Channa To China, Buddhism in


Prince Shakyamuni’s groom

Channa was the charioteer and companion to Sid-dhartha, the young Sakya prince who would go on to become the Buddha. Siddhartha had been restrained from leaving the palace by his father, who wished to spare his son from contact with the unpleasant realities of the world. However, Sid-dhartha eventually persuaded Channa to take him outside. Channa guided the prince through the city four times, when he was able to see old age, sickness, and death—symbols of human suffering—for the first time. Channa fielded Siddhartha’s questions about the nature of human reality, including his own mortality. on the night of his final departure from his early family it was Channa who saddled the horse and accepted the symbols of Siddhartha’s old life—his hair, his robe, and his jewelry.


(d. 971) Korean monk and scholar during the Tang dynasty in China

Chegwan was a Korean monk who spent several years studying in China. He was a key figure in the transmission of the teachings of the Tian Tai school of Chinese Buddhism. The Tian Tai school rose in the early Tang (618-906) period as a result of the teachings of the founder, Zhi Yi (538-597), and his key disciple, Guan Ding. Chegwan’s key work was the Tiantai Sijiaoyi (Outline of the Tian Tai Fourfold Teachings), a text that has served as a foundational introduction to Tian Tai doctrine for generations of monks. Chegwan’s writings were particularly important for presenting the concept of the Five Periods and Eight Teachings (wushi bajiao), a categorization system that has traditionally been seen as the core of Tian Tai teachings.

Cheng Hao (Cheng Mingdao, Ch’eng Hao)

(1032-1085) Neo-Confucian philosopher

Elder brother of Cheng Yi (1033-1107), nephew of Zhang Zai (1020-77), former student of Zhou Dunyi (1017-73), and friend of Shao Yung (1011-77)— who together are often referred to as the "five masters of 11th century Chinese philosophy"—Cheng Hao was a key figure in the development of Neo-Confucian thought. The son of an official, Cheng Hao drifted away from Confucian studies during his teens, flirting with Daoism and Buddhism for a number of years, until returning to the study of the classics in his mid-20s. He obtained a jinshi (presented scholar) degree in 1057 and went on to have a distinguished career during which he served in various administrative posts and deeply impressed several Song dynasty (960-1279) emperors. Beloved by his disciples, Cheng Hao was said to be so understanding and amiable that for 20 years he never became angry.

Cheng Hao’s teachings are often associated with his brother’s (the two together are referred to as the "two Chengs"). Both thinkers hold that all things comprise QI (matter-energy) and LI (principle), the latter often termed tianli (the principle of heaven). In the case of human beings, li is structured as human nature (xing). Following Mencius, the Chengs understand human nature as originally good. Human nature finds its fulfillment in the virtue of REN (goodness, humaneness). One cultivates human fulfillment through a combination of investigation of things and spiritual introspection, primarily through the twin methods of study (nian) and jing zuo (quiet sitting). There do seem to be important differences between the Chengs, however, mainly concerning cultivation. Cheng Hao seems to lay more stress on the "learning of the mind" and "quiet sitting" than Cheng Yi. It has been suggested that Cheng Hao was more influenced by Zhou Dunyi as well as the teachings and practices of Chan (Zen) Buddhism than his brother, but this is a controversial claim. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that Cheng Hao’s line of thought was the catalyst for the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Neo-Confucian scholar Wang Yangming’s critical response to Zhu Xi’s orthodox Confucian teachings.

Cheng Yen (pinyin: Zheng Yan)

(1937- ) founder of the Tzu Chi Association

Cheng Yen is a native Taiwanese nun whose devotion and frugality have inspired millions of followers. Born in southeast Taiwan, Yen was ordained as a nun in 1960 and subsequently established a nunnery in Hualian, her hometown. Today there are branches of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association throughout the world. As the new century begins, it has become the largest Chinese lay Buddhist group and the largest civil society organization in Taiwan.

Cheng Yi (Cheng Yichuan, Ch’eng I)

10331107) Neo-Confucian philosopher

The younger of the two Cheng brothers, Cheng Yi, had an even more decisive influence on Neo-Confucian thought than his elder sibling, Cheng Hao. An outstanding student, he earned his jinshi degree, the highest accomplishment possible in the system of Chinese imperial degrees, in 1059 at the age of 27. He repeatedly declined various high positions, preferring to lecture on Confucian principles to the emperor and his court. Strict in his own behavior, he openly criticized those in power and so earned many enemies. For a time his teachings were even prohibited. Unlike his brother, Cheng Yi was grave and stern in his demeanor, sometimes even shouting at people. Yet it is also said that he was so in control of himself that he remained undisturbed when a boat in which he was riding was about to sink.

Cheng Yi’s teachings are closely allied to his brother’s in his focus on the basic metaphysical duality of QI (matter-energy) and LI (principle), the perfection of human nature (xing) through ren (goodness, humaneness), and its development through investigation of things and spiritual introspection. However, Cheng Yi lays more stress on extending knowledge, making it the cornerstone of his system. For Cheng Yi, one extends knowledge by investigating things, that is, through inductive and deductive study (nian) and handling of human affairs. All things, no matter how small, contain principle and so must be investigated. Such stress gives his philosophy a decidedly rationalistic flavor.

