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Buddhism Religion History in China Term Paper

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Updated: Mar 29th, 2020


Religion refers to particular structures of conviction, reverence or demeanor that contain a set of instructions that guide morals and values. A Buddhist country can be defined as a nation that adheres to the teachings of Buddhism, which are based on the philosophy of ‘awakening.’ Such a country can be identified by observing the lifestyle and philosophies of its people, which are based on economic, social and political characteristics.

This paper seeks to establish the extent of Buddhism in China from the third to sixth centuries. The paper illustrates the true definition of a Buddhist country by basing on economic, social and political evidence.

It also assesses Confucianism and Daoism in relation to Buddhism during the described period. Ultimately, the paper determines the effect of Buddhism on Confucianism and Daoism by elucidating the similarities and differences among these beliefs. For a clear understanding, the term philosophy and religion are used interchangeably.

The Origin, Growth and Spread of Buddhism

The history of Buddhism traces back to over twenty-five centuries ago. Since its existence, many nations in Asia have been modeled by the religion, which was founded on the ethical-philosophical basis. Around 563 BC, Siddhartha Gotama looked at the secret to individual happiness after realizing that affluence and opulence could not warrant joy.

Therefore, it took him six years of learning and deliberation to discover the middle path that made him informed. The Buddha consequently spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism (known as Dharma or truth). Buddhism extended from India and became the prevailing religion in nearly all of Asia several centuries later following his death.

Prior to his demise, the Buddha presented numerous teachings to the people. He believed that the teachings would set human beings free from suffering if they practiced them as a way of life. Some of the tenets he promoted that are still practiced in the present day include Dharma, reincarnation, karma, the four noble truths, bodhisattvas, and nirvana (De Bary and Irene 420).

Although Buddhism began in India, its effect was widespread in modern China. Laozi, the initiator of Daoism, was recognized as the earliest Buddha by the Chinese prodigies who affirmed that he travelled westwards from China. In the next century, sellers and Buddhist pilgrims facilitated the dissemination of Buddhism with beliefs such as hell, monasteries, monks and karma being adopted into the Chinese culture. However, this ideology faced some opposition from other existing Chinese cultures such as Confucianism.

The Han Dynasty had set up Confucianism as the state doctrine. However, the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 C.E. made it easier for people to select and adhere to the religious practices of their choice. From 317 to 589 C.E., Buddhism had already been accepted in the northern and southern dynasties.

The collapse of the Han Empire witnessed an era of political and communal disorder between the northern and southern regions of China. In the north, the dynasty was infested by other tribes while the south witnessed a series of weak empires. These conflicts continued to destabilize the uniting fabric of Confucianism among the reigning groups.

Therefore, Buddhism gained popularity faster in the south than in the north. In addition, the Chinese leaders in the south began to socialize with Buddhist priests. These associations favored Mahayana over Theravada Buddhism (De Bary and Bloom).

Influence of Buddhism on Chinese Culture

While these developments were taking place in the south, Buddhist monks in the north were advising rulers of the non-Chinese tribes (Company 577). Later on, these leaders were converted to Buddhism and continued with their assistance to the monasteries as well as the transformation of text from the main language of Hinduism into Chinese (De Bary and Bloom 421). The differences between the two regions of China led to the advancement of the northern and southern disciplines hence the emergence of the Mahayana Buddhism.

Hui-Yuan (336-416), who was a monk and teacher, set up the White Lotus Society at Mount Lushan in southeast China, which led to the initiation of the Pure Land discipline of Buddhism. Another discovery was made by Bodhidharma, an Indian sage (470-543), who arrived in Henan and set up the Ch’an discipline of Buddhism.

Thirdly, the Tiantai discipline (538-597) developed through the teachings of Zhiyi whose stress on the Lotus Sutra inspired other Buddhist factions. The fourth school was the Huayan, which was shaped by three main patriarchs namely Tu-Shun (557-640), Chih-yen (602-608) and Fa-Tsang (or Fazang, 643-712).

During the fifth century, northern China began to experience some changes. The Wei Empire had gained control by the year 440 and assimilated new ethnic groups in the northern kingdom. Later in 446 C.E., Emperor Taiwu set in motion the killing and repression of Buddhist monks, sanctuaries, manuscripts, and craft (De Bary and Bloom 420). However, in the year 452, Taiwu’s heir initiated the re-establishment of Buddhism that comprised the molding of the outstanding caves of Yungang.

The long centuries of separation between the north and southern parts of China meant that very little similarities existed. However, in 589, Emperor Sui re-united the regions using Buddhism. He assembled what was left of the Buddha and had them preserved in stupas all over China to be a sign that the country was united.

Tenets of Buddhism

The establishment of Buddhism as a religion began at a political level. Buddhist units expanded into a powerful political entity that shaped the traditions of the courts, as well as the execution of governance. Buddhist factions and sanctuaries changed with the times and moved from an opinionated organization to a competent armed force. In due course, this religion endeared itself to the local populace, and an array of structural designs and pictorial illustrations made an incredible impact on the people.

An example of a ruler who used Buddhist principles to govern and structure his nation was Asoka (273-232 BCE) whose rule brought peace and prosperity and helped unite the diverse people in his empire. He built hospitals and Buddhist shrines, roads and rest houses for travelers.

The Buddha rejected the priests, official rites and multiple gods and encouraged everybody to search for clarification through the practice of deliberation. Buddhists also refused to embrace the caste system thereby providing the optimism of nirvana to everybody without considering their status at birth (Ebrey 96). Buddha’s principles enabled the lay people to join the monasteries. However, Buddhist monks never married (De Bary and Bloom 423).

