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You are here : Home > Reading Room > Chinese Buddhism : A Brief History
Chinese Buddhism : A Brief History

Early History up to 10th Century

Buddhism first began to filter down into China from Central Asia around the turn of the Common Era, brought primarily down the Silk Road by merchants, envoys, monks and other travellers. Initial progress, through to the end of the Han dynasty in the third century CE was slow due to a number of important factors standing in the way of its acceptance. China already had a long history with a highly developed culture and traditions, and in regard to Confucianism, the prevailing ideology, Buddhism was in many ways inimical as well as foreign. Confucianism upheld the ideal of a stable, harmonious social order in which every human unit from the bottom to the top played their part according to hallowed custom. As being very much a this-worldly creed Confucianism could only look with disfavour on a religion which seemed to encourage the abandonment of all worldly ties in pursuit of a remote and vague spiritual ideal.

The barriers began to gradually break down and the process was probably aided by the presence in China of a homegrown mystical tradition in the form of Taoism. Instigated by the Yellow Emperor Huang To and revived by the sage Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, Taoism sought a return to simplicity and harmony with nature. Their ideal was wu wei, an uncontrived mode of being and the Chinese seemed to find certain points of similarity between its teachings and practices and Buddhism, thus allowing the later to make inroads into Chinese culture.

A Buddhist community can be traced back to 148 CE as existing in Loyang where until the end of the third century CE a number of Buddhist translators and teachers were working. They produced a great number of archaic translations of Buddhist scriptures and along with this being proof that Buddhism had begun to spread among the Chinese it marked the beginning of a great era of translation activity - the results of which were one of the most impressive achievements of Buddhism in China.

The beginnings however were fraught with difficulties with Chinese equivalents for innumerable specialized Buddhist terms having to be introduced or borrowed from traditional Chinese (mainly Taoist) terminology. Direct translation was seldom possible since the foreign missionaries were not fluent in Chinese and very few Chinese knew Sanskrit and Prakrit. Therefore translation teams were established whereby a foreign master would recite the text making, mostly with the help of a bilingual translator, a crude translation which was written down and afterwards revised and polished by Chinese assistants. For the first few hundred years this remained a modest undertaking, however by the time of the fourth and fifth centuries when Buddhism had come to enjoy royal and aristocratic patronage it sometimes grew into sizeable translation projects involving dozens of people.

The end of the centralized Han dynasty in 220 CE actually helped create the right conditions for Buddhism to gain popularity and spread to other parts of China. This was due in the main to the fact that Buddhism with its profound teachings on suffering and impermanence had something pertinent to offer the people amidst the prevailing chaos. The period saw the emergence of the gentlemanly scholar-devotee who was to become so characteristic of Chinese Buddhism, many of whom had fled from the north of the country which was being overrun by foreign invaders. It was during this period of disorder that the distinctive northern and southern types of Chinese Buddhism began to emerge. Just as importantly it also began to infiltrate into the court circles of the now fragmented empire which thus assured future success and patronage, for example under the Northern Wei dynasty the patronage of Buddhism soared and massive schemes for the building of monasteries, temples, pagodas and stupas were initiated.

One of the results of this growth in popularity was the emergence by the third century CE of a native sangha and the production of a Chinese Vinaya (monastic code of discipline). This in turn led to a dramatic growth in the number of monasteries and temples as well as ordained monks and nuns. Buddhism also gained ground on a popular level, particularly with the peasantry - making offerings and going on pilgrimage became especially popular, and also making prayers to bodhisattvas and buddhas such as Maitreya and Amitabha. Success did bring its problems however, increased worldliness and a fall from the original high standards as well as the jealousy of the Confucians and Taoists; this resulted in something of a backlash, most notably in the years 446 and 574.

Chinese Buddhism gradually developed into a two-fold entity, with the sophisticated brand of the intellectuals contrasting strongly with the more popular and superstitious level of the mass peasantry. At the same time it never became the sole religion of China, always co-existing with Confucianism and Taoism, a factor which contributed towards producing a distinctly Chinese form of the religion.

From the third century onwards there is an increase in translation activity which saw highly influential Mahayana scriptures appear for the first time and then go on to become basic texts of the indigenous Chinese schools. Dharmaraksha translated the Saddharma-pundarika Sutra or White Lotus of the True Dharma Sutra, and also around this time there were translations made of the Vimalakirti- nirdesa Sutra, the Surangama-samadhi Sutra and the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra. In terms of popularity the Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra was particularly admired among sections of the Chinese Buddhist elite for its fine literary qualities and also its sublime philosophy. Furthermore since it was centred around an enlightened layman of Valisali, India, it was especially popular among the non-ordained Chinese Buddhists.

