20111121-Yungang caves-62.jpg
4th century reliefs of apsara from Yungang Caves
It is widely believed that Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han period (206 B.C.- A.D. 220). Buddhism entered China, perhaps as early as the first century B.C., from India and Central Asia via the Silk Road trade route, along which goods were traded between China and the Roman Empire and cultures from China merged with those of India, Central Asia and Iran. Artifacts from Kushan — a Greek-influenced, Pakistan-based, Buddhist civilization — have been found in western China. In the A.D. 1st century Buddhism caught they eye of the Han Emperor Wu, who sent a mission to India which returned in A.D. 67 with Buddhist scriptures, two Indian monks and several Buddhist images. By the end of the A.D. 1st century there was a Buddhist community in the Chinese capital of Loyang.

Buddhism didn't really begin to have an influence on China until the A.D. 2nd century, when Buddhist monks and translator-missionaries from India and Central Asia began arriving in larger numbers overland along the Silk Road and by sea on trade routes between India and China via Southeast Asia. The first Buddhist monks arrived with shaven heads, begging bowls and robes at a time when the only people in China that dressed and acted in such a manner were criminals and beggars. These monks, traveling alone and in pairs, had nether homes nor families---concepts that defied traditional Confucian emphasis on family, honoring ancestors and producing heirs. The earliest Buddhist monasteries in China were run primarily by Chinese-speaking Indians and Central Asians. As their Chinese students matured Chinese took over the monasteries and Buddhist texts translated to Chinese became the main texts.

Buddhism arrived in China at roughly the same time Christianity was spreading from Palestine into the Roman Empire. Unlike Christianity in Europe, Buddhism in China was never able to wipe out traditional moral and religious beliefs that existed before it. At first Buddhism was viewed as just another Taoist sect. Stories circulated that the Taoist founder Lao-tze emigrated to the West and became a teacher of The Buddha or became The Buddha himself.

There have been periods where Buddhists in China have been persecuted. Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: “In China, in A.D. 842, the Tang Emperor Wuzong began to persecute foreign religions. Some 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were annihilated, priceless works of art were destroyed, and about 260,000 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life. History repeated itself with the Chinese Communist Party's attempt to suppress Buddhism---most visibly in Tibet. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, since 1949 more than 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries, and temples have been destroyed and at least 500,000 Tibetans have died from imprisonment, torture, famine, and war. But today Buddhism in China, like the lotus flower that emerges from mud, is resurfacing. With more than 100 million practitioners, it's one of the country's fastest growing religions. [Source: Perry Garfinkel, National Geographic, December 2005]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Mahayana Buddhism: Seon Zen Buddhism buddhism.org ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) terebess.hu/zen/hakuin ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) global.sotozen-net.or.jp ; Wikipedia article ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) studybuddhism.com ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis nirvanasutra.net ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism cttbusa.org ; The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravāda Theory and Practice by Jeffrey Samuels info-buddhism.com ; Zen Buddhism zen-buddhism.net ; The Zen Site thezensite.com ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ; Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies buddhanet.net ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia ; Bibliography hua.umf.maine.edu/ ; Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Buddhism as a Religion Imported to and Exported from China

Portable Buddhist shrine used in the transport of Buddhism to and from China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Buddhism is an interesting form of Chinese religion for many reasons, not least because it was the first major religious tradition in China that was “imported” from abroad. (Other forms of Buddhism from Tibet and Mongolia, Christianity in different guises, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam would follow later.) Long after Buddhism had become a natural part of the Chinese religious landscape, many Chinese -- Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike -- still pondered the significance of the foreign origin of the religion. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

