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Buddhism in China — Ancient History to Beliefs Today

Find out about Buddhism in China: who brought Buddhism to ancient China; its history, spread, influence, beliefs... and Chinese Buddhism today.

Buddhism has had a long history in China and has been instrumental in shaping Chinese culture and tradition. Throughout the millennia, Buddhists in China have faced support and even persecution under the various leaders, but the religion has remained strong, and today China hosts the world's largest Buddhist population. In this article we'll be delving deeper into Chinese Buddhist beliefs, who brought Buddhism to ancient China, its history, influence, and more. 

What is Chinese Buddhism and what do Chinese Buddhists believe? 

Chinese Buddhism is one of the oldest forms of Buddhism in history and China's oldest foreign religion. Chinese Buddhists believe in a combination of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism, the latter of which teaches that enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime. 

Mahayana Buddhism was originally founded during the Kushan Empire and spread to China where various school sects were developed; before spreading farther and becoming popular in other Asian countries like Japan. 

How Chinese Buddhism Differs

Budai The "Laughing Buddha", the most popular depiction of the Buddha in China

One significant difference between Chinese Buddhism and original Buddhist teachings is the belief that Buddha is not just a teacher who taught followers what to do, but a god to be prayed to for help and salvation.

Chinese Buddhists believe in a combination of Taoism and Buddhism, meaning they pray to both Buddha and Taoist gods. Just like Taoists, Chinese Buddhists also pay homage to their ancestors, with the belief that they need and want their help. A prime example of this combination of religious beliefs is the burning of joss paper by Buddhists during religious ceremonies and festivals, like the annual Qingming Festival.

Another way in which Chinese Buddhism differs is in the depiction of Buddha. Original Buddhist teachings taught that Buddha reached Enlightenment after fasting, and it was said that he was extremely skinny and gaunt. In fact, in many Buddhist countries, Buddha is depicted as being very skinny and meditating under a tree.

In Central Asian Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha is depicted as being strong and healthy, like a Greek god and evidence of this has been found in statues of Buddha carved along the Silk Road before the end of the Tang Dynasty.

In stark contrast to the former, the Budai, or the "Laughing Buddha" has been the most common and most popular depiction of Buddha in China for centuries. Chinese Buddhists' main goal in life is to "be happy", and it's for this reason that depictions of Buddha in China show him as being fat and laughing, or smiling.

Buddhism's History

Buddhism in China, The Leshan Giant Buddha The Leshan Giant Buddha in China is the world's largest carved Buddha.

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 — Founder of Buddhism

Buddhism in China, Gautama Buddha statue Gautama Buddha statue

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 bodily 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 (god-like saints who are depicted in many Buddhist sites in China) 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.

First Century BC Buddhist Doctrines

Buddhism in China, White Horse TempleWhite Horse Temple

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. Buddhist teachings emphasize ethics and understanding and that there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine.

The History of Buddhism in China

Dunhuang mogao cave Carvings in the Mogao Grottoes, dating back to 366 AD

Throughout Chinese history, Buddhism and Chinese Buddhists received a mix of support and persecution from China's rulers, with some even going as far as to destroy temples and scriptures in an effort to eradicate the religion.

Many theories and beliefs surround the early years of Buddhism in China. What's certain though is that during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Emperor Qin Shi Huang banned all religion and forced the adoption of the philosophy of Legalism. Even though there's a possibility that Buddhist teachers may have arrived during this period, thanks to the destruction of religious works at the time, there is no physical evidence supporting earlier introduction. The first evidence of Buddhist scriptures in China can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), almost 2000 years ago, where Buddhism was merged with the native Taoism and folk religion.

During the Han Dynasty two natural land routes into China from Buddhist regions existed. These were the Silk Road that ran through Xinjiang, and the Tea Horse Road through Yunnan.

Following the fall of the Han Dynasty, the dynasties that followed adopted their own religions and had different degrees of contact with Buddhists in Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Various sects and Schools of Buddhism were developed in these countries, and their teachings were adapted by Chinese Buddhists to form modern day Chinese Buddhism.

The Main Schools of Buddhism in China

Buddhism in China, Shaolin MonasteryThe Shaolin Monastery in Henan, the birthplace of the Chan (Zen) School of Buddhism

During the peak of Mahayana Buddhism in Chinese Buddhist history, four main Schools of Buddhism emerged in China: Pure Land Buddhism, the Chan School of Buddhism, the Tiantai School of Buddhism, and the Huayan School of Buddhism.

