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Buddhism is China's oldest foreign religion. It merged with native Taoism and folk religion. Ancient Buddhism taught by Buddha involved reaching Enlightenment through meditation. How to go about this and what it means is open to interpretation. When early Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese, Taoist terminology based on native religion was often used. People interpreted the scripture in their own ways.
Buddhism has had a long history in China, and native Buddhist religions developed that are accepted by Chinese Buddhists.
Mahayana Buddhism is the type of Buddhism in China. It originally developed in the Kushan Empire that the Chinese called Yuezhi (月支). Then various schools sects developed in China and became popular in other countries like Japan. There are no religious polls, but there may be hundreds of millions of people who believe a combination of Buddhism and Taoism in China.
One difference of much Chinese Buddhism compared to the original teachings is the belief that Buddha is not just a teacher who taught what to do but is a god to be prayed to for help and salvation. Chinese Buddhists may pray to both Buddha and Taoist gods, and they often also pay homage to ancestors believing that their ancestors want their help. For example, they may burn paper that their ancestors can use as money. People who call themselves Buddhists usually have Taoist beliefs.
Buddha was said to have reached Enlightenment after fasting. It was said that he was extremely skinny and gaunt. In some countries, Buddha was depicted as being very skinny and meditating under a tree. In Mahayana Buddhism in Central Asia and in Buddhas carved along the Silk Road before the end of the Tang Dynasty, he is depicted as being strong and healthy like a Greek god.
In modern China, the "Happy Buddha" is most commonly seen. He is depicted as being fat and laughing or smiling. The main goal of life in modern China is said to "be happy." Maybe that is why Buddha is shown this way. The "Happy Buddha" has been the common popular Buddha in China for hundreds of years.
Buddhism started as a Hindu influenced religion in India. Details about Buddha's life and original teachings as presented in the first century BC Buddhist scriptures are important for understanding how Chinese Buddhism developed. Gautama Buddha was the founder of the religion. He lived between 600 and 400 BC. Buddha and his followers left no writings, but his rules for monastic life and teachings were memorized and passed down by oral tradition until about the second century BC when the first Buddhist scriptures were written. The oral tradition was corrupted. Shortly after this, the first scriptures were brought to China.
Gautama Buddha was said to be the prince of a little kingdom that was in modern Nepal. Maybe he wasn't Indo-European. There are many legends such as that seers predicted that he would be either a great holy man or a great king. His father wanted him to be a great king and tried to keep his son from all religion and sights of death and suffering. So when grew up, he was shocked by seeing an old man and a corpse. Then, he wanted to solve suffering and death.
When he was 29 years old, he became a disciple of famous teachers in India, learned Hinduism, and wasn't satisfied. Then, he tried to learn the truth through not eating and body mortification. He nearly starved himself to death and almost drowned. Then, he ate, meditated and avoided extremes of self-indulgence or self-mortification. However, he was almost like a skeleton. He vowed to sit under a tree until he knew the truth and became Enlightened when he was 35.
Then, he started teaching. He taught that everybody could be Enlightened. He contradicted the Hindu belief that only high-caste people might be holy which threatened the hierarchical society. It is said that many disciples became "Arhats," and he taught everybody no matter their caste. Some Hindus thought that the religion was false, and his enemies tried to kill him. His idea would destroy the hierarchical society.
He died in old age, and his body was cremated.
Buddhism as taught in the first scriptures of about the second century BC say that Buddha taught "Four Noble Truths:" Suffering is a part of existence; the origin of suffering is craving for sensuality, acquisition of identity, and annihilation; suffering can be ended; and following the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to accomplish this. The Noble Eightfold Path is: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. He emphasized ethics and understanding. He stated that there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine.
Buddhist teachers may have arrived in the third century BC because there is evidence that the Qin Emperor ordered the destruction of the religion about 213 BC.
At the time that the first Buddhist scriptures came to China, the Han Empire existed. After it fell, there were separate kingdoms and other empires that had their own religions and different degrees of contact with Buddhists in Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Different kinds of Buddhism developed in these countries, and their teachings were changed by Chinese, so the religious history is complex with many different sects.
Sometimes the religion and Buddhists were supported and sponsored by the rulers during the past 2000 years, and sometimes Buddhists were eradicated and temples and scriptures were destroyed to make people not believe it.
There were two natural land routes into China from Buddhist regions during the Han Empire (206 BC – 220 AD). One was through Xinjiang and is called the Silk Road, and one went through Yunnan and is called the Chama Road.
