Buddhism is hailed to be one of the major religions in China. However, it is necessary to note that Buddhism in China is very much different from that of the world. It follows other theories and is supposed to have various propagators. 

 

Many people believe that Buddhism in China entered through the Silk Road. It was under the rule of the Han Dynasty that Buddhism started in China. Furthermore, it is believed that the trade and travel relations of Yuezhi contributed to the monks coming to China. The monks entered China via the Silk Road and eventually started preaching their religion. As time passed, Buddhism in China caught up with the pace. 

 

The beginning of Buddhism in China

As stated above, Buddhism began in China owing to the trade relations between China and India. Buddhism entered the ways of China around 2000 years ago. It was from India that Buddhism spread in China under the Han Dynasty. The West of the 1st Century BCE traders contributed to Buddhism’s introduction to China via the Silk Road. 

By the early 5th century, Buddhism was already established in South China.  The Han Dynasty of China followed Confucian theory. It was based mostly on ethics. According to Confucianism, one must follow harmony and maintain social order within the society. However, Buddhism was focused on pursuing monastic life.

As Buddhism’s teachings suggest, one should follow reality when following a monastic life and seek what lies beyond it. However, Confucian China was not willing to accept Buddhism. But, it gradually did evolve and found its place. 

Despite the resistance from Confucian China, Buddhism did pick up the pace. By the end of the 2nd century, Buddhism did find its existence in China, with monks coming in with moving time. The monks from Gandhara and Parthian monks started to translate the Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese. These translations were the key to the rise of the popularity of Buddhism in China. 

Buddhism in China history
Big Buddha Temple, a Buddhist temple complex in Chengde, Hebei province, China

Buddhism in ancient China

Chinese Buddhism is hailed to be one of the oldest types. The foreign religious history of China has Buddhism as its first occurring one. However, Buddhism in China is different from the general notion.

It is said that Chinese Buddhism is made of a combination of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Both of them teach the concept of achieving enlightenment in one lifetime. 

According to ancient Chinese history, Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism have received a mixed reaction from China rulers. Various scriptures suggest that many rulers went to the extent of eradicating the religion. Under the Han Dynasty rule, Buddhism merged with that of Taoism and folk religion and, hence, was adopted by many people around. 

The Silk Road from Xinjiang and Tea Horse Road via Yunnan was hailed to be existing land routes. After the decline of the Han Dynasty, the dynasties that came in started or adopted their religions. These religions further differentiated from the Buddhists across South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. 

Owing to the acceptance and difference, various schools of Buddhism came into existence in China over the years. Hence, these teachings of Chinese Buddhism were eventually adopted, which further gave rise to modern-day Buddhism in China. 

The connection between Buddhism and Daoism

For everyone confused, Taoism is also referred to as Daoism. Taoism or Daoism is one of the oldest religions of China. Furthermore, it is more like a philosophical tradition that came into existence in China around 550BC. Lao Tzu is the propagator or founder of the idea.

However, Buddhism is a religion of ancient India brought into existence by Siddhartha Gautama and was found around the 6th century BCE. Buddhism is often referred to as the offshoot of Hinduism. 

 

Both Daoism and Buddhism were found around the same time and are based on the concept of breaking free from the samsara or achieving Nirvana. Buddhism doesn’t follow the concept of God. Instead, it believes in the fact that one must seek its reality and what lies behind it. Buddhists believe that one can get over the cycle of birth-rebirth only with their good deeds. 

Unlike Buddhism, Taoism focuses on worshipping deities. Although Lao Tzu isn’t a God, the Taoists worship deities and suggest that it’s the universe’s order. Hence, Taoists believe in achieving the balance between themselves and the universe around them. It is believed that once they reach balance, they can get immortality. The concept of evil is non-existent in Taoism. 

Tao is considered to be the supreme power. In Buddhism and Taoism, people believe in the concept of reincarnation. However, they differ in the fact that Buddhism believes that one must follow good deeds to ensure better birth or achieving Nirvana.

