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Buddhism and Chinese Culture

Buddhism is a notable Chinese religion for several reasons, including that it was the first major religious tradition to be “imported” from outside China. In addition to the many Buddhist traditions, there will be many Christian faiths in the future. Throughout Chinese history, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike questioned Buddhism’s foreign origins. The historical Buddha was considered a lower socioeconomic class in Chinese society since he was a foreigner. He taught in a foreign language (Litian 2018). Early Chinese cosmology was often at odds with the Buddha’s teachings. During the establishment of a celibate priesthood in China (Buddhist monks and nuns), the Chinese social structure was disrupted (Kanaev 2019, 118-129).

Images of fundamental differences between imagined monolithic civilizations, such as early Indian Buddhism and Chinese religions, may be created historically. Chinese anti-Buddhists have made use of cartoons like these to mislead the public. So what they learned was already in harmony with their social and religious contexts. There have been several reinterpretations of religious concepts in Chinese Buddhism, some originating in China and others derived from Indian literature (Kieschnick 2020).

The early Indian worldview and the Buddha’s ancestry are discussed.

In the early years of the Common Era (CE), Buddhist teachers faced a quandary. Buddhist teachers often begin by defining the issue they are trying to solve for their non-Indian audiences—the human condition. Afterlife and reincarnation are the subjects of this paper. Here, we’ll look at the Indian worldview’s fundamental principles. Many different types of reincarnation take place over a long period and space, including humans and nonhumans.

Afterlife, creatures like demons and hungry spirits fall into these two types. They are all reincarnated at some point. It is said that the gods of Buddhism, like those of Greek mythology, are born in the sky and raised on Earth. They are continually reincarnated lower on the cosmic scale than their Greek counterparts (Kanaev 2019, 118-129).

Karma. Their past lives determine a person’s reincarnation location. In Sanskrit, the word “karma” translates to “action.” There are both positive and negative outcomes to every activity, so it is important to remember that every action has a result. “Karma,” says that your current situation results from your past acts. The concept of karma governs good deeds and other Buddhist activities.

The awakening of one’s intuitive faculties. According to Buddhism, this life-cycle has three distinct aspects: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and attaining nirvana (enlightenment). There is a strong connection between the Sanskrit term “antman,” which means “no-self” in Chinese, and reincarnation.[1]

The Buddha studied human issues and provided remedies. To blame these evils, we might point the finger at the need of sentient beings to grab and hold on to transient objects. Our passions are reborn as a result of our relationship. Constant self-deprecation is both the source and the effect of capturing.

The Way of the Kingdom of God According to Buddhist tradition, attaining enlightenment starts with upholding moral standards of behaviour. Members of the church’s lowest echelons agreed to refrain from murdering, stealing, lying, drinking, engaging in sex outside of marriage or engaging in adultery (Kieschnick 2020). Even householders who could live a more pure lifestyle faced more stringent standards of behaviour than monks and nuns. Since morality was the driving force behind the ideal way, meditation and attaining Buddha-like insight were included.

Recognizing the “Buddhist”

The teachings of the Buddha Who are the Buddhas, and what do they represent spiritually? This is a critical question that must be answered. There are two distinct ways to describe a Buddha, both of which are linked. Around 600 BCE, a princely Indian family gave birth to Buddha (whose name is spelt with a capital B). He became enlightened on his own after enunciating his inherited position favouring religious observance. Before he “extinguished” himself from life’s burdens, he built up a sizable following of lay and monastic devotees throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Gautama (his family name), Siddhrtha (his name), Kyamuni (meaning “Sage of the Kya clan”), and Tathgata were some of the characters he used while he was still living (“Thus-Come One”). He was no longer accessible to his students after his death since the word “extinction” indicates a complete cessation of communication (Kanaev 2019, 118-129). The gods who met him and are still alive, his long-lived disciples, the locations he touched that pilgrims may visit, and his physical remains and the shrines (stpa) placed over them all serve as indirect ways to feel his presence in the lives of pilgrims.

Buddhas. Enlightened people are referred to as “buddhas” with lowercase letters. Maitreya (Chinese: Mile), who is now said to be dwelling in a celestial realm near the Earth’s surface, is one of many Buddhas who have risen and will follow Kyamuni. Known as Amityus (or Amitbha, Chinese: Emituo), he is a Buddha who resides in the West and lords over a kingdom of happiness.

