For this lecture, please read the first ten chapters of the Diamond Sutra.

Buddhism in China

The short story of the long history of Chinese philosophy is that the Zhou Dynasty collapsed into the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), also known as the Period of the Hundred Schools, or hundred sages or philosophers depending on the translation.  Just as many great philosophers lost a parent as a child, they also tend to live in warring periods of instability, when old ideas are tested and questioned before new periods of empire and stability arrive and give new systems and movements support.

In China, the “Hundred Schools” and many philosophies were dominated by four philosophies native to China: Confucianism, Daoism, Moism and Legalism.  The Qin dynasty (“Chin“, from which we get the name China, 221-206 BCE) briefly unified China and supported Legalism, with harsh punishments and little regard for tradition.  The Han (206 BCE – 220 CE), who took over and held on to the unified China of the Qin, rejected Legalism, which wasn’t entirely popular but helped the Qin unify China, and they rejected Moism, which is quite Communist.  The Han supported first and foremost Confucianism, and gave secondary support to Daoism.

The Han was a prosperous time, when there was much new money and much interest in philosophy and patronizing the arts and temples.  The old moneyed families, the new money families coming up, and the scholars were now competing and collaborating voices.  By the later half of the Han, there were 30,000 students at the government funded state university, where primarily Confucianism and other classic texts were studied.

Unfortunately, Confucianism had become orthodoxy, and skeptical calls for revisions as well as the weakening of Han power had many scholars looking to Daoism, particularly the two main texts of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi we will study, as well as other systems such as the paradoxical Logicians and authoritarian Legalists for new solutions and understandings to old problems just as Buddhism was coming over the border.

The peasants, who were increasingly desperate, turned to Daoist religious communities of worship in large numbers and rebellions were common.  The largest were the Yellow Turban rebellions of 184 and 189 CE which sought land and food distribution for the people.  The Han triumphed and put down the rebellions, but infighting soon pulled the Han apart again once it was no longer unified against the Yellow Turbans.  This power vacuum allowed Buddhism to take hold and thrive.  Daoism offered the strongest alternative to Confucianism for both the elite scholars and the common devotional communities.  They centered on the ideals of a return to nature and the natural, the freedom of the community and individual from abuse of authority, and the absolute as mystical One.  Buddhism increasingly offered an alternative also in line with these ideals.

Some early Daoist tales sound much like later Buddhist koan stories.  Liu Ling, a Daoist master, was often drunk and sometimes lay around completely naked, and when several men entered his house and saw him in this state, he replied, “Heaven and earth are my dwelling, and my house is my pants…What are you all doing in my pants?”.  As uplifting as these stories were, the Daoists offered little structure for reordering society, with many retreating into nature, others ignoring local tyrants or turning to religious devotion and mysticism.

Scholars debated whether it arrived first by land over the silk road in Western China or by sea in Southern China, spreading upriver, but today it is thought that Indian Buddhist evangelicals, missionaries, monks and nuns first arrived by the Silk Road, and then took both routes over the next several centuries.  

A Chinese legend says Emperor Ming of the Han (28 – 75 CE) saw a flying golden god in a dream and asked his advisers who it was, and Fu Yi told him that someone known as the Buddha has obtained the Dao in India who flies through the air and shines like the sun. In the Patika Sutta of the Long Discourses, Buddha rises into the air seven palms high, which is flying, and shoots a fragrant beam of light upwards, which is quite shiny.  Unfortunately, we can’t find evidence of Buddhism in China before the Buddhist prince and missionary An Shigao (? – 180 CE) first translated texts into Chinese in 148 CE, fifty years before the fall of the Han dynasty as its Confucian power was crumbling and Daoist peasant rebellions in the countryside threatened the empire.

Buddhism was at first regarded as a strange foreign form of Daoism by the Chinese.  The two religions fought and supported each other alternatively for centuries afterward.  In spite of their profound similarities, centrally skepticism of human understandings and transcendence of attachment in the unification of all, Indian and Chinese language and culture had profound differences as well.  Chinese language uses short terms, while Indian language strings incredibly long and complicated terms together.  Similarly, Chinese philosophy values brevity and expresses itself in simple, concrete metaphors, while Indian philosophy values comprehensiveness and expresses itself in complex and abstract analysis.