The Chan School of Buddhism

Chan is the most dominant School of Buddhism in China, and more commonly known in the West by its Japanese name: Zen. Many theories surround the creation of the Chan School of Buddhism, and one popular theory credits its establishment to the influential Indian monk Bhodidharma

Legend has it that Bhodidharma traveled to China to visit the Shaolin Monastery and was asked to leave after he criticized the monks and their practices. Not one to be dissuaded, Bhodidharma spent nine years meditating in a nearby cave and eventually, the Shaolin monks became so impressed by his religious prowess that they accepted him back into the monastery and started following his teachings. 

Once accepted, he fused his knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism with the Shaolin teachings of the time to establish the Chan School of Buddhism in the 6th century AD; yet the School's exact creation date remains debatable thanks to the presence of numerous other legends.

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism is one of the oldest and most popular Schools of Buddhism in China. In around 402 AD, the monk Hui-Yan founded one of the most popular Chinese Buddhist societies – the White Lotus Society in Mount Lu, Southeast China. This society later became the foundation for Pure Land Buddhism. Focused on the Amitābha Buddha, followers of Pure Land Buddhism pray to the Amitabha Buddha for salvation.

The Tiantai School of Buddhism

Another major early tradition was the Tiantai School of Buddhism founded by the Buddhist monk Zhiyi. Based upon the primacy of the Lotus Sutra, Tiantai influenced the emergence of a variety of other Schools of Buddhism. Both Pure Land Buddhism and Tiantai have since spread to other countries, with Pure Land Buddhism being the dominant School of Buddhism in Japan.

The Huayan School of Buddhism

The Huayan School of Buddhism first appeared in China during the Tang Dynasty. This School of Buddhism was founded under the guidance of five monks (better known as "patriarchs"): Tu-Shun, Chih-Yen, Fa-Tsang, Ch'eng-Kuan, and Kuei-Feng Tsung-Mi. The founding patriarchs were credited with combining Buddhism with Chinese culture, and under the Tang Dynasty, a large portion of the Huyan School of Buddhism was absorbed into the Chan School of Buddhism. After a period of stagnation, the Huayan School of Buddhism began to decline and suffered a massive blow when Emperor Wuzong (814 – 846) imposed a ban on all foreign religions, yet some aspects of it still survive in other Asian Schools of Buddhism.

Silk Road Buddhism

Buddhism in China, Bezeklik Thousand Buddha CavesThe Bezeklik Grottoes along the Silk Road

It is widely believed that Buddhism entered China via the Silk Road under the Han Dynasty. After trade and travel was established with the Yuezhi, who by that time were forced southward toward India, Yuezhi monks began to travel with the merchant caravans; preaching their religion along the Silk Road. The Yuezhi religion believed in many deities, of which the Buddha was one, and it quickly spread throughout the region.

During his rule over the Han Dynasty, Emperor Ming had a dream which featured a golden figure. After consulting his ministers, it was determined that he had seen the Buddha, so he sent the official Cai Yin to Central Asia to learn more about Buddhism. After three years, Cai Yin finally returned and, on his return, brought with him Buddhist scriptures and monks to preach throughout China, giving birth to the rise of Buddhism in China.

Buddhism in China, White Horse TempleWhite Horse Temple in Luoyang, once the start of the Silk Road, is known as The Cradle of Chinese Buddhism.

As Buddhism became more popular, worshipers began to construct more Buddhist temple sites such as the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves(炳灵寺) and the Mogao Grottoes along the Silk Road; featuring an array of Buddhist statues and frescoes dating from around 420 AD to the Ming Dynasty.

The earliest statues show typical Indian hand gestures and poses, however the Bezeklik Grottoes near Turpan, built after the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves, feature Caucasian, Indian, and Mongoloid Buddhists together. Central Asians continued to spread Buddhist teachings throughout the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), during which Buddhism became very popular and powerful right until the end; when Taoist rulers turned against Buddhists and destroyed thousands of monasteries along with tens of thousands of temples.

Tea Horse Road Buddhism

Dali Three Pagodas The Three Pagodas in Dali on the Tea Horse Road.

