Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History
#3: The Developmental History of Buddhism in China
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Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History #3: The Developmental History of Buddhism in China
Since the Han dynasty, Buddhism has had a profound impact on Chinese history, culture and society. Although Buddhism did not originate in China, its position in history is as prominent as Taoism and Confucianism, with the three religions often forming the umbrella term sanjiao. After undergoing sustained periods of translation and scholarship, and gradually integrating with China’s indigenous culture, Buddhism formed various schools and sects characterised by different ethnic groups, and spread to regions such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
The developmental process of Buddhism is in fact extremely complicated, and scholars hold a number of different views. Since most listeners of this podcast Beginner’s Guide to Chinese History are beginning students of Chinese history, today we will simply discuss some basic facts. If our listeners would like to learn more about the history of Buddhism, they can check out Baidu or Wikipedia to read the relevant materials.
Buddhism originated in the Ganges region of India, and is one of the three major world religions. During the Maurya Empire of ancient India (322-185 BC), Emperor Ashoka made Buddhism the state religion, constructed large numbers of stupas, and on cliff faces and stone pillars inscribed decrees, most of which promoted Buddhism.
Thereafter, Buddhism started to spread throughout the South Asian Subcontinent. At the same time, Ashoka sent Buddhist monks and nuns to neighbouring countries to do missionary work – in the East, to modern-day Myanmar; in the South, to modern-day Sri Lanka; in the West, to modern-day Syria and Egypt; and in the North, to modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. This gradually allowed Buddhism to become a global religion.
During its development and dissemination, Buddhism gradually formed two branches – the Southern and Northern branches. The Southern branch includes Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and the Dai ethnic minority region of Yunnan province, China. This branch is categorised as Theravada Buddhism, commonly known as Hinayana. The Northern branch, which includes China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia and Vietnam, is commonly known as Mahayana.
As for the development of Buddhism in China, due to differences in time, method and region of introduction, three branches of Buddhism were formed. The first, Chinese Buddhism, was disseminated and recorded in the Chinese language. The second, Tibetan Buddhism, was disseminated and recorded in the Tibetan language. The third, Theravada Buddhism of the Yunnan region, was disseminated and recorded in the Pali language.
During the reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty (141-87 BC), there was a famous adventurer by the name of Zhang Qian who was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Western Regions (that is, the regions west of Yumen Pass, namely, Central Asia).
When Zhang Qian travelled to the ancient Central Asian region of Bactria, he saw goods being transported for sale to Tianzhu (that is, ancient India). This demonstrates that there was already exchange between the peoples of China and India at that time. It is possible that Buddhism was introduced to the regions in which Han people lived in the same way, although when and how it spread is still a point of contention.
Recent archaeological data has revealed images of the Buddha in Han dynasty tombs in Sichuan province, while in Jiangsu province there have been discoveries of cliff engravings of the Buddha belonging to the Eastern Han period. Furthermore, according to historical records, during the early Eastern Han period (circa 65), there were mentions of the Buddha in imperial edicts presented to the king of the state of Chu. All of this demonstrates that Buddhism had already found its way to China by that time.
According to legend, the introduction of Buddhism to China began during the late Western Han period (2 BC). At the time there was an ancient state by the name of the Greater Yuezhi. Its King sent monks to transmit the Buddhist scriptures to the court academician Jing Lu by oral transmission. However, the actual content of those scriptures is lost to history. The Sutra of Forty-two Chapters, which was retrieved from the Western Regions during the reign of Emperor Ming of Han (58-75), is considered the first Buddhist scripture introduced to China.
The regions in which Buddhism spread in China centred on Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an, Shaanxi province) and Luoyang (Henan province). There were those at the time who believed that Buddhism was a kind of supernatural art, like that of Taoism. As a result, Emperor Huan of Han offered sacrifices to the Yellow Emperor, Laozi and Buddha simultaneously.
During the Three Kingdoms period, Tianzhu, Anxi and Kangju (that is, modern-day India, Iran and Central Asia) sent Sramanas (Buddhist monks) to the Wei capital Luoyang to work on the translation of Buddhist scriptures. Eminent monks journeyed to the Wu capital Jianye (modern-day Nanjing, Jiangsu province) to promote Buddhist teachings. They received a courteous reception by the emperor of Wu, were acknowledged as court academicians and allowed to build pagodas.
During the Southern Dynasties period, the emperors of the Song, Qi, Liang and Chen period mostly revered Buddhism. This was especially the case for Emperor Wu of Liang, who was a fervent believer of the religion. He was prepared to give up his status as emperor several times to become a monk. Afterwards, the imperial government persuaded him to return to continue on as emperor, the price being a generous bestowal to the temple. Emperor Wu of Liang established a large number of temples, and even preached the scriptures himself.
