Chinese Buddhism - An Overview

Chinese Buddhist Art

A Buddhist Drawing From China

by Jayaram V

This article provides a brief history of the origin, development and decline of Buddhism in China and various schools of Chinese Buddhism that flourished in its long history till recent times.

Buddhism entered China a few centuries after the passing away of the Buddha, at a time when Confucianism and Taoism were the predominant religions in a country that was as a big as a continent and rivaled India in historical antiquity and cultural pluralism. In the early phases of its entry, Buddhism did not find many adherents in China. But by the 2nd Century AD, aided to some extent by the simplicity of its approach and some similarities with Taoism, it managed to gain a firm foothold and acquired a sizeable following.

The arrival of many new Buddhist scholars from the Indian subcontinent and central Asia, like An Shih-Kao, a Parthinian monk, and Lokakshema, a Kushana monk from Central Asia gave an impetus to the new religion that had many attractive features besides an inbuilt organizational approach to the study and pursuit of religion. During the same period many Buddhist texts were translated from Pali and Sanskrit into Chinese.

The collapse of Han dynasty around 220 AD, was followed by a period of confusion which continued to trouble Chinese society for the next 350 years. During this period Confucianism and Taoism gradually yielded place to Buddhism. The new Mongolian rulers of China from the Northern Wei dynasty and some rulers in the south like Emperor Wu found in Buddhism a great opportunity to demolish the old order and establish a new one. As a result by 6th Century AD, China was teaming with millions of Buddhist monks and thousands of monasteries.

During this turbulent period in China, two major developments took place in Buddhism. One group consisting mostly of the sophisticated gentry dwelled on the philosophical and mystical aspects of Buddhism, while the other group dominated by rural folk followed Buddhism in their own superstitious and simple ways imparting to it in the process a peculiar Chinese Character.

During this period many Buddhist scholars came to China from the east and worked selflessly to make Buddhism a mass religion. Notable among them were scholars like Dharmaraksha (3rd Century AD) Kumarajiva (4th Century AD), who got a number of Buddhist texts translated into Chinese. By this time China produced its own eminent Buddhist scholars with extraordinary vision like Seng-Chao, Tao-Sheng and Fa-hsien who also contributed richly to the growth of Buddhism China through their translations.

Between the 6th Century AD and 10th Century AD China was ruled by Sui and T'ang dynasties who were also patrons of Buddhism. During this period Buddhism reached its glorious heights in China. At the same time the process of degeneration also began. Many Buddhist monasteries turned to serious business and indulged in farming, trade and money lending for their own benefit neglecting the spiritual side of their responsibilities. Strangely, in a very uncharacteristic way, the Buddhist monasteries cultivated the farm lands, ran mills and oil presses using slave labor and low ranking monks and hoarded vast amounts of precious stones and metals. They also indulged in pawn brokering and money lending.

Many new schools of Buddhism also emerged in China during this period. Each school derived its authority from some ancient Buddhist text or doctrine. Some of these schools spread to countries like Korea and Japan and contributed to the emergence of Buddhism as the predominant religion.

The fall of Buddhism began during the reign of a Chinese Emperor Wu-Tsung (841-847). Probably noticing the greed that characterized many monasteries, he ordered for the general destruction of all Buddhist establishments and return of all Buddhist monks and nuns to lay life. This shook the foundations of Buddhism though it did not destroy it. Emperor Wu dismantled the greedy monasteries probably to fill his own coffers, but not Buddhism. However his actions definitely reversed the fortunes of Buddhism in China and sowed the seeds of its decline .

From 11th Century onwards, China witnessed the reemergence of Confucianism and revival of people's interest in their traditional religions. By their own excesses and neglect of their primary duties, the Buddhist monasteries became the contributory factors to the declining popularity of Buddhism. During the same period the Buddhism faced tremendous challenges from the increasing popularity of Brahmanism and the aggressive policies of the Islamic rulers of the Indian subcontinent.

