Buddhism in China

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Shakyamuni Buddha teaching. Chang Sheng-wen, Yunnan, ca. 1200.

Buddhism, a religion of Indian origin, has affected and been affected by Chinese culture, politics, literature and philosophy for almost two millenia. For a more generalized discussion of Chinese religion, see religion in China.


History of Buddhism in China

Arrival along the Silk Road

Buddhism arrived in China at the start of the 1st century from Central Asia by way of the Silk Road, the main trade route connecting China with the Middle East and India. References to early Chinese Buddhism in the histories, however, contain hagiographical elements and are not necessarily reliable or accurate. These include references to how Emperor Ming of Han dreamt of Buddha and the persecution of King Liu Ying, who was denounced and exiled for his religious beliefs. Nevertheless, historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River. 67 saw Buddhism's official introduction to China with the coming of the two monks Moton and Chufarlan. In 68, under imperial patronage, they established the White Horse Temple (白馬寺) close to the imperial capital at Luoyang. By the end of the second century, a prosperous commuity had been settled at Pengcheng (modern Xuzhou, Jiangsu).

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The front gate of a temple at Mt. Jiuhua in China's Anhui province.

The first Buddhist scripture to be written in Chinese was probably Sutra of Forty-two Sections (四十二章經), although its authenticity is a matter of debate. An Shigao, a Parthian Buddhist prince, arrived at the Han capital in 148 and was the first to initiate a systematic translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese. Traces of Buddhist iconography can also be seen in works of art from this period.

Relation to Confucianism and Daoism

Nevertheless most of the Chinese gentry were indifferent to these Central Asian travelers and their religion. Not only was their religion unknown but much of it seemed alien and amoral to Chinese sensibilites. Concepts such as monasticism and individual spiritual enlightenment directly contradicted the core Confucian principles of family and emperor. Confucianism promoted social stability, order, strong families, and practical living. Chinese officials questioned how a monk's personal attainment of nirvana benefited the empire. Buddhism was less antithetical to Daoism, the other major religion of China, but at its core Daoism sought harmony with the natural world while Buddhism sought to master the inner world.

Local interpretation of Indian texts

To thrive in China Buddhism had to transform itself into a system that could exist within the Chinese way of life. Thus obscure Indian sutras that advocated filial piety became core texts in China. Buddhism was made compatible with ancestor worship and participation in China's heirarchical system. Works were written arguing that the salvation of an individual was a benefit to that individual's society and family and monks thus contributed to the greater good.

It is conjectured that the shocking collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 and the resulting period of social upheaval and political unrest known as the Three Kingdoms period may have helped the spread of Buddhism. Buddhism was a minor force, however, compared with Daoism which was directly associated with efforts to defy the emperor (cf. Yellow Turban Rebellion). The Daoist Zhang family self-governed the Hanzhong Commandry for nearly 20 years until invasion by the renowned Chinese warlord Cao Cao.

A reason for the lack of interest mostly stemmed from the ruling entity and gentry. All the rulers were Han Chinese and had simply never heard of or knew too little of the religion. The Nine-grade controller system, by which prominent individuals in each local administrative area were given the authority to rank local families and individuals in nine grades according to their potential for government service, further consolidated the importance of Confucianism. Daoism too remained a strong force among the population and philosophers.

Buddhism gains political traction in the north

Subsequent chaotic periods of Sixteen Kingdoms and Southern and Northern Dynasties changed the situation, resulting in state support of Buddhism. Most rulers and population of the Wu, Hu, and the Northern dynasties originated from more than ten distinct ethnic groups including either non-Han Chinese "barbarians", or Han Chinese after generations of "barbarian" influence. They did not propagate nor trust the combined philosophical concept of Confucianism and Daoism as zealously as their rivals in the south. Official support of Buddhism would eventually mould a new Chinese populace with a common ideology out of the diversely ethnic population, which would in turn consolidate these dynasties.

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A triad of Buddha figures, Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550).

It is instructive that Buddhism propagated faster in northern China than in the south. Social upheaval in northern China worked to break down cultural barriers between the elite ruling families and the general populace, in contrast to the south where elite clans and royal families firmly monopolized politics. Daoist and Confucian political ideology had long consolidated the political status of elite clans in the south. Support of another religion would have unknown and possibly adverse effects, for which these clans would not risk their privileges. Furthermore pro-Buddhist policy would not be backed by the bureaucracy, which had been staffed by members of the clans. Southern rulers were in weaker positions to strive for their legitimacy - some were even installed by the clans. It was not until the reign of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty that saw the official support of Buddhism. Rebellion of Hou Jing near the end of Emperor Wu's reign wreaked havoc on the political and social privileges of the elite clans, which indirectly assisted the spread of Buddhism. But Buddhism spread pretty well in the peasant populace, both in the north and the south.

