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Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Buddhism from the very beginning differed rather widely from the religion of Gautama, and that during its long history in that country and in its conflict with Confucianism, Taoism and minor local cults, and later through the direct influx of Indian thought into China, Buddhism took up more and more elements which were radically different from primitive Buddhism. In short, in China Buddhism became a conglomerate system of beliefs and practices which makes it practically impossible to say just what Chinese Buddhism is.

Buddha's 'dharma' (teaching, law; chinese--'lu') began to influence China in the fifth century. It introduced a new ethic of motivation based on the 'karma' (action, deed) of the mind. Buddhism also brought an alteration of the basic social structure. Where previously only state and family authority had existed, the Buddhist order of monkhood established a community independent of either and governed by its own canon of monastic law, inculcating ideals of uniformity, equality, and self-disciplined individual autonomy. In subsequent centuries, Mahayanist embellishments of the Buddhist teaching in China popularized eschatological notions about the decay of all doctrines and the imminent arrival of the Future Buddha. These gave rise to communistic peasant rebellions against the oppressions of law and institutions.

With reference to the introduction of Buddhism into China Proper, as early as the year 217 BC an Indian missionary is said to have preached in that country, but the Emperor sent him away. It is said that in the year 65 AD, a mission was sent to the Western world after the Emperor Ming-ti had seen a vision during his sleep, in which he beheld a golden messenger flying through space and entering his palace. There are two versions of this story: the first tells us that the Emperor in his dream saw a golden image about nineteen feet in height, resplendent and with a halo bright as the sun, enter his palace. This vision the literati interpreted as referring to Buddha. A second version says that the golden spirit itself spoke to the Emperor, and said: "Buddha bids you send to the Western countries and search for him, with a view to obtain books and images."

The Emperor immediately sent Ts'ai Yin, Tsing King, and Wang Tsun, with fifteen others, as envoys to India, to search for and bring back books, and, if possible, Buddhist priests from India. After some years' absence returned home with books and images or pictures from the frontier of India, accompanied by two teachers or priests, called respectively Saddharma and Kasyapa Matanga. These foreign teachers took up their residence at Loyang, and translated several books, or at any rate compiled them, among which were the Sutra of Forty-two Paragraphs and the Life of Buddha.

Between AD 76-88 a number of Buddhist books were brought into China from Turkestan, but their influence is also very difficult to trace. Not until 147 AD. did Buddhism make a real beginning in that land. The Buddhism which won China at first did not come directly from India proper, but largely from the new home of Buddhism among the Scythians and Parthians. The great missionaries to the Chinese included Anshikao (Prince of the Parthians), who gave up his royal position to become a Buddhist missionary, and Lokaraksha, were devout preachers of this great doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. And it was they who seem to have brought the chief scripture of the Amitabha faith, namely, the Larger Sukhavati-Vyuha, to China in 147 AD. After the fourth century the connection between India and China seems to have been more direct, Indians coming to China in great numbers and Chinese pilgrims visiting the birthplace of their new religion.

The progress of Buddhism in China was not very rapid at first. The first century and a half or more was a period of importation and translation of scriptures. In fact, China seems to have been flooded with books; so that the Emperor Hweiti in 306 A.d., wishing to free himself of this foreign importation, ordered a great many books to be burned, and for many years the Chinese were forbidden by imperial edict to become Buddhist monks. But after 335 A.D. matters took a turn for the better. The people were allowed to take monastic vows, and many began to give the new religion serious attention. The thing that, perhaps, more than any other won the Chinese to Buddhism was the latter's attitude towards the deep-rooted ancestor worship. Buddhism did not openly antagonize ancestor worship; in fact, it enriched it by a distinct contribution, for it offered the Chinese a way of raising the dead to the exalted position of Buddhas.

These doctrines were generally adopted in China, where Buddha is known under the name of the god Fo. Buddhism satisfied the religious longings better than Confucianism was doing. Especially did the Amitabha faith meet a great need in a land where religion was entirely too much a matter of mere human relationships. Buddhism went, of course, to the other extreme; but even so it filled a great need in the heart of the Chinese people, and from the fourth century on became very popular.