China was the only Buddhist country that possessed a civilization before the introduction of Buddhism. For over a thousand years Buddhism dominated religious life in China, having both a profound impact on China and Buddhism and producing a great body of literature and art. China was the conduit through which Buddhism reached Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Buddhism found in China is almost exclusively Mahayana.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “, Buddhism is an Indian system of thought that was transmitted to China by Central Asian traders and Buddhist monks as early as the first century A.D. Later it passed into Korea by the fourth century and Japan by the sixth. Its influence on all three cultures was enormous... Buddhism, in its long history, branched into many competing philosophical schools, religious traditions, and monastic sects. There are literally dozens of very different versions of Buddhism in East Asian history and in the world today (although, oddly, Buddhism died out in its native India at a rather early date). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Within China, Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Regional variation in the material trappings of Buddhism should be kept in mind. The biggest divide is between areas where Tibetan Buddhism is dominant (Tibet, Ningxia, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia predominantly), and other regions of China. Buddhism arrived in Tibet by a different route, primarily from India, and although there was much interchange between Tibetan Buddhism and schools of Buddhism in Tang and later China, many differences in both doctrine and practice have persisted until today. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Shortcomings of the Traditional View of Buddhist History in China

Portable Chinese Buddhist shrine

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Many overviews of Chinese Buddhist history are organized by the template of Chinese dynasties. In this perspective, Buddhism began to enter China as a religion of non-Chinese merchants in the later years of the Han dynasty. It was during the following four centuries of disunion, including a division between non-Chinese rulers in the north and native (“Han”) governments in the south as well as warfare and social upheaval, that Buddhism allegedly took root in China. Magic and meditation ostensibly appealed to the “barbarian” rulers in the north, while the dominant style of religion pursued by the southerners was philosophical. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“During the period of disunion, the general consensus suggests, Buddhist translators wrestled with the problem of conveying Indian ideas in a language their Chinese audience could understand; after many false starts Chinese philosophers were finally able to comprehend common Buddhist terms as well as the complexities of the doctrine of emptiness. <|>

“Most textbooks treat the Tang dynasty as the apogee or mature period of Buddhism in China. During the Tang dynasty Buddhism was finally “Sinicized” or made fully Chinese. The Tang saw unprecedented numbers of ordinations into the ranks of the Buddhist order; the flourishing of new, allegedly “Chinese” schools of thought; and lavish support from the state. <|>

“After the Tang, it is thought, Buddhism entered into a thousand-year period of decline. Some monks were able to break free of tradition and write innovative commentaries on older texts or reshape received liturgies, some patrons managed to build significant temples or sponsor the printing of the Buddhist canon on a large scale, and the occasional highly placed monk found a way to purge debased monks and nuns from the ranks of the sangha and revive moral vigor, but on the whole the stretch of dynasties after the Tang is treated as a long slide into intellectual, ethical, and material poverty. <|>

“Stated in this caricatured a fashion, the shortcomings of this approach are not hard to discern. This approach accentuates those episodes in the history of Buddhism that intersect with important moments in a political chronology, the validity of which scholars in Chinese studies increasingly doubt. The problem is not so much that the older, dynastic-driven history of China is wrong as that it is limited and one-sided. While traditional history tends to have been written from the top down, more recent attempts argue from the bottom up. Historians in the past forty years have begun to discern otherwise unseen patterns in the development of Chinese economy, society, and political institutions. Their conclusions, which increasingly take Buddhism into account, suggest that cycles of rise and fall in population shifts, economy, family fortunes, and the like often have little to do with dynastic history -- the implication being that the history of Buddhism and other Chinese traditions can no longer be pegged simply to a particular dynasty.”<|>

Origin of Buddhism in India-Nepal

20120430-ajantabuddha form 3rd of 4th cednt AD.jpg
Ajanta Buddha from AD 4th century India
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The founder of Buddhism was a prince of a North Indian tribe who lived about the year 500 B.C. (about the time of Confucius in China)” in present-day Nepal. “His name was Siddhartha Gautama and he was a member of the Shakya tribe; he is often called Shakyamuni. His religious name, the Buddha, means “the awakened one,” and at the heart of the Buddha's teaching was a call to people to adopt certain practices that would show them that they were living in such deep ignorance that they could be said to be asleep to the truth..only those who followed the Buddha's path could awaken to reality. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“During the Buddha's lifetime, as later, the predominant religious tradition of India was Hinduism, a religion that includes an extensive array of devotional practices that bring people closer to a world of superhuman gods, and also a strong strain of ascetic self-cultivation practices, including many forms of yoga, that are designed to purify the soul and bring the person closer to an ideal state of being. Among Hinduism's many complex features is a belief in the “transmigration of souls”: that is, the idea that after our physical death, our eternal soul migrates to a new form, through which it is physically “reincarnated.” /+/