A comparison of Daoist and Buddhist texts shows this immediately.  Compare the metaphor of the well frog in the Zhuangzi with the middle length discourses of the Buddha on the categories of existence and how each is inherently empty.  Consider that Buddhists would refer to ‘perfection’, while Daoists would refer to being ‘round’, Buddhists would refer to ‘one’s true nature’, while Daoists would refer to ‘one’s original face’, and Buddhists would refer to ‘essence’, while Daoists would refer to ‘the pupil of the eye’.  This was the same situation when Buddhism arrived in Japan around 550 CE, Daoism and Confucianism having arrived long before.  The Japanese also understood Buddhism in a Daoist natural world context.

Leshan Giant Buddha China

Chinese and Indian Buddhist cultures were also at odds socially.  Chinese society was familial, seeking value in the worldly prosperity of the family.  Indian Buddhism valued the otherworldly, and advocated leaving the home in pursuit of enlightenment in the monastery.  While Daoism did have its wandering and wilderness dwelling sages, this would be a sticking point for Buddhism for many centuries.

Many competing Confucians and Daoists would routinely call for an expelling of the foreign culture that asked the young to abandon their families for the monastery.  To overcome this, Buddhists, like Daoists, offered local communities support in education, medicine, and relief in times of crisis.  Gradually, Daoism and Buddhism were interrelated, with the Buddhist Dharma  (teaching) equated with the Dao (way), and Buddhist nirvana (liberation) equated with the Daoist wu-wei (non-action).  These were crude equations, which were enriched over centuries of translation and scholarship.

Several early Indian schools of Buddhism were popular than others in China, particularly the Dharmaguptakas (not associated with the sage Dharmagupta of the Long Discourses), a Mahayana sect that made great efforts to spread eastward.  The Chinese monk Kumarajiva (344 – 413 CE) translated many Sanskrit texts with great literary skill, including the Mahayana Diamond Sutra and Lotus Sutra, clarifying, revolutionizing and codifying Buddhist philosophy and practices in a Chinese way, such that new native Chinese sects of Buddhism became the most popular, including Pure Land Buddhism, founded by Hui Yuan and focused on devotion to Amitabha Buddha, known in Japan as Amida, and Chan, better known by its Japanese name Zen, which later became the court religion of the Song dynasty.

Buddhist sutras continued to arrive from India, carried by both Indian and Chinese Buddhist monks on pilgrimages to spread the dharma.  In architecture, the Indian stupa became the Chinese pagoda, one of the most common and recognizable forms of Chinese architecture.  Chinese artists began portraying the Buddha and bodhisattvas in Chinese form.  The Mahayana Completion of Wisdom sutras (Prajnaparamita sutras) were introduced, becoming the central texts of the most popular forms of Buddhism today, Chinese and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, which focus on devotional chanting to bodhisattvas for good fortune and protection.

While Pure Land traditions were popular among common people and traditional noble families, the Chan (Chinese) or Zen (Japanese) tradition became popular among scholars and nobles who pursued philosophy, literature and the arts.  The Pure Land tradition feeds off the faith practices of the Tiantai school, and the Chan/Zen feeds off the wisdom tradition of the Huayan school.  Both teach the oneness of all things, but the Tiantai would say there are demons in the heavens and buddhas in the hell-worlds, while the Huayan say that One is All and All is One.  Next week, we will exclusively study the Chan/Zen literature and the koan stories, some of my favorite philosophy texts.  The history of Buddhism in Korea and Japan is also dominated by the duality of the Pure Land devotional traditions and the Chan/Zen meditation and koan practice.

