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Buddhism in China

Just as Rome's official religion declined and Christianity gained during the hard times prior to its Christian emperors, so too did Confucianism decline during the chaotic times of the Han dynasty. Confucianism had been the ideology of China's gentry and aristocracy and had dominated education and the administration of the empire, but, with virtue scarce among men of power, many of China's elite came to view Confucianism's advocacy of loyalty to rulers of virtue as irrelevant, and many saw Confucianism as having failed to meet the world's challenges. Some who gave up on Confucianism switched to Taoism, and some switched to Buddhism, which according to legend had arrived in China in the year 65 in a dream by the Han emperor, Mingdi.

A rival theory holds that Buddhism had joined Hinduism in spreading eastward with trade from India, Buddhism arriving in China from across the inland trade route through central Asia during the first century. The royal Han court, it is said, welcomed Buddhism to China. But Buddhism remained isolated during the remainder of Han rule, adhered to only by Indian merchants – men who gave money and land for Buddhist temples and who used Buddhist monasteries as banks and warehouses.

The first Chinese to convert to Buddhism were those who had become tenants on Buddhist temple lands. Buddhist teachings were translated into Chinese. Then, with the breakdown of the Han dynasty, conversions to Buddhism spread among China's masses. The converts had little understanding of the details of Buddhist doctrine, but they found consolation in what Buddhism offered. Buddhism's temples and elaborate rituals were impressive, and Buddhism was a warmer message than Confucianism: a message of salvation through moderation or abstinence and a message of pity for all creatures. Both the Hinayana and the Mahayana schools of Buddhism arrived in China, but it was the Mahayana branch with its salvation and helpful gods that would dominate.

Buddhism spread though all classes of Chinese, influencing art, thought and daily customs. Tea, which had been used mostly by Buddhists, became China's national drink, and Buddhists introduced the Chinese to the wearing of cotton. Buddhism's great temples influenced Chinese architecture – a counter to Confucianism's condemnation of complex buildings as an extravagance. In place of the contempt for which Confucianists had held the writing of stories and novels, Buddhism gave this kind of writing a new prestige.

Buddhism was in contact with Hellenistic culture across the Silk Road, and with Buddhism many Chinese gathered that China was not the only civilized country in the world. They learned respect for India and they felt compelled to re-examine the theory that the Chinese emperor was the Son of Heaven and enthroned at the center of the world.

The Chinese interpreted Buddhist doctrine in terms familiar to them. In translating Buddhism into Chinese, Taoist words were used. And through mistranslation, Chinese Buddhism acquired a belief that was foreign to Buddhism elsewhere: belief in a soul that was as an imperishable part of one's humanity. And Buddhist art in China depicted the life of the Buddha in a Chinese context, just as Italian painters were to paint Christian saints in the dress of renaissance Italy.

Buddhism in China emphasized charity and good works, including working for one's own salvation by helping others – which contrasted with Taoism's egocentricity. For those Chinese lacking a family, Buddhism provided a substitute family. It offered community and egalitarianism. Some Chinese were attracted by the doctrine that those who exploited or treated people unjustly would in their next reincarnation be born into poor circumstances or into an inferior rank and suffer punishment for their misdeeds. And some Chinese found comfort in the doctrine that in their next life they might be born into a higher rank and a happier life.

Buddhism's moral teachings attracted some from the upper classes who had been Confucian – some of whom found a different meaning in Buddhism's reincarnation than did the poor: they believed that those who suffered a low station in life did so because of misdeeds in their former life.

Buddhism's monasteries were in conflict with Confucian ideals of the family, but the monasteries fit with the old Chinese ideal of the retired scholar, and the monasteries attracted gentry who had been unable to acquire government positions. Buddhist monasteries offered Chinese writers a refuge. And monasteries grew as centers of learning and culture.

In metaphysics, Buddhist ideas intermingled with old Chinese ideas. From Buddhists in China ideas went  westward to India, and from India to China went a new school of thought, the Three Treatise school of Buddhism, introduced by a half-Indian missionary monk named Kumarajiva, who worked and taught in Chang'an in 401-02.  Some who adhered to this new school of thought formed what was called the Emptiness sect, believing that ultimately people should interpret the world as basically empty, that the world of sight and sound changes but that the world of emptiness never does. Like the scholastic theologians in the West during the early Middle Ages, the Emptiness sect tried to reason in absolutes and to split metaphysical hairs. And they split into more sects, which became known as the "Six Schools and Seven Sects," each with a different interpretation of emptiness.

Buddhism's splitting into sects was facilitated by the absence of a religious council or papacy. Each Buddhist master could interpret writings as he wished. And, during the 300s, from within China's Mahayana Buddhism came what was called the Pure Land movement. Its leader was a Buddhist scholar named Hui-yuan, who meditated on Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light). Pure Land Buddhism described life as torment, and it claimed that to escape this torment one did not need bookish learning or the grasp of obtuse doctrine or knowledge: one only had to avoid bad deeds and prove one's devotion by chanting Amitabha's name sincerely – the more often the better the chance of achieving nirvana. It claimed that at death one would be reborn into paradise. The "Pure Land," it held, was where Amitabha dwelled and where immortals lived in an atmosphere of eternal bliss, and there rivers were pure and scented – in contrast to the putrid smells of daily life.

Another branch of Buddhism developed in China called Chán – to be called Zen in Japan. Like the devotional movements in India and Pure Land Buddhism, Chán Buddhism offered people an attachment to divinity without years of arduous intellectual exercise: it offered sudden enlightenment. Chán Buddhism saw reality as nothing more than the immediate present. How things had become what they were was unreal and of no consequence. Chán monks sought salvation through mystical inspirations rather than reading and meditation. And Chán monks believed in supporting themselves by humble, menial work.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.