“Siddhartha Gautama's teachings grew from an unusual mid-life crisis. Sheltered by his royal family from all the pain and suffering of life while young, an unexpected encounter with the miseries suffered by others shocked the adult Gautama into a radically new view of human existence, a perspective from which only suffering seemed real and all the comforts to which he was accustomed seemed an illusion. Disillusioned with palace life, he left to follow the example of Hindu yogins, retreating to the forests of North India to lead a life of meditation and self-denial. In the wilderness, Gautama developed new methods for meditation and a new vision of life, mind, and the universe. These form the core of the philosophy of Buddhism. /+/

“The Buddha's Core Ideas, When Gautama emerged from the forest as the newly enlightened Buddha he immediately began to preach his revelations: the Buddhist law of truth, or the Dharma. While the many different schools of Buddhism each have their own versions of exactly what the Buddha said, and there are many points of disagreement, some points are agreed upon by virtually everyone.” /+/

Arrival of Buddhism in China

20120430-kushana_sm coin, 100 BC oen fo eraliest surving Buddha image.jpg
Kushan coin from 100 BC,
earliest surviving Buddha image,
from Pakistan
Buddhism entered China, perhaps as early as the first century B.C., from India and Central Asia via the Silk Road trade route, along which goods were traded between China and the Roman Empire and cultures from China merged with those of India, Central Asia and Iran. Artifacts from Kushan — a Greek-influenced, Pakistan-based, Buddhist civilization — have been found in western China. In the A.D. 1st century Buddhism caught they eye of the Han Emperor Wu, who sent a mission to India which returned in A.D. 67 with Buddhist scriptures, two Indian monks and several Buddhist images. By the end of the A.D. 1st century there was a Buddhist community in the Chinese capital of Loyang.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The propositions of Buddhism were articulated originally in the context of traditional Indian cosmology in the first several centuries B.C., and as Buddhism began to trickle haphazardly into China in the first centuries of the common era (CE), Buddhist teachers were faced with a dilemma. To make their teachings about the Buddha understood to a non-Indian audience, Buddhist teachers often began by explaining the understanding of human existence — the problem, as it were — to which Buddhism provided the answer. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China, there had been no major form of Chinese thought that viewed life, the concrete world, and the human body in so pessimistic a way as Buddhism. One of the earliest Chinese Buddhist meditation texts, dating from the third century, instructs mediators to ponder the corrupt and painful nature of life in a human body: “The ascetic engages in contemplation of himself and observes that all the noxious seepage of his internal body is impure. Hair, skin, skull and flesh; tears from the blinking of the eyes and spittle; veins, arteries, sinew and marrow; liver, lungs, intestines and stomach; feces, urine, mucus and blood: such a mass of filth when combined produces a man. It is as if a sack were filled with a leaky bag.” (Quoted in Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan [New York: The Modern Library, 1969], p. 129.) [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Buddhism's Entry into China

