Originating from India, Buddhism is like an endless cool stream that gradually spreads to neighboring countries. As it enters each country, Buddhism adapts to the conditions, customs, culture, and beliefs of that country to exist and develop in various forms and methods. At the same time, it creates its own nuances as Buddhism is introduced to different countries.
Particularly, when Buddhism was introduced to China, a country with a long-standing cultural tradition and one of the great civilizations of humanity, it became the intersection of two civilizations: civilization of the Ganges and civilization of the Yangtze River.
Here, the two civilizations intersected, complemented each other, and thanks to the spirit of tolerance and openness, Buddhism soon had a profound influence on the ideology and emotions of the Chinese people, especially the kings and aristocrats who always considered Confucianism as the orthodox ideology. Throughout its history, Chinese Buddhism has always been enthusiastically supported by kings and rulers, thus quickly developing and achieving brilliant achievements.
In this article, LotusBuddhas will provide an overview of Chinese Buddhism, history, Buddhist schools, famous temples, and the great Masters who contributed to the propagation of Buddhism here.
What is Chinese Buddhism?
Chinese Buddhism refers to the unique form of Buddhism that developed in China and subsequently influenced the broader regions of East Asia. Originating from India, Buddhism was transmitted to China via the Silk Road and maritime trade routes during the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE). Its introduction marked the beginning of a rich, centuries-long interaction with Chinese culture, philosophy, and indigenous religious practices, resulting in a distinct religious tradition.
Chinese Buddhism is primarily characterized by its integration of Buddhism’s core principles with elements of Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese folk religion. This synthesis led to the development of a uniquely Chinese Buddhist tradition featuring aspects such as filial piety and social harmony, which align with Confucian ethics, as well as the Taoist emphasis on harmony with nature.
The Mahayana school of Buddhism became predominant in China, with its teachings on Bodhisattva ideals (attaining Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings) and Sunyata (the concept of emptiness) influencing Chinese philosophical thought. This tradition also introduced the concept of Buddha-nature, the innate potential for enlightenment inherent in all beings.
Over time, several unique schools of Chinese Buddhism emerged, each with distinctive doctrines and practices. These include Chan (Zen) Buddhism, known for its emphasis on meditation and direct insight; Pure Land Buddhism, focusing on devotion to Amitabha Buddha to achieve rebirth in the Western Pure Land; Tiantai, highlighting the Lotus Sutra and the interpenetration of phenomena; and Huayan, which posits the interdependence and mutual identity of all phenomena.
Chinese Buddhism has significantly shaped Chinese literature, art, politics, and societal norms. The creation of the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tripiṭaka, not only consolidated Buddhist scriptures but also stimulated the development of printing technology in ancient China. Chinese Buddhism continues to be a significant cultural and religious force within China and the broader East Asian region.
History of Chinese Buddhism
After about a hundred years following the Nirvana of the Buddha, Buddhism in India split into two schools of thought and was propagated in two different directions. The school of thought that used Pali language and was propagated to the south was called Theravada, while the school of thought that used Sanskrit language and was propagated to the north was called Mahayana.
Along the northward path of Mahayana Buddhism in India, it was initially transmitted to countries such as Tukhara, and gradually spread to Tibet and then to China.
Geographically, Buddhism followed the footsteps of Indian monks to enter China through two routes: overland and oversea. In the early stages, Buddhism was introduced to China via the overland route because of trade and traffic, especially along the Silk Road. This was a vital transport route that connected the two civilizations of India and China.
During the Han dynasty, around the first century AD, a divine wind brought the teachings of the Buddha from India to the coast of China. Two venerable monks, Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna, undertook a long journey carrying sacred texts on their backs, sowing the seeds of Buddhism in China. They translated scriptures, shared teachings, and built the White Horse Temple, where the Dharma began to take root.
The Dharma flourished in the Three Kingdoms Period, when compassionate hearts and curious minds were drawn to the Buddha’s wisdom. Many a scholar and philosopher found solace in the Middle Way, as they navigated the tumultuous waters of that time. The Pure Land and Tiantai schools took root, like ancient trees offering shade to weary travelers.
