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Home Chinese Culture   China Religions Buddhism in China


Religions in China 

 Buddhism in China

Buddhism in China
China has 56 ethnic groups, each with its own culture and religion, but among all the religions in China, the largest is Buddhism. Over centuries, Buddhism in China has developed into three linguistic forms: Chinese-language Buddhism, Pali-language Buddhism, and Tibetan-language Buddhism, also called Lamaism. It is difficult to estimate how many people follow Chinese-language Buddhism, as it is widely distributed and does not have invitation rituals, but the Chinese-language Buddhism has at least 40,000 monks and nuns and more than 5,000 temples and monasteries. Tibetan-language Buddhism is found mainly among the 7 million people of the Tibetan, Mongolian, Tu, Yugur, Naxi, Pumi, and Moinba ethnic groups, and has 120,000 lamas and nuns, and over 3,000 temples and monasteries. Pali-language Buddhism is found mainly among the 1.5 million people of the Dai, Blang, De’ang, Va, and Achang ethnic groups, and has more than 8,000 monks and nuns, and over 1,000 temples and monasteries.

Tradition has it that Emperor Ming Di of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220A.D.) dispatched Cai Yin and 17 other officials to China’s western neighbors in a quest for spiritual teachings. They met Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaranya, great Buddhists of India, and brought them to Luoyang. When the two Indian Buddhists arrived, leading a white horse carrying Buddhist images and sutras, Emperor Ming Di ordered the construction of a residence for them in Luoyang. Thus the Baima (White Horse) Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in China, came into being. The translation of the “Forty Two Chapter Sutra” by the two Buddhists is the earliest translation of a Buddhist text in China. Later, Buddhism was widely disseminated in China during the reigns of the Eastern Han emperors Huan Di and Ling Di (147-189 A.D.).

When Sakyamuni founded Buddhism in ancient India, different preaching methods were adopted according to the audience. After the departure of Sakyamuni from this world, his followers established several sects according to their own understanding. Among these sects, Mahayana and Theravada are the two most important. Theravada Buddhism stresses overcoming illusion and detachment from death so that one can become an arhat, an enlightened saint. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes salvation and the attainment of Buddha hood not only for oneself, but also for all other living creatures. Mahayana has two forms: Tantrism, and the open school, which is further divided into the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools.

Buddhism in China also became separated into various schools and sects. During the Sui (581-681) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the monasterial economy was well developed, and many rituals were systematized. Among the flourishing schools and sects of Buddhism at the time, there was the San-lun (Three-Treaties), Tien-tai, Hua-yen (Avatamsaka), Zen, Fa-hsiang (Dharmalaksana), Lu (Vinaya), Ching-tu (Pure Land), and Tantrism.

In the years between the Eastern Han and Song dynasties, 130 famous Chinese and foreign scholars translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Some 5,620 texts in 1,520 fascicles of the “Tripitaka” in the Chinese language still exist today. These translations can match any other known translations in the world. Of all the translators in the history of Chinese Buddhism, the monk Xuan Zang of the Tang Dynasty is considered the greatest. Travelling 25,000 kilometers in 17 years, he brought back 520 Sanskrit-edition Buddhist scriptures from India, and spent more than 20 years translating 1,335 texts in 75 fascicles from the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism.

One of the most important Buddhist scriptures is the “Tripitaka”, an encyclopedia covering all aspects of Buddhism. It is not only an essential book for the study of Buddhist philosophy, but also a treasure house of information for the study of ancient Oriental culture. It has been translated into various editions in different languages such as Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian. The first wood-block edition of the Chinese-language “Tripitaka” was printed in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the “Tripitaka” had been printed 20 times by the imperial court and the commonalty, each edition requiring over 10,000 blocks.

Buddhism made a great impact on Chinese civilization. Its introduction into China broke the cultural domination of Confucianism and contributed to a new cultural pattern dominated by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The translation of Buddhist scriptures enriched the Chinese vocabulary and grammar and improved the literary style and writing technique. The Chinese classic “Journey to the West” is an example of the effect of Buddhism on Chinese writing. Buddhist philosophy influenced many famous poets, including Tao Yuanming, Wang Wei, and Bai Juyi, as well as painters, architects, astronomers, and doctors.

Buddhist monasteries and pagodas are found all over China. Wutai Mountain in Shanxi, Putuo Mountain in Zhejiang, Emei Mountain in Sichuan, and Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui, are four famous Buddhist shrines highly regarded by practitioners. Among the famous monasteries are Baima Monastery in Luoyang, Manchan and Foguang monasteries on Wutai Mountain, Biyun (Azure Clouds) Temple and Yonghe Monastery in Beijing, Linggu Temple in Nanjing, Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, and eight temples in Chengde. The famous pagodas include Zhuanta (Brick Pagoda) on Mount Songshan, Muta (Wood Pagoda) in Yingxian County of Shanxi, Shita (Stone Pagoda) in Quanzhou, and Dayan (Greater Wild Goose) Pagoda in Xi’an. The Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu, Yungang Grottoes in Datong, and Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, are world famous for their Buddhist art. Buddhist buildings are also considered jewels of ancient Chinese art.

The Chinese government has formulated relevant policies, which have been constantly developed and perfected. The central government has also appropriated large sums of money to maintain and rebuild ancient monasteries. Today, China has more than 9,500 monasteries, and 168,000 monks and nuns conduct regular religious activities under the protection of national laws and regulation. The Buddhist Association of China, established in 1953, is a nationwide organization led by Zhao Puchu, a famous Buddhist lay scholar. The association has its own journal, “Fayin”, and 14 Buddhist academies.



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