Cultures & Traditions

Buddhism in China

Buddhism was introduced to China in the 1st century CE. A mythical story tells that a Han emperor dreamed of a golden-bodied, divine being flying in front of his palace, whom an official identified as the Buddha. This inspired the emperor to send an envoy to India to find out more about the sage. In fact, Buddhism came to China along the Silk Road. Monks and traders along the Silk Road initiated its extension eastward from India, introducing the religion first into the Himalayan region of Nepal and then through mainland China. Although Buddhism was active in China at its introduction, it was not until the early Six Dynasties period (CE 265-589) that it became more established through the support of Neo-Taoists. Although Buddhism differed from Taoism, early on perceived similarities between the two arose from a misreading of Buddhism on the part of the Taoists and the use of Taoist language by Buddhists to explain concepts. The result was the belief that the Buddha was the founder of Taoism, Laozi, who had traveled to India to convert foreigners.

With the support of the Neo-Taoists, Buddhist monasteries were established that attracted foreign monks who translated Buddhists texts with greater accuracy. By the beginning of the 5th century, native Chinese monks established monastic communities and produced original interpretations of Buddhism. Buddhism in China eventually developed into various schools, interpreting Buddhism's message in different ways. Three in particular emerged with lasting influence: Tiantai, a text-oriented sect that emphasizes the importance of sutras in understanding Buddhism; Pure Land Buddhism, a popular form that promised rebirth in the 'Western Paradise, or pure land, through devotional practices; and Ch'an, which became Zen in Japan, that rejected doctrine and focused on meditation. The Longmen Grottoes, a complex of Buddhist art produced between C.E. 493-1127, demonstrate the vitality of Buddhism.

Although different schools of Buddhism developed in China, it suffered various cycles of acceptance and oppression throughout the centuries. There are multiple and complex reasons for the latter; however, two are particularly prominent: the increasing wealth of Buddhist institutions, which were tax-exempt and at times used as a form of tax shelter by landowners who donated their land to monasteries but still collected rents, now tax free; and its foreign origins, which were stressed by followers of the indigenous systems of Taoism and Confucianism, as the three competed for followers, among whom were emperors. In 446, Emperor Wu of the Northern Wei ordered the destruction of Buddhist temples, art, and manuscripts; and ordered the execution of monks. Yet, a little over 70 years later, in 517 C.E., an emperor of the Liang Dynasty became a devout Buddhist. In 574, an emperor of the Northern Zhou suppressed both Buddhism and Taoism; and in the Sui dynasty (589-618 C.E.), Emperor Wendi patronized Buddhism and contributed to its spread. The greatest attack against Buddhism took place in C.E. 845. The Tang dynasty’s tolerance of many foreign religions from abroad, including Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, was reversed by Emperor Wuzong and all foreign religions were outlawed. Buddhist temples, shrines, and art were destroyed, and monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life. Buddhism never really recovered, however, it was already a part of Chinese culture so was not completely suppressed. To this day in China, one of five officially sanctioned religions is the Buddhist Association.

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