The Golden Age of the Tang dynasty was when Buddhism bloomed like a thousand-petaled lotus. Large monasteries and temples were built, such as Longmen Grottoes and Mogao Caves, where artists adorned the walls with images of the Buddha and his teachings, preserving them for future generations.
With the appearance of great masters such as Huineng and his pilgrimage to India, more scriptures were brought to China, weaving a tapestry of rich wisdom. The development of Chan Buddhism, called Zen in Japan, like a refreshing breeze, invited practitioners to directly experience the nature of their minds.
But life is impermanent and nothing lasts forever. Unforeseeable events occurred during the large-scale suppression of Buddhism by the Tang dynasty, leaving many temples and monasteries in ruins. However, like a resilient bamboo, the Dharma bent but did not break.
As the Wheel of Dharma continued to turn, the teachings of the Buddha found new life during the Song dynasty. The rise of the Linji school of Chan emphasized sudden enlightenment and direct experience, like a mighty river, carving a new path through the spiritual landscape of China.
The stories of Chinese Buddhism are vast and complex, like the roots of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The history of Chinese Buddhism has witnessed the rise and fall of many great teachers, schools, and traditions, but the Dharma still exists, like an eternal flame of wisdom burning in our hearts – children of the Buddha.
Beliefs and teachings of Chinese Buddhism
Chinese Buddhism is characterized by a wide array of beliefs and teachings that incorporate traditional Buddhist doctrines with distinct elements of Chinese thought. Here are some of the core beliefs and teachings:
Mahayana Buddhism: Chinese Buddhism is largely based on the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) tradition, which emphasizes the ideal of the bodhisattva, an enlightened being who seeks to attain Buddhahood not just for personal liberation, but for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Mahayana school also stresses the doctrine of Emptiness, which suggests that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence and are mutually dependent.
Buddha-nature: An important concept in Chinese Buddhism is the inherent Buddha-nature in all beings. This belief implies that all sentient beings have the potential to achieve Buddhahood and experience enlightenment. This idea is central to many schools of Chinese Buddhism and underscores the importance of compassion and universal salvation.
Integration of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism: Chinese Buddhism absorbed elements of Taoism and Confucianism, leading to unique Chinese Buddhist doctrines. For example, it integrated Confucian values such as filial piety, loyalty, and respect for authority into its ethical teachings. Additionally, Taoist concepts of balance and harmony with nature have significantly influenced Chinese Buddhist views on karma and interdependence.
Rebirth in the Pure Land: Pure Land Buddhism, a popular school in China, focuses on devotion to Amitabha Buddha, with practitioners aspiring to be reborn in Amitabha’s Western Pure Land, a place where they can pursue enlightenment free from the hardships of the human world.
Zen Buddhism: This school of Buddhism emphasizes meditation and mindfulness as the path to enlightenment. Chan Buddhism is known for its directness and emphasis on experiential wisdom, often expressed in paradoxical language and through the use of koans (paradoxical anecdotes or riddles) to provoke enlightenment.
Sutra study: Chinese Buddhism places great emphasis on the study of sutras, the canonical texts of Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Heart Sutra are among the most influential in Chinese Buddhism.
Karma and merit making: The doctrines of karma (the law of cause and effect) and merit-making are integral to Chinese Buddhism. Good deeds, moral behavior, and acts of charity are believed to accrue positive karma, contributing to better circumstances in this life and better rebirths in future lives.
Practice of vegetarianism: Many Chinese Buddhists adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet as an expression of compassion for all sentient beings, aligning with the Buddhist principle of non-harming (ahimsa).
The main schools of Chinese Buddhism
Not only in Buddhism, but all major religions in the world have branched out over time and development. This branching is natural to adapt to different circumstances. Without it, the religion cannot develop in depth and breadth. In China, Buddhism has been divided into ten different schools, but in this article, LotusBuddhas only introduces six main schools of Buddhism in China.