In Japan, Amida (from the Indian Amitabha) worship reached a radical and popular form that bears interesting resemblances to Protestant Christianity.  Shinran (1173-1262) founded one of the most popular forms of Japanese Buddhism, Jodoshinshu, which taught that other than the most dedicated sages human beings are too sinful to gain enlightenment, so the best way for all people to gain entrance to higher existence was to rely entirely on the grace and power of Amida who could bring both the good and the bad to heavenly realms or pure lands.  It is only in turning away from self accomplishment and entirely towards the salvation of all by grace that the most people could be saved from hell worlds.  Shinran decided that no vow of celibacy would make much difference, and so he married and told priests to marry, for which he was persecuted for the rest of his life.

As texts arrived and were translated, the Chinese noticed that the Theravada and Mahayana had two different ideas of how one achieves enlightenment already mentioned.  The Theravada teach that progress is gradual, much like the Confucians do, and that it is only study within the institution that brings slow and steady progress.  The Mahayana teach that buddha-nature is already within, and that sudden breakthroughs and transcendent states are achievable by anyone, much like the Daoists do, and that this can occur either inside or outside of the institution.  This dual understanding became complimentary but also developed into a conflict.

inside Chinese Buddhist Temple

All of this resulted in a vast expansion of Buddhism, among common devotional worshipers who sought refuge in new divinities, practices and communities, among scholars who found new philosophical concepts and texts to study and re-read, and among the wealthy who gave immense amounts for new temples, monasteries and monuments with new designs and appeal to secure their own fortune not only with the deities but with the populace.  Buddhist priests served communities and noble families, providing relief for the suffering of both the poor through charity and the rich through consolation.  Buddhist organizations funded hospitals, low cost hostels for travelers, bridges, and trees planted beside popular roads.

In the early Tang dynasty, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang famously journeyed to the west, the source of the story Journey to the West or West Wandering Chronicles, which blends Buddhist history with Chinese folk culture and Daoism.  Historically, between 629 and 645, Xuanzang went to India for thirteen years, wrote detailed reports, studied at Nalanda University, brought 657 texts, many statues and relics back to China with him, and translated them with a team of scholars after he returned with the support of Emperor Taizong.

According to the legend, the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, whose name means Monkey Awakened to Emptiness or Empty Awareness Monkey, is born from a stone, learns the Dao, and is thus awake to emptiness and openness in everything, learns all martial arts and the secrets of immortality, rivaling the power of the Daoist Immortals and rebelling against the Buddha in the heavens, so the Buddha traps him under a mountain for 500 years.  This can all be seen in the final scene of the movie Journey to the West, AKA “most epic high five ever”.  It seems to borrow a bit from the Indian Ramayana, which is possible, as Shiva buried the all-powerful Ravana for 10,000 years with a similar move.

In the second part of the story, the monk Tang Sanzang, who is essentially Xuanzang, used to be a disciple of the Buddha himself named Golden Cricket, reincarnated in China, full of hedonism and sin, so the Buddha picks out Sanzang, Cricket reincarnated, and sends him West along the dangerous Silk Road where travelers are robbed and eaten by demons.  Sanzang meets, is trapped, and then bests and converts several powerful demons who are gods or spirits that have enough power to assume semi-human form.

First is the Monkey King, whom Sanzang tames with a golden ring he puts on the Monkey King’s head and tightens with a mantra that gives the Monkey King unbearable headaches.  Second is Zhu Bajie, the Eight Precepts Pig, who was commander of heaven’s navy but banished for flirting with the moon goddess, and is consumed by appetites for food and women.  His laziness continuously angers the overly-active Monkey King.

Third is the river ogre Sha Wujing, whose name means Sand Aware of Purity, much like Monkey Aware of Emptiness, who was a general in heaven, broke a vase and was banished, and lives in the river, or flying swords will stab him, where he gorged himself on travelers, including a group of monks whose skulls he wears as a necklace that turns into gigantic Buddhist prayer beads, borrowed from Buddhism by Muslims and by Christians from Muslims.  Wujing mostly carries their luggage.  The fourth and final converted demon disciple is Yulong, a son of the Dragon King of the West Sea who barely speaks and turns into a horse for Sanzang to ride.

