Pure Land Amitabha sutra book

As Buddhism developed it splintered into many schools and sects, each with its own distinctive traditions, doctrines and practices. Sub-sects — representing lineages of disciples that split off from the main schools often over minor doctrinal differences — and cults — that conducted special observances and rituals often focused on a particular sutra and kept alive by a lineage of masters — also developed. Despite the large number of groups and subgroups monks tended to be initiated into the general Buddhist community rather than into a particular school, sect or cult.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Buddhism in China grew into a variety of powerful schools. These schools were distinguished by significantly different interpretations of Buddhism's basic message, different forms of meditational practices by monks and nuns, and different ceremonies of devotional practice by lay believers. Several schools continue to have influence in East Asia today. These include Tiantai (Japanese: Tendai) Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

Schools and sects in China generally fall into one of three categories: 1) classical schools, which are based on a particular sutra and trace their origin back to India; 2) catholic sects, based on different sutras, often ones oriented toward reaching enlightenment selected by the founder of the sect; and 3) exclusive sects, which advocate a single path and select the systems and sutra to suit that purpose.

The two exclusive sects are: 1) Pure Land and 2) Cha’an. The four principal classical schools are :1) the Kola School, based on doctrines from India translated by Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang); 2) the Satyasiddho School, based on Kumarajiva's translation of the Satyasiddhi sutra; 3) the San-Lun (Three Treatises) School; 4) the Fa-hsiang School, founded by Xuanzang.

The three primary Chinese Buddhist sects are: 1) Tien-tai (T'ien-t'a), founded by Chih-I (A.D. 538-97) and oriented around the Lotus sutra and a system of meditative exercises; 2) Hua-yen, founded by Tu-Shan (A.D. 557-640), refined by Fa-tsang (643-712) and based on the Avatamsaka (Hua-yen) sutra; and 3) Chen-yen (True Word), introduced by Indian missionaries about A.D. 720.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia Robert Eno, Indiana University; Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; Mahayana Buddhism: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ;
The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ; Chinese Religion and Philosophy: Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Development of Buddhist Schools and Traditions in China

Pure Land of Amitabha

Mario Poceski wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”: The study of Chinese Buddhism in terms of specific "schools" (zong), an approach that has commonly been adopted by scholars working in the field, is complicated by the multivalent connotations of the Chinese term zong. In the Buddhist context the term zong can mean a specific doctrine (or an interpretation of it), an essential purport or teaching of a canonical text, an exegetical tradition, or a religious group bound together by shared ideals and adherence to a common set of principles. When the term is used in the last sense, it does not denote separate sects, as defined in typologies formulated by sociologists of religion. The distinct schools of Chinese Buddhism lacked institutional independence. They primarily represented distinct doctrinal or exegetical orientations, or looselyorganized religious groups that were subsumed within the mainstream monastic order. It is also important to note that as a rule these schools involved only a small segment of the monastic elite, and local manifestations of Buddhist religiosity among ordinary people mostly had little direct connection with them. [Source: Mario Poceski, “Encyclopedia of Buddhism”, Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“During the early period, the intellectual and religious agendas of Chinese Buddhism were largely shaped by texts and teachings that originated in India. During the fourth and fifth centuries the most influential school of Mahayana was the Madhyamaka (Middle Way), whose teachings of śunyata attracted the attention of Chinese scholiasts. The interest in Madhyamaka philosophy was stimulated by the arrival of Kumarajiva, and it culminated with the formation of the Sanlun (Three Treatises) school by Jizang (549–623), which is usually described as a Chinese version of Madhyamaka. Notwithstanding these developments, the sixth century was the beginning of a general move within Chinese Buddhism away from the relentless apophasis of Madhyamaka doctrine toward increased interest in teachings that presented more positive depictions of the nature of reality and the quest for salvation, especially as articulated by the Yogacara and tathAgatagarbha traditions. The strong interest in YogAcara school teachings about the nature of consciousness and the stages of spiritual practice eventually led to the development of the Shelun school (based on the Mahayanasa graha of Asan˙ga) and the Dilun school (based on Vasubandhu's commentary on the Daśabhūmikasūtropadśa). Both of them were primarily exegetical traditions, centered around small groups of elite scholarly monks who were bound by shared religious and intellectual interests.