Apart from the Silk Road, the Tea Horse Road was another major land trade route running through Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet; linking southeastern China with Southeast Asia. Throughout the Tang Dynasty's rule, the Nanzhao Empire flourished in present day Yunnan, with their capital being the city of Dali.

The Nanzhao were Buddhist and constructed large Buddhist temples around Dali and on Shibaoshan Mountain to serve as centers for Buddhist teaching. Their rulers were heavily influenced by the religious teachings of traveling foreigners and incorporated such into the regional religion, further expanding it. While the Tang Dynasty turned against Buddhism, the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdom supported it. They preserved Buddhism and helped it spread, with the world famous Three Pagodas built under their rule, serving as testament to their support.

Tibetan Buddhism

Jokhang Temple Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of Tibet

Tibetan Buddhism is aptly named after the region of Tibet in Southeast China. Buddhism is believed to have arrived in Tibet from Central Asia between the 7th and 9th centuries AD and is derived from Indian Buddhism, combining Mahayana Buddhism with the Tantric teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, along with shamanic elements of the native Bon religion.

Tibetan Buddhism suffered during Tibet's Era of Fragmentation in the 9th century AD, but re-emerged stronger than ever during the revival of Buddhism in the 11th century AD. Throughout history, Tibetan Buddhism and its teachings have slowly spread and gained popularity outside the region.

Nowadays Tibetan Buddhism is Bhutan's state religion and is practiced in places like Northern Nepal, Northeastern China, and certain regions in India. Emigrating Tibetans have also spread Tibetan Buddhism to the West and throughout the world, where people like the Dalai Lama have become popular public figures traveling the world, spreading their teachings and educating the world about Tibetan culture.

The Top Buddhist Sites in China

Throughout the years Chinese Buddhists have built a multitude of Buddhist Religious Sites across the country, showcasing the rich influence Buddhism has had on Chinese culture.

The Mogao Grottoes

Buddhism in China, the Mogao Grottoes The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province

Made up of over 700 caves, work in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas spanned over a period of 1,000 years. The Mogao Grottoes are regarded as the largest Buddhist grottoes in the world and are a popular stop on our 11 Day Silk Road Private Tour.

Tibetan Buddhism Sites

Monks Debate Monks at Sera Monastery

Barkhor Temple and the large monasteries of Tibet stand as a testamentto the people of Tibet and their religious beliefs. Tibet's popular attractions and pilgrimage sites have thousands of daily visitors. Sacred mountains and lakes in Tibet can also be considered popular Tibetan Buddhism sites

Watching monks debate scriptures at Sera Monastery is a highlight considered not-to-be-missed by many travelers. 

The Three Pagodas

Buddhism in China, The Three Pagodas in Dali The Three Pagodas in Dali, Yunnan province

The Three Pagodas are a symbol of Yunnan culture and ancient history, with the tallest having been built over 1000 years ago. Located a mere 1.5 kilometers Northwest of Dali, a visit to the Three Pagodas is a must when visiting Yunnan.

The Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang Grottoes' sculptures Sculptures in the Yungang Grottoes.

Located in Datong, Shanxi Province, the Yungang Grottoes are made up of 1,100 niches spread throughout a system of 252 caves spanning 1 kilometer and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. 

Featuring over 51,000 Buddhist statues, the Yungang Grottoes host one of the largest collections of classic Buddhist art masterpieces in China and is one of the highlights of our Essence of Datong and Pingyao Tour.

The Leshan Giant Buddha

Leshan Giant Buddha The Leshan Giant Buddha

Carved into the side of Mount Lingyun in Leshan, Sichuan Province, this 71-meter high and 24-meter wide carved stone Buddha took 90 years to construct. Since its completion in 803 AD, the Leshan Giant Buddha holds the title as the world's largest carved stoned Buddha and was added to UNESCO's World Heritage Site list in 1996.

Yearning to Learn More About Buddhism in China?

The Mogao Grottos Buddhist statues in the Mogao Grottoes

If you're eager to learn more about Chinese Buddhism, get in touch with our local experts and they'll help you create a personalized trip of China's top Buddhist sites. Our knowledgeable travel advisers and local tour guides will be sure to blend some of the top Chinese Buddhist highlights into your tailor-made itinerary. 

If you're looking to add a few visits to a some popular Buddhist sites on your next trip, our ready-made but fully-customizable itineraries are sure to get you started on the right foot:

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