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Buddhism in China
Andrew Skilton

During the 1st century CE. It came from the west, from Central Asia, with merchants and Central Asian Buddhists. Unlike South-east Asia and Tibet, it was not to function as the vehicle for higher culture, since China had already acquired a high degree of literate civilization. China also had its own indigenous religions, well established in society and which, each in their own way, had some influence on the character that Buddhism was to take in their homeland. The older of these religions was Taoism, associated with a founder Lao-Tzu (b.604BCE), which was primarily concerned with the extension of life through alchemy and the worship of a pantheon of deities. The second of the indigenous systems was that of Confucianism, itself based on the ‘sayings’ of Confucius (551-497BCE), which stressed the ideals of social utility, the veneration of elders, and learning. Confucianism particularly encouraged a view of cultural superiority on the part of the Chinese, seeing no virtue whatsoever in the import of a ‘barbarian’ religion from the west, ie. India.

The first phase of Buddhist contact, up to the 4th century, made little impact upon Chinese religious life. The activities of the Buddhists, the majority being non-Chinese Central Asians, revolved largely around the translation and study of a miscellaneous stream of Buddhist texts that were imported via the western trade routes. Up to 220CE this activity was centered on a monastery in Lo Yang, where meditation manuals, complied by the meditation masters of Kashmir and north-western India and largely concerned with the meditation practices typical of the non-Mahayana schools, were thought to resonate with the indigenous. Taoist interest in mental and physical alchemical techniques. The first sutra to be translated at this period was the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections. Foremost among those involved in this work was An Shih-kao, a Parthian, who arrived in Lo Yang c.148, and worked with a team of non-Mahayana monks. However, he did have contemporaries who were engaged in translating Mahayana sutras, notably An-hsuan, another Parthian, and Lokaksema, an Indo-scythian (post-168), eleven of whose translations have survived. Translations from this early period all suggest a minority interest, perhaps from amongst some fringe cult groups, and in which there was probably no clear differentiation between lay and ordained. After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220, the situation changed and many more translations were made, including those of numerous Mahayana sutras. However, little is known of Buddhism in this period other than that it was not the interest of the educated Chinese upper classes. Less still is known of the early Buddhist centers at Peng Cheng (on the lower Yangtze River) in east China, and at Chiao Chou in southern China (now in North Vietnam). There is little doubt that the latter must have been initiated through sea trade contact with southern Asia, and it is possible that the same source accounts for the eastern centre too.

A second phase of development was initiated by the collapse of the northern part of the Chinese empire under the hands of Hun invaders, c.320. The Chinese court fled to the south, and until the end of the 6th century China was divided between numerous unstable regimes. In the contrasting atmospheres of these two regions Buddhism made great advances. In the northern region, ruled by various foreign dynasties, Buddhism, itself a foreign religion, could oppose the pro-Chinese Confucianism, and so had considerable appeal. As a result it received royal encouragement (albeit with the usual attendant problems of close association with the state). For this reason, in the northern region, the foreignness of Buddhism was less problematic, and the translation and study of Indian source materials continued, even though this emphasized the non-Chinese origins of Buddhism. This was facilitated by the proximity of Central Asia, which still functioned as the main route for the introduction of Buddhism to China. By the 5th century 30,000 monasteries were recorded, housing 2,000,000 monks. Particularly notable was the arrival in Chang-an of the Kuchean monk Kumarajiva, the first translator competent in all the necessary languages, who organized a large and prolific translation bureau and introduced Indian Madhyamaka Buddhism to China.

In the south, however, a brilliant indigenous cultural life, a downturn in the fortunes of Confucianism, and the growth of interest in Taoism, combined with the physical suffering caused by the political situation, stimulated a vibrant and open-minded intellectual life in which Buddhism became attractive to the educated Chinese upper class for the first time. This was helped by the physical isolation from contacts with the west via Central Asia, which discouraged any emphasis upon the Indian origins of Buddhism (something less acceptable in the Chinese-ruled south), and resulted in forms of Buddhism in which Buddhist doctrines had been more thoroughly integrated with Chinese ideas. For the first time indigenous forms of Chinese Buddhism had begun to appear. An interesting consequence of the lack of direct contact with Indian Buddhism was that Chinese Buddhists, reading the chapter on meat-eating from the Lankavatara Sutra, understood strict vegetarianism to be part of the Vinaya rule. By c.400 there were almost 2,000 monasteries in the south, and for the first time Buddhism began to become the target of bitter Confucian attempts to have the ‘barbarian’ religion expelled from the country. The high point of Buddhist popularity in the south was marked by the emperor Wu (502-549CE) who became a Buddhist layman, banned Taoism, and forbade animal sacrifice. It was also during this period that the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the founder of the Chan school, came to China.

