How Buddhism Expanded in China

     Although there is information about Buddhists in China dating back to the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism was not actively promoted until the early centuries of the Common Era. According to tradition, Buddhism began in China when the Han Emperor Mingdi (reigned 57/58–75/76 BC) dreamed of a flying golden deity, which was interpreted as a vision of the Buddha. The emperor sent envoys to India, who returned to China with the sutra in forty-two volumes, which was deposited in a temple outside the capital of Luoyang. However it may be, Buddhism entered China most slowly, first primarily through Central Asia and later through trade routes to and from Southeast Asia.

Form of Buddhism in China in the Early Centuries

    Buddhism in China during the Han dynasty was deeply colored by magical practices, which combined it with popular Chinese Daoism, an integral part of contemporary folk religion. Rather than the doctrine of anatma, early Chinese Buddhists seem to have taught the imperishability of the soul. Nirvana became a kind of immortality. He also taught the principle of karma, the values ​​of charity and compassion, and the need to suppress passion. By the end of the Han dynasty, there was a virtual symbiosis between Daoism and Buddhism, and both religions advocated equal penance as a means of achieving immortality. It was widely believed that Laozi, the founder of Daoism, was reincarnated as the Buddha in India. Many Chinese emperors worshiped Laozi and Buddha at the same altar. The first translations of Buddhist sutras into Chinese—that is, those dealing with topics such as breath control and mystical concentration—used Daoist terminology to make them understandable to Chinese.

    After the Han period, Buddhist monks were often used by non-Chinese emperors in the north of China for their politico-military counsel and their skills in magic. At the same time, Buddhism entered the philosophical and literary circles of the elite in the South. The most important contribution to the development of Buddhism in China during this period was the work of translation. The greatest scholar among the early translators was the monk Kumarajiva, who studied the Hindu Vedas, occult sciences, and astronomy as well as the Hinayana and Mahayana sutras before being taken to the Chinese court in 401 BCE.

Development of Buddhism in China during the 5th and 6th Centuries


      During the 5th and 6th centuries, Buddhist schools from India were established in China, and new ones, especially Chinese schools, were formed. Buddhism was a powerful intellectual force in China; Monastic establishments proliferated, and Buddhism became established among the peasantry. Thus, it is not surprising that, when the Sui dynasty (581–618) established its rule over a reunified China, Buddhism flourished as a state religion.

Development during the Tang Dynasty (618–907)

     The Golden Age of Buddhism in China occurred during the Tang Dynasty. Although the Tang emperors were generally themselves Daoists, they favored Buddhism, which had become extremely popular. Under the Tang, the government increased its control over the ordination and legal status of monasteries and monks. From this time on, the Chinese monk called himself simply Chen (“subject”).

     During this period many Chinese schools developed their own distinctive approaches and systematized the vast literature of Buddhist texts and teachings. The number of Buddhist monasteries and the amount of land they owned greatly expanded. It was also during this period that many scholars made pilgrimages to India and returned with texts and spiritual and intellectual inspiration, which greatly enriched Buddhism in China. However, Buddhism was never able to replace Daoism and Confucianism, and in 845 AD Emperor Wuzong began major persecution. According to historical sources, 4,600 Buddhist temples and 40,000 shrines were destroyed, and 260,500 monks and nuns were forced to return to take their lives.
Buddhism in China after the Tango Dynasty

      Buddhism in China never fully recovered from the great persecution of 845 AD. However, it retained much of its heritage, and it continued to play an important role in the religious life of China. On the one hand, Buddhism retained its identity as Buddhism and generated new forms of expression. These included texts such as the Yulu (“Recorded Sayings”) of famous teachers, which were primarily oriented towards monks, as well as more literary works such as Journey to the West (written in the 16th century) and Dream of the West. Red Chamber (18th century). Buddhism, on the other hand, combined with Confucian (especially in the Neo-Confucian movement of the Song and Ming dynasties) and Daoist traditions to form a complex multi-religious ethos within which the “three religions” (san jiao) were more or less easily included.


 The various schools that maintained the greatest vitality in China were the Chan School (better known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen), which was noted for its emphasis on meditation (chan is the Cynicization of Sanskrit meditation, “meditation”). The former school was most influential among the cultured elite, especially through the arts. Chan artists had a decisive influence on Chinese landscape painting during the Song dynasty (960–1279). The artists used images of flowers, rivers, and trees, which were executed abruptly, deftly, to create an insight into the flow and emptiness of all reality. The Pure Land tradition was most influential among the population as a whole and was sometimes associated with secret societies and peasant revolts. But the two seemingly distinct traditions were often very closely linked. In addition, they were mixed with other Buddhist elements such as the so-called “mass for the dead”, originally popularized by practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism.

    A reform movement aimed at reviving the Chinese Buddhist tradition and adapting its teachings and institutions to modern conditions took shape in the early 20th century. However, the disruptions caused by the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and the subsequent establishment of the Communist government in China (1949) were not helpful to the Buddhist cause. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Buddhist temples and monasteries suffered massive destruction, and the Buddhist community was subjected to severe repression. With the reforms that began after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government adopted a more tolerant policy of religious expression, albeit with much more regulation. In this context, Buddhism showed new life.

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