on their behalf, she goes ahead to do so.
Superintendent Song Shao prays for the spirits of his parents to reach the Pure Land and that his family members may find happiness and blessings in their lives. He also prays for the safety of his state and for the freedom of all suffering creatures, (Buckley 103). This also shows his belief that through his faith; his prayers will be answered for the sake of the people he cares about.
Madame Duan also prays for the happiness of her son even after his death and that he suffers no more (Hansen 104). This also shows her belief in her ability to mediate to the spirits on behalf of her dead son because of her faith.
From all these forms of interaction with the supramundane realms with all the human agents discussed above, a few things stand out including the fact that the mediums for the interactions were leaders who did the mediations on sacred places irrespective of the identity of the higher power and these human agents were to free themselves from faults and influences of the world before doing the mediation. This is seen all through from Jue, Xiu and Lu who always asked people to confess their faults before they prayed for them to be healed and even the Buddhists who lived faultless lives away from the rest of the world.
Another interesting thing is the fact that all through there was a belief in the supernatural or higher power even though not exactly mentioned. This is seen through the numerous sacrifices made.
The different forms of interactions discussed above including prayer, sacrifices, miracles and offerings among others correlate with changes in the social or political order in the society. This is evident from the way leaders who acted as mediums were expected to be free from faults when they did the mediation; some fasted before the ceremony to ensure this while on the other hand commoners who were being prayed for were not to be as much cleansed and prepared as the leaders. This was to help the leaders to gain favor before the higher powers.
In conclusion, in Ancient China there was a belief in the supramundane and the people used several forms to communicate and interact with them to have their needs met. This was done through special beings in the society, leaders or those with similar gifts, who were expected to be well behaved and good.