The first phase in the development of Chinese Buddhism coincides with the reunification of northern and southern regions under the Sui And Tang dynasties, from the 6th to the 10th centuries. At this point the two tendencies identified in the second phase of development began to intermingle. Unification also meant that Central Asia could once more act as a corridor for the transmission of Buddhist ideas from the west to the heart of China, which it continued to do until this route was cut by Muslim incursions in the mid-7th century. Overland access encouraged a resurgence of Chinese pilgrims journeying to India, including Hsuan-tsang (629-645CE). Once the overland route was cut, such journeys were made by sea, via South-east Asia, as did I-Tsing (635-713CE). Whilst the end of the period was marked by a severe repression of Buddhism by resurgent Confucian and Taoist forces, it is generally regarded as the high water mark of Buddhism in China, during which it exercised its deepest degree of influence upon Chinese culture, and received the greatest amount of patronage within society. It was during this period that a number of Chinese Buddhist schools appeared. Generally speaking, these fell into two main groupings. There were those based around the teachings (which usually meant the texts) of Indian Buddhist schools and teachers, and there were those that were the product of native Chinese genius.


Various Indian Buddhist schools, familiar from our discussion of Indian Buddhism, were transplanted to China in more ore less the same form as they had acquired in India. These included the San-lun tsung, literally, ‘Three Treatise School’, founded by Kumarajiva and based on three Madhyamaka treatises by Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, and the Fa-hsiang tsung or Yogacarin School, founded by Hsuan-tsang in 645 on his return from India with the Trimsika or ‘Treatise in Thirty Verses’ of Vasubandhu. Less significant were the Chu-she tsung or ‘(Abhidharma-)Kosa School’, founded after, and concerned with, the exposition of the translation of Paramartha, c.565, of the Abhidharmakosa, and the Lu tsung or ‘Disciplinary School’, founded by Tao-hsuan in the 7th century and concerned with the exposition of the monastic Vinaya. The Tantra was also introduced into China by three Indian monks in the 8th century, though it was not influential, and thought to be indecent by the Chinese on account of the sexual imagery of the higher tantras.


One of the unique problems facing Chinese Buddhists was the enormous influx of textual material from all periods of Buddhist development, all claiming to represent the true, ultimate teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha. Clearly there was an urgent need to assimilate this diverse material, to reconcile the varying and sometimes apparently contradictory teachings it contained, and identify the one basic truth taught by the Buddha. Unlike Tibet, China did not directly benefit from the systematizing activities of the great monastic universities of the Pala period (c.760 onward), since overland access to northern India was cut in the 7th century, significantly reducing the contact it was possible for China to have with the Indian mainstream. Moreover, unlike their Pala counterparts, the Chinese monks worked under the disadvantage of using translations, rather than texts composed in their native tongue. The characteristic Chinese response to this challenge tended to take one of two forms. On the one hand, some teachers founded schools based on the teaching of a single sutra, which was regarded as proclaiming the ultimate truth, with all the other teachings of the Buddha, regarded as upaya, graded into a hierarchy beneath this in a schema known as a pan chiao. This response paralleled that of the mainstream Indian schools, in that, like them, these Chinese schools grew out of the exposition of particular sutras. On the other hand, and in contrast to the first approach, there was the teaching of a direct path to Enlightenment which transcended doctrinal debates and represented a radical rejection of the value of scholasticism. The former tendency gave rise to the main scholastic schools of Chines Buddhism, such as the Hua-yen and Tien-tai, whilst the latter is exemplified by Chan, and perhaps to a lesser extent by Ching-tu.


This school was named after the abode, Mount Tien-tai, of its founder Chih-i (538-597CE). As the result of his pioneering pan chiao work, Chih-i came to the conclusion that the Lotus Sutra was the final, ultimate teaching of the Buddha. All sutras, he said, were propounded by the Buddha in one of five chronological stages. The first stage was that of the preaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which lasted three weeks, the second was that of the Agamas, which lasted twelve years, the third was that of the Vaipulya sutras, which lasted eight years, the fourth, that of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, lasted twenty-two years, and the fifth stage was that of the Lotus and Mahaparinirvana Sutras, which were the final utterances of the Buddha before his parinirvana. The inclusion of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra with the Lotus Sutra was necessary because it was by definition and by tradition the discourse delivered immediately before the Buddha’s parinirvana.