“The tathagatagarbha, together with the closely related Buddha-nature doctrine, originally occupied a marginal position in Indian Buddhism. Although these theories did not give rise to any new Chinese schools, they became key doctrinal tenets and articles of belief for the new Buddhist traditions that emerged during the Sui-Tang period. This new Buddhism is principally associated with the teachings of the Tiantai, Huayan, Chan, and Pure Land schools. Each of them was a unique Sinitic tradition that had no direct counterpart in Indian Buddhism, and their emergence is viewed as the culmination of the Sinification of Buddhist doctrines and practices. Tiantai and Huayan were especially renowned for their scriptural exegesis and creation of sophisticated systems of Buddhist doctrine that represent the highest intellectual achievements of Chinese Buddhism. On the other hand, Chan and Pure Land offered compelling soteriological frameworks and methods of spiritual practice. In the case of Chan the main practice was meditation, while the Pure Land tradition emphasized faith and devotional practices. Chan and Pure Land came to dominate the religious landscape of Chinese Buddhism from the late Tang onward, with Chan being more popular among the monastic elites and their educated followers, and Pure Land enjoying a greater following among the masses.

Issues Involved in the Classification of Chinese Buddhist Schools

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The projection of categories derived from European, American, and modern Japanese religious experience onto the quite different world of traditional Chinese religion is perhaps most apparent in the tendency of traditional scholarship to treat Chinese Buddhism primarily as a matter of distinct schools or sects. Monks and other literati did indeed make sense of their history by classifying the overwhelming number of texts and teachings they inherited under distinctive trends, and some members of the Buddhist elite claimed allegiance to certain ideals at the expense of others. But any clear-cut criterion of belief, like the Nicene Creed, or a declaration of faith like Martin Luther’s, is lacking in the history of Chinese Buddhism. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia ]

“It may have been only in the fourteenth century that there developed any social reality even approximating Ernst Troeltsch’s definition of a sect as a voluntary religious association that people consciously choose to join and that excludes participation in other religious activities — and even then, the type of sect that developed, the Teaching of the White Lotus (Bailian jiao), was only tenuously connected to the “schools” of Chinese Buddhist thought on which scholars usually focus.

Giant Tian Tan Buddha

“Trends of thought and clearly identified philosophical issues are part of Chinese Buddhist history from the early centuries, and in the sixth through eighth centuries some figures identified themselves as concerned with one particular scripture: authors in the Tiantai school (named after Mount Tiantai) focused on the Lotus Sutra, and figures of the Huayan school emphasized the comprehensive nature of the Huayan (“Flower Garland”) Sutra. But the founders of these schools — identified as such only by later generations — and their followers never stopped reading broadly in a wide range of Buddhist texts.

“Certain emphases also developed in Chinese Buddhist practice and Buddhology, foremost among them the invocation of the name of Amitayus Buddha (nianfo, “keeping the Buddha in mind”), whose powers to assist those who chanted his name and whose resplendent paradise are described at length in scriptures affiliated with the Pure Land (Jingtu) school. In China, however — in contrast to late medieval Japan — dedication to Amitayus Buddha was rarely viewed as a substitute for other forms of practice.

“Esoteric forms of Buddhism, characterized by restricting the circulation of knowledge about rituals to a small circle of initiates who perform rituals for those who lack the expertise, were also a strong force in Chinese Buddhism. But here too, even as they performed rites on behalf of individuals or to benefit the state, the monks of the Zhenyan (Sanskrit: Mantra, “True Word”) school participated in other forms of Buddhist thought and practice as well.

“Even the school of Chan (“Meditation”), known in Japanese as Zen, which claimed to be founded on an unbroken transmission from Sakyamuni through twenty-eight Indian disciples to the first Chinese disciple in the late fifth century, was far less exclusive than its rhetoric seems to allow. Claims about transmission, the naming of founders, and the identification of crucial figures in the drama of Chan history were always executed retroactively. The tradition, which claimed its own content to be a non-content, was not so much handed down from past to present as it was imagined in the present, a willful projection into the future, against the reality of a heterogeneous past. As a “school” in the sense of an establishment for teaching and learning with monastery buildings, daily schedule, and administrative structure, Chan came into existence only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and even then the social institution identified as “Chan” was nearly identical to institutions affiliated with other schools.”

