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18: Buddhist Priests

There are few more loathsome types of character either in the East or West than the Buddhist priest of China. He is an object of contempt to the educated among his countrymen, not only as one who has shirked the cares and responsibilities to which all flesh is heir, but as a misguided outcast who has voluntarily resigned the glorious title and privileges of that divinely-gifted being represented by the symbol _man_. With his own hands he has severed the five sacred ties which distinguish him from the brute creation, in the hope of some day attaining what is to most Chinamen a very doubtful immortality. Paying no taxes and rendering no assistance in the administration of the Empire, his duty to his sovereign is incomplete. Marrying no wife, his affinity, the complement of his earthly existence, sinks into a virgin's grave. Rearing no children, his troubled spirit meets after death with the same neglect and the same absence of cherished rites which cast a shadow upon his parents' tomb. Renouncing all fraternal ties, he deprives himself of the consolation and support of a brother's love. Detaching himself from the world and its vanities, friendship spreads its charms for him in vain. Thus he is in no Chinese sense a man. He has no name, and is frequently shocked by some western tyro in Chinese who, thinking to pay the everyday compliment bandied between Chinamen, asks to his intense disgust--"What is your honourable name?" The unfortunate priest has substituted a "religious designation" for the patronymic he discarded when parents, brethren, home, and friends were cast into oblivion at the door of the temple.

But it is not on such mere sentimental grounds that the Chinese nation has condemned in this wholesale manner the clergy of China. Did the latter carry out even to a limited extent their vows of celibacy and Pythagorean principles of diet, they would probably obtain a fair share of that questionable respect which is meted out to enthusiasts in most countries on the globe. The Chinese hate them as double-dyed hypocrites who extort money from the poor and ignorant, work upon the fears of, and frequently corrupt, their wives or daughters; proclaim in bold characters at the gates of each temple--"no meat or wine may enter here"--while all the time they dine off their favourite pork as often as most Chinamen, and smoke or drink themselves into a state of beastly intoxication a great deal more so. Opium pipes are to be found as frequently as not among the effects of these sainted men, who, with all the abundant leisure at their command, are rarely of sufficient education to be mentioned in the same breath with an ordinary graduate. Occasionally there have been exceptions to the rule, but the phenomenon is seldom met with in modern times. We have read of a lame old priest so renowned for self-denying liberality that the great Emperor Ch'ien Lung actually paid him a visit. After some conversation Ch'ien Lung presented him with a valuable pearl, which the old man immediately bestowed upon a beggar he espied among the crowd. His Majesty was somewhat taken aback at this act of rudeness, and asked him if he always gave away everything in the same manner. On receiving an affirmative reply, the Emperor added, "Even down to the crutch on which you lean?" "Ah," said the priest, "it is written that the superior man does not covet what his friend cannot spare." "But supposing," said the Emperor, "he was not a superior man." "In that case," answered the priest, "you could not expect me to be his friend."

Cleanliness, again, is an especial attribute of Buddhism, and in a few temples in the south there is an attempt to make some show in this direction; but as regards the person, priests are dirtier if anything than the humblest members of their flock. It is laughable indeed to hear them chant the _Ching_, ignorant as ninety-nine per cent. are of every word they are saying, for of late the study of Sanskrit has been utterly and entirely neglected. Their duties, however, in this respect are as much curtailed as possible, except when wafting with their prayers some spirit of the dead to the realms of bliss above. In such cases it is a matter of business, a question of money; and the unctuous air of solemn faith they then put on contrasts curiously with the bored and sleepy look apparent on their faces as they gabble through a midnight mass, in the presence of some such limited and unimportant audience as a single and perhaps a red-haired barbarian.

It is pleasant to dismiss from our thoughts this lying, shameless, debauched class; and we do so, wondering how Buddhism has retained its hold so long over an intellectual people possessed of an elaborate moral code, which has been for centuries the acknowledged standard of right and wrong, and which condemns all fear or hope of an unknown and unseen world.