Each school has its own characteristics, but it never goes beyond the teachings of the Buddha. These schools are like paths leading to the top of a mountain – straight, curved, wide, narrow… but every path leads to the same goal of enlightenment.
1. Pure Land Buddhism (净土宗)
Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the practice of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha to be reborn in his Western Pure Land, a celestial realm free from suffering. It became popular in China during the Tang and Song Dynasties (960–1279 CE) and later spread to Japan.
2. Chan Buddhism (禅宗)
Also known as Zen in Japan, Chan Buddhism originated in China during the Tang Dynasty. It emphasizes meditation, mindfulness, and direct experience of enlightenment, with a lesser focus on scriptural study. Its most famous figures are Bodhidharma and Huineng.
3. Tiantai Buddhism (天台宗)
Founded during the Sui Dynasty (589–618 CE), Tiantai Buddhism emphasizes the Lotus Sutra as the most important sutra and focuses on the concept of the “Three Truths.” Its founder, Zhiyi, developed a comprehensive system of Buddhist doctrine and practice.
4. Huayan Buddhism (华严宗)
Established during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), Huayan Buddhism is based on the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra) and emphasizes the interdependence of all phenomena. Its main philosophical concept is the “Dharmadhatu-Pratitya,” which illustrates the interconnectedness of all things.
5. Esoteric Buddhism (密宗)
Also known as Tantra or Vajrayana, Esoteric Buddhism was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty. It focuses on rituals, mantras, and visualizations to attain enlightenment more quickly than other forms of Buddhism. Its most famous Chinese practitioner is the monk Amoghavajra.
6. Yogacara Buddhism (瑜伽行派)
Also known as the “Consciousness-only School,” Yogacara Buddhism was introduced to China by the Indian monk Xuanzang during the Tang Dynasty. It emphasizes the role of consciousness in the creation of reality and the importance of meditation and mindfulness.
Impact of Buddhism on Chinese culture and society
Buddhism has profoundly influenced Chinese culture and society in multiple dimensions since its introduction to China during the Han dynasty. These impacts are evident in areas such as literature, art, philosophy, ethics, social structure, and even political governance.
Literature and language: The translation of Buddhist sutras into Chinese stimulated the development of the Chinese language and literature. This translation effort led to the creation of new Chinese terms and concepts, enriching the linguistic and conceptual vocabulary. Moreover, many classical Chinese literary works, such as Journey to the West and the poetry of the Tang dynasty, were imbued with Buddhist themes and values.
Art and architecture: Buddhism has greatly contributed to Chinese art and architecture. Buddhist symbols, themes, and stories were portrayed in paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, and other forms of art. Buddhist monasteries and temples, designed in accordance with Chinese aesthetics, became integral parts of Chinese architectural heritage. The Mogao Caves and Longmen Grottoes, filled with Buddhist art, are testament to this influence.
Philosophy: The integration of Buddhist thought with Confucianism and Taoism shaped the evolution of Chinese philosophy. Concepts such as emptiness, dependent origination, and Buddha-nature introduced new perspectives to Chinese metaphysical and ethical discourse.
Ethics and social values: Buddhist values like compassion, non-violence, and altruism have become deeply rooted in Chinese ethical and social values. The Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva, one who seeks enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, influenced the development of a form of socially engaged Buddhism in China.
Social structure: Buddhism also impacted the social structure of China. Buddhist monastic communities provided opportunities for social mobility and education. Temples often functioned as social welfare centers, providing services such as education, healthcare, and support for the poor and the elderly.
Political influence: Buddhism played a significant role in Chinese politics. Emperors patronized Buddhism to legitimize their rule, often claiming themselves as bodhisattvas. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, state-sponsored Buddhist rituals were conducted for the welfare of the state.