Tian-tai, Hua-yen and Chen-yen Schools of Buddhism

The Tian-tai school has its own liturgy. Followers believe that the secret of enlightenment lay in a balance of meditation, moral discipline, rituals and study of scriptures. The Hua-yen sect emphasizes a step-by-step approach to enlightenment, featuring meditation exercises aimed at discovering the Realm of Essence. Members of the Chen-yen Schools use secret ceremonies, mime and spells to achieve salvation. It features a ten-stage system of religious life, a baptism-like consecration and meditation exercises based on contemplating symbolic representations of the five chief Buddhas using certain spells and chants and ritual gestures repeated again and again.

Dr. Eno wrote: “Tiantai Buddhism represented an important type of Buddhist school: the text-oriented cult that stressed grasping the Buddha's message through an understanding of the sacred sutras that preserved the Buddha's many teachings. Because the sutras that had been brought from India and Central Asia were so diverse (they had actually been composed by widely different types of Buddhist thinkers over many centuries, although they were understood as the teachings of a single man), some Chinese thinkers undertook the daunting task of sorting out the many teachings of these sutras into a coherent hierarchy of teachings that pointed towards a consistent, ultimate message. Tian-tai was the most enduring of these schools, which endowed Buddhism with a scholastic tradition that sometimes came to dominate over the purely meditational component of self-cultivation. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Authors in the Tiantai school (named after Mount Tiantai) focused on the Lotus Sutra, and figures of the Huayan school emphasized the comprehensive nature of the Huayan (“Flower Garland”) Sutra. But the founders of these schools — identified as such only by later generations — and their followers never stopped reading broadly in a wide range of Buddhist texts. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

Amitabha Buddha Sukhavati in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China

School of Pure Land

The School of Pure Land (known is Japan as the School of Pure Thought) is another important Chinese school of Buddhism. It emerged about A.D. 500 as a form of devotion to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and differs from the Ch'an school in that it encourages idolatry. The School of Pure Land is not nearly as strong in China as it once was but it remains one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan. The School of Pure Land takes the Mahayana belief in Buddhas or Bodhisattvas a step further than Buddhist traditionalists want to go by giving Bodhisattvas the power to help people attain enlightenment that they otherwise would be unable to attain it on their own. The emphasis on Bodhisattvas is manifested in the numerous depictions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Pure Land temples and caves.

According to the BBC: “ Pure Land Buddhism offers a way to enlightenment for people who can't handle the subtleties of meditation, endure long rituals, or just live especially good lives. The essential practice in Pure Land Buddhism is the chanting of the name of Amitabha Buddha with total concentration, trusting that one will be reborn in the Pure Land, a place where it is much easier for a being to work towards enlightenment. Pure Land Buddhism adds mystical elements to the basic Buddhist teachings which make those teachings easier (and more comforting) to work with. These elements include faith and trust and a personal relationship with Amitabha Buddha, who is regarded by Pure Land Buddhists as a sort of saviour; and belief in the Pure Land, a place which provides a stepping stone towards enlightenment and liberation. Pure Land Buddhism is particularly popular in China and Japan. [Source: BBC]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Pure Land was a popularized form of Buddhism which preached that salvation could be attained through purely devotional practices, such as the chanting of sutras or brief devotional formulas, the worship of Buddha images, and financial contributions to temples. Pure Land represented a non-intellectual form of Buddhism that appealed most directly to the enormous and illiterate peasant population of China. It taught the poor that through devotion they could escape their lives of misery and be admitted after death to the Western Paradise, the “pure land” where one enjoyed eternal comfort and joy, free of the toils of "samsara". [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Pure Land Buddhism Beliefs

Chinese Pure Land Buddhism teaches people to call upon a buddha named Amitabha in the expectation that when they die he will take them to his pure buddha-land, an ideal place to pursue the practices that will lead them to become buddhas, or fully enlightened and liberated beings.

