Buddhism in China, the Ten School of Chinese Buddhism

Chinese Buddhist Art

The Buddha

by Jayaram V

This article traces the origin and development of Buddhism in China and the ten most important schools of Chinese Buddhism which flourished there.


Buddhism entered China around 200 BCE from India along the land and sea trade routes. The Silk Road played an important role in the earlier days. In the next four or five hundred years it emerged as a dominant faith of China and acquired a distinct flavor of its own due to local factors and interaction with Confucianism and Daoism. As the communication between Indian and Chinese monks became frequent, many schools of Buddhism emerged and contributed richly to the growth of Buddhism in China.

They played an important role in the sociopolitical, cultural and religious history of the country. Today, we recognize the Buddhist schools of China under the generic name Chinese Buddhism. They also contributed to the growth and development of Buddhism in the adjoining territories such as the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Burma, Tibet and Thailand.

Tradition recognizes at least ten prominent schools of Chinese Buddhism. They flourished for a long time and contributed richly to the diversity of Buddhist thought in China and adjoining countries. Most of them are currently extinct or lost their appeal. However, traces of them can still be seen in the beliefs and practices of other schools which are active in different parts of the world, where Buddhism is still practiced as a popular or dominant faith.

Some of them adapted to the changing environment and global influences to meet a wide range of expectations from diverse populations, and incorporated the beliefs and practices of the extinct schools. The ten most important schools of Chinese Buddhism are listed below, followed by a brief description of each of them. It may be noted that in transliterating the names, we have used the most popular spelling. Wherever possible, we have included their Japanese names and any alternate names or spellings.

  1. The Vinaya School (Lu-tsung, Japanese Ritshu)
  2. The Realistic School (Chu-she, Kosa, Japanese Kusha)
  3. The Three Treatises School (San-lun, Japanese Sanron)
  4. The Idealist School (Fa-hsiang, Faxiang, Japanese Hosso)
  5. The Mantra or Tantric School (Mi-tsung, Chen-yen or Zhenyan, Japanese Shingon)
  6. The Avatamsaka or Flower Adornment School (Hua-yen, Huayan, Japanese Kegon)
  7. The T'ien-t'ai or White Lotus School (Tiantai, Fa-hua, Japanese Tendai)
  8. The Pure Land School (Ching t'u, Jingtu, Japaenese Jodo)
  9. The Dhyana School (Ch'an, Japanese Zen)
  10. The Satyasiddhi School (Cheng-shi, Japanese Jojistu)

1. The Vinaya School (Lu-tsung, Japanese Ritshu)

As the name suggests, this school concentrated upon the monastic discipline (Vinaya) of monks and adhered strictly to the rules and restraints as prescribed in the Vinaya Pitaka (basket of disciplines). It drew its doctrine especially from the Chinese translation of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, which was originally compiled by Yonaka Dharmagupta. He was Greek monk who travelled from Greece to Pataliputra and studied Buddhist texts, before introducing the Buddhist monastic discipline in the Gandhara region.

The followers of the discipline were known as Dharmaguptakas. The text laid down 253 rules for the monks and 348 rules for the nuns. The Vinaya school of China, which was based upon the text, was founded by Tao-hsuan (Daoxuan) in the 7th Century AD. Followers of the school might have also incorporated practices from four other translations of Vinaya, but we do not have sufficient information. The school is extinct now. However, some of its practices have been incorporated in recent times by other schools.

2. The Realistic or the Pragmatic School (Chu-she, Kósa, Japanese Kusha)

The Realistic school is also known as the Abhidharma school because it derived its essential doctrine from the Abhidhamma Kosa of Vasubhandu (316-396). He was a Peshawar based Indian monk who was originally a Sarvasthivadin and faithful to the original teachings of the Buddha. The text was introduced into China by Xuanzang. Abhidhamma school was popular during the reign of Tang dynasty (618-907), which is considered the golden age of Buddhism. Subsequently, it became a part of the latter-day Idealist school. Currently it is extinct. The school believed in the empirical study of momentary, phenomenal events or occurrences (dharmas) and their causes, consequences and relationship with other phenomena. The purpose of such a pursuit was to cultivate the Right View or a realistic view of events, occurrences.

Followers of the school were not interested in mere intellectual debate and discourse. They strictly followed the Buddha’s percept that one should accept only such truths and beliefs which were true, relevant and useful to the practice of Dhamma and led to wholesome consequences. Hence, they focused upon those teachings which had practical value and helped the monks make quicker progress on the Path of Nirvana. They applied the same standard even to the teachings of the Buddha, knowing that Buddha himself encouraged the practice. They observed the processes underlying the impermanent phenomena and viewed them in the context of a stream of phenomena, which created the illusion of continuity and change.

3. The Three Treatises School (San-lun, Japanese Sanron)

This school was founded by Kumarajiva, an Indian translator of Buddhist texts. As the name suggests, the it derived its core doctrine from three main texts namely the Mulamadhyamika Karika and Dvadasanikaya Sutra of Nagarjuna and the Sataka Sastra of Aryadeva. Some times Mahaprajna-paramita-upadesa is also added as the fourth text. Two other texts are also mentioned in conjunction with the school namely the Prajnaparamita Sutra and Aksayamatinirdesa Sutra.

