BUDDHISM TAKES ON A CHINESE CHARACTER
Tang Bodhisattva Chinese Buddhism retained all the elements of the Buddhism that arrived from India: the monastic system, the rites of worship, the sacred writings and the contemplative exercises. Beliefs about reincarnation are believed to have been among the major reasons why Buddhism found such a receptive audience in China. These beliefs gave a structure and coherence to traditional Chinese beliefs about transmigration. Buddhism also underwent changes in China. Early Chinese Buddhism featured elements — such as rituals in which family members could perform good deeds and pass the merit they earned on to tormented ancestors — that were designed specifically to appeal to Chinese.
Mario Poceski wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: During its long history in China, which spans nearly twenty centuries, Buddhism developed flourishing traditions, exerted far-reaching influence on intellectual and religious life, and left its mark on virtually all aspects of Chinese society and culture. The transmission of Buddhism into China involved the wholesale introduction of (at first) alien complexes of ideas and institutions that opened new horizons of intellectual inquiry and spiritual exploration, thereby enlarging the contours of Chinese civilization and enriching its contents. Through their mutual encounter, both Buddhism and Chinese traditions were profoundly transformed, with Buddhism adding new elements to Chinese civilization while at the same time undergoing dramatic changes in the process of its adaptation to China's social ethos and cultural milieu. [Source: Mario Poceski, “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, Gale Group Inc., 2004]
Buddhism was absorbed into Chinese life, deeply affecting Chinese cultural and philosophical values. At the same time Chinese culture was absorbed into Buddhist life, deeply affecting Buddhist culture and philosophy. The monk ideal, for example, never really caught on in China in a big way but some elements of Chinese superstition — such as believers seeking helps from gods on personal matters — managed to seep into Chinese Buddhist beliefs, with Chinese praying to Bodhisattvas and Buddhas for sons and success in business.
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Buddhist church was always, it seems, dependent on the support of the landowning classes in medieval China. And it appears that the condition of Buddhist institutions was tied closely to the occasional, decentralized support of the lower classes, which is even harder to document than support by the gentry. The very notion of rise and fall is a teleological, often theological, one, and it has often been linked to an obsession with one particular criterion — accurate translation of texts, or correct understanding of doctrine — to the exclusion of all others. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]
Websites and Resources on Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies buddhanet.net ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ;
Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ;
East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; Mahayana Buddhism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;
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 ; Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu
Shortcomings of the Traditional View of Buddhist History in China
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.”
Buddhism and Taoism
Buddhism developed in China through its interaction with other Chinese religions, particularly Taoism. Within Buddhism there was a great deal of flexibility in what was required of followers and it was not necessary for followers to dispense with their beliefs in other religions. Many Chinese followed Buddhism and Taoism at the same time.
Even so Buddhism and Taoism were rivals. The Six Dynasties Period overlapped with the Age of Faith (A.D. 3rd to 7th centuries A.D.), a period when Taoists and Buddhists fought for dominance in China.
In some ways Taoism and Buddhism were similar. They both promised followers salvation, stressed detachment and incorporated many superstitions. But in other ways they were very different. Taoism, for example, aspired to make a person physically immortal in their own bodies while Buddhism regarded the human body as a temporary vessel that would ultimately be discarded. Buddhism was able to win many coverts from Taoism by placing a strong emphasis on moral conduct and analytical thinking criticizing the foggy cosmology and superstitious and ritualistic nature of Taoism.
