Buddhism in China

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The spread of Buddhism in China and formation of the Chinese Buddhist tradition is the most prominent example of intercultural interaction in the history of Chinese culture prior to the New Era and the beginning of the intensive contacts between China and the West. In China Buddhism encountered the outlook, which was fundamentally alien to it in its main characteristics and value orientations. Through a long and complex process of cultural adaptation Buddhism was not only able to fit into Chinese society, but in many ways it transformed a lot of important aspects of the Chinese view of the world.

Before the 3rd century AD, there were no Chinese monks or monasteries in China. Buddhism remained an obscure exotic doctrine, which was often perceived as one of the schools of Taoism. This is evidenced, for example, by the following fact: in 165 Emperor Huang Ti made a sacrifice to Lao Tzu, generally revered as the founder of Taoism, and Buddha (Ikeda, 1986). The very fact of the sacrifice to Buddha shows how superficial was Chinese perception of Buddhism at that time. The 3rd century became the key to the history of Buddhism in China.

The first Buddhists in China were the Central Asian merchants. Trading houses of the west, who conducted regular trade with the Han Empire, had founded in China offices and factories, the workers of which often lived in China all their life. For their children and grandchildren the Chinese language became the family language, and, therefore, there was the need to translate (if they were Buddhists) the Buddhist texts into Chinese. It is believed that the first Buddhist text (or rather a compilation of several texts) was translated into Chinese in the 1st century AD. This text was a so-called “The Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters”. It is also important to note that at this time in India Mahayana had not yet emerged, and the 1st century is the period of initial formation of the Great Vehicle Buddhism. So, initially they translated into Chinese either the Hinayana texts, or the texts of uncertain mixed doctrine, which contained elements of both the Hinayana and Mahayana. Very often they translated the texts of purely practical character, which dealt with elementary techniques of concentration and meditation and breathing exercises. Since such texts were widely spread among Taoists, the Chinese became even more assured that Buddhism is a peculiar version of Taoism. Gu Huan, for example, describes it as follows: “Tao is the Buddha; the Buddha is Tao. In their ideal of sageliness… they are identical; only in their outward manifestation… are they at odds” (Gu Huan’s “Treatise on Barbarians and Chinese”).    

Very soon the legend appeared that Lao Tzu, having gone to the west (this fact was discussed in pre-Buddhist texts, and is described by Gu Huan: “Lao Zi entered the Pass (i.e., the Hindu Kush) and proceeded to the kingdom of Kapilavastu…”), came to India, where he became a mentor to Buddha (however, this idea is contradicted by Yuan Can: “the fulfillment of (the Buddha’s) descent and birth… took place before [the time of Lao Tzi]…”). Thus, it seemed that Buddhism is something secondary and derived from Taoism, which flattered the Chinese pride. It is possible that originally this legend, known as the theory of conversion of barbarians (hua hu), originated in Buddhist circles in China in order to find the roots of China’s new religion and substantiation of its proximity to the Chinese culture. But later, when Buddhism in China has strengthened and became an active competitor of Taoism, Taoists seized the initiative and even created an apocryphal Hua Hu Jing - the “Educate Barbarians Sutra”.

By the 6th century Buddhism in China became a powerful ideological force. Under the patronage of many emperors it gradually completed its integration into Chinese due to an active process of formation of so-called “three teachings” (sanjiao), i.e. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. This triad has defined the spiritual development of Chinese society for the next fifteen centuries.

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