On the other hand, Taoism believes that the soul is eternal, and with time, the soul will become one with the Tao. However, Buddhists deny God’s existence and do not believe in the concept of Life after death. 

Both Taoism and Buddhism are focused on the concept of visiting shrines to offer prayer to deities. 

 

Taoism and Buddhism in China believe in the concept of Life after death. Nonetheless, Taoism believes that the soul exists after death and may experience the new Life. However, Buddhism neglects the idea of the existence of the soul. This difference is a further difference in the two branches of Buddhism- Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. 

The Connection of Buddhism and Confucianism

Confucianism in China was not at all welcoming about Buddhism in China. Even today’s time, both religions tend to maintain a symbiotic relationship, where one does not exist without the other. 

Confucianism in China is predominant across Southeast Asia and Eastern Asia. It is more of relocation and hierarchical diffusion. According to the Confucianists, people are responsible for making their fate. Only when one is dedicated and loyal to themselves can they truly achieve the higher power in their Life.

Confucius brought the philosophy of Confucianism. They help you determine how one lives a peaceful and faithful life. It is the ethnic religion of China that hasn’t traveled from anywhere. Hence, many people in China still follow the concept of Confucianism. 

Buddhism, on the other hand, is a religion that traveled to China from India. Buddhism began in Northern India and eventually spread to other parts of the world. Unlike many religions, Buddhism is neither polytheistic nor monotheistic. Over the years, with the increase in popularity, Buddhism became widespread in Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, and China. 

 

Even in today’s time, Confucianism and Buddhism in China hold up their extreme popularity. Many people prefer practicing these religions in conjunction with each other. However, Buddhism is a universal religion, while Confucianism is ethnic religion. It is for this reason, Buddhism is whole-heartedly accepted. 

Chinese Buddhism
Buddha statue and Chinese deities painting on wall

Buddhism in China today

The lexicon of Buddhism has made it one of the most popular religions. However, it is necessary to determine that Buddhism has also become one of China’s most prominent “businesses” with time. 

While many kings have worked on depleting and bringing down Buddhism, it can be beneficial since Buddhism has become a business, as people are resorting to spiritual Life. The combination of communism and capitalism has played an essential role in bringing meaning to Life for the Chinese people. The Communist Party in China has a very welcoming attitude regarding Buddhism. 

Nonetheless, the Chinese Communist Party has bestowed faith. Yet, raising funds for restoring temples regarding Buddhism is pretty risky. It is necessary to bring better religious clarity into the religion. The Chinese constitution is focused on upholding religious integrity. However, the involvement of political parties may limit the virtue of  religion. 

There’s a constant struggle about the campaigning of the religion. As per the survey, the People’s Republic of China has a population of 1.3 billion. Further surveys have shown that around 20% of this population follows Buddhism. Hence, it can be stated that Buddhism is very much found in China, with Chinese people integrating it into their religious beliefs. 

How is Buddhism practiced in China?

One of the most common misconceptions revolves around how Buddhism is practiced in China. Many people believe that Buddhism in China is similar to that of India and other places. Nonetheless, it is necessary to determine that it is not. Buddhism in China differs from that around the world.

Chinese follow Buddhism along with Taoism. Chinese Buddhists believe in paying homage to their gods and ancestors. In China, the Buddhists pray to Taoist gods as well as Buddha. Hence, the practice of offering tribute to the ancestors is done in the belief that they might need and want the help.

The annual Qingming Festival of China is one of the most celebrated ones. Huge ceremonies and festivals are held during this time. 

In China, one needs to take refuge in Buddha to be freed of the sins. Hence, they must follow the path of Dhamma, meditation, monasticism. The cultivation of Paramitas is widely observed in Chinese Buddhism. Furthermore, they believe in the concept of offering prayers at the grotto, temple, and pagoda. 

Most people in China in today’s world follow the concept of Taoism and Buddhism. However, as far as Buddhism is concerned, they follow the concept of Mahayana Buddhism. Over the years, Buddhism has only flourished in China. Nonetheless, it is being anticipated that Buddhism is gradually in a declining phase. Furthermore, the coming in of political party influences affects the rise of Buddhism in China. 