The school is also known as Madhyamika school because it follows the teachings of the Madhyamika sutras of the famous south Indian Buddhist monk, Nagarjuna who is remembered in history for his contribution to the Sunyavada doctrine or the theory of absolute emptiness. Nagarjuna’s approach to the notions of reality was similar to the Upanishadic idea of not-self (objective reality) 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 recognized the limitations of the human mind in deducing the truths of existence or knowing the reality beyond the sensory realm. He argued that metaphysical truths could be known only through negation of things by rejecting the common notions and habitual thoughts. Apart from the abovementioned texts, the school also incorporated certain beliefs and practices 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, Faxiang, Japanese Hosso)

This school was founded on the ideals of Yogachara school of Vasubhandu as expounded in his Vimsatika- Karika or the Book of Twenty Verses. It was primarily associated with Mahayana Buddhism. 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 to China. After spending several years in India and recording his observations, he carried with him about 650 Buddhist texts and spent the rest of his life in translating them and spreading the teachings of Vasubhandu.

Although the translations which he brought with him were not superior in quality, Hsuan-Tsang is well remembered for his unique contribution to the development of Buddhism in China. By propagating the teachings of Vasubhandu, he made the Idealist School one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in ancient China. The primary focus of the school was the practice of yoga and meditation, with particular emphasis upon the study of the mind and its faculties to gain insight into the nature of consciousness and perceptual reality.

Its ultimate aim was to cultivate Right Perception and Right Knowledge, overcoming the hindrances of the mind and body, and enter higher states of consciousness to experience mental absorption. Hence, it is also known as Vijnanavada, the doctrine of consciousness. The school also believed the karma was essentially a function of the mind. The seeds of karma stored one’s own consciousness and of others create the conditions and construct the reality which one experiences.

5. The Mantra or the Tantric School (Mi-tsung, Chen-yen or Zhenyan, Japanese Shingon)

This is the Chinese version of Tantric Buddhism, popularly known as Vajrayana Buddhism. It flourished in China for less than 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), who introduced the concept of Mandalas to the Chinese, while Amoghavajra said to have initiated three T'ang emperors into Tantrism.

The Tantric school of Buddhism believed in magic, incantations (mantras), drawing of mandalas, casting of spells and elaborate and often secret rituals. Due to its emphasis upon rituals, it did not survive for long in China and was later replaced by Lamaism, which was a more popular version of Tantrism. However, in Japan it gained popularity as Shingon (meaning mantra). It also contributed to the cultural and religious synthesis between Buddhism and the native Shintoism, linking Buddha Mahavairochana with Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess. Vajrayana Buddhism rose to its greatest heights in Tibet, and still practiced by Tibetans as their national religion.

6. The Avatamsaka or Flower Adornment School (Hua-yen, Huayan, Japanese Kegon)

This school flourished in China for about 200 years, starting from the 7th Century CE 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. Followers of this school believed that the text contained the most complex teachings of the Buddha, which was not comprehensible to ordinary followers. They believed in the interdependence, interconnectedness and interpenetration of all beings and phenomena, and how they mutually exerted influence upon each other.

The Avatamsaka school expounded a cosmic view of the universe, containing the two principal aspects of the reality, namely li and shih. Their approach in some ways is similar to the concept of Purusha (spiritual) and Prakriti (physical) of Hinduism, which was later adopted by the Tantric schools of both Hinduism and Buddhism. The school also held that in every aspect of existence, 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 (Dushun). His commentary of Avatamsaka, which is known as Ha-chieh Kuan, (Contemplating the Dharmadhatu) provided the essential doctrine for this school and its subsequent popularity. His teachings were further systematized and propagated by four patriarchs namely Chihyen(602-668), Fa-tsang (the exact period unknown), Chiangling(738-838) and Tsung-mi or Zongmi(780-841).

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

This White Lotus school was founded by a Chinese monk. Huisi (515-76). His discipline Chih-I or Zhiyi (538-597), who lived in Chekiang province of China, made it further popular. He 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. The school aims to balance study and practice. Just as the Avatamsaka school, the White Lotus School presented a broader vision of the cosmic phenomena based upon the highest teachings of the Buddha. However, compared to the other, it provided a wider and complex view regarding the discernment of truth and nature of cosmic reality.

According to the school, truth operates at three levels or aspects. At one extreme is the void or emptiness, which is also called the unknown or the non-self. It cannot be known or speculated upon, since one can only speak about it in negative terms as what it is not. At the other extreme is impermanence, which in reality is nothingness, but which temporarily or momentarily manifests through forms, objects, appearance and other phenomena as an illusion or as images on a film screen. They are discerned by the mind due to the activity of the senses, but they are empty in themselves.

The third form of truth is the middle state. It is 'middle' and ‘different’ for our understanding, but not necessarily middle or 'different', but because it unites the two extremes and presents them together as one composite truth. These three levels are also neither separate nor different from each other. They are aspects of the same reality, which is universal and omnipresent.