These new developments in the land of the Buddha had a direct impact on the fortunes of Buddhism in China since for a very long period the monks from the subcontinent provided a recurring source of inspiration and information to their brethren in China. This decline contributed greatly to the slackening of standards in the recruitment of monks and the emergence of some decadent schools of Buddhism. These schools deviated from the original rules prescribed by the Buddha for monastic discipline among the brethren and emphasized the need for exploring the lighter side of life in the practice of Buddhism instead of sorrow and suffering. One prominent example was the emergence of Pu-Tai, or the Laughing Buddha. He was but a decadent version of the exalted and highly revered Maitreyi Buddha.

The Yuan dynasty that came to power in 1280 adopted Lamaism as their state religion. It was the Tibetan version of Buddhism which gained ascendance in the mountainous country following the emergence of Vajrayana Buddhism in eastern India. During this period some secret schools of Buddhism also emerged in China. They believed in the future advent of Maitreya and the emergence of new world order. These schools practiced martial arts like Kungfu and sometimes indulged in the petty politics of the local warlords.

Although Buddhism lost most of its dynamism and vibrancy by the 20th century, it continued to flourish in China till the advent of the Communism. As is well known, the emergence of communism sounded the death knell of Buddhism. The Communist government of China did succeed officially in putting an end to the practice of religion by abolishing all forms of public worship and closing down all the monasteries.

The excesses of cultural revolution put an end to whatever hopes the followers of Buddhism had about its revival. Today Buddhism in China is a relic of the past, an ancient monument that has been ravaged and vandalized by the clash of classes and ideological notions. It is really difficult to say how long it would take for the cycle of Dhamma to regain its supremacy and whether it would ever happen at all.

A Rare Buddhist Drawing From China A rare painting of the Buddha from 15th Century China, Ming Dynasty

Chinese Schools of Buddhism

The principal schools of Buddhism which flourished in China were:

1. The Vinaya School (Lu-tsung)

2. The Realistic School (Chu-she)

3. The Three Treatises School (San-lun)

4.The Idealist School (Fa-hsiang)

5. The Mantra or Tantric School (Mi-tsung or Chen-yen)

6. The Avatamsaka or Flower Adornment School (Hua-yen)

7. The T'ien-t'ai or White Lotus School (Fa-hua)

8. The Pure Land School (Ching t'u)

9. The Dhyana School (Ch'an)

1. The Vinaya School (Lu-tsung): As the name suggests, this school concentrated upon the monastic discipline (Vinaya) of the Buddhist monks and adhered strictly to do's and don'ts prescribed for them in the Vinaya Pitaka. This school was said to have been founded by Tao-hsuan in the 7th Century AD.

2. The Realistic School (Chu-she): This school derived its inspiration from the Abhidhamma Kosha of Vasubhandu (316-396), a Peshawar based Indian monk who was originally a Sarvasthivadin and was faithful to the original teachings of the Buddha. In course of time it became a part of the latter day Idealist school.

3. The Three Treatises School (San-lun): This school followed the teachings of the Madhyamika sutras of the famous south Indian Buddhist monk, Nagarjuna who is remembered by history for his Sunyavada or the theory of Absolute emptiness. His approach to the notions of reality was akin to the Upanishadic idea of non-self and the doctrines of the Advaita or non dualistic schools of Hinduism. His ideas were brought to China by Kumarajiva (549-623) through the translation of the Sutras, which were later expounded in the form of commentaries by Chih-Tsang (549-623). Chih-Tsnag argued in one of his works that it would be possible to understand metaphysical truths only through negation of things in view of the limitations of the mind to understand transcendental reality. This school also derived its inspiration from the Shata Shastra (The treaties of Hundred Scriptures) of Aryadeva. With the emergence of the Idealistic school, this school suffered a decline. It was later revived in the 7th Century AD by an Indian monk called Suryaprbhasa.