A well known translator from this period was Kumarajiva who translated all the above plus works such as the Vajracchedika (Diamond) Sutra. He also had two assistants, Seng-Chao and Tao-Sheng, who continued Kumarajiva's work; the former produced the Chao Lun in which he tried to put across the Buddhist view of emptiness and which subsequently became highly influential in awakening the Chinese to Buddhism. Tao-sheng employed Taoist terminology quite extensively in his work, what the Chinese called "extending the meaning", and also wrote an early essay on sudden enlightenment; a distant precursor to the Chan ideology which was to develop in China in later centuries.

Perhaps the most famous figure was to emerge in the 7th century T'ang dynasty period, the great scholar and translator Hsuan-tang (596 - 664 CE). He made a stupendous pilgrimage journey to India from 629 - 645 CE and along with the precision and quality of his observations along the way he was one of the few Chinese to have ever mastered Sanskrit.

In the era up to the end of the ninth century Buddhism was by the far the most creative movement in the religious and intellectual life of China. Some of the schools or Buddhist sects were directly inspired by India and later a number of Indian masters introduced into China various types of esoteric tantric Buddhism. But other schools were basically Chinese. All of them, whether transplanted or developed in China, gave rise to an immense exegetical literature, partly based on translated scriptures and partly consisting of independent theories of great originality.

Some Chinese Buddhist Schools

Avatamsaka or Flower Ornament School (Hua Yen)

The Avatamsaka Sutra originated in India but it was to be in China and later in Japan that a fully fledged system emerged from its teachings. There is particular emphasis on the sutra's teachings concerning the interpenetration of and connectedness of all phenomena. In effect Hua Yen is a creation of a cosmic vision on the grandest scale. It evokes a universe where everything freely interpenetrates everything else, where Totality may be contemplated and Ultimate Truth realized in even the tiniest speck of dust. Hua Yen philosophical arguments are reinforced with poetic images like the Jewel Net of Indra - a vast web or network of gems each of which reflects every other. It flourished for over 200 years before going into eclipse when Buddhism began to decline in China by the end of the ninth century.

T'ien-t'ai of White Lotus School

A major tradition of Chinese Buddhism, founded by Hui-ssu and then systematically reformulated by Chih-I. It derives its name from Mount T'ien T'ai and its main scriptural source is the Lotus Sutra. It differed from the Hua Yen in providing alternative classifications of Buddhist scriptures and teachings so that the Suddharma-pundarika or Lotus Sutra was the real "king of sutras". This is because T'ien T'ai followers claimed that it was fully "round" in the sense that it included the essence of all the other teachings. T'ien-t'ai was introduced into Japan in the ninth century where it became known as Tendai and was later taken up with great vigour and enthusiasm by figures such as Nichiren.

Pure Land School (Ching t'u)

A devotional school which propagated faith in and surrender to the mercy of Amitabha, a Buddha who is said to preside over the western paradise of Sukhavati, a realm in which beings born there are assured of attaining buddhahood in that lifetime. It harked back to the early Buddhist cosmological notion that within a few hundred years of the passing of the Buddha it would be impossible to attain enlightenment by one's own efforts, or "self" power, and that one would have to depend on external grace; hence Amitabha. Pure land teachings were transmitted to Korea and Japan where the division into the Jodo and Jodo Shin sub-schools occurred. The school in its various forms and derivatives is still around today and has a following in the west.

Mantra or Tantric School (Mi-tsung or Chen-yen)

Brought to China in the eighth century by three Indian masters along with its main text, the Mahavairocana Sutra, its teachings and practices emphasised ritual and visualization along with extensive use of symbolism and imagery. It was to be later taken to Japan by Kukai where it was to become known as Shingon.

The Dhyana School (Ch'an)

For many Ch'an represents the finest achievement of Chinese Buddhism: an original and highly creative re-expression of the essence of the Buddha's teaching in distinctively Chinese terms. Along with Abhidharma, Mahayana and Tantra it can be regarded as one of the major creations of Buddhism as a whole. Ch'an traced itself back to the Indian monk Bodhidharma who travelled to China in the sixth century. It was to be later transmitted to Korea where it became known as Son and to Vietnam and Japan where it was known as Zen.