Cheng Yi’s famous statement "Principle is one but its manifestations are many" is one of the most renowned sayings in Chinese philosophy. Fully in keeping with the traditional Chinese stress on cosmic harmony, it remains an elegant summary of Neo-Confucian metaphysics. It seems likely that Cheng Yi borrowed the basic idea from the Hua Yan school of Buddhism with its teaching of "All in one, one in all." Later, the Song (9601279) thinker Zhu Xi eagerly took to his teachings, once the official ban on them was lifted, and it is clear that much of Zhu’s own work is based on Cheng Yi’s views.

Chieu, Ngo Van (Ngo Mingh Chieu)

(1878-1932) founder of Cao Dai religion in Vietnam

Chieu was born into a genteel but impoverished Vietnamese family. From seven he lived with his aunt, whose Chinese husband encouraged Chieu to study Chinese spiritual beliefs. He attended French school and entered the civil service in 1899. He retired in 1931. During this time he became a member of the Dao Mindh Su (Dao Phat Duong) sect of Chinese Daoism. He also absorbed ideas from the French psychical researcher Camille Flammarion (1842-1925). He was in constant communication with spirits through seances. In 1919 during a seance Chieu met the spirit Cao Dai, and from 1920 this spirit dominated Chieu’s activities. Cao Dai ordered him to use a Celestial Eye as a symbol and attract followers. The first altar was established in 1924 in the home of Vuong Quan Ky, a fellow clerk in the colonial administration.

As the fledgling group grew, Chieu became unsettled. He felt the group moved toward application and registration and inauguration too quickly. He also was probably unhappy with the large number of spiritual adepts, many from higher social levels, who had joined. After Cao Dai’s official inauguration in 1926 he set up his own followers in Can Tho. He retired there after leaving the civil service and died in 1932.

His followers proclaimed his Esoteric School, Noi Giao Tam Truyen, as an institution without organization or priesthood. His second school, the Salvationish, or Ngoai Giao Cong Truyen, was a religious school set up for growth.

China, Buddhism in

From the perspective of Chinese culture, Buddhism is that rarest of things: a cultural import. China has generated so much of its own great development that major cultural infusions are unusual. In fact, Buddhism has been a presence over so much of China’s long history that most Chinese forget it was in fact a well-developed system of thought and religious practice well before it arrived in China around 100-300 c.e. It has since experienced varying fates yet today is so thoroughly part of Chinese culture that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. As with so many cultural borrowings, Buddhism in East Asia has become thoroughly sinicized, made "Chinese."


Traditional accounts of Buddhism in China start with the dream of Emperor Ming (r. 58-75 c.e.). This emperor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 c.e.) dreamed of a "golden man." Assuming this might be the Buddha, a figure known to his advisers only vaguely, the emperor dispatched two emissaries to India. They returned with Buddhist monks, and the emperor built the Baimasi (White Horse Temple) in the capital Luoyang for them. This story of Emperor Ming’s dream is not based on factual evidence. Nevertheless, the first verifiable, written record of Buddhism in China does in fact date from his period. This was an edict issued in 65 c.e. stating that Buddhist rituals had been performed in the eastern province of Jiangsu, at a vegetarian feast presided over by Prince Ying, Ming’s half brother. This and other factors show that Buddhism had been introduced even earlier than this edict or Emperor Ming’s dream.

Other literary evidence points to the existence of Buddhist communities during the Han dynasty. These communities existed in the capital, Luoy-ang, in the east, as mentioned, and in southern China. Mozi Lihuolun (Mozu on the settling of doubts) is a work written in defense of Buddhism. It was collected probably in the early 200s c.e. but contains information from an earlier period. The preface mentions communities of Buddhists in southern China, at Tonkin, now part of Vietnam but then part of the Chinese empire. Most of the foreign monks at the southern center arrived by sea, not overland via the Silk Road. We can imagine that they may have traveled north from Southeast Asian cultures such as Champa (current-day southern Vietnam) or Sumatra, in addition to parts of India.

What the early stories show is China’s first attempt to understand this imported system of thought. Buddhism was in some ways similar to existing systems in China, since China had familiarity with early philosophers such as Confucius and Zhuangzi. However, the core Buddhist ideas—enlightenment, nirvana, samsara, karma, karuna (compassion)—were probably very strange to Chinese. In addition there was a complex system of stories and divine figures, already fully developed. And to top it all off, Buddhism had an exotic and complex literary aspect. There were already written records of the Buddha’s speeches, the sutras, as well as written interpretations of philosophy, the Abhidharma, and complex monastic regulations, the Vinaya. In other words, the Tripitaka of Buddhism had taken shape in India and now presented Chinese thinkers with a puzzle. Since China by the Han dynasty was itself a literary culture, it was only natural for emphasis to be put on the interpretation of these literary works, in an effort to make sense of Buddhism.