Monk, monkey, pig, ogre and dragon journey to the West, fighting monsters and sorcerers, flaming mountains, seductive spiders, amazonian women, and many other things, which are episodic, parts of the tale that follow formulas to be told over several occasions.  Buddha himself seems to send each of these problems at them, and orders the final 81st challenge such that Sanzang can become a buddha himself, reach Vulture Peak, where the Buddha died, and get the texts from the Buddha himself.  All four are transformed in the final chapter, after returning to Tang China or a place in the heavens.

Mulian Rescues His Mother From Hell is a popular Tang Chinese Buddhist story, in which Mulian, shortened from Maudgalyayana, also called Radish, asks the Buddha for help rescuing his mother from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the hell realms where reincarnated souls which have committed karmic crimes hunger and thirst.  These sorts of Chinese Buddhist hells, which increasingly were portrayed as mechanical punishments specific to the crimes of the tortured, are likely Dante’s inspiration for the various punishments in each circle of hell, as the idea appears first in China and little anywhere else before Dante, particularly absent from scripture or Catholic doctrine.  Much later, Homer Simpson is force-fed donuts by a machine in hell, to his delight and his own devil’s utter frustration.

Because Mama Radish hid her money from monks and beggars before dying she is sent to the lowest and harshest hell, No Waves Hell, often translated as Incessant Hell, where ox-headed demons have nailed Mama Radish to the floor, even though she did not commit the harshest of crimes.  Radish smashes (RADISH SMASH!) his mother’s prison with a rod Buddha gives him, but Mama Radish is not freed, but born in the next slightly higher hell-realm, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, where spirits with thin necks and teeny mouths can never get enough to satisfy their hunger and thirst.

Buddha tells boy Radish that he can make offerings to monks, an event which supposedly became the traditional Hungry Ghost Festival in China and East Asia, an autumn festival during Ghost Month, on Ghost Day, when spirits and ancestors rise from the lower realms, somewhat like Halloween and Day of the Dead in Europe and the Americas.  Mama Radish is reborn a dog, tells Radish that it is much better than being a hungry ghost, as you can eat trash and drink from the gutter whenever you like, and finally she is reborn as her human self, and saved. It is traditional to perform a full Chinese opera retelling the story on Hungry Ghost Day. The story teaches filial piety, more associated with Confucianism than Buddhism, which was seen by some as anti-family and tradition, as Radish is a monk but devoted to his mother.

The Dunhuang Thousand Buddha Caves, including the Mogao Caves and many others, were dug out earlier than the Tang, sites for monks, pilgrims and hermits to practice, but by the Tang they were carved and painted to become the most revered Chinese Buddhist statue sites along with the Longmen and Yungang Grottoes.  Located on the Silk Road, the art was supported by rulers and local officials, and it was here, along with many texts found in the Library Cave, that the woodblock-printed Diamond Sutra, the oldest printed text in history, was discovered, which now sits in the British Museum.

The Longmen Dragon’s Gate Grottoes, with over 100,000 statues, were also extended and completed in the Tang with court support of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu.  The large, central statue of the Buddha is said to resemble Empress Wu herself, and that she donated 20,000 strings of coins set aside for her cosmetics budget to complete it.  Similar great works of Tang statuary are found in the Yungang Grottoes and the gigantic Buddha at Leshan, over 70 meters tall and carved between 713 and 803 CE out of red sandstone to calm the waters where trading ships pass through, and because the removed rock was thrown into the river, the current was calmed, which may have been the plan all the while or led to the legend afterwards.

Unfortunately, many Buddhist monasteries had become extraordinarily wealthy by the Tang, which attracted unwanted attention from competing systems and rulers who were wary of rivals.  It was not lost on the ruling powers that Buddhism, like Daoism, served as a popular center of power that could, and sometimes did, result in rebellion.  Mahayana Buddhism in particular had teachings that could be interpreted as supporting rebellion, especially by those in the suffering countryside.  In the last age, when the buddha Maitreya was expected foretold by signs, no government was legitimate and the world was soon to be reformed and reborn.  Many rebellions used the color white, the color associated with Maitreya, as a symbol for their movements.

