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Formation of Buddhism in China

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Development of Buddhism

Buddhism entered China at the turn of this era. Having passed a long period of adaptation in the country rich with cultural traditions, Buddhism comes under their influence. Therefore, a new philosophical and religious doctrine, which became an integral part of the traditional Chinese culture, was created. This doctrine covering all parties of human life has a set of concepts, theories, and provisions with their purposes and tasks. It is presented by a set of schools and the directions very characteristic of Buddhism in general. According to this tradition, there are 84 thousand doctrines leading to rescue in the world. All of them treat the Buddhist doctrine. Their main goal is to release humans from sufferings.

The process of formation of Buddhism in China lasted for about seven centuries, during which it adapted to the local culture in such a way that in the period of the restored social and political order of the Tang Dynasty in the VII-IX centuries, it became the dominating spiritual power in the country. Adopting various traditional Chinese elements of spiritual culture, Buddhism became so Chinese that as already an element of traditional Chinese culture, it began to extend further to Korea and Japan. In light of the foregoing, the study of the formation of the history of Buddhism in China is quite an urgent task that will be performed in this paper. The consideration of stages of penetration Buddhism into China and its cultural aspects become a help in highlighting the problem and intercultural interaction to some extent.

In the history of humankind, Buddhism became the first world religion. However, classifying Buddhism only as a religion (logic and psychology) is a great simplification. Morality, art, philosophy, and even science are integral parts of Buddhist teachings, covering all spheres of public life and largely determining the nature of this life. Presenting a world of supranational and international ideology, the Buddhist doctrine has given rise to the phenomenon of the Buddhist civilization, including the now vast territory of East and Southeast Asia. Buddhism appeared in India during the bitter ideological struggle reflecting considerable changes in the social, economic, and political life of Old Indian society. As Gombrich stated, during this period, the change in socio-cultural fabric, which differed rather distinctly from the early years of the Vedic period, occurred (26-41).

The birthplace of Buddhism is the Iron Age India, around the middle of the first millennium BCE. According to Abraham Yearly, this period was marked by the appearance of great Sramanic traditions as well as the writing of the Upanishads that were composed by marking changes in the historical Vedic religion (538, 571). This religion arose around the ancient kingdom of Magadha (now in Bihar, India), and it was based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, called later “Buddha” (‘Awakened One’) (“Buddha”). Later, the doctrine was transformed into three schools. Three months after Gautama Buddha’s death, his students organized the first meeting. After that, a division occurred, and each of the students headed to school while continuing the tradition of their great teacher. However, it is worth noting that some doctrines deny carrying out the first council. In the early period of Chinese Buddhism, the Indian early Buddhist schools admitted as important, and as those whose texts were studied were the Dharmaguptakas, Kyapyas, Sarvstivdins, Mahsakas, and Mahsghikas (Warder 281).

In the middle of the first millennium in India, in the depths of the Mahayana, greatly influenced by local religious traditions and, above all, emerging Hinduism, Buddhism began to form a special yogic system, based on the tantric practice. By the VIII century, this system is almost fully developed and called Vajrayana. Vajrayana proclaimed its own special way of achieving enlightenment that later received the title of China’s “Secret Teachings”. In Buddhism, the emotional component of life takes the dominating role, so the main task of religious activity becomes a regulation of the emotional life of people. This regulation should enter into the framework of such an adept of life, which would be consistent with the standards of Buddhist ethics. At first, the existence of Buddhism’s contradiction between the regulation and the elimination of emotional conditioning was not significant since the average level of consciousness adherents was quite high. However, the expansion of the social base of this controversy had significant importance for the development of the theory and practice of Mahayana.

The First Mention of Buddhism in China

Regarding the first introduction of Buddhism in China, researchers have not reached a consensus yet. They look at the problem from the angle of ‘the first appearance’, and such an angle is determined by the date of occurrence. However, in this context, there is a need to distinguish between the introduction and adoption of Buddhism as a worldview. According to Chinese sources, the first contact between the Buddhists and the Chinese occurred in 243 BCE in the fourth year of the reign of the famous Qin Shihuang, the founder of the first ancient Chinese Qin Empire.