Around 177 BC, the Caucasian Yuezhi (月支) who lived in Xinjiang were forced south towards India by the Xiongnu. They conquered Hellenized kingdoms that had formed in southern Asia after the Greek conquest. An Indian-Greek-Yuezhi culture developed.
About the year 130 BC, the Han rulers wanted to trade and have allies, and they sent Zhang Qian to the Yuezhi (Tocharians). Trade and travel started, and the Yuezhi started to become Buddhists. In 2 BC, some Yuezhi taught Buddhism when they arrived in the Han capital.
It is said that about 68 AD a Han Emperor had a dream of a golden figure, and Cai Yin was sent to Central Asia to learn about the Buddha. He brought back Buddhist scriptures and two Buddhist monks. By this time, the Yuezhi had a religion in which Buddha was one of a pantheon of many deities, and Mahayana Buddhism started in this way. They had a big empire and recaptured part of Xinjiang.
Unlike early Buddhism, Buddha was represented in the form of big human statues like Greek gods. They carved Buddha statues all over Central Asia and in Xinjiang and China. Yuezhi missionaries brought Mahayana Buddhism to China. It is very different than Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism. Lokaksema and Dharmaraksa translated Buddhist scripture in China.
Buddhism became popular, and people built Buddhist temple sites such as the Bingling Grottoes and the Mogao Grottoes. The Bingling Grottoes （炳灵寺）near Lanzhou in Gansu Province is a big ancient Buddhist temple complex with an array of statuary and frescoes dating from about 420 to the Ming Dynasty.
The earliest statues have typical Indian hand gestures and poses. The Bezeklik Grottoes near Turpan show Caucasian and Indian and Mongoloid Buddhists together. Central Asians continued to propagate Buddhist teachings during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and it became very popular and powerful.
Near the end of the Tang Empire in 845, the Taoist Tang Dynasty rulers turned against Buddhists and destroyed thousands of monasteries and tens of thousands of temples.
The other big land route called the Chama Road linked southeastern China with Tibet and Southeast Asia.
During the time of the Tang Empire, a powerful empire called the Nanzhao Empire (738-902) existed in Yunnan. Their capital was around Dali. The Nanzhao rulers were also influenced by the religious teachings of foreigners who traveled there. They were Buddhists and constructed large Buddhist temples around Dali and on Shibaoshan Mountain. These were centers for Buddhist teaching.
While the Tang Dynasty turned against Buddhism, the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdom supported it. They preserved Buddhism and helped it spread. Three very large and famous Buddhist pagodas called the Three Pagodas still remain from their rule.
Due to the large number of foreign monks who came to teach Buddhism in China and various texts, various new and independent traditions emerged.
Among the most influential of these was the practice of Pure Land Buddhism taught by Hui Yuan that focused on Amitābha Buddha. People in this tradition prayed to Amitabha Buddha for salvation. Another major early tradition was the Tiantai school that was founded by Zhiyi that is based upon the primacy of the Lotus Sutra. Both of these kinds of Buddhism spread to other countries.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Chan Buddhism was the preeminent type of Buddhism. It is said that the Chan sect began when an Indian monk named Bodhidharma came to China. It is said that an emperor favored his teachings, and he and the emperor founded a temple at the present Shaolin Monastery in Henan in 497 or so. Similar to Taoism, Chan Buddhists distrusted written scriptures but trusted meditation and inaction.
Another Indian who is now called Tamo by Chinese came to China about the year 526. According to reports, in India he had trained hard in Mahayana Buddhist practices that required hard exercise and martial arts training as well as study and meditation. When he arrived at the Shaolin Monastery, he criticized the monks for being weak and without martial arts training. He was told to leave. He was said to have meditated in a cave for a period of time, and then he was accepted by the other monks and they started training.
The Shaolin Temple was the main temple of Shaolin Buddhism in China. The style of Buddhism developed there centered on martial arts training and Chan meditation. In Japan, Chan was called Zen. The Zen way of meditation practiced by many Japanese originated there as did certain styles of martial arts in East Asian countries. It is thought that the teachers at the temple had a big influence on both the Buddhism and the martial arts in Korea and Japan, but they didn't have as big an influence in China where there were many other religions and philosophies and martial arts styles.
The religion of the Qing court was Tibetan Buddhism. They also favored Confucianism. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, in an attempt to eradicate all religion, the government and many people attacked Buddhist temples all over the country and even destroyed very ancient temple sites. In the last two decades, Buddhism has become popular again.