The Development of Buddhism in China Essay Sample

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             The title Buddha is usually given to the historical founder of the Buddhist religion, Siddhartha Gautama, although it has been applied to other historical figures, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and to many who may be mythological. The religion which he founded was enormously successful and for a long period was probably the most widespread world religion. Buddhism could be considered as a kind of met religion, open others, but not identifiable with religious activity as such more a kind of philosophical structuring of religion together with a methodology for self-development.

Historical Development

            The spread of Buddhism. The period of the further spread of Buddhism begins with the council under Asoka. It was an advancing and most eventful tide of conquest stretching over whole centuries by which the yellow-robed monks obtained the ascendancy over Central and Eastern Asia. Ceylon, followed by the Indian peninsula containing Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Annam, Tibet, korea, Japan and China, these are the countries which fell into the lap of Buddhist missions during the thousand years which ensued after the council of Asoka (Frank, S. 2004). In most of these countries the result of the Buddhist mission is due to the fact that Gautama’s disciples came to primitive, almost uncivilized peoples, to whom they brought, together with this new religion, a strong tinge of culture, so that the acceptance of Buddhism implies also the beginning of historical development.

The Route of Buddhism until the Entrance into China.   There were two major trade routes already existed by the Han period (206mB, C- A.D.220). The first was the northern land route, or Silk route described which linked northern India with the Han Chinese capital via the Central Asian kingdoms of Kashgar, kucha, Turfan and Khotan. The second, a southern sea route, linked south Indian    with Canton via Southeast Asia.

             The northern route via Central Asia played the more dominant and influential role (Hans, K 2002). As we learned, the Central Asian kingdoms were early recipients of both Indian and Chinese influences since these centers served as important transit points along the trade route. The Buddhist pilgrims who traveled along these routes attached themselves to the caravan of the traders, and the various centers that served as important rest stops for the traders also became important Buddhist centers.

                      The Entrance of Buddhism into China. Buddhism was not an indigenous religion of China. Its, founder was Gautama of India in the sixth century B.C. Some centuries later it found its way into China by way of central Asia. There is a tradition that as early as 142 B.C. Chang Ch’len, an embassador of the Chinese emperor, Wu Ti, visited the countries of central Asia, where he first learned about the new religion which was making such headway and reported concerning it to his master. A few years later the generals of Wu Ti Captured a gold image of the Buddha which the emperor set up in his palace and worshiped, but he took no further steps.

According to Chinese historians Buddhism was officially recognized in China about 67 A.D. A few years before that date, the emperor, Ming-Ti, saw in a dream a large golden image with a halo hovering above his palace. His advisers, some of whome were no doubt already favorable to the new religion, interpreted the image of the dream to be that of Buddha, the great sage of India, who was inviting his adhesion. Following their advice the emperor sent an embassy to study into Buddhism. It brought back two Indian monks and a quantity of Buddhist classics. These were carried on a white horse and so the monastery which the emperor built for the monks and those who came after them was called the White Horse Monastery. Its tablet is said to have survived to this day.

This dream story is worth repeating because it goes to show that Buddhism was not only known at an early date, but was favored at the court of China. In fact, the same history which relates the dream contains the biography of an official who became an adherent of Buddhism a few years before the dream took place. This is not at all surprising, because an acquaintance with Buddhism was the inevitable concomitant of the military campaigning, the many embassies and the wide-ranging trade of those centuries. But the introduction of Buddhism into China was especially promoted by reason of the current policy of the Chinese government of moving conquered populations in countries west religion along with them. At one time what is now the province of Shansi was populated in this way by the Hslung-nu, many of whom were Buddhists.       

Buddhism did not spread so rapidly in China as elsewhere. The most striking fact, to which too little notice has so far been given, is that it was not till the beginning of the fourth century A.D. that the Chinese were allowed to become monks in the Buddhist religion. The authorized representatives therefore, of the new religion were foreigners during the first two and a half centuries.

The Formation and Development of Thought

            Employ Terms and Concepts. One of the most immediate problems facing the foreign monks who brought Buddhism to China was how to convey highly metaphysical and abstract concepts into a culture that lacked these notions and to translate them into a language that lacked the vocabulary to do so. The immediate solution was to employ terms and concepts from both Confucianism and Taoism, an indigenous philosophy that was more mystical than Confucianism, as vehicles for expression and translation. For example, the Taoist term wuwei, meaning non-action, was used to translate the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, and certain Confucian virtues were paired with Buddhist precepts. But from the very beginning, Taoism and Buddhism were the most closely linked. Although their relationship would undergo differing phases of closeness and separateness, Buddhism and Taoism continued to interact with and influence each other throughout the course of history.