Professor Charles B. Jones wrote: One of the innovative teachings of Mahayana Buddhism was that the cosmos is inhabited by millions of buddhas, not just the historical founder of the religion. Since all these buddhas had to reside somewhere, and their environments had to be as pure as they were, it followed that there are many buddha-lands. [Source: Charles B. Jones, Associate Professor of Religion and Culture and Religion and Culture Area Director, Catholic University of America, The Conversation, January 8, 2021]

Pure Land Buddhism taught that the pure land of Amitabha was accessible to regular people after they died. Prior to the development of Pure Land Buddhism, the only way to enlightenment lay through an arduous path of study and practice that was out of reach for most people.

In China, the Pure Land teaching made the prospect of liberation from suffering and the attainment of buddhahood feasible for ordinary people. While Pure Land Buddhism spread and became dominant in other East Asian countries, China is the land of its birth.

Buddhists believe that all living beings are stuck in an endless loop of birth and rebirth and the good or bad fortune they experience results from karma. As a buddha is believed to have completely purified his karma, his body and mind are free of all defects and the land he inhabits is perfect. Several Buddhist scriptures describe “buddha-lands” as paradises with no moral evil and free of all taints. Many Buddhists hope for birth in a buddha-land so they can complete their path under a buddha’s direct supervision.


According to the Sutra, or scripture, on the Buddha of Infinite Life from no later than the third century, a monk named Dharmakara resolved to become a buddha. After much study and deliberation, he made 48 vows that detailed what kind of buddha he would be and what his buddha-land would look like.[Source: Charles B. Jones, Catholic University of America, The Conversation, January 8, 2021]

Professor Jone wrote: Most of these vows laid out a scene familiar to believers: As a buddha, he would be powerful, wise and compassionate. His land would be magnificent, and the beings who shared it with him would be so accomplished that they would already have many of the powers and attributes of a buddha. These included perfect eloquence and the ability to see and hear from great distances.

But among the vows recorded in the Sūtra, it was the 18th that changed everything. This vow stipulated that anyone who merely brought him to mind before death would be reborn in his buddha-land: “If, when I attain buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and think of me even ten times,” Dharmakara is quoted as saying.

The fact that he realized his goal and became the buddha named Amitabha meant that the vow became reality. However, the term “ten times” referring to thoughts of Amitabha was vague. Another scripture, the Sutra on the Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Life, clarified that one had only to say this buddha’s name ten times. In addition, Dharmakara had also said that those who “commit the five grave offenses and abuse the Right Dharma” would be excluded. This Sutra eliminated such restrictions. The two scriptures allowed ordinary Buddhists to aspire to a rebirth in this Pure Land.

The story of Dharmakara’s vows proved especially popular. The Sūtra on the Buddha of Infinite Life was translated into Chinese several times, and scholar-monks lectured and commented on the Pure Land sūtras. Monks and nuns chanted the Amitabha Sūtra during their daily devotions. This sūtra, along with the two already mentioned, became the “Three Pure Land Sūtras” that anchored the emerging tradition. The earlier Chinese commentators on these sūtras held that one needed great stores of good karma from the past to even hear of these teachings. They also preached that if one’s mind was not purified through prior practice, then one could not see the Pure Land in all its splendor.

Development of Amitabha Enlightenment Belief

In the sixth and seventh centuries, three monks named Tanluan, Daochuo and especially Shandao provided new interpretations and practices that gave the ordinary believer complete access to the Pure Land without them needing to earn or deserve it. [Source: Charles B. Jones, Catholic University of America, The Conversation, January 8, 2021]

First, they said that rebirth in the Pure Land is an “easy path” compared to the “difficult path” of traditional Buddhist practice. Second, that the Buddha Amitabha helps the practitioner by adding his “other-power” to the believer’s “self-power.” In other words, the buddha’s power assisted the believer directly and brought him or her to the Pure Land. “Self-power,” or the believer’s own effort, might have beneficial effects but it was not enough for liberation. The addition of the buddha’s power guaranteed liberation at the end of this life.