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 three aspects of truth exist in perfect harmony. Zhiyi said to have become very popular during his lifetime and caught the attention of the emperor who donated the revenues of a district to him 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, Jingtu, Japaenese Jodo)

This school was founded by Hui-yuan (334-416), who was originally a Taoist. He founded a monastery at the top of Mount Lu and invited several monks to study and practice Buddhism with him. The Pure Land School is still one of the most popular and well-known schools of Mahayana Buddhism, with its special emphasis upon Mahayana cosmology, devotional and contemplative practices and the worship of the Bodhisattvas, especially Amitabha Buddha.

Its doctrine is derived from three Pureland texts, the longer and shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutras and the Amitayurdhyana Sutras. They speak about Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land of Bliss, known as Sukhavati. The Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra, is another important text, which speaks about reciting the name of Amitabha as a contemplative practice. Followers of the school worship Amitabha for deliverance from this world with the belief that the grace and power of Amitabha (tariki), rather than individual effort (jiriki), is crucial to attain Nirvana.

The school practiced devotional forms of worship and regular chanting of O-mi-to-fo (the Chinese rendering of Amitabha), apart from mindfulness and visualization techniques to attain salvation. Its teachings were subsequently introduced into Korea and Japan where it flourished under three names. In many respects Pure Land Buddhism is very similar to the devotional (bhakti) and theistic schools of Hinduism.

9. The Dhyana School (Ch'an, Japanese Zen

The Chan school was the most popular of the schools of Chinese Buddhism, which became popular in Japan, and later in the West, as Zen Buddhism. According to D. T. Suzuki, Chan or Zen was a "way of seeing into the nature of one’s own being." Although it was originally brought to China by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, around 520 CE, the beliefs and practices of Chan were essentially Chinese in character with its down to earth philosophy, practical approach and distaste for theoretical speculation.

Unlike its Indian counterpart, Chan evolved out of the pragmatic and earthy mindset of Chinese people. It rejected book learning as the basis of enlightenment. Setting aside all notions and theories of suffering and salvation and relying upon ordinary events, simple thinking and austere living as the means to simplicity and purity, it aimed to offer its practitioners a simple and straightforward path to enlightenment.

The school believed that one could attain enlightenment through a sudden shift in one’s awareness rather than through an arduous and elaborate study of the Buddhist texts, exposition of the philosophies or worship of the images of the Buddha. By letting the mind to think in unpredictable and creative ways, one could force it out of its habitual thought patterns and conditioned responses to experience a paradigm shift or an instantaneous chasm in its awareness. It is similar to the Eureka experience, which arises from the sudden opening of the mind to an unexpected truth, as if a veil has been lifted or door has been opened and an answer to a complex riddle, theorem or puzzle presented itself from nowhere after intense struggle, waiting and exploration.

The Chan school discouraged the intellectual pursuit of seeking knowledge for knowledge sake or engaging the mind in frivolous studies which would not only stiffen the mind and suppress its fluidity and creativity but also prevent it from experiencing the sudden flowering of Chan. Early practitioners of Chan studied Lankavatara Sutra, Prajnaparamita Sutra, Vajracchedika Sutra and Surangama Sutra. Dogen Zenji and Myoan Eisai introduced it in Japan where it became popular as Zen Buddhism. Linji (Japanese Rinzai) and Caodong (Japanese Sota) are the two well-known branches of Chan. The former mostly relies upon Koans (hua-tous) or baffling statements to shake the mind out of its predictable and habitual thought patterns and experience sudden awakening or insight, whereas the latter focuses upon passive sitting and letting the mind gradually enter higher states of insightful awareness.

10. The Satyasiddhi School (Cheng-shi, Japanese Jojistu)

The school was originally based upon the Chinese translation of the original text name Satyasiddhi Shastra, which was composed by an Indian monk named Harivarman (250-350). Its translation into Chinese by Kumarajiva became the basis for the teachings of the school. Satyasiddhi Shastra also goes by the alternate name, Tattvasiddhi Shasta. Hence, in some descriptions the school is mentioned as Tattvasiddhi school.

According to legends, Havivarman studied the Abhidhamma of Katyana for several years. However, after years of intense study he grew dissatisfied with its teachings, and developed serious differences with is fellow scholars. Therefore, he rejected the Abhidhamma school and went on to compose Satyasiddhi Shastra, in which he expounded the emptiness of the phenomenal world, suggesting that phenomena or transient events, objects and occurrences (dharmas) contained no real substance or substratum.

According to him, although objects and phenomena appeared as real, in truth they were empty like bubbles, and although objects could be reduced into atoms, upon further examination, one could see that the atoms themselves were empty. Therefore, the world was just an appearance and empty in itself. Three students of Kumarajiva' played an important role in promoting the school in the initial stages namely Sengrui, Sengdao and Sengsong. According to some, the school reconciles the teachings of Sravakayana and Bodhisattvayana. It flourished until the Tang dynasty (7th-10th CE) and was introduced into Japan by Ekwan of Goryeo, where it became popular as Jojistu.

For more information on Chinese Buddhism, please check the following

Share This

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.

Translate the Page