Chih-i reasoned that, since the Lotus Sutra was too sublime for the understanding of some disciples, the Buddha had also provided the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. The association of these two sutras meant that something of the latter’s Tathagatagarbha doctrine was assimilated to the principal teachings of the Lotus Sutra, along with classic Yogacara teachings, including a version of the trisvabhava doctrine known as the ‘threefold truth’. Particularly characteristic of the Tien-tai synthesis was the teaching of the interpenetration of all existent things in all the different realms. This is so because all things partake of a single organic unity, which is the One Mind - in its defiled state producing the phenomena of the mundane world, in its pure state Buddhahood. The ultimate conclusion to which this trend leads was reached by the Ninth Patriarch of the Tien-tai School, Chan-jan (711-782CE), who taught that since everything was a manifestation of the one absolute mind, all things, even dust grains an blade of grass, contain the Buddha-nature.


The Hua-Yen School has as founder Fa-tsang (643-712CE), who like Chih-i propounded a pan chiao schema, but in which the final, ultimate teaching of the Buddha was the Avatamsaka Sutra. The basic teachings of the Hua-yen School are set out in a treatise composed by Fa-tsang, entitled Essay on the Golden Lion. This title refers to an incident in which summoned by the empress Tse-tien to explain the teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra, Fa-tsang used a statuette of a golden lion to demonstrate the fundamental principles of the sutra. The gold, he explained, is like the li, or noumenon (also identified with Buddha-nature), which is the inherently pure, complete, luminous essence which is mind, while the form of the lion is like the shih, or phenomenon (dharma). Fa-tsang was himself influenced by a text called the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, and seems to have understood the ultimate teaching to be something very similar to the Tathagatargarbha doctrine expounded there. The li has no particular form of its own. It is empty of own-nature (savbhava), though it always takes some form, in accordance with conditions, and it is these forms that are shih or ‘phenomena’ (dharmas). This means that all phenomena (dharmas), whilst remaining distinct, are the full and perfect expression of the noumenon (Buddha-nature). Moreover, all phenomena (dharmas) are therefore mutually identified and interpenetrated by all other phenomena because, as all phenomena are noumenon (which is single and indivisible), it means that each phenomenon is all phenomena, because each phenomenon is a part of something which is indivisible. Since this is so hard to grasp, Fa-tsang illustrated this principle with the example of a Buddha image placed between ten inward facing mirrors. The image is reflected in the mirrors, as are those reflections, and the reflections of the reflections, and so on, revealing an infinite, mutually interconnected web of identity.

Because Hua-yen teaches that Buddha-nature is already present in all beings, and furthermore that, through the interpenetration and identity of all things, Buddhahood is present right from the start of one’s spiritual career, it also taught sudden Enlightenment. Enlightenment already exists, and is not caused by cumulative spiritual practice. This does not mean that spiritual practice was abandoned by followers of Hua-yen, but more that it was seen as a provisional expedient which helped to uncover what was really there. Because of this advocacy of sudden Awakening, Hua-yen is sometimes seen as the philosophical underpinning of Chan.


Chan is the Chinese pronunciation of the Indian word dhyana/jhana, ‘meditative absorption’, and the Chan School was oriented around the practice of meditation. Whilst its inception is attributed to an Indian monk called Bodhidharma (c.470-520CE), it traces back from him a lineage of masters, each Enlightened by a direct, mind to mind transmission derived from Kahakasyapa, who, according to legend, reaching Awakening when he saw Sakyamuni silently holding up a flower. Bodhidharma is counted as the First Chinese Patriarch. The Sixth Patriarch was the famous Hui Neng (638-713CE), who story and teachings are contained in the Platform Sutra, complied c.820. His status as Patriarch was disputed, and it appears that Chan divided into several lineage’s or transmissions during the Tang dynasty. The most important of these transmissions were the Lin-chi, which emphasizes sudden Awakening and the use of kung-an (Japanese, koan), and the Tsao-tung, which advocated ‘just sitting’ meditation and a gradual path to Enlightenment. The kung-an, or ‘public record’, is an account of an historical dialogue between an Awakened master and a disciple which led to that disciple’s Awakening. Often these are highly paradoxical. In practice they are assigned to individual students for contemplation by their master. If skillfully chosen such contemplation can lead the student to an experience of Awakening. The Chan schools developed a distinctive monastic rule over and above the Vinaya, which particularly emphasized work as an integral part of the monks’ daily life. The emphasis in Chan is on personal Awakening, less stress being placed on the Bodhisattva ideal. Despite the emphasis on meditative experience unmediated by intellect and learning, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras are particularly important for the Chan schools, though the Lankavatara, Surangama, and Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutras are also widely used and respected, and a connection is often made between Chan and Hua-yen.