Although traders and other travelers undoubtedly played a key role in Buddhism’s entry into China, most of the recorded figures in early Buddhism in China were foreign monks and their converts. And according to our records these figures seem to have spent most of their time working with the books of Buddhism. Some went to great lengths to travel to obtain these new texts, to India and Central Asia. Others spent their entire lives translating them into Chinese. And others no doubt worked to smooth the way with local authorities, to enable this great translation project to proceed. And a great project it was indeed. Looked at over the period of Buddhism’s gradual entry into China, from around 50 to 1000 c.e., the translation of Buddhist texts from the various Indic and Central Asian languages into literary Chinese was a massive intellectual effort. Seen in terms of cultural capital, meaning the things that a society decides are of vital importance and focus, Buddhism was a deep concern of Chinese people and their rulers.

By the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907 c.e.) this translation effort was essentially complete. only a handful of translations were made in the later Song dynasty (960-1279 c.e.). The Chinese Tripitaka, in its final form, is today contained in 85 volumes, each of around 1,000 pages. The first translation efforts were by individual foreign monks, sometimes working alone, sometimes working with Chinese collaborators. Dharma-raksa (c. 265-313 C.E.), for instance, worked with a father-son Chinese pair who wrote down his explanations in Chinese. There was little control over the actual translation, since neither side understood fully the other’s language. In addition, since most of the foreign monks recited the original from memory, there were occasional lapses.

A later stage in translation was the formation of translation bureaus. The first was headed by An Shigao, a Parthian prince who arrived in Luoyang in 148 c.e. Dao An (312-385 c.e.), a Chinese monk, began to establish translation bureaus in order to translate the vast Sarvastivadin works. The translation bureau form of collaboration became the primary style of work when the great translation master Kumarajiva arrived at Chang.

An, a major capital, in 401. Overall there were translation bureaus established in various cities and monasteries under Kumarajiva, Gunabhadra, Bodhiruci, Dharmakshema, Narendrayasas, and Amoghavajra. The ruler of the kingdom usually arranged and paid for all expenses of such bureaus, thereby giving their work extra significance.

Naturally this form of translation turned out to be more accurate than the first form of collaboration. It was also, in practice, extremely fast. The translation bureaus generally followed a detailed separation of labor. The chief translator, usually also a famous monk, would explain the text in Chinese. He would fill in missing sections. His team of Chinese translators would then find the right expression in literary Chinese. Finally the master would check the final product against the original, for accuracy, and ask for revisions.

A third stage in the translation of Buddhist works into Chinese began in the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-618 and 618-907 c.e.). In this period the great translators were Chinese monks who had become extremely familiar with the languages of the original texts, usually Sanskrit. The most famous of these translators were Xuan Zang and Yi Jing (635-713). Their translations are today seen as the most accurate and literary of all.

As the number of texts translated became large, Chinese monks began to catalog them. The first catalog was produced by Dao An in 374 c.e. Another, and the oldest one we still have a copy of, was done by Seng Yu in 518 c.e. Today we have 18 catalogs from different times in Chinese history, all containing lists of the books of Buddhism. These listed the original and the Chinese translation and translator. in some cases more than one translation existed, especially for the major sutras.

Today the definitive version of the Chinese Tripitaka is the Taisho. Taisho refers to the reign name of the Japanese emperor during the period of printing, 1922-33. (The latest version, the Taisho Daizokyo, is in 85 volumes with 3,063 separate pieces of writing.) This collection includes works from so-called Hinayana (or non-Mahayana) as well as Tibetan and Korean sources.


But translating was only part of the process of absorption of Buddhist culture into China. Those early monks and traders who introduced knowledge of Buddhism had to deal with perceptions among the local peoples. In general, Buddhism was of intense interest only to the gentry, the upper classes, and did not become widely popular until much later in its history in China, with the Tang (618-907 c.e.). But the upper, educated classes in the many dynasties between the Han through the Tang all showed strong interest in this foreign religion.

Buddhism presented a handful of core concepts in the initial stages. In the Han many Buddhist ideas emphasized constant rebirth of the soul in the cycle of karma. Chinese used the concept of shen-ling to describe the soul that, though indestructible, is sent through successive rebirths without any other linking connections. The indestructible soul matched Daoist ideas of a spirit force that survived after death of the body.

Buddhism also emphasized cultivation through suppression or control of the passions, a new concept for Chinese culture. The conclusion from this teaching was that one who cultivates should withdraw from society and concentrate on inner cultivation. Because Chinese did not take to the strenuous and often extreme rules of conduct, the Pratimoksa, they tended to emphasize concentration or meditation on the breath. Such breath procedures were already present in Daoism.

Buddhism also put emphasis on charity and compassion. Charity included the donation of worldly possessions to the sangha, the Buddhist community of monks. Compassion led naturally to proscriptions against killing.

Many of these ideas were first interpreted in light of existing Chinese concepts, especially similar ideas from Daoism. Some ideas were superficially similar, both Daoism and Buddhism emphasized meditation and breath control, for instance. The Daoist search for immortality was reinterpreted in Buddhist terms as the cultivation toward liberation. The Buddhist arhat was simply translated into a version of the Daoist cultivated gentleman. Because of such similarities, early Daoists and Buddhists presented Buddhism as simply one aspect of Daoism.