Buddhism During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907)
Depiction of Xuanzang
from an ancient cave paintingMario Poceski wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: “The reunification of the empire under the Sui dynasty (589–618) is often designated as the starting point for the next phase in the evolution of Chinese Buddhism. Under the pro-Buddhist Sui regime, and especially during the succeeding Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese Buddhism reached great heights of intellectual creativity, religious vitality, institutional vigor, and monastic prosperity. Throughout the Sui-Tang period, Buddhism was widely accepted and practiced by members of all social classes, from poor peasants to aristocrats and the royal family. A number of Tang emperors offered lavish patronage to Buddhism, although such support was usually accompanied by efforts to control the religion and harness its power and prestige for political ends. By this time, the early rapprochements between Buddhism and the Chinese state evolved into a close relationship between the two. [Source: Mario Poceski, “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, Gale Group Inc., 2004]
Despite the earlier efforts on the part of monastic leaders to secure a semblance of independence for the monastic community, Buddhism became firmly integrated into the sociopolitical establishment. With their prayers and rituals the clergy accrued merit and provided supernatural protection for the dynasty and the state. Buddhism also provided the rulers with an additional source of legitimacy, which was used in an especially skillful manner by Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684–705), the only female monarch in Chinese history and one of the greatest patrons of Buddhism. In exchange, the state offered political patronage and financial support to the Buddhist church, and bestowed on the clergy various benefits such as exemption from taxation, corvée labor, and military service. The state also asserted its right to control key aspects of religious life, including bestowal of monastic ordinations, building of monasteries, and entry of new texts into the Buddhist canon.
“During the Sui-Tang period Buddhism was by far the most powerful and creative religious and intellectual tradition in the empire, eclipsing both Confucianism and Daoism (even though the other two traditions also flourished during this period). The main schools of Chinese Buddhism, such as Tiantai, Huanyan, and Chan, were also formed during this era, thereby giving rise to uniquely Sinitic systems of Buddhist philosophy and methods of praxis. The strength of Buddhism and the durability of its institutions were severely tested during the Huichang era of Emperor Wuzong (r. 841/842–845), who initiated the most devastating anti-Buddhist persecution. The emperor ordered destruction of virtually all monasteries in the empire and mass return to lay life of the clergy. The onset of the persecutions was influenced by a number of complex factors, including the influence of the emperor's Daoist advisers, economic considerations, dismay over monastic corruption, and latent anti-Buddhist sentiments among pro-Confucian officials. Even though the persecution was short-lived and Buddhism quickly rebounded, many scholars see the persecution as a turning point and the beginning of the extremely protracted decline of Buddhism in China.
In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]
Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang’s work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China.” [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]
Der Huey Lee of Peking University wrote: “Xuanzang, world-famous for his sixteen-year pilgrimage to India and career as a translator of Buddhist scriptures, is one of the most illustrious figures in the history of scholastic Chinese Buddhism... Upon his return to Chang'an in 645, Xuanzang brought back with him a great number of Sanskrit texts, of which he was able to translate only a small portion during the remainder of his lifetime. In addition to his translations of the most essential Mahayana scriptures, Xuanzang authored the Da tang xi yu ji (Ta-T'ang Hsi-yu-chi or Records of the Western Regions of the Great T'ang Dynasty) with the aid of Bianji (Bian-chi). It is through Xuanzang and his chief disciple Kuiji (K'uei-chi) (632-682) that the Faxiang (Fa-hsiang or Yogacara/Consciousness-only) School was initiated in China. In order to honor the famous Buddhist scholar, the Tang Emperor Gaozong (Gao-tsung) cancelled all audiences for three days after Xuanzang's death.” [Source:Der Huey Lee, Peking University, China Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/xuanzang ]
Buddhism During the Song Dynasty
During the Song Dynasty in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the Ch’an school rose in importance. It permeated deep into Chinese culture of that time and even influenced the Neo-Confucian philosophers who said they despised Buddhism. Interest in Buddhism begin to wane between the 11th to 15th centuries as religion divided into yet more movements and Taoism and especially Confucianism reasserted themselves by tuning into the traditional Confucian emphasis on living in this world not the next and devoting one's attention to things like family, education, being a good citizen and fulling duties expected by society.