Five centuries after the introduction of this religion there were three thousand temples of Fo in the Chinese empire. Phu-sa, a follower of Buddha, who lived early in the fourth century AD, is worshiped in China as one of those saints who had become a spirit of light, and voluntarily descended to earth again from motives of benevolence. He is called the 'son of Buddha, born of his mother,' because his allegorical writings are supposed to have perfected the doctrines of his master. Bodhidhorma, another of his followers, who fled from the persecution in Hindostan in the fifth century AD, took refuge in China, where he was received with distinguished favor by the emperor, and became his spiritual teacher.

From translations and studies it became increasingly evident that the Buddhism imported into China by the great Anshikao and Lokaraksha was not the pure Buddhism of the founder. This discovery gave rise to great discussions and divisions in the ranks of Buddhism and thus weakened the new religion in its conflict with Confucianism and Taoism. But these discussions and divisions, in the long run, led to further developments of the new religion and to the formation of some of the great sects which later were transplanted to Japan.

It is from this time on that Chinese Buddhism began to take up many of the elements of Confucianism, Taoism and the minor local cults. From Confucianism Buddhism adopted much which made its ethical teachings more practical and suited to the tastes of the Chinese. And from Taoism it gathered on the one hand some of its philosophical formulse to express its own concepts, converting e.g. the Law of the Buddha into the Laws or Way of the Universe, i.e. the Tao, or Way, of Taoism. On the other hand, Buddhism also took up many of the superstitions of Taoism and local cults as held by the ignorant masses.

The growing popularity of Buddhism in China during the fifth century led to a bitter religious controversy with the Confucianists and Literati, so that finally the king of the Wei dynasty in the north was induced to issue an edict calling for the destruction of Buddhist books and images. But by 451 AD a king of the same dynasty authorized the establishment of one Buddhist temple in every city of his dominion and forty to fifty inhabitants of each place were permitted to become monks or priests. This friendliness on the part of the rulers made China a safe place of refuge for the Buddhists of India, who were being persecuted by their Brahmin rivals. Thus one account has it that at the beginning of the sixth century the number of Indian refuges in China was more than 6000. This in turn helped raise the prestige of Buddhism, as may be seen from the statistics of that period, which give the number of Buddhist temples as upward of 13,000.

Of all the Buddhists who came to China from India during this period there is none whose coming was of such significance for Chinese Buddhism as that of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Contemplative school of Buddhism in China. Bodhidharma was the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Dhyani school in India, claiming to be in real apostolic succession from Gautama down; and with him the center of this type of Buddhism shifted from India to China.

Of all the Buddhists who came to China from India during this period there is none whose coming was of such significance for Chinese Buddhism as that of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Contemplative school of Buddhism in China. Bodhidharma was the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Dhyani school in India, claiming to be in real apostolic succession from Gautama down; and with him we may say the center of this type of Buddhism is shifted from India to China.

According to the "History of the Wei Dynasty," says Edkins, the number of Buddhist monks and priests about this time reached 2,000,000 and the number of temples was 30,000. This seems to be an exaggeration, but it shows that Buddhism was exceedingly popular. The statistics given in connection with the accounts of the great persecutions of Buddhists during the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries show that Buddhism kept increasing at the expense of its rivals. In 714 AD, e.g., some 12,000 monks and nuns were compelled to return to secular life, and the edict against Buddhists issued by Emperor Wu-tsung in 845 AD is said to have led to the destruction of 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 smaller edifices, and more than 260,000 monks and nuns were compelled to return to common employments, the temple property being confiscated and the copper of images and bells being converted into coins. Again in the first half of the tenth century we hear of persecutions which closed 30,000 temples. But none of these and similar oppressions, many of which were purely local, sufficed to check Buddhism in China; for, after all, it satisfied the spiritual needs of the people better than Confucianism and Taoism could do, and so the Buddhists, though frequently oppressed and persecuted, always found their way back to favor and prosperity.