In addition early translations of Buddhist texts had no words at hand to express the technical concepts of Buddhism. As a result they often used Daoist terms. And many early translations focused on meditation and breath control instead of core Buddhist concepts such as the Four Truths.

In order to preserve the primacy of Laozi as founder and main deity of Daoism, a theory of hua hu, or "cultivating barbarians," was developed by the Daoists. Laozi (Lao Tzu) was said to have traveled to the far West and taught Daoism. In this view, the Buddha was in fact simply one incarnation of Laozi. These ideas were collected in the Huahu Jing, the Sutra on the Conversion of the Barbarians, written by Wang Fu during the Western Jin dynasty (265-316 c.e.).

The major roadblock to acceptance of Buddhist ideas was, inevitably, the emphasis on becoming a monk, the idea of leaving the family and ties of home behind. Chinese society and Confucian teachings in particular emphasized filial piety and perpetuation of the family. To become a monk, to lead a life of poverty and nonworldly concerns, went against such family-centered assumptions. Thus when promising young members of wealthy gentry families began to enlist as monks, there were concern and strongly worded attacks on the foreign system of beliefs. The early Daoist work Taiping Jing (Sutra on Great Peace) stated that severe calamity would accompany failure to leave descendants. This would be the actual fate of a male who gave up marriage and entered the monkhood, of course. Such strong reactions are not perhaps so difficult for us to understand; compare,for instance, the reaction of many middle-class families to sons’ or daughters’ joining "cults" in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and America.


Between the end of the Han in 220 c.e. and the beginning of the Sui dynasty in 589 China was in a state of political confusion. Foreign groups repeatedly invaded and occupied the north, setting up dynasty after dynasty. The first to succeed were the Xong Nu, or, as they are more commonly labeled, the Huns. The capitals of Luoyang and Chang An fell to them in 311 and 316. With the foreign occupations many of the literary and ruling classes migrated south. These refugees included monks. Many at first settled in Jian Kang, present-day Nanjing, but they eventually scattered to other urban centers throughout China’s south.

This vast migration in fact assisted in the spread of Buddhism, as the refined culture of the Han capitals was spread throughout other areas. As a result, Buddhism did not develop in parallel in the north and the south, and we cannot speak of a unified status of Buddhism in China until the empire was finally reunified by the Sui dynasty in 589.

The south developed a unique form of "gentry Buddhism," Buddhism for the upper classes. This brand of Buddhist practice put equal emphasis on philosophy and Daoist ideas and core Buddhism. And because the dynasties in the south were politically weak, the Buddhist establishment was able to act relatively independently. The religion was actively promoted by the Jin dynasty rulers Jian Wen (r. 371-373) and Xiao Wu (373-396). Records show there were 1,786 temples and 24,000 monks in the Eastern Jin area.

The popularity of Buddhism in the south led to political intrigue and complications. While the sangha had generally seen itself as independent in India, such a position was strongly criticized in China. Chinese thought had always given highest authority to the emperor, who was traditionally called the "Son of Heaven." But, it was argued, if the monks and monasteries were truly independent, monks should not need even to recognize or bow to the emperor. Monks requested exemption from the rule that all subjects must bow before the emperor because, it was reasoned, the emperor was in the end a householder, and a monk should not look up to a householder. Debates on this issue arose on several occasions. The famous monk Hui Yuan convinced the emperor Huan Xuan in 403 not to force monks to bow before him.

In the north the newly arrived foreign rulers generally wanted to establish their legitimacy within the framework of Chinese culture. These more dynamic political entities were able to control the Buddhist establishment easily, and for the first time Buddhism began to look like a state religion for many of these dynasties. The monks able to survive in such environments were skilled at political maneuvering and creation of magical displays, a very different kind of personality from that prevalent in the south.

The peak of Buddhism’s strength in the north was under the Later Qin (384-417 c.e.) emperor Yao Xing (366-416). Yao continued to support Buddhism and, especially, the massive translation of the Sarvastivadin canon that had been started by the preceding dynasty. Yao Xing took Kumarajiva to the capital of Chang An in 401, a significant event in Chinese Buddhism because he systematized the translation process.

This period of political disunity was also a period of heightened activity on the Silk Road trade routes. The famous translator Dharmaraksa resided at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang, and the first dated cave temple was dug there in 366 by the monk Luo Cun. Monks often fled to Dunhuang to escape political turmoil in northern China in this period.

At the same time Chinese monks began to travel abroad on pilgrimages. The first trip was started by Fa Xian in 399. Fa Xian was the first Chinese monk to visit India, study there, and return. He arrived in India via the southern route of the Silk Road, through the desert, and he returned after visiting Sri Lanka and Java, in 414 c.e. Overall this period was one of preparation for Buddhism’s vast progress in the 600s. During this period key concepts were clarified and major Buddhist texts were translated.


At this point two trends of Buddhism were popular in China, Dhyana, or concentration, and prajna, or wisdom. The dhyana trend followed Hinayana writings while the prajna trend emphasized Mahayana texts. Gradually the prajna sutras became more popular, thus cementing Mahayana as the major brand of Chinese Buddhism.

