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The spread of Buddhism to China is a controversial topic that raises more than one issue about its diffusion, acceptance, and assimilation. Buddhism started to enter China during the Han dynasty, probably through the ancient Asian silk routes between the first century BCE and CE. The transmission of the Buddhist doctrine was not linear, and the reasons for its success are not always plain and predictable.
After providing a short framework of Buddhism in China, from its introduction to the communist take over in the twentieth century, this paper offers some insights on the spread and signification of the Buddhist teaching within the Chinese society. This paper will focus on how multicultural factors, including an initial misconceiving of the doctrine and ingenious translations of the Buddhist texts, contributed to making Buddhism one of the main Chinese religions.
Spread and Sinification of Buddhism in China
The coeval official Chinese historiography attempted to link the spread of Buddhism into the Han court through mythical and miraculous narratives. The most famous episode was the emperor Ming’s dream of a golden Buddha flying over his palace in 64 CE. However, the dream should not be taken literally, but framed in a broader context where both the Chinese rulers and the Buddhist élite tried to give legitimacy to a foreign doctrine (Sen, 2012). Zurcher (2007) highlights how the introduction of Buddhism into China became a favorite theme of apocryphal literature to enhance the prestige of the Buddhist monks. As will be discussed below, apocryphal texts became a powerful means to spread and adopt Buddhism to the Chinese environment.
One of the first reliable official documents dates back to 65 CE and testifies the presence of Buddhism in the area north of the Huai, in Eastern Henan, Southern Shandong, and Northern Jiangsu (Zurcher, 2007). The greatest flourishing of Buddhism took place during the T’ang dynasty (618-907), and it continued to thrive until the thirteenth century. When the Communists took over in the middle of the twentieth century, Buddhism was still the most significant religion in China (Gethin, 1998). The thriving of Chinese Buddhism over this long span cannot be studied without the understanding of the cultural environment of the early medieval Chinese society and of the factors and connections that influenced the spread of Buddhism.
While the document of 65 CE establishes a fixed point, it is plausible that Buddhist doctrines had already started to circulate in China at least one century before. The lack of material concerning the early spread of Buddhism into China and the appearance of a dignified form of Buddhism has suggested a series of factors that contributed to filtering the original Indian doctrine to adapt it to the Chinese society, to its common beliefs and thoughts.
The first aspect that affected the signification of Buddhism was linguistic: only a few foreigners had some knowledge of the Chinese language and, until the late fourth century, the Sanskrit was unknown to the Chinese (Zurcher, 2007). This linguistic gap had two main consequences of the diffusion and perception of Buddhism. Firstly, the translations were hardly understandable, with large use of Chinese terms that had already established philosophical meanings and non-Buddhist associations, therefore leading to a general misconception of the original doctrine.
Secondly, it implied a more or less conscious selection of the original material to those texts that were congruent with the existing Chinese ideas and were easy to be adapted. As a consequence, the canonical Indian Buddhist corpus was never translated into Chinese following a coherent plan, and the most important Chinese Buddhist collection of texts, the Tripitaka, was more a container for translations of sūtras, without any specific logic or chronology (Gethin, 1998).
Moreover, this scenario mirrored a total ignorance of the cultural milieu where Buddhism had originally thrived, even enhancing misconceptions and misunderstanding. For example, it was widely accepted that the Buddha was actually Laozi who happened to travel west to convert the Indians (Eno, 2008). Further consideration on the corpus of the Chinese Buddhist texts cannot fail to notice how the Tripitaka included many apocryphal texts which did not belong to the Indian tradition.
When Buddhism started to spread into China, the Mahāyāna canon was not yet fully developed. Hence, apocryphal works played a crucial role in molding the Buddhist ideas that spread into China (Sen, 2012). Translators, missionaries, and monks created an indigenous Buddhist doctrine, which contributed to disseminate Buddhism among people by framing it within the Chinese system of beliefs and even producing pilgrimage sites. One of the most important examples is the Treatise on the Mahāyāna Awakening, an indigenous Chinese work that had a huge influence on the development of Chinese Buddhism from several perspectives.
The text revolves around several essential concepts of Buddhism through an innovative approach that testifies how the Chinese doctrine was able to change its form and style to adapt to the new environment. Within this work, some of the most influential ideas include the ultimate reality (Zhen Ru), the two aspects in one mind (er Zhong me and Exin), and the Buddha bodies (fishery) (Aśvaghoṣa, 1967). Notably, it entails the intrinsic possibility for all beings to reach enlightenment (Tarocco, 2008).
Also, the Treatise, despite dating to the sixth century CE, was traditionally attributed to Ashvaghosha, an Indian Buddhist patriarch of the second century CE, while the translation from Sanskrit was accredited to Paramartha, another outstanding medieval Buddhist scholar: such a background made the text an autonomous and powerful spiritual reference point, able to influence society (Tarocco, 2008). However, the Chinese culture was dominated by Confucianism and Taoism, and the question of how Buddhism managed to become the third religion of the nation raises spontaneously.
When Buddhism began to spread across China, Confucianism was the main religion and regulated Chinese society through its complex system of rituals and canons. On the other hand, the new-Taoism resonated with some of the ideas and meditations typical of Buddhism (Gethin, 1998). Also, the Buddhist doctrine provided some philosophical justification to the status quo of the coeval society.
For example, through the concept of karma, Buddhism offered a theological argument to the rigid class distinction in medieval China (Zurcher, 2007). The periods of maximum spread of Buddhism coincided with particular historical moments where Confucianism was perceived as weak and inadequate to ensure stability in the society (Sen, 2012). In this context, Buddhism was flexible and able to start a dialogue with the other religions, while the spreading of texts, monks, and sacred pilgrimage sites constituted a solid popular basis.
Buddhism was introduced into China between the first centuries BCE and CE during the Han dynasty. Its early spread should be considered as a random series of episodes that followed the mercantile routes across Asia. The lack of knowledge of both the Sanskrit and the Indian environment where Buddhism had previously thrived led to ingenious translations of some of the Buddhist texts, without a solid organization.
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However, the flourishing of apocryphal works created an indigenous corpus of signified Buddhist doctrine, while the proliferating of pilgrimage sites rooted the new religion into the Chinese fabric of the society. Finally, signification entailed the ability of Buddhism to start a dialogue with Confucianism and Taoism, even integrating some unresolved philosophical concepts.
Aśvaghoṣa (1967). The awakening of faith / attributed to Aśvaghosha; Translated, with commentary by Yoshito S. Hakeda. (Y. S. Hakeda, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 6th Century CE).
Eno, R. (2008). Buddhism and Buddhism in China. Web.
Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Sen, T. (2012). The spread of Buddhism to China: A re-examination of the Buddhist interactions between ancient India and China. China Report, 48(1-2), 11-27. Web.
Tarocco, F. (2008). Lost in translation? The treatise on the Mahayana wakening of faith and its modern readings. Bulletin of SOAS, 71(2), 323-343. Web.
Zurcher, E. (2007). The Buddhist conquest to China. The spread and adaptation of Buddhism in early medieval China (3rd ed.). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.