The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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The Spread of Buddhism in China
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Buddhism is a major religion, playing a large part in Chinese history. It was founded in the sixth century B.C.E. by The Buddha, and once brought to China in the first century B.C.E. was very popular. Many people converted from the main philosophical system at the time, Confucianism, to Buddhism. However, there was mixed reaction to this religion's influence in China. Some converted to Buddhism and appreciated this new form of thinking and Enlightenment, while others denounced it, saying that it completely changed China's culture and way of life.
Buddhism grew after the Han Dynasty fell in 220 C.E. The statement "Whosoever in China...serves The Buddha...will behold The Buddha and be enlightened in his spirit, and then he will enter Nirvana." (document 2) was written after the Han Dynasty fell, where there was no unifying political system in place, and when northern China was in the process of being invaded. This is important because there were many people in war or turmoil and the document implies that Buddhism could even help these people reach Nirvana. The Buddha preached about The Four Noble Truths, about what sorrow is and how to stop it (document 1). People naturally desire to rid themselves of sorrow, and this would be a motive to convert to Buddhism. During the Tang Dynasty, Zong Mi praises Confucius, Laozi, and The Buddha, stating that all three helped the "creation of an orderly society" (document 5). This document differs from documents 1 and 2 because it was written much at a much later time, during the ninth century in Tang China. By this time, China was a prosperous and thriving culture, so it would have been easier to praise Buddhism at this time than when it was just introduced or when China was divided. In addition, it mentions Confucianism and Daoism as well, crediting all three for China's success. Zong Mi was a Buddhist scholar, so this was most likely said so as not to belittle those who did not practice Buddhism.
Not everybody in China praised Buddhism. Some did not understand why Buddhism was better than Confucianism or why anyone would choose the secluded life of a Monk (document 3). Around 500 C.E. there were many people who believed in the philosophies of Confucius and the scholar would not have written this if there were only a small number questioning Buddhism. This was most likely a Buddhist scholar. Documents 4 and 6 both come from high Tang officials (document 6 is written by the Emperor himself) and both authors show their major disappointment in the fact that Buddhism, which does not have Chinese origins, has taken over the Chinese lifestyle. This demonstrates that although China was the strongest and most influential Power in the area at the time, foreign ideas were still able to penetrate and find success. Also, China's interaction with other places (mainly for trading purposes) such as India must have been truly great in order to absorb ideas such as Buddhism. The people are willing to "cut of their arms and mutilate their flesh in offering to The Buddha" (document 4) and are of such huge numbers of monks and nuns that "if even one man fails to work the fields, someone must go hungry" (document 6). This is interesting because Document 5 is also written during the Tang Dynasty, and yet it praises The Buddha for the development of this prosperous China instead of denouncing him.
There are a few documents that would help to create a better understanding of the spread of Buddhism in China. If there was a chart or document showing how many Buddhist monks there were in China compared with the total population at certain intervals from about the first century to the tenth century C.E., it would help show the extent of Emperor Wu's claims in Document 6 about vital occupations being lost due to the growing number of monks. In addition, a foreign trader or traveler visiting during the Tang Dynasty would be able to write about how exquisite and prosperous Tang China really was, and whether the problems described in Documents 4 and 6 were truly present. China was a Confucian state when Buddhism first made its appearance in the area in the first century C.E. Many people converted immediately and praised the simple way of life and new way of thinking, while others viewed this simple lifestyle as non-Chinese and stayed with Confucianism. Whether good or bad, Buddhism had a prominent effect on the development of China.