Creation of the Gods: A Somewhat Less Than Critical Commentary
Religion is of central focus in Creation of the Gods. Not only are Lao Zi (aka Lao Tzu) and Buddha present, they join forces and battle side by side. Creation of the Gods is set in 1100 B.C. From a historical point of view, this predates Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Confucius by at least half a millenium. The traditional religions of China-Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism-had not been established yet. Thus, the presence of Taoism and Buddhism in the novel is an anachronism.
One assumes that the Ming Dynasty authors knew of the anachronistic features of their novel. Surely, the authors were Confucian scholars, knowledgeable on such matters. It seems likely that they choose to write this novel, incorporating the contemporary folktales which already existed, and keeping the anachronisms intact.
One naturally wonders what religions actually existed in China prior to Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. There is historical evidence that shamanism dominated China. Although the particulars of shamanism varied from one local area to the next, there exist certain common, general features, which allow the religion to be described as shamanism. (See Essential Chinese Mythology, Martin Palmer & Zhao Xiaomin, Thorsons, 1997, London, ISBN: 1855384760). Much of the specifics practices of Chinese Shamanism have been lost either because they were not written down or the books that they were written down in were destroyed when new dynasties took over and chose to rewrite religious history in such a way that it augured their rise to power.
Regardless of the historical truth, the Confucian scholars who wrote Creation of the Gods had their own purposes in mind and chose to incorporate the elements of Buddhism and Taoism in the novel, despite the obvious anachronisms.
The elements of Taoism and Buddhism in Creation of the Gods are obvious; after all Lao Zi and Buddha are characters in the novel. However, one might ask are there also Confucian elements in the novel? Certainly, there are. However, these elements are not called Confucian in the way that other practices are labeled Taoist and Buddhist. Moreover, the Confucian practices do not have a vocal and identifiable champion in the way that Lao Zi and Buddha champion there own religions in Creation of the Gods. Nevertheless, the Confucian presence permeates the novel. After all, the authors were most likely Confucian scholars.
For example, the issues of filial piety and loyalty to the emperor are key themes in the novel. One of the central moral dilemmas of the ministers of the corrupt King Zhou are whether to remain loyal to a despotic monarch or betray that monarch, who was selected by Heaven. Time and time again, the ministers such as Huang Feihu quote proverbs that indicate in times of extreme corruption, a minister may forsake his monarch. (These maxims that the ministers quote are probably anachronisms themselves, taken from later Confucian texts. But I don't know this for sure; i.e. I can't cite the source.) This mantra is repeated so many times in part to combat the feelings of guilt that the turncoat ministers surely felt.
Another example of the Confucian influence in Creation of the Gods is the hierarchical structure of the royal court and the military. The relationship between the ministers and King Zhou is no different than that between the ministers and the emperor in Outlaws of the Marsh and Journey to the West. In those novels, the court etiquette is codified by Confucian thought. In Creation of the Gods, we see the same structure and formalities.
Thus, there are strong elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism in Creation of the Gods.
It is suggested, however, that there are more than just Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism in Creation of the Gods. The entire overthrow of the Shang Dynasty by the Zhou Dynasty is described in terms of battle between the immortal followers of Chan Taoism and those of Jie Taoism. There is no description of the two sects of Taoism given in the novel, except that the followers of Chan Taoism are destined to break the prohibition on killing. This seems like an arbitrary and vague distinction, since members of both Chan and Jie Taoism kill each other in prodigious numbers throughout the course of the novel.
What are the differences between Chan and Jie Taoism? I don't know. If a reader has finds a good explanation, <a href=mailto:email@example.com>email</a> me. The rest of this paragraph is conjecture. Today, two sects of Taoism exist, representing religious and philosophical Taoism. Chan (often transliterated as Zen) Taoism represents philosophical Taoism, where introspection is the key path to enlightenment. Jie Taoism, or religious Taoism, incorporated ritual practices, established a priesthood, defined a Taoist Canon, and created a pantheon of deities. Attributing the Chan sect of Creation of the Gods to the philosophical sect of Taoism and the Jie sect of Creation of the Gods to religious Taoism is not a clean match. In the novel, followers of both Chan and Jie sects practice monastic lifestyles, cultivating the Way internally. Moreover, followers of both sects are included in the List of Creation.
The situation becomes even more muddled. Twice there are explicit references to three religions. In the first reference, the Taoist Master Grand Completion travels to the Western Regions to borrow the Green Lotus flag from the Buddha of the Western Regions. Grand Completion asks for the Green Lotus flag, to which Buddha replies:
"Our emphasis on finding the Way is different from your own. We see the image of ourselves and that of others in lotus flowers. I wouldn't like to see the flag soiled in the world of mortals. I beg your pardon," Buddha replied.
"Ours may be two different religions, but the principles are the same. We both agree on the coincidence of the human heart with the will of Heaven, for instance. We belong to one family and we live in the same world. How can you discriminate between our two religions? The old proverb says, 'The golden pills of life for the Taoist and luminous stone relics of Buddha represent the same principle of virtue.' The three religions are really one."
In the course of their debate, Candi arrived. He sat down and said, "...Though the Western Region enjoys utter happiness, we can't be selfish. Buddhism must spread to the southeast as soon as possible. We may cooperate with religions there for this purpose. Do grant his request."
Hearing this, Buddha immediately gave Master Grand Completion the flag.
- (Volume 2, Chapter 65, p. 151-152.)
In this passage, one might naturally assume that the three religions referred to by Master Grand Completion are Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, this interpretation is muddled by a later passage.
The second reference to three religions occurs when Lao Zi and Heavenly Primogenitor have recruited the Buddha, Candi, to aid them in their battle against the Grand Master of Heaven, specifically to break the Immortal Slaughtering Trap.
"Brother, you've come at the right time, but we still need one more person to break this evil trap," Lao Zi said.
"If that be so, let me invite the religious leader of the Western Region to join us. The three religions will be united on one front to break the trap, to distinguish right from wrong, jade from stone," Candi said sincerely.
Lao Zi was pleased at this new development. Candi bade them farewell and left to invite Buddha, the religious leader of the Western Region.
- (Volume 2, Chapter 78, p. 264.)
It is not clear what three religions are being refered to in this passage. In the second passage, there are four religious leaders-Lao Zi, Heavenly Primogenitor, Candi, and Buddha-representing (according to the text) three religions, uniting to battle Jie Taoism. Unambiguously, Lao Zi is a Taoist, Heavenly Primogenitor is a Taoist of the Chan Sect, Candi is a Chinese Buddha, and Buddha is a Buddha of the Western Region. Obviously, two of the three religions are Taoism and Buddhism. However, it is not clear if the authors are drawing a distinction between the religion of Lao Zi and the Heavenly Primogenitor or between that of Candi and Buddha. The implication is that having Buddha join the pact, that the three religions will be united. In this case, it is Candi and Buddha who are representing distinct religions. Candi is representing Chinese Buddhism and Buddha is representing the Buddhism of the Western Regions, presumably in modern-day Afghanistan. Moreover, it is not clear what the differences are between Chinese Buddhism and Buddhism of the Western Regions.
Suffice it to say, that a more thorough study of the religions in Creation of the Gods is required. It seems clear that the study should focus not on the religion of the time of the setting of the novel, but rather on the religious views of the time of the writing of the novel.