During the Liang dynasty, there were 2,846 temples and around 82,700 Buddhist monks and nuns. In Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing, Jiangsu province) there were around 700 major temples and approximately 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. Although there were incidents during the Northern Dynasties in which Buddhism was banned, generally speaking, successive emperors advocated the religion.
During the early Northern Wei dynasty, Emperor Wencheng ordered the construction of the Yungang Grottoes in Datong (in present-day Shanxi province). Emperor Xiaowen, after moving the capital to Luoyang, ordered the construction of the Longmen Grottoes to commemorate his parents. These grottoes, along with the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui – both in Gansu province – are known as the Four Major Grotto Art Treasure Troves of China. They are magnificent in form, and rich and varied in nature.
In the late Northern Wei period, there were a total of 415 scriptures and 1,919 scrolls, approximately 30,000 temples and around 2 million Buddhist monks and nuns. During the Northern Qi dynasty, there were around 4 million Buddhist monks and nuns and 40,000 temples. During the Northern and Southern dynasties period (420-589), large numbers of foreign monks came to China to propagate Buddhist teachings; a group of disciples also went to India to study.
The development of Buddhism during the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties created the conditions for the founding of Buddhist sects with Chinese characteristics during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Emperor Wen of Sui, after realising the unification of China, ordered the construction of a temple for each of the Five Sacred Mountains (namely, the central mountain Mount Song, the eastern mountain Mount Tai, the western mountain Mount Hua, the southern mountain Mount Heng in Hunan and the northern mountain Heng Shan in Shanxi). He also restored and rebuilt figures of the Buddha that had been destroyed during the period in the Northern Zhou dynasty in which Buddhism was banned.
In the capital Daxing (modern-day Xi’an, Shaanxi province), the emperor ordered the construction of the national temple Daxing Shansi which could carry out Buddhist policies. Afterwards, 111 stupas were constructed throughout the nation. Large-scale construction of translation academies also went ahead, and eminent monks were called together to begin the task of translating and expounding Buddhist scriptures.
Emperor Yang inherited the policies of Emperor Wen which allowed for the protection of Buddhism, and constructed the famous Huiri Monastery (Huiri Daochang) in Yangzhou (in modern-day Jiangsu province) to act as a centre for the propagation of Buddhism. Thus, Buddhism at that time greatly flourished. During the Renshou era (601-604), there were, throughout the nation, 3,792 major temples and 230,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. 46 scriptures made up of 328,616 scrolls were written, 3,853 sutra collections were restored and 1,508,940 figures of the Buddha were restored and rebuilt.
The Tang dynasty was a period of great prosperity for Buddhism in China. Emperors of the Tang claimed themselves the descendants of Laozi, the founder of Taoism, and thus were venerators of Taoism. Yet, in reality, most Tang emperors adopted policies in which Taoism and Buddhism ran parallel.
Emperor Taizong received help from warrior monks in the elimination of separatist forces and suppression of rebellions. After ascending the throne, he ordered the construction of temples throughout the nation, and established a scripture translation academy at the Great Monastery of Compassionate Grace (Daci’ensi). He invited both domestic and foreign monks to translate scriptures and propagate Buddhism, and trained large numbers of eminent monks and scholars.
Emperor Gaozong, after succeeding to the throne, founded national temples in the imperial capital and in each of the prefectures, and prayed for the stability of the empire. Wu Zetian ordered the establishment of Dayun temples (Dayunsi) in each of the prefectures. During the Tang dynasty, which ruled for 300 years, Buddhist monks were held in high esteem, and often received bestowals from the court. Large numbers of famous monks emerged one after the other, all of whom had a deeper understanding of Buddhism than those of previous generations. Afterwards, large numbers of different sects arose, while belief in Buddhism became popular among the common people.
The accomplishments of Buddhism, for example in the fields of architecture, engraving, painting and music, were considerable, and remarkably enriched the art of the ethnic cultures of China. There were also many eminent Buddhist monks such as Xuanzang and Yijing who made the long journey to India for study. The life stories of these great masters are also fascinating.
During the Tang dynasty, Buddhist sects from China started to spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia, all the while strengthening religious, cultural and commercial relationships between China and other countries. However, there were incidents during the 5th year of the Huichang era (845) in which Buddhism was banned. Emperor Wuzong ordered the confiscation of monastery land and property, destroyed Buddhist temples and images of the Buddha, eliminated Sramanas and compelled Buddhist monks and nuns to leave their monastic orders.