Third, they defined the main practice as calling Amitabha’s name aloud. In the original texts it was not clear whether the practice consisted of difficult meditations or oral invocation, but they made it clear that just repeating “Hail to Amitaqbha Buddha” would cause the buddha to transport one to the Pure Land.

The Pure Land was not a final destination, like heaven in Christianity. The point of rebirth there was to be in the perfect environment for becoming a buddha. One would still need to strive toward buddhahood, but one’s own power with that of Amitabha would guarantee the final result. Think about being on an escalator. If one cannot walk at all, it will carry one to the top, but if one can walk even a little, one’s speed will combine with the motion of the escalator to get one there more quickly.

Pure Land believers may recite “Hail to the Buddha Amitabha” silently or aloud while counting the repetitions on a rosary; they may participate in group practice at a local Buddhist temple; they may even take part in one-, three- or seven-day retreats that combine recitation with repentance rituals and meditation. This remains the prevalent form of Buddhist practice in East Asia to this day.

Ch'an School of Buddhism

The Ch'an (or Ching’T’u) Sect has been described as a religion of “wisdom or intuitive insight” and is the inspiration for the Zen school of Buddhism in Japan. Ch'an means mediation. Its key elements are summed up by the four phrases: 1) “A special transmission outside of doctrines”; 2) “Not setting up the written word as an authority”; 3) “Pointing directly at the heart of man”; 4) ‘seeing one's nature and becoming a Buddha."

The Ch'an sect's origins are obscure. It is it not clear whether its early patriarchs were legendary or real. Under the leadership of its sixth patriarch Hui-neng (A.D. 637-723) it grew from a cult with around 500 members to a distinct sect after Hui-neng spent 15 years meditating in the hills.

Zen Buddhism in Japan evolved out of the Ch'an School, which was introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Sung Dynasty in the 10th century by a Chinese monk named Huineng. Zen initially had a relatively small following and didn't take hold and flourish in Japan until the 12th century.

Ch’an aesthetics had a great impact on Chinese and Japanese art. Ch’an artists rejected the symmetry and iconography of the Sino-Indian tradition. They aimed for extreme economy and means by trying to get the most meaning possible out of each line and shade to suggest a maximum of intensity, rhythm, special counterpoint and tonal harmony. For artists painting became a contemplative exercise; for viewers it became a form of meditation.

Welcome to the Western Paradise by a Japanese artist

Fo Guang Shan

Fo Guang Shan (“Buddha’s Light Mountain”) is popular in China these days. Founded in 1967 by Hsing Yun, it is a Chinese Mahayana Buddhist organization based in Taiwan that practices Humanistic Buddhism and is known for its efforts in the modernization of Chinese Buddhism. The order is famous for its use of technology and its temples are often furnished with the latest equipment. Hsing Yun' has said: Fo Guang Shan is is an "amalgam of all Eight Schools of Chinese Buddhism" [Source: Wikipedia]

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times:“Fo Guang Shan is perhaps the most successful of the new Buddhist groups in China. “Since coming to China more than a decade ago, it has set up cultural centers and libraries in major Chinese cities and printed and distributed millions of volumes of its books through state-controlled publishers. While the government has tightened controls on most other foreign religious organizations, Fo Guang Shan has flourished, spreading a powerful message that individual acts of charity can reshape China. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times, June 24, 2017]

“It has done so, however, by making compromises. The Chinese government is wary of spiritual activity it does not control — the Falun Gong an example — and prohibits mixing religion and politics. That has led Fo Guang Shan to play down its message of social change and even its religious content, focusing instead on promoting knowledge of traditional culture and values. The approach has won it high-level support; President Xi Jinping is one of its backers. But its relationship with the party raises a key question: Can it still change China?