Monks and rulers join forces

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Sui Dynasty Bodhisattva, sandstone, Tianlongshan Grottoes, Shanxi, 6th century.

Arrivals of several prestigious monks in the early 5th century also contributed to the propagation of the religion and were welcomed by rulers of the Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Dynasties. Fo Tu Teng was entrusted by the tyrant Shi Hu of Later Chao. Kumarajiva was invited by Lu Guang, the founder of Later Liang, and later by Yao Xing, second ruler of Later Qin. Biographies of these monks, among others, were the subject of the Memoirs of Eminent Monks.

The direct experiential impact of contact with practicing monks should not be underestimated. Confucianism had no equivalent to holy men — the archetypical best and brightest was a wise government minister, not a saint. Daoist priests were more immediate, but given to relativism and rarely strict or principled in their practice. A Buddhist was a different matter — here was someone in direct connection to a higher plane and you could meet him in person. It is notable that when another "foreign " religion, Nestorianism, sought to extol the virtues of one of its main benefactors they claimed he was so moral that "...even among the most pure and self-denying of the Buddhists, such excellence was never heard of;" (cf. Nestorian Stele). Through the actions and example of monks, Buddhists successfully laid claim to the high moral ground in society.

In this way Buddhism grew to become a major religion in China. By the start of the 6th century, Buddhism had grown in popularity to rival Daoism. We know they were successful because the monks were soon accused of falling into extravagance and their lands and properties confiscated by Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou dynasty and Wuzong of the Tang Dynasty.

During the early Tang dynasty the monk Xuanzang journeyed to Nalanda in India and other important sites to bring back scriptures. He sought to expand influence of Mahayana over Theravada, though the Yogacara school he preferred differs significantly from the later Chinese Mahayana schools that developed such as Pure Land. The Tang capital of Chang'an became an important center for Buddhist thought. From there Buddhism spread to Korea, and Japanese embassies of Kentoshi helped gain footholds in Japan. Buddhist ideology began to merge with Confucianism and Daoism, due in part to the use of existing Chinese philosophical terms in the translation of Buddhist scriptures. Various Confucian scholars of the Song dynasty, including Zhu Xi (wg: Chu Hsi), sought to redefine Confucianism as Neo-Confucianism.

A   sculpture in the Hidden Stream Temple Cave, , .
A Tang Dynasty Amitabha sculpture in the Hidden Stream Temple Cave, Longmen Grottoes, China.

The popularization of Buddhism in this period is evident in the many scripture-filled caves and structures surviving today. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu province, the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi are the most renowned of the Northern Dynasties. The Leshan Giant Buddha, carved out of a hillside in the 8th century during Tang Dynasty and looking down on the confluence of three rivers, is still the largest Buddha statue in the world. As a side note, duplications of Buddhist texts were considered to bring meritorious karma. Printing from individually carved wooden blocks[1] (http://www.bl.uk/collections/treasures/diamond.html), from movable clay type and from movable metal type[2] (http://www.korea-np.co.jp/pk/070th_issue/98111805.htm), proved much more efficient and eventually eclipsed hand copying. The Diamond Sutra of AD 868, a Buddhist scripture discovered in AD 1907 inside the Mogao Caves, was the first dated example of block printing.

Modern Chinese Buddhism

Today the most popular form of Buddhism in both mainland China and Taiwan is the Western Pure Land school. Its central scripture, the Amitabha Sutra was first brought to China by An Shigao, circa 147, however the school did not become popular until later.

Timeline of Chinese Buddhism

(Excerpted from Timeline of Buddhism.)

 A Japanese scroll made by  ( to , depicting , the founder of Chinese  Buddhism)
A Japanese scroll made by Hakuin Ekaku (1685 to 1768, depicting Bodhidharma, the founder of Chinese Chan Buddhism)

Chinese Schools of Buddhism

When Buddhism moved to China it met a religiously sophisticated culture. As a result a number of Indian-transplant as well as Chinese-indigenous schools of Buddhism developed.

Indian transmitted

Indigenous Chinese

  • Chan (禪宗, Wade-Giles: Ch'an) Mythically attributed in founding to Bodhidharma
  • Huayan (華嚴宗, WG: Hua-yen)
  • Pure Land (淨土宗, WG: Chingtu)
  • Tiantai (天台宗, WG: T'ien-t'ai) founded by Zhiyi (Chih-I)


  1. Wright, Arthur F.; Fo T'u Teng.... A Biography (佛圖澄), Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (11) 1948, p.312-371

See also

External links

Template:Buddhism2 de:Buddhismus in China ja:中国の仏教 zh:中国佛教


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