From China as a center Buddhism spread in several directions, mainly, however, in its Mahayana form. During the seventh century it reached Tibet and there developed into what is now known as Lamaism. Lamaism, during the time of the great Mongolian conqueror, Kublai Khan, became the religion of Mongolia and also flowed back again into China proper, thus adding one more current to the ever swelling stream of Northern Buddhism. Before this, however, namely, during the latter part of the fourth century, Buddhism had reached Korea. Little is known of the nature of Korean Buddhism of this early day. It would seem, however, that the new religion early won its way among the upper classes and enjoyed the protection of the royal families; for it was the king of Kudara, King Seimei, who in the year 552 AD sent Buddhism across the narrow channel which separates Korea from Japan when he sent his Buddhist mission to the emperor of Japan.

Though the worship of Fo had been the prevailing religion of all parts of the Chinese empire for more than fifteen hundred years, it never gained favor with a majority of their learned men, who were mostly of the school of Confucius. But these were merely the opinions of the learned. The populace had always been so attached to the religion of Fo that the Court of Rites have deemed it prudent to express no opinion against it when they met annually at Pekin, they merely condemned heresy in general terms and leave the people free to follow their own opinions, provided they do not infringe upon any of the established laws of the empire. Many who consider themselves disciples of Confucius have mixed his maxims with various ideas borrowed from the sacred books of Fo.

"Buddhism became popular with ordinary people as a folk belief for its promise to satisfy their secular needs, and gradually became attractive to scholars for the complexity and intricacy of its metaphysical and psychological theories. Imbued with the humanistic teaching of traditional philosophy, Chinese scholars found the Buddhist doctrines of “emptiness” (sunyata) and “non-self” or “self-denial” (wuwo) unacceptable until they were rendered intelligible and transformed in terms of the Daoist doctrines of “non-being” (wu) and “self-abstention” (wuyu), using the philosophical method of geyi (analogous interpretation) produced by the Neo-Daoists of the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. Once thus accepted, the Buddhist doctrines flourished in the Sui (590-617) and Tang (618-906) dynasties, during which four major Chinese Buddhist schools developed: the Huayan (“Flower Garland,” based on the Flower Ornament Sutra]), Tiantai (“Heavenly Platform,” based on the Lotus Sutra), Chan (“Meditation”–better known by its Japanese equivalent, Zen–based on the Vajracchedika Sutra and the Lankavatatra Sutra), and Jingtu (“Pure Land,” based on the Amitayus Sutra). Among these schools of Chinese Buddhism, the greatest tension has existed between Chan, which has maintained an iconoclastic attitude toward traditional Buddhist precepts and scriptural study, and “Pure Land,” whose theistic and ritualistic flavor helped to ensure its widespread popularity beginning in the Ming dynasty."

By the early 20th Century, whereas the official Confucianism was severely agnostic as to a future life, the Buddhists had departed from the similar agnosticism of their founder, and not only had a very definite and elaborate doctrine of hell and heaven but pandered to all the superstitions of the people. The Buddha enlisted his followers as monks to save themselves; the Chinese monks have become priests to act on behalf of others. The Buddha's monks led wandering lives, and met together for mutual confession and exhortation; the Chinese Buddhists erected beautiful homes and temples, where they conducted worship before idols for the benefit (spiritual) of the people and (financial) of themselves.

The Buddha's monks gathered up the teaching of their founder and his great followers in a short canon which they intelligently studied and sought to follow; the Chinese Buddhists had a much longer canon, which they had written out in Chinese characters without translation from the Sanscrit, and portions of which they recited as a sort of Abracadabra, utterly unintelligible both to their hearers and themselves. To hire another man to worship for you, according to a foreign ritual comprehended by no one, in a bad pronunciation of a foreign tongue now obsolete even in its original home, with customs explicitly forbidden by the founder of the religion, the priest himself perpetually violating them both in his methods and in his very existence — all this seemed absurd, but was too true, in China and Europe.

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Page last modified: 20-06-2012 20:36:04 ZULU