4.The Idealist School (Fa-hsiang): This school was founded on the ideals of Yogachara school of Vasubhandu as expounded in his Vimsatika- Karika or the Book of Twenty Verses. The school became popular because of Hsuan-Tsang (596-664) who traveled to India in the 7th Century AD to collect original Buddhist texts and bring them back to China. Hsuan Tsang was an adventurous monk who combined in himself the traits of a monk as well as inveterate traveler. Undaunted by the task ahead of him and driven by his goal to see the land of the Buddha, Hsuan-Tsang travelled to India by a circuitous route via the Silk Road through the perilious terrain of the north western frontires, and reached the University of Nalanda in eastern India after a great hardship. He spent considerable time there in the study of the Yogachara philosophy under the guidance of a teacher called Silabhadra. From there he went to the court of the famous Indian king by name Harshavardhana, who was a powerful but generous ruler of his times and ruled parts of northern and eastern India. He developed a great liking for the Chinese monk and insisted him to stay in his court for several years. Hsuan-Tsang complied with the king's request and stayed in his court for a few years before resuming his journey. He returned to to China after many hardships, and managed to carry with him a huge collection of about 650 Buddhist texts and some Buddha relics. He spent the rest of his life in the translation of the texts and in spreading the teachings of Vasubhandu. Despite of the fact that the translations he arranged were not superior in quality, Hsuan-Tsang earned a place for himself in the history of China by his unique contribution to the development of Chinese Buddhism. Through his familiarity with the teachings of Vasubhandu, he made the Idealist School one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in ancient China.

5. The Mantra or Tantric School (Mi-tsung or Chen-yen): This is the Chinese version of Tantric Buddhism. It flourished in China for less tha a hundred years, starting with the arrival of Subhakarasimha(637-735) from India during the reign of T'ang dynasty. Subhakarasimha translated the Mahavairochana Sutra which expounded the Tantric teachings. Two other monks who played a key role in the growth of Tantric Buddhism in China were Vajrabodhi (670-741) introduced the concept of Mandalas to the Chinese, while Amoghavajra said to have initiated three T'ang emperors into Tantricism. the Tantric school of Buddhism believed in magic, incantations, drawing of mandalas, casting of spells and elaborate and often secret rituals. The school was later replaced by Lamaism, which was a more popular version of Tantricism.

6. The Avatamsaka or Flower Adornment School (Hua-yen): This school flourished in China for about 200 years, starting from the 7th Century AD and attracted the attention of the famous Empress Wu (690-705). It was based upon the teachings of the Buddha as contained in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The followers of this school believed that the sutra contained the most complex teachings of the Buddha, not comprehensible to ordinary followers. The Avatamsaka school expounded a cosmic view of the universe containing the two principal aspects of the reality, namely li and shih, an approach which is in some ways resembles the concept of Purusha (spiritual) and Prakriti (physical) of Hinduism, adopted later on by the Tantric schools. It also believed that in each and every aspect the cosmic reality reflected the same relationships and balance of forces, signifying the ultimate truth of one in all and all in one. The school was founded by Tu-shun, whose commentary of Avatamsaka, known as Ha-chieh Kuan, (Contemplating the Dharmadhatu) provided the necessary background for the emergence of this school in the Buddhist world. He was followed by four patriarchs, Chihyen(602-668), Fa-tsang (exact period unknown), Chiangling(738-838) and Tsung-mi(780-841).

7. The T'ien-t'ai or White Lotus School (Fa-hua): Like the Avatamsaka school, the White Lotus School also was based upon the highest teachings of the Buddha, but compared to the former, provided a more a elaborate view of the cosmic reality. It was founded by a Chinese monk by name Chih-i (538-597) who lived in Chekiang province of China, and formed his doctrines on the basis of the Saddharma-pundarika sutra, an ancient Buddhist text, which he believed to be the vehicle of all other truths. According to this school, Truth operated from three levels or aspects. At one extreme was the void or emptiness, the unknown or the non self, about which nothing much could be speculated except talking in terms of negation and denial. At the other extreme was temporariness that was in reality nothingness but would manifest itself temporarily or momentarily because of the activity of the senses, as some kind of an illusion or as an image on the film screen. The third level is a middle state, 'middle' for our understanding, but not necessarily middle, 'different' for our understanding but not necessarily different, because it unites the two and presents them together as the one Highest Truth. These three levels of truth are also not separate or different from each other. They are the aspects of the same reality, that is universal as well as ubiquitous. The school advocated the practice of concentration and insight (chih and kuan) to understand the transience of things and attain the Buddha Mind in which the above mentioned three aspects of Truth reside in perfect harmony. Chih-i said to have become very popular during his life time and caught the attention of the emperor who donated the revenues of a district for the maintenance of his monastery. The While Lotus School was introduced into Japan in the 9th century AD and became popular as Tendai.