It was the Prajna school that interacted most with Daoism of the period, creating a Buddhist-Daoist hybrid thought. This dialog began with realization that certain key concepts, such as Buddhist sunyata (emptiness) and Daoist wu wei (nonaction), were similar. The literary thinkers then began to develop theories based on equivalencies. Both Buddhists and Daoists looked for and assumed similarities between the two religious currents, not differences. The best example illustrating this hybrid way of thinking was the monk Zhi Dun (314-366 c.e.), who was born in a ruling class family and lived in the new capital of the south, Jian Kang. Zhi Dun developed a new interpretation of the ancient Chinese concept of li (principle). According to Zhi, li was a transcendental principle that could be contrasted with shi, or materiality.

The Buddhists developed a method of interpreting Buddhist ideas by using existing concepts from Chinese philosophy. This method, called geyi, or "matching meaning," may have been useful in teaching Buddhist ideas, but as a translation technique it did not convey the full flavor of the independent system of thought that was Buddhism. once Kumarajiva’s translation bureau was established in the early 400s, this "matching meanings" technique died out.


Kumarajiva’s translation activities resulted in the development of a new school, the Madhyamaka, or Middle Path, school. It was also called the San Lun, or three treatises, since it was based on three major works by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 100 C.E.). The most brilliant student of Kumarajiva’s was Seng Zhao (374-414 c.e.). Seng Zhao used the Daoist-Buddhist ideas of ti and yong (substance and phenomenon) to argue that these two essences are not separate. They are, in fact, the same. He sought to use Nargarjuna’s ideas of synthesizing extremes to find a middle way in reconciling opposing concepts.

Other important monks in this period include Dao An (312-385 c.e.) and Hui Yuan (344-416 C.E.). Dao An was important for collecting many disciples, whom he repeatedly scattered to many points in southern China, and for compiling the first catalog of the Chinese sutras, in 374 c.e. Dao An lived the final 15 years of his life in the northern capital of Chang An, where he urged the ruler to invite the eminent translator Kumarajiva to China.

One of Dao An’s best-known disciples was Hui Yuan, who settled in Mt. Lu (Lu Shan) in present-day Jiangxi Province. The local governor built a monastery there for Hui Yuan, the Donglin Si (Eastern Grotto Temple), c. 386. Hui Yuan carried on a stimulating correspondence with Kumara-jiva, which covered in particular questions of the nature of the dharmakaya, the body of the dharma. Hui Yuan’s community on Lu Shan was the first to begin the worship of Amitabha and vow to be reborn in Amitabha’s Western Paradise.

A final eminent monk of this period was Dao Sheng (c. 360-434). He had visited Hui Yuan on Lu Shan and had worked with Kumarajiva’s translation bureau. He finally settled in Lu Shan. Dao Sheng was most interested in the Nirvana Sutra, a text from the Pali canon that was translated three times into Chinese. Dao Sheng taught and wrote on many key concepts taken from the Nirvana Sutra. Such concepts as sudden enlightenment,the idea that all beings have Buddha nature, and the idea of the true self in turn strongly influenced later Chinese Buddhism. Dao Sheng’s teachings led to the development of a Nirvana school, which eventually was absorbed into the Tian Tai school in the 600s.


In southern China the long-lasting Jin dynasty was finally overthrown in 420 c.e., and a succession of shorter-lived dynasties took over. in the north the non-Chinese tribes such as the Toba Wei (386534), a Turkish tribe, continued to rule. There Buddhism continued to have a political function. Its political prominence was great, and it attracted as a result significant criticism. At this time northern China experienced the first of four major periods of persecution. Emperor Wu (Dai Wudi) (423-452), the third Toba Wei ruler, issued three increasingly harsh edicts related to Buddhism. in the first, in 438 c.e., the emperor ordered that no men below 50 were allowed to become monks. His final edict of 446 stated that all temples, stu-PAs, and murals connected to Buddhism should be destroyed by the army, and Buddhism should be eradicated. Political intrigue, including the desires of Daoist and Confucian adversaries, were behind much of the strict treatment. Buddhism was easily restored to its previous position of prominence when Emperor Wu died in 452. However, this repression was to set a precedent for more severe repressions of Buddhism.

These periods of repression are traditionally seen as turning points in Buddhism’s fortunes. In 574-577 Emperor Hou Zhu (r. 565-577, also called Gao Wei), of the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577), banned Buddhism. The actions taken were fairly standard for other persecutions as well. Monks were defrocked and forced to return to the lay life, to dress in everyday clothing, and to marry. Many monasteries and temples were destroyed, lands were confiscated, and wealth was appropriated. Daoism or Confucianism was declared to be a superior doctrine. Not long after the emperor died, Buddhism made a recovery and was reinstated in the imperial favor.

The most serious persecution occurred later, under Emperor Wuzong (r. 841-847) of the Tang (618-907 C.E.). In what is called today the Hui Chang persecution, the emperor ordered the destruction of all Buddhist temples and monasteries, and the defrocking of all monks and nuns. Since the Tang ruled all of China, this persecution was the most widespread of all. it was over in 846, however, and many establishments were restored.