Bodhisattvas It is essential to note that the bodhisattva and the bodhisattva are linked. The “Mahayyina” traditions, which arose in the first century BCE, have a strong presence in all forms of Buddhism (the “Greater Vehicle” vs. the Hnayyina, “Small Vehicle”). It’s not the same level of enlightenment that Buddhas had. They are more accessible than Buddhas because of their loving participation with the world’s impurities, distinguishing them from the all-knowing Buddhas. In the broadest sense, all enlightened beings, including Bodhisattvas, may be considered Buddhas. As both role models and guardians, they are involved in the daily lives of their followers. Avalokitesvara, Bhaisajyaguru, Ksitigarbha, Majur, and Samantabhadra (Wenshu) are the most well-known Bodhisattvas in China (Chinese: Puxian).

Buddha, Dharma, and Sagha are the three gems.

Chinese Buddhists use the name “Fojiao” (three jewels) in addition to “Buddhism” (Sanskrit: triratna, Chinese: sanbao). Traditional and modern meanings may be found in the three Indian-derived idioms, which have been used in Chinese literature for centuries.[2] We’ve previously covered the common interpretation of Buddha. The word “buddha” has dual meanings in the Chinese culture: it may refer to both a deity and the artifacts used in his worship. Dharma is the second gem in this set (fa in Chinese). This collection of Buddha’s words is known as the Dharma, and it has been handed down both verbally and written. The four noble truths (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self) and the three signs of existence (mathematical expressions) are expressed in these teachings (unsatisfactoriness, cause, cessation, and route).

The Sutra in Sanskrit is one of the most famous works of literature in the Dharma’s literary history. “I’ve heard” is a common Stras introductory remark (Kieschnick 2020). If you believed Nanda, the Buddha’s most loyal pupil, who is said to have recalled everything his master taught, while the Buddha was at yours (Litian 2018). To defend Buddha’s law in China, hundreds of thousands of books written in the truth were employed, including scrolls and pamphlets printed on wooden blocks.

Saga is the third precious gem (sengqie or zhong in Chinese). These groups are included in this broad category (Kanaev 2019, 118-129). According to certain authorities, the only individuals who have given up their families to dedicate their lives to religion are monks and nuns. Keeping laypeople and monks apart is challenging in almost every Buddhist monastery. This contrasted with the spiritual characteristics of Western monks and nuns, which endangered the Chinese family structure and its essential principles, as did the hostility to their way of life. For example, laypeople’s use of kinship terminology and the participation of monastics in different ancestor-healing practices demonstrate the interconnectedness of laity and professional religions.

The Buddhist hierarchy is also referred to as sagha in Chinese. There were many other ways that the monastic community made money, including tenants, enslaved people, and even animals attached to their fields.

Buddhism is a religion practised in China

According to the Chinese dynasty paradigm, a large number of Chinese Buddhist histories. In the late Han period, Buddhism was brought to China by non-Chinese traders. Buddhism is said to have thrived when non-Chinese kings were in control of the north and “Han” administrators in the south for four centuries (Kieschnick 2020). Magic and meditation were chosen by the “barbaric” rulers of the north, whilst the southerners preferred intellectual religion. Consequently, Buddhist translators found it challenging to convey Indian notions to Chinese audiences in a language they could understand because of this fragmentation. After several unsuccessful tries, they could ultimately grasp Buddhist concepts like emptiness.

China’s history textbooks most usually use the Tang period as a primary historical reference point. Buddhism was “Sinicized” during the Tang period or rendered Chinese. During the Tang dynasty, which ordained and lavishly financed many Buddhist monks, several “Chinese” schools of thought emerged. Buddhism is said to have suffered a thousand-year fall after the Tang period. A high-ranking monk can purify the sagha of its corrupt members and restore moral vigor.

This method’s flaws are glaringly visible in this caricature. Thus, Chinese academics are becoming more sceptical about several Buddhist occurrences. In addition, the lessons of Chinese history by subsequent dynasties are skewed and incomplete. Instead of writing history from the top-down, new techniques argue from the bottom up. In the last forty years, historians have shown Chinese economic, social, and political advancement has been shown in new ways. It’s no longer possible to link Buddhism or other Chinese traditions back to a single dynasty because of fluctuations in population, economy, and family wealth.