Often described as a complete sinicization of Buddhism Ch'an is about a return to essentials, the impulse being to sweep all the training paraphernalia in the form of teachings, texts, codes of morality, etc and get to the heart of the matter: the direct insight which transformed Siddhartha Gautama into the Buddha.

The term Ch'an is a Chinese corruption of "dhyana" the Indian term for the absorption or high bliss states achieved through samatha meditation. In the seminal days of Ch'an what the masters stressed was the "non-abiding mind" - the mind which rests nowhere, beyond all thought and relativity. It holds that the universal "Buddha-nature" is immanent within ourselves and must be realized "directly" in a mind to mind communication between master and disciple.

To effect this all reasoning must be broken down : hence the characteristic use of unconventional means to evoke in the disciple the sudden and "wordless" experience of Enlightenment : perplexing meditation themes, paradoxes, baffling answers and even yelling and beating are used to "let the bottom of the tub fall out" and plunge the practitioner into a state of "no-mind". In this state no distinction is made between the holy and the profane, between the religious career and the simple tasks of everyday life : "the Highest Truth" is contained in carrying water and chopping firewood.

Although there was a rejection of book learning and verbalization, through the claim of Ch'an to be "a special transmission outside the scriptures", many Ch'an masters nevertheless showed themselves well versed in them. The Lankavatara, Vimalakirti-nirdesa and Vajracchedika Sutras were studied by Ch'an schools along with other texts as well. In time original Ch'an texts appeared, most notably the "Platform Sutra" of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, the Ching-te Record of the Transmission of the Lamp and the Records of Eminent Monks. It is therefore a mistake to assume that the anti-scriptural, unconventional and occasionally iconoclastic behaviour of many Ch'an masters is a cue to dispense with the demands and formalities of traditional training.

There were to be a number of Ch'an schools and sects, along with further sub-divisions, which arose between the 9th and 11th centuries. Over time most of them died out time but two of the most important to survive were the Lin-chi and Ts'ao-tung: in their later Japanese forms they were to become the Rinzai and Soto schools in Japanese Zen Buddhism. Both schools primarily place stress on sitting practice, zazen, with the Rinzai distinguished by its use of the kung-an or koan, enigmatic cases whose purport cannot be discerned by analytical thinking, and which were originally used by all Chinese Ch'an schools.

Post 10th Century History

During the past millennium Chinese Buddhism mainly lived on the achievements of its past and underwent a steady process of decline. This was all due to a number of different reasons.

There was the resurgence of a new and improved Confucianism which came along with a sophisticated metaphysic which owed more than a little to Buddhist philosophy. This neo-Confucianism had an intellectual cachet that its precursor lacked and in consequence Buddhism began to lose its grip on the hearts and minds of the intellectual elite, leaving it to cater for the more popular spiritual needs of the mass peasantry.

The destruction of Buddhism in India in the 11th century was a further blow. No new inspirational impulses came from that direction and this was coupled with a deterioration in the quality and behaviour of the Chinese Sangha. Of the various schools which weathered the decline best were the Ch'an and Pure Land schools, the former by its very simplicity and the latter by the strength of its popular appeal. Two classic Ch'an collections appeared in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Blue Cliff Record compiled by Hsueh Tou Ch'ung and the Gateless Gate complied by Wu-men Hui-kai, both which were assiduously commented on and studied. When the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty in China in 1280 they made Buddhism their state religion and favoured in particular the Buddhism of Tibet which since that time came to be a part of the Chinese Buddhist scene, being patronized by succeeding dynasties.

During this period there was also a plethora of secret of subversive societies which in part claimed to have Buddhist connections and which were prominent in fermenting revolts and rebellions. From out of these grew such myths as the fighting kung-fu monks who practised martial arts with superhuman skills which did not of course necessarily indicate any measure of spiritual attainment.

By the end of the nineteenth century both China and its Buddhism were in a parlous state. The great empire was falling apart and foreign intrusion in the form of the western colonial powers was rife. There was the emergence of active and aggressive Christian missionaries in China who singled out Buddhism in particular as a target for their attacks. The historical tide continued to flow against Buddhism into the 20th century until it met its most formidable adversary in the form of Marxism. Initially able to survive the ideological onslaught of Mao Tse Tung's Communist Party, Buddhism in China met its nemesis during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's and 1970's when countless Buddhist monasteries and temples were sacked and destroyed and an already weakened sangha further depleted right to the edge of non-existence in a land in which it had been for 2000 years.

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