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The historian Rong Xinjiang wrote:

The view that Buddhism was transmitted to China by the sea route comparatively lacks convincing and supporting materials, and some arguments are not sufficiently rigorous […] the most plausible theory is that Buddhism started from the Greater Yuezhi of northwest India (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) and took the land roads to reach Han China. After entering into China, Buddhism blended with early Daoism and Chinese traditional esoteric arts, and its iconography received blind worship. (26-27)

Then, eighteen foreign monks, led by Shi Lifan came to China to preach Buddhism. These preachers were arrested and put in jail, which was consistent with the political and spiritual centralization upheld by Qin Shi Huang. According to the legend, the preachers were released from prison by God in six gold Zhang, and then, they were frightened and surprised the Emperor had been forced to let them go in peace. Despite all the mythological details and the improbability of this fact, certain events relating to the Buddhist preachers could have happened in reality because they included the Buddhist King Ashoka Embassy. More to say, Qin Shihuang was in an unfavorable disposition following the outcome of this contact.

Second, a more or less reliable time of the occurrence of Chinese Buddhism is attributed to 121 BC, according to information from the “Register of Sakyamuni and Laozi. History of Wei” was written during the reign of Emperor Han Wu Di (140-86 BC). During a hike on the Huns, the emperor took a gold Buddha statue and placed it in his palace. The information about Buddhism penetrated into China and reached the emperor, especially after the establishment of the reign of Emperor Wu of Han “Silk Road” that later emerged as an active commercial and cultural exchange between China and the western kingdoms. This exchange took place more at the grassroots level, so it was not reflected in the dynastic and political historiography.

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The next mention of Buddhism bears a more than reliable character, and it is reflected in several non-Buddhist sources. In 2 BC, Jing Lu, the envoy from Great Yuezhi (Kushan Empire), and Tsun received oral instructions of the Buddhist sutras. In addition, there was some indirect evidence that at the time of the emperors Chengdi (32-6 BC) and Aidi (6-1 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC BC – 9 AD) in China, there were already Buddhist sutras. This fact is discussed in the Chinese academic circles as quite real, and it is taken as the beginning of the penetration of Buddhism in China.

In the Chinese Buddhist circles, another event is accepted to the beginning of the penetration of Buddhism into China. During the rule of the Emperor Mingdi of the dynasty East Han (25-220), who had the motto “Eternal Tranquility”, the emperor dreamed of the gold person flying in the palace. The first record this legend stated:

In the olden days, emperor Ming saw in a dream a god whose body had the brilliance of the sun and who flew before his palace; and he rejoiced exceedingly at this. The next day he asked his officials: “What god is this?” the scholar Fu Yi said: “Your subject has heard it said that in India there is somebody who has attained the Dao and who is called Buddha; he flies in the air, his body had the brilliance of the sun; this must be that god. (Maspero 402)

Then, the emperor sent an embassy, consisting of 18 people, to Great Yue Zhi (the Kushansky kingdom). There, the embassy met two Buddhist monks – Kashyap Matangi and Dkharmaratn who had arrived at the capital of Luoyang with the sutra and the images of Buddha brought on a white horse. The emperor allocated them a place for the construction of the monastery that received the name “Monastery of the White Horse”.

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Support of emperors and the government, more morally, determined the success of the distribution of Buddhism in China. Moreover, in the process of the distribution of Buddhism, many emperors recognized Buddha as an object of honor. Furthermore, they actively participated in Buddhist ceremonies, although at the beginning, Buddha’s honoring had the traditional Chinese form in the form of sacrifices.

Thus, from the second half of the 1st century, Buddhism began to get into China, and this penetration had different forms. The Chinese, who had the powerful culture of writing, had always been respectful to written sources. Thus, the volume of Buddhist literature could not but strike them, which, undoubtedly, gave considerable weight to Buddhism in the opinion of an educated part of Chinese society. Therefore, Buddhist writings became a bridge that connected Buddhism and Chinese culture that had always dominated the rational forms of reflection in addition to the translation work that actively conducted missionary activities in the form of interpretation and clarification of Buddhist texts. Subsequently, propaganda literature was also written by the Chinese themselves, a vivid example of which might have been the first Chinese Buddhist proper essay “Treatise on the Resolution of Doubts”. The penetration of Buddhism in China occurred in the form of religious activity that included the veneration of votive objects as well as charitable activities. This form covered all strata of Chinese society, and it largely included the Buddhist concept of karma. The desire to improve and strengthen their social status or find merit in this and subsequent generations, especially in troubled times, forced the Chinese to take an active part in religious activities, which was necessary during the advent of Buddhism in China. The initial successes of the spread of Buddhism in China were caused not only by the moral and material support of the state but also by a variety of objective reasons, among which were socio-economic, political, spiritual, and psychological reasons. From the socio-economic reasons, it is worth noting the growing crisis of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). Thus, land concentration in the hands of the ruling elite led to the impoverishment of the vast mass of peasants and increased the number of personal dependence and slaves. This was the cause of reducing government revenues.