Fo Guang Shan Followers

Reporting from Yixing in southern Jiangsu province, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: For most of her life, Shen Ying was disappointed by the world she saw around her. She watched China’s economic rise in this small city in the Yangtze River Valley, and she found a foothold in the new middle class, running a convenience store in a strip mall. Yet prosperity felt hollow. She worried about losing her shop if she didn’t wine and dine and pay off the right officials. Recurring scandals about unsafe food or tainted infant formula made by once-reputable companies upset her. She recalled the values her father had tried to instill in her — honesty, thrift, righteousness — but she said there seemed no way to live by them in China today. “You just feel disappointed at some of the dishonest conduct in society,” she said. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times, June 24, 2017]

“Then, five years ago, Fo Guang Shan, began building a temple in the outskirts of her city, Yixing. She began attending its meetings and studying its texts — and it changed her life. She and her husband, a successful businessman, started living more simply. They gave up luxury goods and made donations to support poor children. And before the temple opened last year, she left her convenience store to manage a tea shop near the temple, pledging the proceeds to charity.

“Across China, millions of people like Ms. Shen have begun participating in faith-based organizations like Fo Guang Shan. They aim to fill what they see as a moral vacuum left by attacks on traditional values over the past century, especially under Mao, and the nation’s embrace of a cutthroat form of capitalism. Many want to change their country — to make it more compassionate, more civil and more just. But unlike political dissidents or other activists suppressed by the Communist Party, they hope to change Chinese society through personal piety and by working with the government instead of against it. And for the most part, the authorities have left them alone.

“Mrs. Shen said that when she took over the tea shop she had a hard time understanding what being a good Buddhist meant. At first, she admitted, she wanted to make more money for the temple by using low-grade cooking oil. But her husband objected. China is rife with scandals about restaurants using unsafe or cheap ingredients, and he argued that good Buddhists should set a better example. “This made me realize that faith gives you a minimum moral standard,” Ms. Shen told me. “It helps you treat others as your equals.”

“Many followers say they want a cleaner, fairer society and believe they can make a difference by changing their own lives. Yang Jianwei, 44, a kitchenware exporter who embraced Fo Guang Shan, said he stopped attending the boozy late-night dinners that seem an unavoidable part of doing business in China. “I realize that you might lose some business this way, but it’s a better way to live,” he said. This idealism is why the authorities support Fo Guang Shan, said Jin Xinhua, an official who helped the group secure the land for the new temple. “Through its work, Fo Guang Shan is helping the masses,” he said. “We need that sort of thing today.”

Hsing Yun

Chan Master Xinghua Cunjaing

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “Fo Guang Shan is led by one of modern China’s most famous religious figures, the Venerable Master Hsing Yun. I met him late last year at the temple in Yixing, in a bright room filled with his calligraphy and photos of senior Chinese leaders who have received him in Beijing. He wore tannish golden robes, and his shaved head was set off by thick eyebrows and sharp, impish lips. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times, June 24, 2017]

“At age 89, he is nearly blind, and a nun often had to repeat my questions so he could hear them. But his mind was quick, and he nimbly parried questions that the Chinese authorities might consider objectionable. When I asked him what he hoped to accomplish by spreading Buddhism — proselytizing is illegal in China — his eyebrows arched in mock amusement. “I don’t want to promote Buddhism!” he said. “I only promote Chinese culture to cleanse humanity.” As for the Communist Party, he was unequivocal: “We Buddhists uphold whoever is in charge. Buddhists don’t get involved in politics.”

“That has not been true for most of Master Hsing Yun’s life. Born outside the eastern city of Yangzhou in 1927, he was 10 when he joined a monastery that he and his mother passed by while searching for his father, who disappeared during the Japanese invasion of China. There, he was influenced by the ideas of Humanistic Buddhism, a movement that aimed to save China through spiritual renewal. It argued that religion should be focused on this world, instead of the afterworld. It also encouraged clergy to take up the concerns of the living, and urged adherents to help change society through fairness and compassion.

