When Buddhism was introduced to China in 1st century A.D. during the Han Dynasty, the common religions at the time were Confucianism and Taoism. Over time, Buddhism garnered enough followers to solidify its place in the Chinese culture. Today, nearly 50% of the Chinese people are non-religious. It doesn’t mean they are atheists. The concepts of a sky king or god residing in heaven as well as hell’s damnation are no strangers to the Chinese mythology. In terms of religious practices among the Chinese population, 8% are Buddhists, 7% Christians, and 2% Muslims. It’s worth noting that 29% of them practice a form of folk religion that is centered on ancestral worship in hopes of receiving good luck and blessings. The ritual of honoring ancestors is manifested in people going to Buddhist temples or attending the annual Ching Ming Festival by visiting ancestral gravesites. The Buddhist monks were able to make meaningful inroads by incorporating aspects of the Chinese culture into their practice. As an example, Shaolin Temple, the famous Buddhist monastery located at the foothills of Songshan Mountain in Henan Province, is the cradle of Shaolin Kung Fu, the popular form of martial arts in China.
The Origin of Buddhism
At its core, religion is an organized form of worship to a higher power to instill meaning to human existence in a world that can be unkind and even cruel. Different from theistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Buddhism is non-theistic. Buddhists believe the universe is eternal – no beginning and no end. Therefore, the concept of an ultimate creator doesn’t fit their paradigm. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the late 6th century B.C.E in India. As a prince, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury. When he discovered the extent of human sufferings outside of his palatial residence, it awakened his urge to seek answers. He left his wealth and comfort behind. He took on the life of a poor beggar, travelling and meditating, but remaining unsatisfied. Eventually, in deep meditation under a Bodhi tree, he was able to achieve Nirvana, the state of enlightenment. The prince-to-beggar Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha – the Enlightened One, and thus began Buddhism. To break the never-ending cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth known as samsara, the main goal of Buddhism is to teach followers to achieve the state of Nirvana by deep meditation and living a disciplined life, devoid of worldly trappings.
Religious Inquiry in Shimmering Across Time
Mak Ming’s expansive novel Shimmering Across Time speaks to the influence of religion in people’s lives in China and Southeast Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries. While the novel is not mainly about religion per se, by including faith and religion in the story line the author has added more texture and emotional dimension to the characters who are confronted by heartbreaking hardships. Readers can sense the great care from the author in weaving Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion into his story without being preachy. Dialogue between the characters in the novel is the author’s method of choice to bring up religious matters. The friendly tone of the conversations in Shimmering Across Time strips away the rigidity and stuffiness often associated with heady religious inquiries.
Buddhism in Shimmering Across Time
Here is an example of a conversation in the Shimmering Across Time that takes the reader deeper into the Buddhist precept of pain and suffering. The talk is between an old monk and Yiu Feyhung, one of the main characters saddled by physical pain. The exchange goes something like this:
The monk postulates, “…our pain comes from our attachment to the physical world and our physical body. The world around us is constantly changing.” He continues, “The idea of self is an illusion because there is no permanent self.”
Hoping to rid the persistent pain in his body, Yiu Feyhung quips, “ Can I change my perception to stop my pain?”
The old monk replies, “You can’t stop your pain, but you can rise above it through meditation.”
The conversation goes on to explain meditation is the way for self-liberation.
Buddhism in Modern Days
Like the splintering of Christianity and Islam into different denominations and branches, the development of Buddhism is greatly influenced by local customs and cultures. Over time, Buddhism has evolved into three distinct branches in Asia. Land Buddhism is the main sect in India. In China and Japan, primarily Zen Buddhism is practiced. In Tibet, the people living at high altitudes have their own brand of Buddhism.
Mak Ming and Shimmering Across Time
A product of Eastern and Western education, Mak Ming injects his unique and interesting perspective into writing his historical novel, Shimmering Across Time. His formal education in secular and parochial schools provides him with a broad view of humanities and religions. Born in China and grew up in Hong Kong, the author has first-hand experience of the dramatic changes taking place around him during the 20th century. Filled with human drama and wartime tragedies, the setting of China and Southeast Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries offers the author a compelling backdrop to weave an enthralling novel. For readers who enjoy reading historical fictions, Mak Ming’s Shimmering Across Time is a worthwhile addition to their library.