Buddhism was essentially democratic since it was egalitarian, and the decisions of the monastic communities were reached by a majority vote. It was also humanistic since it taught that the community was to be classless, and property was collectively owned. It claimed its teachings were in tune with science and psychology and, on the other hand, maintained the appeal of its ancient meditation techniques.

The Buddha not only promoted Buddhism, but also preached tolerance for other religions. However, Buddhism and Confucianism shared similar attributes such as convictions, moral values, substance expression, and emotive experience.

Philosophies of Buddhism vis-à-vis Confucianism

Buddhism taught how to acquire great knowledge throughout life while Confucianism focused on the shrewd opinions encountered by Confucius during his life. Unlike Buddha, Confucius took little interest in religious matters such as salvation. Instead, he advanced an ideology that focused on worldly ambitions particularly the upholding of social orderliness and high-quality administration.

He explored prehistoric manuscripts to tap from the rules of demeanor that directed the predecessors. Confucius sought to restore the legitimate authority of the reigning dynasty. He was interested in devising a moral code of conduct that could be applied to the administration of the state and individuals.

Confucian li (a ritual) formed the basic principle of living. Li personified five relations, which included compassion and submission between a father and child (Dien 496), assistance and obedience between an elder brother and a younger brother (500), and protective behavior and submissiveness between married couples.

Confucianism also embodied mentorship and respect between elders and juniors and goodwill and loyalty between rulers and subjects. Another important virtue coinciding with li was Jen, which presented goodness, charity and kindness. The teachings of Jen encouraged men to love and respect one another and practice courtesy, which portrayed the ability to endure adversity and prosperity. Therefore, the Confucian goal was attained if a person had li and Jen.

Art and music were other desirable qualities of Confucianism. Confucius believed family ties would be strengthened by preaching love, and that lifestyle and customs would be enhanced through music. These teachings demonstrated the material expression aspect of religion (Company 583).

According to Confucius, a ruler was charged with supplying high-quality governance and in return was rewarded by loyalty and respect from his subjects. A virtuous leader that led by good example was considered the best ruler. Confucius had faith that leaders and administrators ought to be knowledgeable and take advice from wise, learned men (Dien 495).

Confucius believed that three spheres existed, which were heaven, earth and man (Dien 497). A ruler’s role was to ensure the harmonious productivity of the earth by promoting agriculture through the promulgation of an agricultural calendar based on observations of the heavenly sphere. Another way was to establish well-balanced programs for land use and taxation. Therefore, the ruler was first supposed to handle his subjects’ livelihood and subsequently educate them on proprieties, music and moral norms.

However, the unequal endowment in men meant that only a few could become sages in these fields. Such people became state officials and through them, the society as a whole was perfected. The ideal society was governed by a select body of superior men characterized by their noble behavior rather than nobility by birth (Ebrey 96). He argued that people must always handle other people as they would like to be handled.

Buddhism, on the other hand, was akin in some ways to Confucianism. The people who practiced Buddhism sought to terminate anguish or attain nirvana, which coincided with the attribute of emotional encounters. In Buddhism, one needed to adhere to the dignified eightfold course to attain nirvana, which was also the case in the Confucian li (a moral principle). This path enabled one to develop pure motives and thoughts and do the right things.

The path dissuaded individuals from doing anything to harm themselves or others. The noble eightfold path also encouraged individuals to do the right kind of work, meditate in the appropriate way, have discipline and focus on reaching a deeper reality of nature. Consequently, the right contemplation brought about a state of inner peace.

Another similar practice in Buddhism and Confucianism was the habit of ceremonies and material expression. Buddhists expressed rituals through meditation and material expressions through a number of ways such as hand gestures (mudras). In addition, communications were made through the reciting of sacrosanct intonations (otherwise known as mantras).

Buddhism remained the main religion up to the year 845, which was characterized by the domination of the T’ang Dynasty. Buddhist craft thrived and their monasteries expanded and became more influential, which led to conflicts. As a result, the ruling monarch started the containment of Buddhism, which led to the demolition of over 40,000 places of worship, as well as thousands of monasteries.

Chinese Buddhism began to decline due to this conflict and lost its popularity and domination compared to the previous dynasties. A few schools such as the Pure Land, Ch’an, Huayan, and Tiantai survived the suppression as well as influence from the two main rival religions, which were Confucianism and Taoism (Daoism).


A Buddhist country could be identified from its cultural aspects. Buddhist establishments influenced the culture of the courts and the execution of the Chinese government, which was more egalitarian than political, and the decisions of the monastic communities were reached by a majority vote.

The Chinese government was also humanistic since it discouraged social classes. In addition, Buddhists believed that reforms were vital to adapt to the modern world. Most principles of Buddhism were evident in ancient China. Therefore, it can be agreed that China was truly a Buddhist country from the third to the sixth centuries.

Works Cited

Company, Robert Ford. “Tales of Strange Events.” Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. Eds. Wendy Swartz, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu, Jessey J. C. Choo. New York, NY Columbia University Press, 2014. 576-591. Print.

De Bary WM Theodore and Irene Bloom. “The Coming of Buddhism to China.” Sources of Chinese Tradition. Eds. De Bary WM Theodore and Bloom, Irene. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999. 420-432. Print.

Dien, Albert E. “Custom and Society: The Family Instructions of Mr. Yan.” Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. Eds. Wendy Swartz, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu, Jessey J. C. Choo. New York, NY Columbia University Press, 2014.494-510. Print.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. “Ge Hong’s Autobiography.” Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. Ed. Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1993. 91-96. Print.

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