The materials’ biases and deficiencies have shown state authority over Buddhism. Buddhists in medieval China seemed to depend on landowners for financial assistance. Because of this, it seems that Buddhist groups relied heavily on the irregular and dispersed service of lower-class citizens, while noble support is more easily obtained. One of the most common explanations given for depending on one criterion over the others is linked to this idea (Kieschnick 2020).

Buddhist scriptures have been translated into English. For centuries, Buddhism has been translated into Chinese for millennia from Sanskrit, Indic, and Central Asian languages. Buddhist Stras was well-known, although just a few Chinese could read classical Chinese. For example, consider the following: Stories of the Lotus Stra were painted on temple walls and relied on the wealth of mythology that Buddhism provided for religious lecturers, storytellers, and low-class entertainers (Kanaev 2019, 118-129).

Translation time and accuracy have long been an issue in the Buddhist academic community. Both Sanskrit and literary Chinese have 1,124 canonical works, making this research significant to both languages. It is essential to know what works were accessible at the period, who translated them, and how they were saved on paper and stone, accepted or not, circulated and debated.[3]

Buddhism is a religion practised in China Academics in the West interpret traditional Chinese Buddhism as if it were a collection of diverse schools or sects, a classic example of imposing Western religious conceptions onto a Chinese context that is fundamentally different. While some monks were committed to a single precept at the cost of others, others were more focused on one or two tendencies in Buddhist literature or teachings. For Chinese Buddhism, there is no precise definition of what constitutes a belief, as there is in the Nicene Creed or the profession of faith of Martin Luther ((Litian 2018).

Chinese Buddhist “schools” had only a tenuous relationship to the Teaching of the White Lotus (Bailian jiao), a 14th-century cult. According to Ernst Troeltsch, Sects are religious groups whose members join voluntarily and then refrain from participating in other religious activities as a condition of membership. The Huayan’s holistic nature was stressed by the Tiantai school, whereas the Lotus Strain was promoted by the Tiantai school (named after Mount Tiantai) (“Flower Garland” Stra). Members of these schools never ceased studying Buddhist texts.

Nianfo, literally “keeping the Buddha in mind,” has been used for centuries to refer to Amitayus Buddha, whose luminous paradise (jingtu) has been described in great detail in Buddhist literature. Amityus Buddha’s devotion was not seen as replacing other rituals, unlike in Japan’s late medieval period. Ritual knowledge is also necessary for Chinese Buddhism, so only initiates are allowed to conduct them. Theodore (Sanskrit: mantra, “True Word”) Buddhism also has a variety of ceremonial traditions when holding ceremonies for individuals or countries (Litian 2018).

‘Zen’ is a Japanese term for Chan (“Meditation”) that dates back to the late fifth century and is credited as being passed down unchanged from its founder, Kyamuni Buddha, to his first Chinese adherent. The activity was usually done retrospectively when claiming transmission, naming founders, and identifying historical individuals. Against the backdrop of a complex and ambiguous history, it was a “willful projection” of the future. The monasteries, daily routines, and administrative structures that came with Chan in the 12th and 13th centuries were the first signs that the practise evolved into a school. Even in those early days, the “Chan” social group resembled others in that it was associated with a school (Kieschnick 2020).


Kanaev, Ilya. “The Comparative Analysis of the Buddhism and Ancient Chinese Culture Principles.” Voprosy filosofii 4 (2019): 118-129.

Kieschnick, John. The impact of Buddhism on Chinese material culture. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Litian, Fang. Chinese Buddhism and traditional culture. Routledge, 2018.

[1] Buddhist instructors aimed to persuade their listeners that human life did not cease with death or memorial ceremony for one’s ancestors but that people were reincarnated in other bodies and could thus be linked to other humans, animals and spirits among the six modes of rebirth. Continuity analogies, such as a candle flame passing from one to the next and energy moving from one lifetime to the next, helped argue for regeneration. As a side note, the reality of impermanence meant that no ego could conceivably be responsible for the rebirth process.

[2] Jacques Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries, trans. Franciscus Verellen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 67, discusses the broader meaning of the three jewels in Chinese sources.

[3] See Stephen F. Teiser, “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” p. 17 for further information on the difficulties of translating Buddhist literature.


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