Ancient China was already a large country with a highly developed culture that bore a unique ethnic character. (However, the Chinese people did not have a large native religion of their own, and Confucianism is not a religion, while the Japanese have Shinto as their native religion.) Why did China accept Buddhism, a foreign cultural form, and then transform it into a component of its own culture? LotusBuddhas will share more about this in another article.
Top 10 famous Buddhist temples and sites in China
As you know, Chinese Buddhism has a history of thousands of years, and there is perhaps no better evidence of its ancient and diverse past than the temples. These sacred and peaceful sanctuaries perfectly embody the influence of Chinese Buddhism.
Therefore, if you have the opportunity to travel to China and do not visit the temples, it would be a great pity. In this section, LotusBuddhas will share with you a list of famous temples in China that you should not miss.
- Longmen Grottoes, Henan Province: Dating back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 AD), this site boasts over 2,300 caves and niches carved into limestone cliffs. These grottoes house approximately 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, more than 60 stupas, and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles, presenting a vivid record of the development of Chinese Buddhist art from the 5th to the 11th century.
- Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu Province: This is one of the most significant Buddhist heritage sites in China, housing a vast collection of Buddhist murals and statues. Dating from the 4th to the 14th century, these cave temples present a spectacular panorama of Buddhist art and a crucial historical record of the Silk Road’s cultural exchange.
- Yungang Grottoes, Datong, Shanxi Province: Created during the Northern Wei Dynasty, these grottoes are known for their colossal Buddhist statues and intricate carvings, exhibiting early achievements of Buddhist cave art in China.
- Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province: Founded during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 AD), this temple, also known as “Temple of the Soul’s Retreat”, is one of the largest and wealthiest Buddhist temples in China. It is renowned for its historical pagodas, grottoes with rock carvings, and magnificent halls housing various Buddhist artefacts.
- Shaolin Temple, Dengfeng, Henan Province: The birthplace of Chan Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu, Shaolin Temple holds a unique place in Chinese Buddhist history and martial arts tradition. Its Pagoda Forest, a collection of tombs of eminent monks, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu Province: One of the six great monasteries of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism, it houses the largest number of monks outside of Tibet and boasts a significant collection of Buddhist scriptures, murals, and thangkas.
- Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet: This 7th-century temple is the spiritual heart of Tibet and the holiest destination for Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims. The Jokhang Temple houses the precious Jowo Rinpoche, a life-sized statue of the Buddha at age twelve.
- Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet: Once the residence of the Dalai Lama, this imposing structure is an iconic symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. It houses numerous Buddhist artworks and serves as a mausoleum for past Dalai Lamas.
- Putuo Mountain, Zhejiang Province: One of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism, it is dedicated to Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The island is dotted with numerous temples and monasteries, creating a serene spiritual atmosphere.
- Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province: Recognized as the earthly abode of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Mount Wutai is another of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism. With its age-old temples nestled among the five flat peaks, the area represents a unique blend of natural beauty and religious significance.
Each of these Buddhist sites carries immense historical, religious, and cultural value, offering insight into the spiritual life, architectural prowess, and artistic ingenuity of ancient China. These temples and sites stand as testaments to the profound influence of Buddhism on Chinese civilization.
Some famous Chinese Buddhist monks
LotusBuddhas is delighted to share with you stories of some of the most venerable Buddhist monks in China. These great masters, like bright stars in the vast expanse of the Dharma sky, have guided countless sentient beings on the path to enlightenment. Through tireless efforts and boundless compassion, they have enriched the spiritual landscape of China and beyond.
- Xuanzang (602–664 CE): Xuanzang was an influential scholar-monk who made a historic pilgrimage to India to acquire authentic Buddhist scriptures. His 17-year journey was arduous, crossing perilous mountains and parched deserts. His journey and study in India helped to promote Mahayana Buddhism in China and his travelogue, “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”, remains a valuable historical resource. His journey inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West”.
- Bodhidharma (470 – 543 CE): With the fierce gaze of a dragon, Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism, sailed from India to China, bringing with him the essence of the Dharma. His teachings emphasized the direct experience of our true nature, like a finger pointing to the moon.