The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of the late Tang, which could also be called the Great Buddhist Persecution, as it wasn’t Anti-Buddhists who were persecuted, was carried out by Emperor Wuzong during his reign (840-846 CE) to cleanse China of foreign influences like Indian and central Asian Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity, which had all been creeping eastward much during the prosperous dynasty.

Wuzong did not wipe Buddhism out, as he largely did the others, which did not have as solid a tradition in China, but Wuzong was often angry at the sight of Buddhist monks who he thought should pay the Two Taxes (grain and cloth), so he changed the law, destroyed tens of thousands of monasteries and temples and sought to remove sorcerers and criminals from the ranks of monks and nuns. This was also a cash grab, as Wuzong seized Buddhist assets and property that he needed to do other things, such as supporting Daoism.

Ichijoji Kasai Buddhist Temple Japan

In some periods, Buddhism or Daoism was persecuted depending on patronage, while in other periods each received vast contributions and thrived.  This is similar to Catholic monasteries in Europe, who not only fought amongst themselves (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits) after becoming wealthy civic centers of education, medicine and technology, but had to survive persecution of rulers who wanted their wealth as well.  In later dynasties, after Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism were the three established schools of Chinese thought and were interwoven in official rituals and popular culture, rulers worked hard to work with Buddhist leadership, who had considerable sway over much of the population, while also making sure that they did not acquire too much unchecked power.

zhu xi

Around 1100 CE, Neo-Confucianism attempted to revive Confucianism to return it to its central place in society.  While Zhu Xi, the greatest teacher of Neo-Confucianism, saw Buddhism as the enemy, he could not help but reincorporate Buddhist teachings such as the metaphors of the sun behind the clouds and the pearl at the bottom of the muddy pond, each implying that through study, as well as meditation, the inner truth and nature can be realized.  While originally the term ‘li’ meant human order and tradition, in Neo-Confucianism Li became cosmic order, more like the Dharma of Buddhism and Dao of Daoism after being intertwined with Buddhism over centuries.

wang yangming statue gold

While Confucius taught that one should benefit one’s own family as well as humankind, Neo-Confucians taught that one should benefit all conscious beings like Mahayana bodhisattvas.  Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529 CE), one of the great Neo-Confucians we will study, was called a Buddhist in disguise, a crypto-Buddhist by his opponents for teaching Buddhist metaphors that were part of popular culture and sudden achievement of new understanding.  Neo-Confucianism supported state funded hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and public cemeteries.

Under the Yuan dynasty and the Mongols (1279 – 1368), following the collapse of the Song, Buddhism remained the state religion but Tantric practices from Tibet became popular in the court, which was all thrown out by the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), where the Linji and Caodong houses of Chan dominated once again, as they had in the Song.  The Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) supported a sect of Tibetan Buddhism in the court, a hold-over from the Yuan Mongols that those associated with the Song and Ming despised, but many sorts of schools and sects including even evangelicals from Japanese schools thrived.

The Republic of China (1912 – 1949) fostered relations between Chinese Buddhism and the modernizing world, but the Communist Revolution of 1949 was not a prosperous time for religion, with many moving to Hong Kong and Taiwan, lands not controlled by the Party.  Today the official position of the Chinese government is to foster Chinese native cultural identity by preserving its native heritage, including supporting traditional religious groups while cracking down on new religious movements such as Falun Gong and Christian house churches.

China Tense Tibet

In the last two centuries, as China encountered Europeans, there were new favorable and unfavorable interpretations of Buddhism used to understand China’s relationship with the new foreigners.  Some attempted to show that there was nothing new in European thought that could not be found in Buddhism, such as rationalism, humanism, democracy, dialectic, evolution, and later communism and existentialism.  Others argued that Indian Buddhism and its transcendent visions had held China back such that it had not modernized as fast as Europe.  Later, Chinese communists such as Mao would both condemn Buddhism as superstition of a past age as well as celebrate it as a common bond with Asia that transcended nationalism and demonstrated that Asia and the world could one day share a common culture.