Whilst the Chan traditions stressed the personal effort or ‘self power’ required to gain Enlightenment, Ching-tu stressed its opposite, ‘other power’. The ‘other power’ referred to here is the effort made by the Buddha Amitabha. Ching-tu means ‘the field which purifies’ and is the Chinese translation of Pure Land. Ching-tu is the school of Pure Land Buddhism, based upon the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutras. Its roots go back to the earliest transmission of Buddhism to China in the 2nd century, and the practice of the worship of Amitabha is by no means restricted to Ching-tu, but its foundation as a school is attributed to its First Patriarch, Tan-luan (476-542CE), who was converted from Taoism by the Buddhist monk Bodhiruci in 530. His treatises on the worship of Amitabha form the core of Ching-tu doctrine. The goal of this school is to gain rebirth in Sukhavati, the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha, so all practices are oriented towards this end. These include prostration, nien fo, reflection upon Sukhavati and Amitabha, making the resolution to be reborn in Sukhavati, and the transference to others of merit gained. Nien fo, the ‘invocation of the Buddha’ involves the repetition of the phrase nan-mo a mi-to fo, ‘Homage to Amitabha Buddha’. Attention was also concentrated on Avalokitesvara, as the Bodhisattva emanation of Amitabha, whose name was translated as Kuan Yin, ‘The Hearer of Sounds’. By a popular confusion with his Tantric consort, Pandaravasini, who is depicted clad in white, Kuan Yin came to be depicted as a white clad female figure.


The final phase of development of Chinese Buddhism was initiated by the vigorous persecution under the Taoist emperor Wu-tsung in 845. Neither the Tien-tai nor the Hua-yen schools survived, probably because of their dependence on monastic specialists who bore the brunt of the persecution. Chan and Ching-tu, with their more popular followings, survived and slowly recuperated, finding their place in an increasingly Confucianized society, in the company of Confucianism and Taoism, and at the popular level in a fusion of all three. During a short period of Mongol rule (1215-1368) Tantric Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to the former Chin (northern) and Sung (southern) courts, where it continued to be patronized (during the Ching dynasty) after the Mongol influence had ceased, largely for the sake of political claims towards Tibet and Mongolia. The Ming dynasty (1368-1662), initiated by Chu Yuan-chang, who linked the new imperial dynasty with the arrival of the next Buddha, Maitreya, gave some support to Chan and Chung-tu, and their popularization. The early Ching dynasty (1662-1911) patronized the Tibetan Buddhism of the dGe-lugs Order, originally introduced during the Mongol period although it remained the cult of the Imperial court. The Tai-ping or ‘Great Peace’ rebellion of 1851-64 in southern China, which espoused a form of Protestant Christian theism was virulently anti-Manchu (the ruling Ching dynasty), and as a result disastrously persecuted all Buddhist institutions within the territory that it seized, with the consequence that Buddhism had to be reintroduced from Japan. The late 19th century saw a revival of Chinese Buddhism, led by Tai-hsu (1899-1947), in reaction to contacts with modern industrial powers and Christian missions to China.

From an early period, beginning with Tao-an in 347, the Chinese had catalogued the Buddhist texts that had been translated into Chinese. Eighteen such catalogues survive to the present day. The Chinese Tripitaka is enormous, since, where there were several translations of a single sutra, all would be included - unlike Tibet, where variant translations were standardized and duplications survive by accident rather than design. The Chinese invented printing in the 8th century, and this was used for the reproduction of sutras. The oldest known printed book in the world is a copy of the Diamond Sutra or Vajracchedika. The first complete printed edition of the Tripitaka was produced towards the end of the 9th century. Texts of different classes are arranged together in the Chinese Tripitaka, the sutras (early and Mahayana) coming first, but no definitive organizational principle was devised for the Chinese canon.

Transcribed by Lydia Quang Nhu; Source: http://www.quangduc.com/


Updated: 1-12-2000

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