Gilded bronze Buddha from 4th century China

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The entry of Buddhism in China was very likely brought about by the vast expansionist policies of a single Chinese emperor: the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (reigned 140-87 B.C.). Emperor Wu was the first Chinese ruler to push his armies through Central Asia, and he brought China into contact with many peoples who had previously been exposed only to cultural influences from Persia and India. Once the Han Dynasty armies had created a secure pathway from China into Central Asia, merchants from among these groups began to travel to China to trade, and this cross.Asiatic trade grew into a steady commercial stream along what became known as the Silk Road. In time, missionary Buddhist monks searching for new worlds of sentient beings to convert to their faith, began to travel along with these caravans, eventually arriving in China during the first century A.D. They carried with them not only their knowledge, but copies of the holy word of the Buddha: sutras. /[Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“When the first Buddhist monks arrived in China, the Confucian Han Dynasty was still firmly in control of a unified state. The monks, who had come from India and a variety of Central Asian states, were of interest for their exotic dress, languages, and because Han Confucians were fascinated by texts of any kind. However, China was at that time ideologically and politically stable and Buddhism found no ready audience there. During the late second century, however, the Han state began to crumble and social disorder began to appear. Life grew increasingly uncertain. After 220, China was once again divided into warring independent kingdoms, as had been true of the late Zhou many years earlier, and the Confucian ideology of the Han empire fell rapidly into disrepute. /+/

“The decline of Confucianism set off a search among the most educated scholars in China for new systems of thought that could provide answers appropriate to those dislocated times. During the third century, many of these people found the ideology they were looking for in the thought of Zhuangzi, whose descriptions of the boundless Dao and of unconventional heroes possessing quirky skills appealed very much to the jaded tastes of the privileged class. Members of this upper elite produced a set of eccentric writings, artistic works, and social conventions (or counter-conventions) that are known now as “Neo.Daoism.” We will look briefly at Neo.Daoism further in our next reading, but for now, the interest Neo.Daoism holds for us lies in the fact that it was the Neo-Daoists who first began to pay serious attention to the learning of the foreign monks who had been arriving from Central Asia for over a century, often taking up permanent residence in the major cities of China. /+/

“The Neo-Daoists and like-minded intellectuals began to work with Buddhist monks to translate the sutras which the monks had brought with them. We still possess these early translations, and it is very clear both that the monks made some effort to express the texts in Daoistic language that would appeal to the Chinese, and that the Chinese interpreted the texts as a sort of Daoist exotica. As a result, in a very brief time poorly translated Buddhist sutras had 7, become a major intellectual fad, especially in southern China, where wars and social upheavals had driven many wealthy Chinese families as displaced refugees. So deep was the Chinese misreading of Buddhism, that a widely accepted “historical fact” of the time was that the Buddha was actually Laozi, who, it appeared, towards the close of his (fictional) life, wandered off westwards with his “Dao de jing” in hand in order to “convert the barbarians,” who apparently mistook him for a North Indian prince. According to this point of view, Buddhist scripture was nothing other than the “Dao de jing”, volumes 2.10,000. /+/

“Although the Neo-Daoists misunderstood Buddhism, their patronage of Buddhist monks was a turning point in Chinese cultural history. In time, their support of individual Buddhists and of the establishment of Buddhist monasteries attracted increasing numbers of monks from the west, many of whom were more deeply schooled in emerging trends of Buddhist doctrine. As these immigrant monks began to produce sophisticated translations closer to the spirit of Buddhism, their Chinese audiences came better to understand the nature of Buddhism, and increasing numbers of educated Chinese youths, despairing at the prolonged civil chaos that surrounded them, withdrew from Chinese society and became Buddhist monks. By the end of the fourth century, native Chinese monks, though still dependent upon foreign tutors and translators, were establishing their own monastic communities and producing original doctrinal interpretations for a Chinese audience. /+/

Model Stupa Found in Nanjing Said to Hold Buddha’s Skull

6th century Buddha from northern Qi

In June 2016, archaeologists announced that may have discovered what they said might be a skull bone from the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The bone was found inside a model of a stupa (mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics) used for meditation. Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “The research team found the 1,000-year-old model within a stone chest in a crypt beneath a Buddhist temple in Nanjing” in eastern China. “Inside the stupa model archaeologists found the remains of Buddhist saints, including a parietal (skull) bone that inscriptions say belonged to the Buddha himself. The model is made of sandalwood, silver and gold, and is covered with gemstones made of crystal, glass, agate and lapis lazuli, a team of archaeologists reported in an article published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics...An article detailing the discoveries was published in Chinese in 2015 in the journal Wenwu, before being translated and published in Chinese Cultural Relics. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, July 1, 2016 |=|]