How did Buddhism influence Chinese culture?

Taoism and Confucianism are the widely accepted religions in China. Moreover, they were native to the country. The coming in of Buddhism seemed to have been challenged. However, Buddhism in China adopted ideologies from each of them to ensure proper development.

Buddhism’s introduction in China was made when it was more of a philosophy and not a religion. Hence, Taoism was on the rise as well. The integration between them eventually led to the development and transformed the Chinese culture, though.

Therefore, the adoption of these two religions finally gave way to the development of support. Over 2000 years, Buddhism shaped the morality, arts, philosophy, and literature of the region.

Hence, apart from Daoism and Confucianism, Buddhism became a widely accepted culture and a significant part of the three pillars. It had a significant impact on philosophy, religious beliefs, and art and architecture. 

 

Buddhism was a foreign religion whose integration was more of a challenging issue. Nonetheless, the integration did seem to be successful as it helped people resort to meditation. It shaped the religious belief of the people and helped everyone reach proper conclusions. Buddhism in China allowed bringing revolutions that weren’t necessarily observed in China. 

Buddhism in China timeline
Buddhist monument in Jiuhuashan, China

Why was Buddhism appealing to the Chinese?

As stated above, Buddhism in China wasn’t appealing to the people at all. Instead, they were looking out for ways to get rid of it. While it traveled to China via the Silk Road, the residents and kings weren’t accepting religion. However, the institutionalized concept of personal Gods can be one of the potential reasons for Buddhism’s spread in China. 

One of the main reasons why Buddhism eventually became appealing to the Chinese was its compatibility with other existing theories and religious beliefs in China. Many people in China initially viewed Buddhism as a suspicious foreign philosophy. At that time, Taoism wasn’t developed to religion and was a mere philosophy.

Confucianism was existing as a religion. Hence, Buddhism’s beliefs were in contradiction with Confucianism, which is why many people disregarded it. 

 

Chinese people weren’t ready to adopt monkhood, one of the fundamental principles for people following Buddhism. However, people failed to understand that to accept Buddhism. One shouldn’t necessarily be following monkhood.

The teachings were to be followed irrespective of background and status. Accordingly, you could follow Buddhism even when you were married without disrespecting or breaking the laws. 

 

Buddhism was one of those religions in China that were preached and practiced irrespective of one’s caste. Furthermore, it preached the idea of breaking free from the cycle of birth and rebirth. It is stated that this cycle of freedom would eventually help to achieve Nirvana or salvation. It promoted the idea of Buddhahood for people belonging to the lower strata of the society too. 

Another reason why Buddhism eventually became accepted in China was that it was not monotheistic. Unlike many other religions, Buddhism did not promote the idea of following only one religion or path.

Moreover, it did not disrespect the religious ideals of other faiths too. These were the fundamental principles for Taoism also. Since Buddhism and Taoism are so intertwined, the Buddhists were allowed to enter Taoists’ temples and worship their deities. 

What are the differences between Buddhism in China and India/Tibet/Thailand?

Chinese Buddhism is very different from that existent in South East Asia. Buddhism in Southeast Asia results from the development via two traditions, such as Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. 

Mahayana Buddhism is widely accepted in China and India. However, in China, Buddhism is followed along with the pre-existing religions such as Confucianism and Taoism. Nonetheless, Theravada Buddhism is widely accepted in South East Asian countries like Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. The Chinese influence in Vietnam eventually contributed to the popularity of Mahayana Buddhism.

As stated, Mahayana Buddhism is followed across Chinese communities of Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The Chinese diaspora has played an essential role in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism across other places. 

 

Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism are, however, two different practices. Although it is focused on breaking from the cycle of birth-rebirth, the rules are different. 

The Buddhism practices include Hinayana and Mahayana practices. Nonetheless, Tibetan Buddhism is focused on Vajrayana practices. Tibetan Buddhism brings forth a widespread and diverse practice, so many Chinese people prefer Tibetan Buddhism practices. Furthermore, Tibetan rituals are straightforward to follow. 