8. The Pure Land School (Ching t'u): This school was founded by Hui-yuan (334-416), who was originally a Taoist. It was based upon the teachings of the Mahayana school and the belief in the Bodhisattvas, the highest beings, who were next to the Buddha in the order and just a step away from salvation, but would postpone their own salvation for the sake of others. This school worshipped Amitabha and sought his grace for deliverance from this world under the notion that salvation could not be gained on ones own efforts (jiriki) but with the help of the other power (tariki), the grace of Amitabha. The school practiced devotional forms of worship and regular chanting of O-mi-to-fo (the Chinese rendering of Amitabha) as the means to salvation. It followed the teachings contained in the Smaller and Larger Sukhavati-vyuha sutras. The school was subsequently introduced into Korea and Japan where it flourished under three different names.

9. The Dhyana School (Ch'an): This was the most popular of the Chinese schools of Buddhism, which became popular in Japan and later in the west as Zen Buddhism. Chan was a "way of seeing into the nature of ones own being." (D.T.Suzuki). Though it was introduced into China by an Indian monk by name Bodhidharma, around 520 AD, Chan was essentially a product of Chinese character, which unlike the Indian, evolved out of the practical and down to earth philosophy of life. Chan rejected book learning as the basis of enlightenment, set aside all notions and theories of suffering and salvation, and relied upon day to day events, simple thinking and ordinary living as the means to enlightenment. Enlightenment descended upon one as a sudden shift in awareness, not because of elaborate study of the Buddhist sutras, exposition of the philosophies, nor worship of the images of the Buddha but from a sudden shift in the paradigm, from an instantaneous chasm in the process of thought, from a kind of Eureka experience, characterized by a sudden opening of the mind and removal of a veil, after years of silent waiting and steady preparation. The Chan school discouraged the intellectual kind of pursuit of religion as it believed that any scholarly approach would tend to stiffen the mind and prevent it from experiencing the sudden flowering of Chan.

Although the Chan masters did not encourage preoccupation with scriptural studies, they encouraged the initiates to study the basic Chan scriptures like the Lankavatarasutra, the Vimalakritinirdesa, the Vajracchedika Sutras and some additional Chan texts as a a part of their preparation for the subsequent stages of observing into the nature of things. By denigrating the scriptural knowledge, the Chan masters therefore were not promoting illiteracy, but were preparing the students to free themselves from opinionated intellectuality and scholarly affectations to emerge into a world of notionless observations.

The word 'chan' is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit word, 'dhyana' meaning concentrated meditation or contemplation. Dhyana was an essential aspect of Chan Buddhism aimed to develop inner stillness and accumulation of chi energy among the practitioners. But what Chan encouraged, more than the mechanical aspects of meditation, was the development of an unfettered and detached mind, that would not cling to anything and would not rest anywhere and would flow with the flow of life, gathering nothing and gaining nothing. Chan Buddhism did not place too much emphasis on meditation, unlike the Zen Buddhism of Japan, but on finding the Buddha mind in the most mundane tasks and conversations of day to day life. In short, Chan made living a deeply religious act aimed to break the encrusted layers of thought.

Chan Buddhism underwent a schism during the 7th century resulting in the formation of two rival school, a southern school led by Hui-neng and a northern school led by Shenhsiu. While the northern school disappeared over a period of time, the Southern school underwent further sub-divisions resulting in the formation of five Houses and seven sub sects of which two survived. One was Lin-chi (Jap. Rinzai) and Tsao-tung(Jap.Soto).

Chan Buddhism influenced Chinese way of life profoundly. The Chan art became famous in ancient China for its spontaneity and simplicity of expression. But with the decline of Buddhism in China, Chan also gradually retreated into remote monasteries and gradually lost its appeal.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Image Attribution: The images of the Buddha used in this article are either in public domain or licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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