- Huineng (638-713 CE): Recognized as the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan (Zen in Japanese) School of Buddhism, Huineng was a pivotal figure in the development of Chinese Buddhism. His teachings emphasized direct insight into one’s own Buddha nature. The “Platform Sutra”, attributed to him, remains one of the most influential texts in East Asian Buddhism.
- Zhiyi (538-597 CE): Known as the founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism in China, Zhiyi made significant contributions to the philosophical explanation and organization of the Buddhist canon. His interpretation of the Lotus Sutra had a profound influence on later schools of Buddhism.
- Faxian (337–422 CE): An early Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled to India and Sri Lanka to seek out Buddhist scriptures. His travelogue, “Record of Buddhist Countries”, provided valuable insights into early Buddhism and the geography and history of India and Sri Lanka.
- Jianzhen (688-763 CE): Also known as Ganjin in Japan, Jianzhen was a Chinese monk who helped propagate Buddhism in Japan. Despite numerous failed attempts and loss of sight, his perseverance to journey to Japan made him a venerated figure in both countries.
- Yongming Yanshou (904-975 CE): Yanshou was an influential monk during the Song dynasty, known for his synthesis of Pure Land and Chan Buddhism. His major work, “Zongjinglu”, seeks to reconcile the various strands of Buddhist teachings and had a significant impact on East Asian Buddhism.
These monks had a substantial impact on the development and transmission of Buddhism, their efforts spanning different eras, regions, and Buddhist schools. Their philosophical contributions, travelogues, and dedication have ensured their places in the annals of Buddhist history.
Four Buddhist Persecutions in China
Throughout the long history, Chinese Buddhism has not been able to avoid ups and downs. Although today Chinese Buddhism has deeply rooted itself in Chinese culture, there have been four persecutions of the contemporary rulers against Buddhism.
1. The first persecution
The first persecution occurred under the reign of Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei dynasty, starting in 446 CE. When the story happened, the beloved Buddhist teachings had to face challenges, as the emperor believed that the practices of Buddhist monks had disrupted the social order. He ordered the destruction of temples and scriptures, and the monks had to disperse and find shelter elsewhere. This was truly a dark period, but like the lotus blooming in the mud, the faith of Chinese Buddhist monks remained strong.
2. The second persecution
The second persecution occurred under the rule of Emperor Wuzong during the Tang dynasty, around 845 CE. The emperor was a devout follower of Taoism, considering the faith of Buddhism as a foreign threat to the harmony of the empire. He ordered the destruction of thousands of temples and monasteries, forcing many monks and nuns to return to lay life.
3. The third persecution
The third persecution occurred during the Later Zhou dynasty in 955 CE. Emperor Shizong, driven by political motives, sought to weaken the influence of Buddhism to support Confucianism. Once again, countless temples were destroyed, and the monks and nuns were forced to abandon their spiritual lives. However, like the saying “No matter how many times bamboo is cut, it grows back,” the faith of Chinese Buddhist monks did so as well.
4. The fourth persecution
The fourth persecution occurred under the Ming dynasty in 1391 CE. Emperor Taizu, hoping to consolidate power and reduce the influence of Buddhism, imposed strict regulations on the Buddhist monastic community. Many temples were converted into schools, and the number of monks and nuns decreased significantly. However, like the ever-flowing river, the Buddhist Dharma has overcome these turbulent times.
These stories of perseverance have provided some understanding of the challenges that we Buddhists have faced throughout history. Like the changing seasons, life brings both suffering and joy, and through it all, we must remember to cultivate wisdom and compassion, as they are the core of Buddha’s teachings.
Surely you have a special interest in Chinese Buddhism, that’s why you’ve read up to this last line. Yes, LotusBuddhas knows that this article is a bit long as it describes a detailed overview of Chinese Buddhism. Hopefully, through this knowledge, you can have a better understanding of the history, schools and famous temples of Buddhism in this ancient cultural country.