 

The difference between Indian, Tibetan, Thai Buddhism, and Chinese Buddhism lies in its enlightenment approaches. The Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism further play an essential role in describing the difference. 

How many Buddhists are in China?

Currently, there are around 250 million practitioners of Buddhism in China. China is said to have around the largest population of Buddhists, as per the reports. Buddhism is the dominant religion across different countries like Tibet, Laos, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Around 18.2% of the population in China follow Buddhism. 

Is Buddhism allowed in China today?

One of the most commonly asked questions is if Buddhism is allowed in China. Yes, it is along with other religions. 

 

China’s government officially recognizes five religions such as Taoism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, and Protestantism. However, Chinese folk religion and Confucianism have been integrated in Chinese cultural inheritance. 

How many Buddhist temples are there in China?

There are several Buddhist temples in China. It is spread across Fujian, Beijing, and Anhui. There isn’t an exact number of Buddhist temples in China, for there are many. As Buddhism is one of the main religions in China, there are several of them. 

 

Some of the significant Buddhist temples in China include the following.

          • Huacheng Temple
          • Big Bell Temple or the Juesheng Temple
          • Zhihua Temple
          • Wanshou Temple
          • Guangji Temple
          • Jietai Temple
          • Nanshan Temple
          • Dizang Temple
          • Temple of the Six Banyan Trees
          • White Horse Temple
          • Iron Pagoda
          • Youguo Temple
          • Chi Lin Nunnery
          • Tung Lin Kok Yuen
          • Hanshan Temple
          • Kun Iam Temple
          • Four Gates Pagoda
          • Pagoda of Fogong Temple
          • Palyul
          • Foguang Temple

Who is Budai in Chinese?

Budai is one of the most popular monks in China. Also, commonly referred to as Hotei in Japanese and Budai in Chinese, he is a semi-historical monk. The semi-historical monk is also known as Maitreya Buddha, belonging to Chan Buddhism. 

Budai has been introduced in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon. As per history, Budai lived in the Wuyue Kingdom for the 10th century. Budai is also referred to as Fat Buddha or the Laughing Buddha. He was a zen monk. 

Budai is represented as a bold man with a big tummy, a smiling face, and large ears. He wears a simple robe and holds prayer beads, and has a large sack. 

 

Budai is the messenger of peace and generosity. He is the one who speaks of wisdom and kindness. The Laughing Buddha is a sign of positivity. It is said that when one rubs the belly of the Laughing Buddha, good luck comes his way and also brings him prosperity.

Buddhism in China today
Chinese Buddhist Monks Ceremony Hangzhou

Was China a Hindu Country?

China has never been a Hindu country and not even close to it. There was some influence because of the proximity to India. The presence of Hinduism in China has probably existed in the past but in a minimal way. Regarding the ancient period, Arthur Walley wrote in his translation to Tao Te Ching: “I see no reason to doubt, that the ‘holy mountain-men’ (sheng-hsien) described by Lieh Tzu are Indian Rishi; and when we read in Chuang Tzu of certain Taoists who practiced movements very similar to the asanas of Hindu yoga, it is at least a possibility that some knowledge of the yoga technique which these Rishi used had also drifted into China.

Also, archeological evidence from temples discovered in southern China indicates a small Hindu community in the area during the Middle Ages. Today there are a tiny number of people in China that follow and practice Hinduism. Hinduism is not defined as one of the five formal religions in China, but the Chinese authorities allow it.

Is Buddhism Chinese or Indian?

Another commonly asked question is whether Buddhism Chinese or Indian. Siddhartha Guatama was born in northern India in what is today considered Nepal. Buddhism was born in India and from there spread to China and other peoples in Asia. Chinese Buddhism was fused into the local culture and received its unique character, just as it did to him in Tibet, Thailand, Japan, and Korea.

Takeaway

Buddhism in China eventually developed over time. As Buddhism shares its relations with Taoism, Buddhism became ultimately popular. One of the main reasons Buddhism became so popular in China was reincarnation that it shares with other Chinese folk religions. Furthermore, the practices of worship are also similar. Buddhism has had a long history of existence in China. 

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