Buddhism in China

Buddha at Lingshan, Jiangsu, China
Buddhism in China

The practice of Buddhism spread in the centuries after the death of Gautama Buddha through the actions of pilgrims, wandering evangelists, and strong believers who wished to spread the faith to remote lands and also through observation of Buddhist practices by those who traveled overseas from India and Sri Lanka.

The various routes that composed the Silk Road were important conduits for Buddhism making its way into China, more so than the maritime routes that were more influential in the transmission of the belief into Southeast Asia.

Buddhism was recorded as being present in China from the time of the Han dynasty, and according to legend, the emperor Mingdi (Ming-ti , 57–75 c.e.) received a divine vision that inspired him to seek out knowledge of the Buddha from India.

Chinese monks and scholars were dispatched at regular intervals to seek out Indian knowledge and texts that could be brought back to China and translated into the Chinese language. In nearly every case, when Buddhist concepts were introduced to China they were combined with preexisting Chinese religious concepts or else were subsequently modified.

Notably, Buddhism was combined with the Daoist (Taoist) philosophy of Laozi (Lao Tzu), both to show respect to the latter and also to make the new, foreign concepts more intelligible to a Chinese audience.

The sheer size and degree of diversity within China meant that variations in interpretation inevitably occurred. Since most Chinese Buddhists had little knowledge of Pali or Sanskrit, the rituals in which all monks recited in unison the accepted Buddhist canon had less effect than it did in India.

At times Buddhism was suppressed as a foreign religion that was interfering with native Chinese beliefs. Forced underground during such periods, the rate at which variations in philosophy developed accelerated because of difficulties in communicating with other communities of believers. A number of different schools of Buddhist thought have consequently emerged in China.


Tiantai Buddhism was founded on Mount Tiantai in southeastern China by the monk Chiyi (Chih-I, 538–597 c.e.), during the Sui dynasty. It focused on the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra, or Fahua-ching in Chinese) as its central text. The Tiantai school taught that existence was real but impermanent and insubstantial and the need to adhere to the middle path in the search for personal enlightenment.

Chiyi’s belief was that Sakyamuni knew the entire canon of Buddhist thought at the time of his enlightenment, but it has only subsequently been released into human awareness because of the inability of people to comprehend the entirety of the message. Tiantai Buddhism was introduced into Japan at the beginning of the ninth century under the name Tendai by the monk Saicho.


The Avatamsaka school of Buddhist thought is known as Huayan in China and Kegon in Japan. It is based on the Avatamsaka-sutra, which is also known as the Garland Sutra or Wreath Sutra.

Huayan Buddhism is associated with the monk Fazang (Fa-tsang, 643–712 c.e.), also known as Xianshou (Hsien-shou), the third patriarch who did much to develop the lessons of the school. The basis of Huayan Buddhism is that all elements of reality depend on each other and arise because of each other, spontaneously.

At every moment an infinite number of possibilities exist, and it is possible, therefore, for an infinite number of Buddhas (who can internalize all of the possible variations within a harmonious whole) to emerge into the world. Advanced training of the mind and meditation are necessary to be able to comprehend the nature of reality and of how to strive for enlightenment.

Fazang was born into a Sogdian family from Chang’an (Ch’ang-an), and the system he established is often regarded as one of the most advanced and complete of all the schools of Buddhism to be created in China. It continues to be influential in Japan even in the modern age.

In China itself the Huayan form lost popularity as a result of the general suppression of Buddhism during the later Tang (T’ang) dynasty. It reemerged in part in the fostering of Neo-Confucianism, which flourished from the 11th century c.e.

Pure Land

The Pure Land form of Buddhism, known in Chinese as Qingtu (Ching-tu), is based on the Pure Land Sutra (Sukhavativyuha-sutra), which was created in the north of India in the second century c.e.

The sutra concerns the process of a monk who sought enlightenment by, in part, vowing to create a pure land in which all could live happily to a long and fulfilled age. Those who practice Pure Land Buddhism commit themselves to various vows that are believed to help them achieve enlightenment.

The 18th vow in particular is significant and holds that pronouncing the name of the Buddha at the point of death is sufficient to ensure that the soul will be reborn in the Pure Land. This form of Buddhism became very popular, largely because it offered the opportunity for ordinary people to aspire to enlightenment within their own lifetime.

The belief is that the monk in the Pure Land Sutra, whose name was Dharmakara, did achieve enlightenment and now resides in the Pure Land in the form of the Buddha Amitabha, or, in Chinese, O-mi-to-fo. There, together with the goddess Guangyin (Kuan Yin) and Mahasthamaprapta, he assists humans to achieve their goal of being reborn in the Pure Land.

Clearly the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism diverge considerably from the other forms of Buddhism taught in the past. Instead of the historical Buddha’s insistence that only what can be personally evaluated and experienced can be used in the struggle for enlightenment, which is the single ultimate goal of human existence, people can rely on the benevolence of the trinity led by Amitabha and have as an ultimate goal rebirth in the paradise of the Pure Land.


Zan Buddhism focuses on the role of meditation in the search for enlightenment. It is known as Dhyana Buddhism in Sanskrit and zen in Japan, where it reached its greatest level of popularity. The Indian monk Bodhidharma brought it to China in 520 c.e.

Zan Buddhism is centered on the belief that all living creatures have within themselves an aspect of Buddhahood and that it is possible, through intensive meditation, to realize this existence, which results in wu, or enlightenment.

Similar to the teaching of the historical Buddha, it teaches that the realization of the presence of the internal Buddha aspect can by no means be taught or explained by anyone else but can only be appreciated through internal cultivation of consciousness.

An intensive regimen of meditation was not something that many people had the opportunity to pursue, which is one reason why the Pure Land school achieved a greater level of popularity. After the death of the fifth patriarch of the Zan school, a split occurred between northern and southern adherents.

The southern tendency, which was named after Huineng (Huineng), taught that enlightenment through meditation could be achieved much more swiftly and immediately than was proposed by the northern tendency. Huineng was more successful than the gradualist approach of the northern school, which eventually disappeared from China.