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Buddhism in China

An Introduction to Buddhism in China

The first Buddhist parishes are found in China in the 1st century AD and focused mainly on the suppression of passions by means of meditation, charity and compassion. The monastery claiming to have been the first in China is the White Horse Monastery (Baimasi) near Luoyang. Many similarities with Taoism made Buddhism look like another sect of Huang-Lao-Taoism; both religions have no sacrificial rites, believe both in immortality and operate with concentration, meditation and abstinence.

The early translations of Buddhist sutras all used Taoist terms to paraphrase the complicated construct of Buddhist metaphysical philosophy, like dao for dharma, bodhi, yoga, or zhenren as arhat, wuwei as nirvana, and ming as karma. Later translators were more cautious in translating Buddhist terms and sometimes did not even dare to translate it. Nirvana was simply transcribed as niepan, abhidharma as apidamo. Experienced translators of Tang Dynasty finally were able to define exact terms of translation: ji and lun, in our example.

The first great time of Buddhism in China was during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, when the new religion entered the gentry class. Disappointed and not more interested in governmental officials, the landowning class joined the Buddhist community. But also scholars, that were more interested in Taoism since the end of the Later Han Dynasty, became fond of the new religion, that gave both groups a stronghold in a time of ceaseless war. The Non-Chinese rulers of the Northern Wei Dynasty converted to Buddhism and saw themselves as personification of the Buddha.

The maturity and great age of Buddhism in China was the Tang Dynasty when emperors spent their wealth to establish monasteries and sculptures in different Buddhist caves. But this age was not free of persecution, especially by Confucian oriented statesman that wanted to get rid of the foreign religion. Many people converted and entered a monastery to escape military service and taxpaying. The revival of Confucianism under the Song Dynasty caused the decline of Buddhism as a state religion. But as popular belief, Buddhism is still very widespread, but highly mixed with Taoist belief.

The transition of the foreign religion into a Chinese one was made easy especially by the ideal of charity and compassion of Great Vehicle Buddhism. Both terms are quite similar to the Confucian idea of filial piety and the compassion of the ruler for his subjects. Other concepts of Buddhism are quite contrary to Confucianism (suffering - enjoying; celibacy - family; mendicant monks - productive farmers; monastic community - subordination under the state), but the missing of a central power during the 3rd and 4th centuries gave room for the Buddhist religion of salvation of the individual. The power of spells and charms had a great attraction not only to Chinese peasants, but also for the foreign rulers in the north. Finally, many people escaped military service and tax duty by entering a monastery.

Looking at Confucianism, we see that this state doctrine is totally lacking the aspect of the spiritual world (except ancestor veneration), and it is quite understandable that people found a good way to meet their religious needs in Buddhism.

Buddhism and its representing objects became part of the Chinese culture like dragons and chopsticks. The Laughing Buddha ("Pot-Belly Buddha") is the transformation of an Indian skete into a deity objecting Chinese ideals. The Indian stupa, a small buildings that contains relics of the Buddha or his scholars, and at the same time symbolizing the center of the Indian universe, Mount Meru, became the Ceylonese dagoba, the Thai chedi, the Tibetan cherten (the most beautiful being erected in Katmandu/Nepal), and finally the Chinese nine-floor pagoda (ta).

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