Mario Poceski wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: Late imperial China—covering the period from the Song (960–1279) until the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911)—can be taken to correspond to a fourth phase in the history of Chinese Buddhism. The history of Buddhism during this era is usually told as a narrative of decline, punctuated with occasional efforts to revive the great tradition's ancient glories. Some historians have argued that such a negative characterization of post-Tang Buddhism does not do justice to the religious vitality and institutional strength of Song Buddhism. [Source: Mario Poceski, “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, Gale Group Inc., 2004]
It is undeniable that under the Song, Buddhism exerted strong influence and attracted a large following among members of all social classes. The religion continued to enjoy state patronage and the monastic vocation attracted many individuals. Buddhist influence on Chinese culture was also pervasive, as can be observed in the literature and visual arts of the period. At the same time, there were signs of creeping decline, especially in terms of intellectual creativity, notwithstanding new developments in Tiantai scholasticism and Chan literature and praxis. The intellectual decline is evident in the lack of compelling Buddhist responses to the serious challenge posed by the Song Confucian revival.
The shift of the Chinese elite's interest away from Buddhism and toward Confucianism was further boosted by the acceptance of neo-Confucianism, as formulated by its great systematizer Zhu Xi (1130–1200), as official state orthodoxy during the fourteenth century. For the rest of the imperial period Buddhism managed to survive, albeit in diminished capacity and often on the margins. For the most part Buddhism after this point assumed a conservative stance, as there was no emergence of major new traditions or significant paradigm shifts.
William of Rubruck on Buddhists in the 13th Century
William of Rubruck talked about encountering idolaters in Central Asia. Most likely he was referring to Buddhists and thus his account of them was the first description by a Western source of Buddhism. He wrote: “The day following was the first of the month and the Easter of the Saracens (Muslims), and I changed my host and was lodged near another idol temple, for the people entertain envoys each as he may and according to his ability. Going into this idol temple I found the priests of the idols there, for on the first of the month they throw open the temples and put on their sacerdotal vestments, offer (incense, hang up lamps and offer) the oblations of bread and fruit of the people. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]
“When then I had sat down beside these priests, after having been in the temple and seen their many idols, great and small, I asked them what they believed concerning God. They answered: "We only believe that there is one God." Then I asked: "Do you believe he is a spirit, or something corporeal?" "We believe that he is a spirit," they said. "Do you believe that he has never taken upon him human nature?" They said: "Never." "Then," said I, "if you believe that he is one and a spirit, why do you make him bodily images, and so many? Furthermore, if you do not believe that he became man, why do you make him in human shape rather than in that of some animal?" Then they replied: "We do not make these images to (of) God, but when some rich person among us dies, his son, or wife, or someone dear to him, has made an image of the deceased, and puts it here, and we revere it in memory of him." Then I said: "Then you only make these out of flattery for man." "Only," they said, "in remembrance." Then they asked me, as if in derision: "Where is God"To which I said: "Where is your soul?" "In our body," they said. I replied: "Is it not everywhere in your body, and does it not direct the whole of it, and, nevertheless, is invisible? So God is everywhere, and governs all things, though invisible, for He is intelligence and wisdom." Then, just as I wanted to continue reasoning with them, my interpreter, who was tired and incapable of finding the right words, made me stop talking. /~\
“They (the idolaters) place their temples east and west; on the north side they make an alcove projecting out like a choir, or sometimes, if the building is square, they partition off an alcove inside, in the middle of the north side, corresponding to the choir, and there they put a coffer as long and as broad as a table, and after [i.e., behind] that coffer to the south they place the chief idol, and that which I saw at Caracarum (Karakorum) was as large as we paint Saint Christopher. And a Nestorian who had come from Cathay told me that in that country there is an idol so big that it can he seen from two days off. And they place other idols around about (the principal one), all most beautifully gilt. And on that coffer, which is like a table, they put lamps and offerings. Contrary to the custom of the Saracens (Muslims), all the doors of the temples open to the south. They also have big bells like ours: 'tis for this reason, I think, that the eastern Christians do not have any. The Ruthenians (Russians), however, have them, and so do the Greeks in Gazaria (Crimea). /~\
“All the priests (of the idolaters) shave the head and beard completely, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they put down two benches and sit on the ground opposite one another in facing rows like choirs, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence. And when I went into one of their temples at Caracarum (Karakorum), and found them thus seated, I tried every means of inducing them to talk, but was unable to do so. Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, "God, thou knowest," as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this. /~\
Buddhism In China in the Early 20th Century
Buddhism underwent something of a revival in the early part of the 20th century and prospered during the period of revolution and chaos before and during World War II but was put down like other religions under Maoist rule. During the Cultural Revolution temples were destroyed or turned into factories, storage facilities or residences; scriptures were burned; statues were smashed; monks were thrown out on the streets. Some were killed. When Buddhism reemerged after the Cultural revolution it was simpler and more influenced by the West.
Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “Buddhism was virtually wiped out during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when temples were shut and Buddhist statues smashed. It has crept back although China maintains tight control in Tibet where monks and nuns have been jailed for their loyalty to the Dalai Lama."Source: Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard, Reuters, September 29, 2013]
Mario Poceski wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: “The beginning of the last phase in the history of Chinese Buddhism coincides with China's entry into the modern period. During the final decades of the imperial era, China's inability to adequately respond to the challenges of modernity—rudely brought to its doorstep by the increasing encroachment of the colonial powers on Chinese territory in the nineteenth century—led to erosion and eventually disintegration of its age-old social and political institutions. [Source: Mario Poceski, “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, Gale Group Inc., 2004]
After the republican revolution of 1912, efforts at creating a strong and stable modern state ended in failure. The bleak situation was exacerbated by China's moribund economy and rampant corruption. During this tumultuous period, the adverse sociopolitical circumstances affected Buddhist institutions, and traditional beliefs and practices were rejected by many educated Chinese as outdated superstitions. In the face of the new predicament, Buddhism still managed to stage a minor revival. In some quarters, the revitalization took the form of renewed interest in traditional intellectual and religious activities, such as philosophical reflection on Buddhist doctrines and the practice of Chan meditation. Others, however, tried to reconstitute the Buddhist tradition along modern lines. The progressive agenda of the reformers included establishment of educational institutions where the clergy received modern education. In addition, efforts were made to internationalize Chinese Buddhism by establishing connections with Buddhist traditions in other countries.
Buddhism in Communist China
Mario Poceski wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: “With the communist victory in the civil war and the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, Buddhism had to contend with a governing ideology that had little sympathy for traditional religious beliefs and practices. During the 1950s the new regime was mainly concerned with controlling Buddhism by instituting policies that restricted the activities of the clergy and imposed state supervision over Buddhist organizations. The situation rapidly deteriorated during the 1960s and reached its lowest point with the violent suppression of Buddhism (along with other religions) during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. At the time it seemed that the twenty centuries of Buddhist history in China might be coming to an end. [Source: Mario Poceski, “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, Gale Group Inc., 2004]
In the Mao era Buddhist temples become schools and warehouses and monks were rounded up and imprisoned and, in some cases, executed. Master Deng Kuan, abbot of the Gu Temple in Sichuan Province, was 103 when the writer Liao Yiwu met him in 2003. “Over the centuries, as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remainedrelatively intact," Deng told Lao, “This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn't get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple."[Source: The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu, from book review by Howard W. French in The Nation, August 4, 2008 ]
“Soon after Mao's victory, Deng was dragged out of his temple and stood up before a crowd, accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading “feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people's minds." People stepped forward to denounce him, and the crowd that gathered responded on cue, howling slogans like “Down with the evil landlord” and “Religion is spiritual poison." Some spat on him. Others punched and kicked. “No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next," Deng says. ‘since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us has ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one." By Master Deng's reckoning, between 1952 and 1961 this meant he endured more than 300 ‘struggle sessions," as these organized hazings were known in the revolution's euphemistic terminology. In his area of Sichuan Province, he tells Liao, by 1961 “half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death."
With the institution of more liberal policies during the late 1970s, however, Buddhism began to stage a slow comeback. The modest resurgence of Buddhism in China involves restoration of temples and monasteries, ordination of clergy, revival of traditional beliefs and practices, and increased interest in academic study of Buddhism as a part of traditional Chinese culture. Chinese Buddhism is also thriving in Taiwan, as well as among immigrant Chinese communities throughout Asia and in the West.
Image Sources: sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art ;Wikimedia Commons,
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; 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 \=/; 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 2021