“The 1,000-year-old stupa is made of sandalwood, silver and gold. Inscriptions engraved on the stone chest that the model was found in say that it was constructed during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong (A.D. 997-1022), during the Song Dynasty. Also inscribed on the stupa are the names of people who donated money and material to build the model, as well as some of the people who constructed the model. While the inscriptions say that the skull bone belongs to the Buddha, it is unknown whether it really does come from him. In the journal article, archaeologists didn’t speculate on how likely it is. The bone is being treated with great respect and has been interred in the modern-day Qixia Temple by Buddhist monks. |=|

“Discovered beneath the Grand Bao’en Temple, the stupa model — which is 117 centimeters tall and 45 cm wide (nearly 4 feet by 1.5 feet) — was stored within an iron box, which, in turn, was stored within a stone chest. An inscription found within the stone chest was written by a man named Deming about 1,000 years ago, saying that he is “the Master of Perfect Enlightenment, Abbot of Chengtian Monastery [and] the Holder of the Purple Robe” (as translated by researchers in the journal article). He tells the story of how the Buddha’s parietal bone came to China. |=|

“Deming wrote that after the Buddha “entered parinirvana” (a final death that breaks the cycle of death and rebirth), that his body “was cremated near the Hirannavati River” in India. The man who ruled India at the time, King Ashoka (reign 268-232 B.C.), decided to preserve the Buddha’s remains, which he “divided into a total of 84,000 shares,” Deming wrote. “Our land of China received 19 of them,” including the parietal bone, he added. The parietal bone was kept in a temple that was destroyed about 1,400 years ago during a series of wars, Deming wrote. “The foundation ruins … were scattered in the weeds,” Deming wrote. “In this time of turbulence, did no one care for Buddhist affairs?” Emperor Zhenzong agreed to rebuild the temple and have the Buddha’s parietal bone, and the remains of other Buddhist saints, buried in an underground crypt at the temple, according to Deming’s inscriptions. They were interred on July 21, 1011 A.D., in “a most solemn and elaborate burial ceremony,” Deming wrote. |=|

“Deming praised the emperor for rebuilding the temple and burying the Buddha’s remains, wishing the emperor a long life, loyal ministers and numerous grandchildren: “May the Heir Apparent and the imperial princes be blessed and prosperous with 10,000 offspring; may Civil and Military Ministers of the Court be loyal and patriotic; may the three armed forces and citizens enjoy a happy and peaceful time .”

“The parietal bone of the Buddha was buried within an inner casket made of gold, which, in turn, was placed in an outer casket made of silver, according to the archaeologists. The silver casket was then placed inside the model of the stupa. The gold and silver caskets were decorated with images of lotus patterns, phoenix birds and gods guarding the caskets with swords. The outer casket also has images of spirits called apsaras that are shown playing musical instruments. The parietal bone of the Buddha was placed within the gold inner casket along with three crystal bottles and a silver box, all of which contain the remains of other Buddhist saints. Engraved on the outside of the model are several images of the Buddha, along with scenes depicting stories from the Buddha’s life, from his birth to the point when he reached “parinirvana,” a death from which the Buddha wasn’t reborn — something that freed him from a cycle of death and rebirth, according to the Buddhist religion. |=|

“A large team of archaeologists from the Nanjing Municipal Institute of Archaeology excavated the crypt between 2007 and 2010; they were supported by experts from other institutions in China. Although the excavations received little coverage by Western media outlets, they were covered extensively in China. Chinese media outlets say that, after the parietal bone of the Buddha was removed, Buddhist monks interred the bone and the remains of the other Buddhist saints in Qixia Temple, a Buddhist temple used today. The Buddha’s parietal bone and other artifacts from the excavation were later displayed in Hong Kong and Macao. When the bone traveled to Macao in 2012, the media outlet Xinhua reported that “tens of thousands of Buddhist devotees will pay homage to the sacred relic,” and that “more than 140,000 tickets have been sold out by now, according to the [event organizer].”“ |=|