            Perhaps as a device to make Buddhism more pleasant to the Chinese, a Han Period text already refers to the apochryphal story of Laozi (a major Taoist figure) departing for the west and turning up in India as the historical Buddha. In addition, during this initial period of Buddhist development, other slight changes crept into Chinese Buddhism. For example, the position of women, relatively strong in Indian Buddhism, weakened considerably in Chinese Buddhism. It was through the efforts of the 5th century Central Asian Buddhist monk and translator Kumarajiva, who knew both Sanskrit and Chinese, that Buddhism finally developed its own vocabulary and achieved an intellectual position distinct from Taoism.

            The various forms of Chinese Buddhism essentially belong to the Mahayana school. The earliest translated texts from Kumarajiva’s workshop confirm this preference. For example, he translated the Lotus Sutra, a fundamental Mahayana text that became the doctrine of the later Tiantai sect and that inspired much Chinese Buddhist sculpture and painting. According to this text, this doctrine was presented before huge assembly of bodhisattvas, athats, monks and minor divinities, including nagas (water sepent spirits) and demons.

Consistent Development of Buddhism

            As early as the first century C.E., Buddhism’s presence in Central Asia was clearly visible. Moving northwest out of India from Peshawar, Buddhism traveled along the routes, eventually coming in contact with small communities from the Later Han Dynasty in China that extended into Central Asia along the Silk Route. Many of the families in these communities were both bilingual and bicultural, thus creating an ideal basis for Buddhism to make inroads into China, particularly via entry at Dunhuang.

            It is not at all certain whether Buddhism’s first entry into China resulted from the fabled account of the Han Emperor Ming’s notorious dream in the middle of the first century C.E., or through some other occasion, but there is a clearly historical account of a Chinese emperor practicing Buddhism by the middle of the second century C.E. Additionally, by 148, a Parthian monk named An Shigao settled in Luoyang to head a team of translators intent on translating Indian Buddhist texts, particularly on meditation, into Chinese. Most of these early translations were of Hinayana texts, but the first Mahayana missionary, Lokaksema, worked on a variety of Mhayana texts in Luoyang between 168 and 188.

            Despite the fact that the Later Han Dynasty broke apart in the last half of the second century, splitting China into northern and southern parts, the Chinese interest in Buddhism did not diminish. Through the work of innovative figures like Dharmaraksa, a Chinese-born Buddhist of Scythian lineage, the process of translating Buddhist texts into Chinese continued throughout the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316) and the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-419). During this period, monasteries were established, monks ordained, and sutras discussed throughout the South. (Zhufeng and Chu-Feng pp. 16)

            By the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), most of the Buddhist elite had fled south, continuing their literary activity. Under the Northern Wei Dynasty, the sangha grew prosperous and highly corrupt, eventually becoming victimized by an extensive Buddhist persecution in 446 that lasted eight years. Further, Chinese Buddhism had become highly sectarian with the appearance of a series of classical schools. It was not until the Sui Dynasty (589-617) that China was reunified and Buddhism consolidated. (Fairbank 73).

             The high point of Chinese Buddhism occurred during the Tang Dynasty (618-906). During this period, monasteries grew and prospered, monks and nuns thrived, and Buddhism was profoundly influential in Chinese culture.

             Beginning in the eleventh century, there was a strong reemergence of traditional Chinese religions, and especially so with respect to Confucianism. During the Yuan Dynasty that began around 1280, China was under Mongol rule, and as a result, Tibetan Buddhism became a powerful influence in China. Later, under the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), there was a movement toward a unity in the Buddhist schools.


            The role Buddhism played in the histories of all these things. While the genealogy of any object that stretches over centuries always involves a complex of multiple influences, an overall picture of the prominent role of Buddhism in shaping the development of Chinese material culture is clear enough and significant enough to warrant a place in any general history of china.

             In more than two thousand years of continuous transmission of its teachings, Buddhism has made glorious contributions to learned thought, political life, and education in both India and China.

Work Cited

Zhufeng, L., Maclnnis, D. E. and Chu-Feng, L. Religion Under Socialism in China .M.E. Sharp. 1991. pp 16

Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Harvard University Press. 1994. pp 73

Hans, K. Tracing the Way: Spiritual Dimension of the World Religion,

             Continuum International publishing group. 2002

Frank, D.S, S, Wells, S. Story of the World’s Worship, 2004, p.528

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