History of Buddhism in China
Buddhism was introduced to China by India over 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty. During that period, the prevailing religions were Confucianism and Taoism and initially Buddhism did not make much headway with the Chinese population. In fact, Confucianism and Buddhism clashed in their very ideologies. While Confucianism focused on maintaining harmony in the present world, Buddhism dwelled on leading a monastic life to attain a reality beyond the present world. Taoism, on the other hand was more benevolent towards Buddhism.
The decline of the Han dynasty saw a period of great unrest in China. Several smaller dynasties came into power in the northern and southern regions of China. With the absence of one sovereign ruling dynasty and its patronage towards a particular religion (in this case Confucianism), Buddhism gained momentum. More and more smaller dynasties wanted to disassociate themselves from the erstwhile Han dynasty and its influences and turned to the newer religion – Buddhism for guidance. Thus, began the journey of Buddhism in China, and over centuries has come to be the single largest religion followed by the Chinese people.
Buddhism, as we know in China, is not what it was when it was first introduced to the country. As time passed by, Indian influence became lesser and lesser. The scriptures were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. And in the following years, Buddhism became more Chinese in milieu borrowing heavily from the existing religions and culture. So much so, that Chinese Buddhism, today, has its own distinct flavor. You can see it in the festivals, the temples, the rites and rituals and to a great extent, even in its teachings!
Let us traverse the path of Buddhism in China!
In the first year of Yuanshou period in Emperor Ai's reign in the West Han Dynasty (2 B.C.), Buddhism was first introduced into China. This historical symbol of the elementary Buddhist introduction is called "sutra impartation by Yicun" in history. The development of Buddhism in China generally went through three phases, namely, translation and introduction, creation and fusion.
Translation and Introduction Phase
During the reign of the Western Han, the Eastern Han, the Wei Jin and the South and North Dynasties, Buddhism was considered to be in its phase of translation and spread. China successively translated a large quantity of Buddhist sutras. The study of Buddhist religion became very popular during that period.
The creation phase of Chinese Buddhism flourished during the Sui and Tang Dynasties. Chinese Buddhist monks respectively established sects and formed their own theoretical systems according to certain Indian Buddhist sutras, thereby developing eight main sects such as:
· Three Shastras Sect
· Tiantai Sect
· Avatamsaka (Xianshou) Sect
· Dharmalaksana (Ci'en) sect
· Vinaya sect, Pureland sect
· Zen sect
· Esoteric (Shingon) sect, etc.
It is reputed as the flourishing period of Chinese Buddhism.
The Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties are the fusion phase of Chinese Buddhism. Buddhism combined with Chinese culture to an unprecedented extent, in depth and in an all-round way during the nine hundred years. On one hand, Buddhism merged with Confucianism and became Buddhism under the historical background of combining three religions (namely, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism). On the other hand, with the aid of artistic forms such as literature, painting, sculpture and architecture, Buddhism became an important organic component of folk customs and habits, national psychology and thinking, and even linguistic material composition. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty, elite Buddhist religions in the Han Area stagnated and declined while popular Buddhism made considerable progress and the situation that "every household worshipped Kwan-yin and Amitabha Buddha" emerged. At the aspect of sects, the Zen sect and Pureland sect were mainly in vogue while other sects were gradually on the wane.
Zen Buddhism is a purely Chinese version of the Buddhist religion. Its main theme is the original source (Buddhist nature) of determination to succeed in awakening all living creatures. Zen Buddhism is the Buddhist sect with the most branches in our country and also a sect that has gone on for the longest time and exerted the most extensive influence on Chinese culture and thoughts.