What such persecutions tell us is that Buddhism had found a place in Chinese economic and ideological life, as well as in the political arena. Buddhism was more often than not a unifying ideology. The Sui dynasty (589-618), which unified China, north and south, was strongly Buddhist. Emperor Wen (r. 589-605) actually explained his actions in terms of carrying out the Buddhist Dharma, or mission. He was most likely mimicking the actions of the Indian emperor Asoka, who proclaimed the truths of Buddhism throughout his empire. And many individual emperors and empresses of subsequent dynasties followed Buddhism.

Overall it is clear that by the end of the period of disunity, 220-589 c.e., Buddhism had grown from a minority, imported religion into a force affecting all areas of Chinese life. The political disunity probably helped Buddhism’s spread. And the use of spells and charms, especially in the north, made Buddhism more popular among the common people. The monasteries also served as an escape from military service for many young men. And Buddhism’s message of salvation through cultivation attracted many caught in hopelessness. Buddhism taught that meritorious deeds would accumulate and reduce negative karma. in addition all creatures possessed Buddha nature, so regardless of social standing all could achieve release from suffering.

Although Buddhism was never again to be a state religion, its influence within Chinese culture was now ingrained. No longer could it be seen as a foreign system. It was instead an aspect of social life to be regulated and recognized, not ignored or suppressed. Buddhism had arrived.


One sign of this presence was the empire’s effort to control Buddhist rules. In both the Tang and the later Five Dynasties (907-960) new rules were put into place to fix entry into the sangha. A person who desired to become a monk was required to lecture on the sutras, practice concentration (Buddhist meditation), memorize a text, compose an essay, and comment on a passage. A person who passed the examination would then be given an ordination certificate and was considered a sramana, or novice. Some would then proceed to become full bhlksus, although most monks remained at the sramanera level. Ordination was also possible through imperial declaration and through the purchase of certificates, which began in 1067. Such sales were especially popular during the Song (960-1279) dynasty.

Within temples several standard functions appeared. The most senior were the abbot, the rector, and the superintendent. Below them were various department heads, including controller, steward, and accountant.

Monks and the monasteries in which they lived were actually important economic centers. They always had substantial lands under cultivation. Some were involved in trade and even mon-eylending. Any property owned by a monk would pass to the sangha upon his death, so, as did the Catholic Church in Europe, the Buddhist sangha in China inevitably became a wealthy entity. In the Tang period, Buddhist temples also handled many aspects of economic production, including rolling mills (used to make flour), hostels, and pawnshops.

Temples were categorized as being contemplation temples (mainly those practicing Chan Buddhism), doctrinal temples, and vinaya, or regulation-focused, temples.

The government had an official bureaucracy set up to manage Buddhism and its assets. The earliest bureau was set up by the Northern Wei dynasty in 396 c.e. By the later part of the Tang dynasty a nonmonk was put in charge of Buddhist affairs. The office of the commissioner of religion is mentioned as early as 774 c.e.


By the Song dynasty (960-1279) and beyond. Buddhism had become a popular religion. This means simply that it was an accepted part of everyday life for people of the lower stratum of society as well as for the upper classes. We saw that Buddhism initially appealed to the learned classes, and that monks were often from the ranks of the ruling classes. Temples and Buddhist towers dotted the landscape in all regions of China.

Buddhism’s presence at the popular level is reflected in several areas. First were the popular festivals. Second were the many gods and deities worshipped by people, in Buddhist temples or outside. Finally, there is evidence of songs and stories with Buddhist themes.

Buddhist Festivals in China The major festivals were observed already in the Tang dynasty by the Japanese monk Ennin. These include the Lantern Festival, the Buddha’s Birthday, and Ullambana.

During the Lantern Festival, held on the 14th, 15th, and 16th of the first (lunar) month, the people would light lanterns and parade throughout the city or town streets. Temples competed with each other to build the most extravagant light structures, a practice still maintained in Tibet.

Popular Gods of Buddhism By the Song dynasty (960-1279 c.e.) the full range of Buddhist deities had more or less solidified and become ingrained at all levels of society. And these deities did not always correspond to those popular during Buddhism’s initial entry into China. Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, for instance, was not so popular by the Song period and had been overshadowed by the popularity of Amitabha and Guan Yin. Another popular figure was Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, usually depicted as a fat, laughing Buddha. These deities were all imported from India and Central Asia, but over the centuries in China they became associated with other local figures and traditions. Guan Yin, originally Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, a male figure, in China became associated with feminine images of childbearing and devotion and to this day has remained a female figure, often pictured with children and dressed in white.

A Chinese original deity figure who has remained popular in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist circles since Song times is Ji Gong. Ji Gong was originally a reclusive monk living in Hangzhou, one of the Song capitals. He was often seen drunk, disorderly, or acting crazy. Because of this he was called "Crazy Ji" and, after his death, worshipped as an enlightened being who, seeing the unreality of the everyday world, chose to ignore the false realities of that conventional world.Worshipper before an image of Guan Yin, the Chinese Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, at Jing An Temple, downtown Shanghai, China

Worshipper before an image of Guan Yin, the Chinese Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, at Jing An Temple, downtown Shanghai, China

The indigenous deity figures were increasingly mixed with the imported Buddhist deities and worshipped side by side in temples. This form of religiosity—indiscriminate mixing at the popular level—is common in Chinese religious practice. At the popular level all religious traditions continue to learn from and borrow from one another to this day.

