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Buddhism in China

Buddhism has profoundly affected Chinese culture, politics, literature and philosophy. China also had a great effect upon Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism is a very distinct entity from its Indian roots. This article explores how the religion impacted upon the country and how the country impacted upon the religion. For a more generalized discussion of Chinese religion, see religion in China.

Table of contents
1 History of Buddhism in China
2 Modern Chinese Buddhism
3 Timeline of Chinese Buddhism
4 Readings
5 See also
6 External Links

History of Buddhism in China


Buddhism was introduced into China in the 1st century from Central Asia around 1 AD. Most of the Buddhist works were translating Buddhist texts from Indian originals; this trend continued until the 5th century when the maelstrom after the collapse of the "Western" Jin Dynasty helped the Buddhism propagation among peasants and lower gentry.

Buddhist monks were actively involved within the elite and ruling entity as well as in the populace. By the start of the 6th century, number of its followers were comparable to those of Daoism. Granted lands and properties, some monks had fallen to extravagance and prompted confiscations by Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou dynasty and Wuzong of the Tang Dynasty.

Xuanzang in the Tang dynasty sought to expand influence of Mahayana over Theravada, though the Yogacara school he preferred differs significantly from popular modern Chinese Mahayana schools, such as Pure Land. Buddhism spread to Korean Buddhism, 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.

Propagation of Buddhism

The Silk Road opened up mercantile routes into China. Along with the merchants, Moton and Chufarlan were probably the first monks arrived at China. They enjoyed imperial favour and were granted a place to build the Bai Ma Temple (zh 白馬寺, pinyin báimǎś, lit. 'Temple of the White Horse') in the capital Luoyang in AD 67. Various translated Buddhist texts survived until today, one of which, the Sutra of Forty-two Sections (四十二章經) continues to be popular. An Shigao (wg An Shih Kao), a Buddhist Parthian prince, arrived capital in 148 and continued the work of previous monks.

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. Buddhism was very different from Confucianism, which was the official state religion and was rooted in Chinese culture and politics of the time. It was also very differnt from Daoism the other major Chinese faith.

Concepts such as monasticism and the separation of the individual from society were completely against the communitarian nature of Chinese society. The Buddhist advocation of the abandonment of ties to family were also hard for ancestor worshiping Chinese to accept. The ruling elites also propagated Confucism for its social stability. Even small matters such as the shaving of heads by Buddhists went strongly against Chinese traditions and morality. The individual attainment of nirvana was also foreign and Chinese emperors wished to know how a monk's personal attainment of nirvana benefited the empire.

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 benfit to that individuals society and family and monks thus contributed to the greater good.

Like other religions, social upheaval and political unrest during the era of Three Kingdoms might have helped the spread of Buddhism; however number of Buddhism protagonists were still widely outweighed by those of Daoism, who had at least attempted to topple the dynasty in the 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 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.

Subsequent chaotic periods of Wu Hu and Southern and Northern Dynasties had changed the picture completely. One major factor to this drastic reversal was the state support of Buddhism. Most rulers and population of the Wu Hu and the Northern dynasties comprised of 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.

Government encouragement of the propagation of Buddhism in northern China came into effect more smoothly than some Daoist protagonists of the time would believe. Social upheaval in northern China had destroyed to a significant extent the segregation of ruling gentry and elite families from the populace, whereas several elite clans and royal families monopolized the politics in the south. Legitimacy of policies and power of ruler of the Northern Dynasties were more respected. On the other hand 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 racked havoc on the political and social privileges of the elite clans, which indirectly assisted the spread of Buddhism. On the contrary, Buddhism spread pretty well in the peasant populace, both in the north and the south.

Arrivals of several prestigious monks also contributed to the religion propagation and were welcomed by these rulers. Fo Tu Teng (wg Fo T'u Teng) was entrusted by the tyrant Shi Hu (wg Shih 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.

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 in the world. As a side note, duplications of Buddhist texts were considered to bring meritorious karma. Printing from individually carved wooden blocks[1], from movable clay type and from movable metal type[1], 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 Pure Land school. Its central scripture, the Amit⢨a S? 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.)

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


  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