Buddhist doctrine thrived during the Sui and Tang dynasties, which facilitated the establishment of various Mahayana sects. Among them, the disciples of Hongren – Shenxiu and Huineng – established the Chan (Zen) sect, which is further broken down into the Northern and Southern Schools. Midway through the Tang dynasty, five more sects emerged within Chan Buddhism, which became known as the Five Houses of Chan, namely the Guiyang, Linji, Caodong, Yunmen and Fayan schools.
The eminent monk Fazang established the Huayan school, while Indian monks Śubhakarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, Amoghavajra and Huiguo established their own esoteric schools. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, China’s exchange with foreign countries developed at an unprecedented pace, and these sects spread overseas not long after their founding.
During the early Northern Song dynasty, the imperial court adopted policies to protect Buddhism. In the first year of the Jianlong era (960) there were 8,000 new monks. Emperor Taizu of Song continued to send people to India to study Buddhism, as well as order the woodblock printing of the Chinese Buddhist canon.
In the first year of the Taiping Xingguo era (976) there were another 170,000 new monks. After five years, the government set up translation academies and renewed the translating of the Buddhist scriptures, an undertaking that had been suspended for over 170 years since the sixth year of the Yuanhe era of the Tang dynasty (811). At the same time, the number of monks transporting scriptures from the Western Regions and India to China continued to increase; by the early Jingyou era (1034-1038) there were already around 80 of them.
In the fifth year of the Tianxi era (1021) there were almost 460,000 Buddhist monks and nuns and approximately 40,000 temples throughout China. This is generally considered the peak of the development of Buddhism during the Northern Song. In the Huizong era (1101-1125), the emperor ordered that Buddhism and Taoism be treated as one, and that Buddhist temples be converted into Daoist shrines. This was on account of the fact that the imperial court were fervent followers of Daoism.
By the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), although Buddhism in Jiangnan (that is, the region to the south of the Yangtze River) still maintained a level of prosperity and stability, due to official restrictions placed on the development of Buddhism, each of the sects started to decline, with the exception of the Chan and Pure Land sects.
Since the Chan sect did not rely on a written language or scriptures for its transmission, it was not severely impacted during the prohibition period imposed on Buddhism during the reign of Emperor Wuzong, or during the wartime chaos of the Five Dynasties period. This was also the case for the Pure Land sect, since it practiced Buddhism in a simple and straight-forward way, simply requiring followers to repeat the Amitābha mantra. Additionally, after the Liao dynasty, many Chan Buddhist monks converted to the Pure Land sect. In this way, its teachings could continue to be passed down to the present day, where it continues to thrive.
During the Song dynasty there was an extremely influential school of philosophy called Lixue (Neo-Confucianism) which had at its core the Confucian doctrine. Neo-Confucianism accepted the philosophical theories of both Buddhism and Taoism, while expounding the Three Principles and Five Virtues (that is, the ethical standards of Chinese feudal society, the Three Principles being Ruler and Subject, Father and Son and Husband and Wife, and the Five Virtues being Benevolence, Justice, Rites, Knowledge and Integrity). By the Southern Song period, Neo-Confucianism had been accepted as the official philosophy. Neo-Confucianism drew from Buddhism, for example from the Huayan and Chan sects, and this in turn enriched the content of the Buddhist canon.
The rulers of the Yuan dynasty venerated Tibetan Buddhism, but also adopted policies to protect Chinese Buddhism. Sects such as the Chan and Lüzong (Risshū) sects continued to spread and develop. There were many temples, and the number of Buddhist monks and nuns amounted to 213,000. Both the central and local governments set up special organisations – that is, a system of monk officials – to strictly supervise temples, monks and nuns. In addition, the government ordered the woodblock printing of the famous Puning Temple edition of the Buddhist canon.
After the reign of the Wanli Emperor, Buddhism was practiced by government bureaucrats and common people alike. Government bureaucrats and Buddhist monks further developed the integration of various sects, while harmonising Buddhism with Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
In the early Qing dynasty, the imperial family worshipped Tibetan Buddhism and adopted policies to restrict Chinese Buddhism. The prohibitions were somewhat relaxed during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. Eminent monks who had been living in seclusion during wartime returned to the capital, revitalising the once declining religion.
In short, Buddhism, with its origins in India, is one of the three major world religions. It spread to Central Asia around about the 1st Century AD and, thereafter, to China. After undergoing over a thousand years of doctrinal change, and integrating with the indigenous teachings of Confucianism and Taoism, it formed the Sinicized version of Buddhism we are familiar with today. Although the position of Buddhism in India has long been superseded by Hinduism, Buddhism continues to be venerated in East Asia – and especially China – and its impact on traditional Chinese culture has been profound.