In Christianity and Islam, many early converts were the relatively disadvantaged women and slaves who gained much. In Buddhism on the other hand, the early converts were mostly Brahmins, who had everything to lose. The uneducated simply could not understand doctrines like no-self. When it went to other countries, Buddhism first converted the king or a minister. Thus in China some early monasteries were often well endowed, magnificent palaces where new priests had to be ceremonially ordained before the relics of the Indian founder. Gradually the temples became all-important.
Only Zen, though it had temples, refused to give them sacred significance: they were just convenient places for teaching and training. When the anti-Buddhist persecutions came, the Emperors struck at the ordination centres. In no long time, the sects ceased to exist, because no new priests could be ordained after the burning of the temples. Only Zen survived: master and pupils could work side by side as labourers in a field, and the teaching and training go on.
So when the persecution had passed, Zen was the only true Buddhist sect that was still alive in China. (The simple devotional sect also survived, but it had given up the aim of Nirvana in favour of birth in the Pure Land heaven of Amida Buddha.) Traces of the other sects remained, but merely as texts and concepts, like the burnt-out shells of their temples.
The great Temple in Jerusalem is a parallel case. The High Priest had to be in the direct line of Zadok, but the last legitimate successor was Onias in 175 BC, and he had to flee to Egypt to save his life. There he was supported by the powerful Jewish community, and set up another Temple, a smaller one. It lasted 250 years until a Roman governor closed it. The High Priests of the Jerusalem Temple were now all political appointees.
Herod contemptuously appointed, and later dismissed, a lad of seventeen as High Priest. But nearly all the pilgrims went there. Its magnificence, especially after the gorgeous restorations by the mass murderer King Herod, was overwhelming. Pilgrims described it as a sea of gold, whereas the temple at Leontopolis in Egypt, though admittedly the true one, was criticized as ‘small and mean’, and felt to be unworthy of the Lord.
When in AD 68 a serious Jewish revolt broke out, the Roman army under General Titus massed to take Jerusalem. The scribe Johanan ben Zakkai, with a sack of books, stole out to the Roman lines. He was passed up to the General, from whom he requested leave to go through, and found a school. Titus was impressed by the holiness and learning of Johanan, and no doubt also pleased by the prediction (correct in the event) that he would become Emperor.
He gave him a safe conduct. Jerusalem fell and the Temple was desecrated. In the next uprising it was utterly destroyed, and its treasures sold: the bottom dropped out of the gold market in that part of the Middle East. But the invisible tradition of the Holy Law had already gone, and was living in hearts and minds of outwardly undistinguished followers in many lands.
© Trevor Leggett