Growth of Buddhism in China in the Six Dynasties Period (A.D. 220-589)

6th century stone Buddha from Maijishan

Buddhism developed and spread rapidly in the chaos of the Six Dynasties Period (A.D. 220-589) that followed the collapse of the Han dynasty in A.D. 220. The seeking of nirvana and peace and other Buddhist doctrines seemed like nice ideas at a time when China was a violent and dangerous place. Interest in Buddhism also grew as Silk Road trade stimulated an interest in exotic things and monk-sponsored welfare projects attracted devotees from many social strata. At times Buddhism prospered under imperial patronage. At times its foreign origin led it to be singled out for major persecutions.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “After its introduction, Mahayana Buddhism, the most prominent branch of Buddhism in China, played an important role in shaping Chinese civilization. Chinese civilization, as well, exerted a profound impact on the way Buddhism was transformed in China. The influence of Buddhism grew to such an extent that vast amounts of financial and human resources were expended on the creation and establishment of impressive works of art and elaborate temples. This growing interest in Buddhism helped to inspire new ways of depicting deities, new types of architectural spaces in which to worship them, and new ritual motions and actions. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “China's post-Han “period of disunity” lasted from A.D. 220 until 589, and from the mid-point of this period on, the growth of Buddhism was phenomenal. Several Chinese kingdoms adopted Buddhism as their religion of state and patronized monks and monasteries lavishly. Varieties of Mahayana schools imported from India took root in China, each with its own signature sutra, representing the Buddha's “ultimate” teaching, which superseded the teachings of all other schools. Chinese pilgrims traveled to Central Asia and India and brought back sutra after sutra, every one recording the “authentic” words of Siddhartha Gautama. Chinese monks and lay followers began to create innovative new interpretive traditions and demonstrated their full membership in the world Buddhist community by writing their own sutras, which, after all, were just as much the authentic words of the Buddha as the Sanskrit sutras coming from India (and much easier for Chinese to read!). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

By the A.D. 3rd century the Chinese monk community had become consolidated and Buddhist missionaries began moving around China. By and large they were welcomed. Buddhism caught on most quickly in northern China, where the belief was patronized by a number of rulers, and spread southward with the migration of Han Chinese. During the 4th century, when China was engulfed in war and the northern areas were overrun by horsemen from Mongolia, Buddhism was the dominant faith in China. By that time Buddhist missionaries had not only spread their religion to the far corners of China they had also made inroads into imperial court in Nanking.

By the 5th century Buddhism was well patronized in many Chinese state; sutras in Chinese were widely circulated; and their meanings were debated, giving rise to the first schools. The earliest-surviving Buddhist art from China — in cave shrines in Xinjiang and Yunkang near the Great Wall — date from this period. By medieval times the Sanga system of patronage---where the rich helped the monasteries and the monasteries helped educate the masses---was firmly entrenched.

Buddhism began to flourish in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties (A.D. 386-589). During the 6th century, Chinese Buddhism was consolidated and standardized. Great schools were founded that boasted thousands of disciples. Schools with royal patrons built huge monasteries. Between A.D. 476 and 540 the number temples rose from 6,500 to 30,900 and the number of monks and nuns grew from 80,000 to 200,000 (out of a population of 50 million).

Dr. Eno wrote: “By the end of the period of disunity, Daoism had been completely overshadowed by Buddhism (indeed, new and unusual religious forms of Daoism had arisen during this period which owed a great many of their ideas to Buddhism). China was covered with Buddhist shrines, many comprising large temple complexes that included living quarters for monks and nuns, temples where lay visitors worshiped images of Buddhist deities, pavilions and courtyards where religious festivals, parades, and carnival markets were held, and towering pagodas that lifted the image of the religion over the landscape.