History of Fo Guang Shan

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “After fleeing the Communist Revolution, Master Hsing Yun took that message to Taiwan and founded Fo Guang Shan in the southern port of Kaohsiung in 1967. He sought to make Buddhism more accessible to ordinary people by updating its fusty image and embracing mass-market tactics. In sports stadiums, he held lectures that owed more to Billy Graham than the sound of one hand clapping. He built a theme park with multimedia shows and slot machines that displayed dioramas of Buddhist saints. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times, June 24, 2017]

“The approach had a profound impact in Taiwan, which then resembled mainland China today: an industrializing society that worried it had cast off traditional values in its rush to modernize. Fo Guang Shan became part of a popular embrace of religious life. Many scholars say it also helped lay the foundation for the self-governing island’s evolution into a vibrant democracy by fostering a political culture committed to equality, civility and social progress.

“Fo Guang Shan expanded rapidly, spending more than $1 billion on universities, community colleges, kindergartens, a publishing arm, a daily newspaper and a television station. It now counts more than 1,000 monks and nuns, and more than one million followers in 50 countries, including the United States. But the group declines to offer an estimate of its following in China, where the government initially viewed it with suspicion.

Fo Guang Shan Enters China

The Chinese government initially viewed Of Guang Shan with suspicion at least in part because an official fleeing the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 took refuge in its temple in Los Angeles. China retaliated by barring Master Hsing Yun from the mainland. Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “More than a decade later, though, Beijing began looking at Master Hsing Yun differently. Like many in Taiwan of his generation born on the mainland, he favored unification of China and the island — a priority for Communist leaders. In 2003, they allowed him to visit his hometown, Yangzhou. He pledged to build a library, and followed through a few years later with a 100-acre facility that now holds nearly two million books, including a 100,000-volume collection of Buddhist scriptures, one of the largest in China. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times, June 24, 2017]

“Under President Xi, who started a campaign to promote traditional Chinese faiths, especially Buddhism, as part of his program for “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the government’s support has grown. He has met with Master Hsing Yun four times since 2012, telling him in one meeting: “I’ve read all the books that master sent me.”


“While Mr. Xi’s government has tightened restrictions on Christianity and Islam, it has allowed Fo Guang Shan to open cultural centers in four cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. The organization’s students include government officials, who don gray tunics and trousers and live like monks or nuns for several days, reciting the sutras and learning about Master Hsing Yun’s philosophy.

“But unlike in Taiwan, where it held special services during national crises and encouraged members to participate in public affairs, Fo Guang Shan avoids politics in China. There is no mention of civic activism, and it never criticizes the party. “We can keep the religion secondary but introduce the ideas of Buddhism into society,” said Venerable Miaoyuan, the nun who runs the library in Yangzhou. She describes the group’s work as “cultural exchange.” “The mainland continues the ideology of ancient emperors — you can only operate there when you are firmly under its control,” said Chiang Tsan-teng, a professor at Taipei City University of Science and Technology who studies Buddhism in the region. “Fo Guang Shan can never be its own boss in the mainland.”

“That limits its influence, but many Chinese express understanding given the reality of one-party rule. “It certainly cannot promote social service and create associations,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident who is Buddhist. “The party certainly would not allow it, so Fo Guang Shan makes compromises. But it is still promoting Buddhism.”

Fo Guang Shan Temple

On the Of Guang Shan Temple outside Yixing, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “Carved into two valleys of lush bamboo forest, the temple features giant friezes that tell the story of Buddha, a 15-story pagoda and a gargantuan 68,000 square-foot worship hall. Since construction started in 2006, Fo Guang Shan has spent more than $150 million on the facility, known as the Temple of Great Awakening. On a nearby hill, track hoes hack away at trees to make way for a new lecture hall and a shrine to the goddess of mercy, Guanyin. There, the group plans to feature a moving, talking, three-dimensional hologram of the deity. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times, June 24, 2017]

“Unlike most temples in China, it bans hawkers and fortunetellers, and it does not charge an entrance fee. The atmosphere is reflective and solemn, with quiet reading rooms offering books, newspapers, spaces to practice calligraphy, and tea. A stream of visitors from Yixing come for lectures, meals and camaraderie.” In autumn 2016, “Fo Guang Shan welcomed 2,000 pilgrims at the temple to celebrate China’s National Day. Over the course of a long afternoon, they walked along a road to the temple in a slow, dignified procession: taking three steps and kowtowing, three steps and kowtowing, on and on for about two hours.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; 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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.