By Jayaram V
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Part 2 |
This article provides a brief history of the origin, development
and decline of Buddhism in China and various schools of Chinese Buddhism that
flourished in its long history till recent times.
Buddhism entered China a few centuries after the passing away of the
Buddha, at a time when Confucianism and Taoism were the predominant religions in
a country that was as a big as a continent and rivaled India in historical antiquity
and cultural pluralism. In the early phases of its entry, Buddhism did not find
many adherents in China. But by the 2nd Century AD, aided to some extent by the
simplicity of its approach and some similarities with Taoism, it managed to gain
a firm foothold and acquired a sizeable following.
The arrival of many new Buddhist scholars from the Indian subcontinent and central
Asia, like An Shih-Kao, a Parthinian monk, and Lokakshema, a Kushana monk from Central
Asia gave an impetus to the new religion that had many attractive features besides
an inbuilt organizational approach to the study and pursuit of religion. During
the same period many Buddhist texts were translated from Pali and Sanskrit into
The collapse of Han dynasty around 220 AD, was followed by a period of
confusion which continued to trouble Chinese society for the next 350 years. During
this period Confucianism and Taoism gradually yielded place to Buddhism. The
new Mongolian rulers of China from the Northern Wei dynasty and some rulers in the
south like Emperor Wu found in Buddhism a great opportunity to demolish the old
order and establish a new one. As a result by 6th Century AD, China was teaming
with millions of Buddhist monks and thousands of monasteries.
During this turbulent period in China, two major developments took place in Buddhism.
One group consisting mostly of the sophisticated gentry dwelled on the philosophical
and mystical aspects of Buddhism, while the other group dominated by rural folk
followed Buddhism in their own superstitious and simple ways imparting to it in
the process a peculiar Chinese Character.
During this period many Buddhist scholars came to China from the east and worked
selflessly to make Buddhism a mass religion. Notable among them were scholars like
Dharmaraksha (3rd Century AD) Kumarajiva (4th Century AD), who got a number
of Buddhist texts translated into Chinese. By this time China produced its own eminent
Buddhist scholars with extraordinary vision like Seng-Chao, Tao-Sheng and Fa-hsien
who also contributed richly to the growth of Buddhism China through their translations.
Between the 6th Century AD and 10th Century AD China was ruled by Sui and T'ang
dynasties who were also patrons of Buddhism. During this period Buddhism reached
its glorious heights in China. At the same time the process of degeneration also
began. Many Buddhist monasteries turned to serious business and indulged in farming,
trade and money lending for their own benefit neglecting the spiritual side of their
responsibilities. Strangely, in a very uncharacteristic way, the Buddhist monasteries
cultivated the farm lands, ran mills and oil presses using slave labor and low ranking
monks and hoarded vast amounts of precious stones and metals. They also indulged
in pawn brokering and money lending.
Many new schools of Buddhism also emerged in China during this period. Each school
derived its authority from some ancient Buddhist text or doctrine. Some of these
schools spread to countries like Korea and Japan and contributed to the emergence
of Buddhism as the predominant religion.
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Suggested Further Reading