Tiantai & The Lotus Sutra

Tiantai Buddhist Temple

The Tiantai school of Buddhism, named for the mountain on which it was based, is also known as the Lotus School as they revere the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching in Buddhism.  Nagarjuna is considered the first patriarch and Tiantai Buddhism focuses on Nagarjuna’s interpretation of the Lotus Sutra, both from India, but the school was founded in China by Huiwen (6th c. CE), the second patriarch, who experienced a blissful awakening after studying the work of Nagarjuna.  Scholars consider the school to be a Chinese attempt to make syncretic sense of many conflicting teachings and practices of Mahayana schools in India finding their ways into China.  After the third patriarch Nanyue Huisi (515 – 577 CE), a Chan master who apparently converted, the fourth patriarch Zhiyi (538 – 597 CE) systematized the work of the first three patriarchs and based the Tiantai school on Mount Tiantai.


Zhiyi studied both Indian and Chinese Mahayana texts and concluded that the Buddha taught his teachings in five stages, saving the best and most developed teachings for last and for those who developed enough to hear them.  Ironically, this means that the texts likely written in China long after the Buddha’s death were the best according to Zhiyi, particularly the Lotus Sutra, taught just before the Buddha died according to itself.  Zhiyi taught that in the first two periods of the Buddhist teachings, just after Buddha was enlightened, he preached “Hinayana” (Theravada) doctrines, but in the third period he taught Mahayana sutras, in the fourth the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras, and then in the fifth and final the Lotus Sutra.  As Mahayanas, they teach devotional practices to bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who feels the pain of all beings and rescues the faithful from suffering according to the Lotus Sutra.  The Tiantai also teach the study of scriptures and meditation practices to observe the mind.


During the Tang dynasty the Tiantai school was supported by royal and wealthy patrons and became one of the most popular sects of Buddhism in China, with followings in the millions.  The school was brought from China in 805 CE to Japan by the Japanese monk Saicho (767 – 822 CE), where it is known as Tendai, and it became one of the most popular schools with royal support as it had been in China just as the capital was established in Kyoto.  Kyoto remains the city in Japan with the oldest historic buildings that were thankfully not destroyed in WWII, unlike Tokyo and many other cities.  Dogen started out as a monk in the Tiantai school before traveling to China and then founding the Soto school of Zen in Japan when he returned.  Tiantai and Chan (Tendai and Zen) have been rivals and collaborators for over a thousand years.

The Lotus Sutra

statues chinese buddhist cave

The Lotus text was written in stages between 100 BCE and 150 CE.  It was translated into Chinese three times, around 300, 400 and 600 CE, and into English for the first time in 1884.  In the text, Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, the highest of Buddhist virtues, announces that the Buddha is about to teach his ultimate teaching.  The Buddha says that the purpose of all the Buddhas, unknown by many until now, is to cause all conscious beings to obtain the insight and enter the way of the Buddhas, and that there is only one Buddhist vehicle in spite of there appearing to be many schools, one monsoon rain that waters all sorts of plants.

dragon princess brings pearl to buddha

The text tells many allegorical tales that illustrate Mahayana teachings.  There is the story of the man who falls asleep drunk with jewels sewn into his coat who wakes and doesn’t know that he’s actually rich and carrying his riches around with him.  This story teaches Buddha Nature, that we are already enlightened and pure but forget this and do not recognize it.

Manjushri tells the story of Longnu, the daughter of the naga (snake-god) king in the original Indian version, who in China is called a dragon princess.  After hearing the Buddha’s teachings and becoming enlightened, she goes to have her enlightenment confirmed by the Buddha’s followers, but they tell her that she cannot be, so she goes to the highest heaven realm and gives the Buddha a pearl in thanks.  This story shows that even women and snake-dragons can be as enlightened as male humans, part of the egalitarianism of the Mahayana teachings.


At one point in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says that six thousand nuns present will become buddhas.  He also teaches that evil people and animals can become buddhas, including the story of Devadatta, a murderer who became one of the Buddha’s original followers.  The Buddha says that he is eternal and omniscient, and speaks of all sorts of bodhisattvas with magical powers, and says that chanting the Lotus Sutra itself, the talk he is currently giving, can cure disease and bring good karma.