Faxian at Ashoka Palace in India

Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics in India and obtain copies of Buddhist books than were currently available in China. He traveled from Xian to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “Faxian was one of the first and perhaps the oldest Chinese monk to travel to India. In 399, when he embarked on his trip from the ancient Chinese capital Chang’an (present- day Xi’an in Shaanxi province), Faxian was more than sixty years old. By the time he returned fourteen years later, the Chinese monk had trekked across the treacherous Taklamakan desert (in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China), visited the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, traveled to Sri Lanka, and survived a precarious voyage along the sea route back to China. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 <<>>]

“The opening passage of Faxian’s A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms tells us that the procurement of texts related to monastic rules (i.e., “Vinaya”) was the main purpose of his trip to India. In addition to revealing the intent of his trip, the statement also underscores the need for this crucial Buddhist literature in contemporary China. In the third and fourth centuries, a number of important Buddhist texts, including the “Lotus Sutra”, had been translated into Chinese. Although a few “Vinaya” texts were available to Faxian, the growing Buddhist community in China was aware of the paucity of these texts essential for the establishment and proper functioning of monastic institutions.” <<>>

See Separate Article on Faxian

Buddhism Versus Taosim and Confucianism in the Six Dynasties Period

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Non-Chinese royal houses in the North, who had little understanding of the Chinese tradition, were far more subject to being influenced by non-Chinese systems of thought, particularly Buddhism, which, during the Six Dynasties period, became the most dynamic intellectual force in China. Although Buddhism was influential in both North and South, some Northern states adopted it as official religious doctrine, while in the south, Buddhism traditions were less associated with the state, and more closely related to the intellectual interests of the elite. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

The Buddha, Laozi and Confucius

“Buddhism’s rise did not become dramatic immediately after the fall of the Han, although the misadventures of the late Han and the aftermath of the unseemly battles between Confucians and eunuchs had seriously undermined the influence of Confucian traditions. During the early years of the Six Dynasties period, cynicism about Confucian ideas led many members of the educated class to turn increasingly to Daoist books. At the same time, the uncertainties of official life led some of the best of these men to withdraw from politics and concentrate on the cultivation of refined tastes and lofty ideas, which they shared only with like-minded circles of intimates. /+/

“These Daoistically inclined cliques produced some of the most individualistic literature ever written in China. Freed from the constraints of Confucianism and its belief in the social nature of man, these Neo-Daoists came to value spontaneity and eccentricity to a degree that Confucianism could not tolerate. Often living apart from society, these men concentrated on the skills of poetry, music, and painting, and particularly celebrated the effects of wine in enhancing positions at court cultivated a separate sphere of unrestrained aesthetic abandon. /+/

“As in the Dark Ages of Europe, during which Christianity grew to become the dominant theme of European culture, the Six Dynasties Period saw the sudden flourishing of a religious movement: Buddhism, which swept into China from India and transformed both popular and elite views of the world. From the sixth century through the eighth century, Buddhism was unquestionably the dominant philosophy and religion of China. But its popularity was initially made possible only because of the affinities which intellectually prominent Neo-Daoists felt for the new religion, which in superficial ways resembled Daoism. /+/

“Neo-Daoism was also instrumental in re-introducing the human arts into the Confucian ideal of the gentleman, or “ literatus.” When Confucianism came once again to the forefront after 589, the year in which the short-lived Sui Dynasty reunited China, it incorporated into its ideal persona much of the devotion to spontaneous poetry, painting, music—and occasionally wine—that the Neo-Daoists had stressed. The most famous Neo-Daoists were the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” a group of eccentric geniuses who, in popular imagination at least, formed the most brilliant circle of literati” and represented “the unorthodox tone of Neo-Daoist society during the period of disunity.” Among the three most well-known ones were: Ruan Ji (210-263),Xi Kang (223-262), who was executed as a threat to public morality, and Liu Ling (d. after 265).” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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