Among political reasons, one should mention the corruption of the state structure. Emperors were virtually excluded from public affairs that had eventually fallen into the hands of favorites and groups from among the eunuchs and empresses’ relatives. The enmity of the eunuchs and ‘external family’ led to the degradation of the political order and ignored the laws. This social and economic instability paved the way for a huge national disaster.

All the above shows how sometimes difficult and complicated the way of Buddhism in China was. Long distances, different cultures, and mentalities, and the ensuing difficulties of translation had significantly tightened the terms of penetration and adaptation of Buddhism in Chinese culture. War, unrest, and troubles also hindered the spread of Buddhism, like many translations of the initial period in these times had been lost, and the monks were forced to move to safer places. On the other hand, all these disasters and the resulting instability of life contributed to the treatment of the Chinese in the spiritual realm. Many people began to look for non-traditional methods of regulation and action on life processes, thinking that since the traditional Chinese teachings had been largely discredited, it was possible to apply Buddhist practices to preserve or improve their position. In other words, it was the traditional appeal to spirituality in a period of unrest and turmoil. Many people, who were unable to find well-being in this life, to seek solace and happiness in the hereafter, hoped for after mortal reward that had been promised them in the Buddhist teachings if they followed the Buddhist code of conduct. Many of them just sought refuge in Buddhist monasteries as a departure from the hungry and insecure life of the world.

The penetration of foreign teachings into China, which competed on equal terms with traditional Chinese exercises and temporarily defeated them in the theoretical and religious terms, was the first major blow to the Chinese worldview. Prior to that, China was represented by the Chinese center of the universe, a stronghold of culture and virtue that was surrounded by barbarians. Naturally, the appearance of the foreign doctrine, surpassing the Chinese one in some things, was not only painful to the pride of the Chinese elite, but it also affected the basis of their traditional worldview. The concept of monasticism and the aversion to social issues seemed to contradict the generally accepted norms and standards laid down in Chinese society. Some of them even said that Buddhism harmed the authority of the state, that Buddhist monasteries did not contribute anything to China’s economic prosperity, and that Buddhism was barbaric and not worthy of Chinese cultural traditions (Bentley 82). It was a huge conflict between Buddhism and Confucianism, or, at the institutional level between the Buddhist church and the Confucian state, but it also was a constant and extremely important factor in the entire history of Buddhism in China (Zurcher 59).

Buddhism in China

The periods of Eastern Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties, attributable to the IV-VI centuries, were the time of the most intensive development and establishment of Buddhism in China. Thus, at this time, Buddhism became a significant factor in the cultural, social, and political life of this country. Therefore, for 104 years, the Eastern Jin Dynasty in China already 1768 monasteries, inhabited by 24 thousand monks and nuns. Moreover, 27 translators worked on translating the texts. As compared to the previous figures, it was evident that all the indicators had increased significantly. At that time, China was practically divided into two parts – the ‘barbaric’ North and the ‘Chinese’ South, the boundary between which was the Yangtze River. The north of China, which hosted the princely dynasty of northern nomadic peoples, had seen continuous civil wars. However, gradually adopting Chinese culture, these nomadic peoples assimilated between the Chinese. Therefore, the political elite of northern China contributed to the spread of Buddhism among the population. Northern rulers vied with each other not only on the battlefield but also in the number of missionaries called to and the number of monasteries built. More to say, having a definite impact on the elite, Buddhist missionaries tried to soften their savage manners as much as possible and through their ideological influence on them, make life easier for ordinary people. Therefore, seeing their defenders in the Buddhist missionaries, the common people are also increasingly turned to Buddhism.


The process of penetration and establishment of Buddhism in China lasted for nearly seven centuries – since the first Buddhist missionaries, and the sutras, and up to the VIII century. While Chinese Buddhism was actually the Chinese form of Buddhist teaching, it was also an adaptation of a foreign cultural element in an environment where everything foreign was looked at from the height of cultural superiority. The success of the development and formation of Chinese Buddhism owed much to the potential borne by Buddhist teachings. However, the original Buddhism in China faced a number of difficulties in becoming established. Nevertheless, the doctrine of Buddhism still gained popularity in China. Thus, this study attempted to present the main milestones of the development of Buddhism and the main stages of its formation and penetration in China as well as show the textual and conceptual framework of Chinese Buddhism.

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