Buddhist Stories and Folklore Buddhist storytelling lies at the heart of literature during the Tang period (618-907 c.e.). In this period, the recitation of stories, done at temples, often on feast days, was the only way popular audiences could learn about Buddhist ideas. This oral art developed into a form of literature called bian wen, "texts of marvelous events." The core event is usually taken from a Buddhist sutra, then embellished with additional events and characters. The two most popular bian wen were stories taken from the Vimalakirti Sutra and those revolving around Maudgalyayana’s journey to save his mother.

By the later imperial periods, the Ming (13681644) and Qing (1644-1911), Buddhism was thoroughly mixed and reflected in popular culture, in both drama and, increasingly, fiction. The character of Maitreya, the laughing Buddha, often appeared in plays. Maudgalyayana’s filial piety was a constant theme in plays performed on feast days, usually on stages set up in front of temples. And Xiyouji (Journey to the West), an adventure novel based loosely on the Tang monk Xuan Zong’s famous trip to India, was a frequent subject of dramas. The impact of Buddhist ideas is also seen clearly in printed literature, especially the popular novel, which expanded rapidly in the Ming. Today Buddhist themes continue to be mixed with such popular forms as martial arts literature.

Religious Societies Popular religiosity also led to the spread of folk-level religious groups not part of the officially recognized Buddhist sangha, or community of monks. These religious hui (societies) have been a constant part of Buddhism. But with the increasing popularity of Buddhism at the lower levels of society they became more significant.

Religious societies were often established to promote Buddhist ideas actively, much as missionary societies were established in 19th-century Europe and America. Some were of the nature of cults, meant to focus on the veneration of one certain deity, such as Amitabha. Others even took on political tasks, a feature of Chinese society back at least to Han times (226 B.C.E.-220 c.e.). However the majority existed simply to promote Buddhist ideas and practices. Members were encouraged to donate to new temples or support Buddhist art. Many of the cave temples at Yun Gang and Long Men, created during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 c.e.), were financed by groups of lay (nonmonk) Buddhists. other groups joined together to recite sutras or organize feasts. They were often guided by monks and associated closely with temples. And they all engaged in some form of welfare activity.

By the Song period (960-1290 c.e.) popular Buddhist practice at times appeared to be more widespread than sangha/temple-based Buddhism. And that is certainly the case today, to some extent. However, such activities cannot exist without interaction with the living sangha, the groups of monks fully devoted to the Buddha’s message.


We have seen already that two early schools, the Dhyana and the Prajna, were influential in early Buddhism in China. These two trends later interacted with the massive translation efforts undertaken in the early period of China’s interaction with Buddhism and led to the development of several clearly distinguishable schools. Scholars normally speak of eight Schools of Chinese Buddhism; the Tantric school is also sometimes added as a ninth. These eight are the Three Stages (San Jie) school, the Lu or Disciplinary (Vinaya) school, the Kosa (Abhidharma-kosa) school, the Tian Tai school, the Hua Yan (Avatamsaka) school, the Fa Xiang (Characteristics of Dharma) school, Pure Land, and Chan (in Japanese, Zen). By far the most influential of these, in terms of both historical and contemporary Buddhism, are Tian Tai, Hua Yan, Pure Land, and Chan. These four schools are covered in depth in individual articles. The other schools are of relatively historical interest only. (Tantric exists today in China, but mainly in forms imported from Tibetan Buddhism.)

Buddha image at Le Shan, Sichuan, western China, reproducing the original statue at the Yun Gang Caves, in northern Shaanxi, originally carved fifth to sixth centuries c.e.

Buddha image at Le Shan, Sichuan, western China, reproducing the original statue at the Yun Gang Caves, in northern Shaanxi, originally carved fifth to sixth centuries c.e.

After the Hui Chang persecution of Buddhism in 845 C.E., most Buddhist schools lost influence and faded away. only Pure Land and Chan remained as the two pillars of Chinese Buddhism. The others, especially Tian Tai and Hua Yan, while influential and admired, do not survive as separate organizations within the larger Chinese sangha.

The Le Shan Buddha, built into the mountainside and carved out of rock, near the congruence of the Minji-ang Dadu and Qingyi Rivers, Sichuan, western China, dating from 1312 and said to be the largest stone-carved Buddha image

The Le Shan Buddha, built into the mountainside and carved out of rock, near the congruence of the Minji-ang Dadu and Qingyi Rivers, Sichuan, western China, dating from 1312 and said to be the largest stone-carved Buddha image


Given the many persecutions of Buddhism in Chinese history, it is sobering to learn that by far the most damaging occurred during the modern era, that period after the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1911, for it was under the influence of modern concepts that Buddhism experienced sustained criticism.

The republican government that took shape in the precommunist years, roughly 1927-49, was based on the ideas of the Chinese Renaissance, a movement in favor of modernity and science, and critical of traditional beliefs. Proponents of these ideas looked to the West, and, to some extent, modernized Japan, as role models for China. They saw Buddhism, Daoism, and the entire edifice of traditional structures that supported the imperial system, from examinations based on the Confucian classics to traditional dress, as backward and as obstacles to development.

As a result the new republican regime was highly critical of Buddhism’s "preferential" position in the traditional scheme of things. in particular the government focused on the economic aspect of monasteries. Monasteries in the later part of the Qing dynasty continued to be independent entities that owned land and farmed. A simple solution to this "parasitic" relationship was to take over temple lands and convert them to other uses. A movement began to seize Buddhist monasteries and convert the buildings to public schools. While the movement did not go to the extreme of total expropriation, it was a widespread shock to the traditional relation between Buddhism and society.

Buddhism continued to flourish as a popular religion, of course. And there were exemplary monks and leaders during this brief period of republican rule. Foremost was Tai Xu (T’ai Hsu, 1889-1947), a monk who spoke up to protect temple properties. Tai Xu was well traveled and educated. He started the Wu Chang Buddhist Institute in central China in 1922 to train a new generation of leaders. And he vigorously promoted the revival of the idealist school of Buddhist philosophy, based on the Fa Xiang teachings popular from the Tang dynasty.

Unfortunately no leaders of Tai Xu’s caliber were allowed to rise up in the early communist years. And more shocks were ahead. With the advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Buddhism (as well as other religions) was singled out for additional measures. From 1950 Buddhism was deemed to be a feudal superstition, and abbots were treated as landlords; they did in fact traditionally often lease out land to tenants. Common monks were equated with the proletariat or peasants, while higher levels of monks were equated with the corrupt social classes, businessmen and landlords. in 1951 a land reform movement confiscated all land held by Buddhist temples, as well as ancestral halls in most villages. This move finally cut the economic legs out from the traditional support structure for Buddhism. Thereafter the remaining temples became completely dependent on government support. A Chinese Buddhist Association established in 1953, for the first time in history, gave central organization to Buddhist groups and temples in China. It also allowed complete control by the central government.

The association today publishes newsletters, communicates with international Buddhist groups, and carries out some research. It has always followed central government policy on important issues, such as the status of Buddhism and the worship of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. As we have seen, central control over Buddhist institutions is not new in Chinese history and is not in itself a cause for worry. The greater issue in the post-1949 religious scene has been the depletion of trained clergy. Monks were forced into lay life or not allowed to teach widely, and new monks were either not recruited or given very little instruction.

At around the same time the Cultural Revolution period in China, 1967-76, severely damaged many Buddhist temples, images, and works of art. Cave frescoes were defaced. Buddha images were decapitated. Although this period of sporadic anarchy was brought under control, and rebuilding has also been constant since, to this day one runs into people who point out the extensive damage that occurred to Buddhism’s legacy so recently. The Cultural Revolution is not widely discussed today in China, as the nation focuses on economic growth, yet for Buddhism it was without a doubt a great tragedy.

Since 1979, when China adopted an outward-looking approach to growth and economic integration, religious sites have been restored and the sangha has started to grow again. Local Buddhist activities have been widely allowed, and state control has relaxed. New temples, often built with overseas contributions, sprout up constantly, especially in Fujian and Henan provinces. Training for new monks is improving. It is thus not necessary to allow the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution to color our reading of Buddhism in the future. There is certainly the potential for strong grassroots forms of Buddhism to flourish once again in China.


Chinese Buddhism today exists as one single, broad stream, a tradition from which all Chinese culture learns. At the level of ideas certain philosophical concepts such as karma and merit making have passed into every corner of awareness. The language is also full of Buddhist-inspired phrases, just as the literature is filled with Buddhist stories and deities. Chinese regularly use such words as gongde (merit), pusa (bodhisattva), and kuhai (bitter sea), all of which are originally Buddhist. Chinese art and architecture would be unrecognizable without its Buddhist color. The pagoda, an elaboration of the Buddhist stupa, is a typical East Asian building form. Landscape painting is as much Buddhist as it is Daoist, and poetry owes a great debt to the massive influence of vivid Buddhist ideas. In terms of cultural attainment Buddhism has inspired Chinese people to an amazing level of creativity.

Buddhism has also deeply influenced all other traditional strands of Chinese thought. Daoism was hardly recognizable as a religion when Buddhism first arrived. It was so thoroughly affected by this exotic new import that it in effect modeled itself after Buddhism, organizing a corpus of canonic texts, in three parts; issuing ordination certificates for monastics; and appropriating Buddhist folklore into its own stories. As for Confucianism, its major renaissance, the lixue (or Neo-Confucian) movement of the Song (9601279 c.e.) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, was heavily influenced by Buddhist ideas. Traditional Confucian concepts were in effect redefined in terms of Buddhist abstract concepts.

Buddhism influenced the traditional Chinese practices of medicine, astronomy, and linguistics. Buddhism in fact pervaded all aspects of traditional Chinese culture and continues to influence contemporary culture, despite the vast changes of the modern period.

While Buddhism’s influence on China has been immense, we cannot simply say that China is a Buddhist country. It is in fact its own amalgamation, a creative mix unique to humanity. It is not a predominantly Buddhist culture, for Confucianism and Daoism, as well as utilitarianism and, now, industrialization, have shaped its fate in equally significant ways.

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