Nearly five hundred years after the death of the Buddha the religion he founded entered China. Buddhism had already spread north and west into Central Asia and it was inevitable that Buddhist missionaries would travel the great trade routes east into the Han Empire. There are no references to an early Buddhist presence in the official Confucian literature, but other sources do speak of an oral transmission of the scriptures in 2 BCE, and of a Buddhist community in 65 CE.
Around 150 CE Buddhist missionary monks established a translation centre at the Han Dynasty capital Lo-yang, and from the work done there two movements arose, the Dhyana and the Prajna. The first was based on Theravada Buddhist texts on meditation (Skt. dhyana) and breathing techniques. Although customarily called the Dhyana School, it is more properly thought of as a sustained engagement on the part of the Chinese, indulged by the translators, with the theoretical and practical details of Buddhist meditation. The Chinese were greatly interested in these techniques, primarily because of the similarities between them and the practices taught by their own indigenous religion, Taoism. The Prajna, or Wisdom, School, again not a single institution, constituted the other major trend in Han Buddhism. This movement focused on the Prajnaparamita Sutras, or Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures, of Mahayana Buddhism. These were predominantly philosophical works primarily concerned with expounding the doctrine that the ultimate nature of reality is "empty" (Skt. sunyata; Ch. kung) of any independent existence. These texts caught the attention of the Chinese, again partly because of similarities with their own inheritance, this time with the philosophies of the Taoists Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.
In 220 CE the Han Dynasty fell and the country fragmented into three mutually antagonistic states. A brief period of unity followed under the Western Chin (265-317 CE) before non-Chinese tribes overran the north, causing many educated Chinese to flee south. Thus began a nearly three hundred year division of China into a north ruled by non-Chinese, and a south, ruled by the Chinese themselves.
This prolonged period of strife and disunity, so trying for the populace, proved to be of benefit to the new religion. During the Han Dynasty Buddhism had made only limited progress, and the numbers of converts made, and monasteries built, were relatively small. One of the reasons for this was that several features of Buddhism were inimical to the dominant Confucian ideology. When the Confucian Han fell therefore, the doors of opportunity opened for Buddhism, which itself offered more to the ordinary people than did Confucianism. It taught that a better life, and ultimately salvation, were possible for everyone, and provided the means to attain these things: meditation, moral discipline productive of good karma, and, most appealing of all, kind and compassionate deities - the Buddha Amitabha and Bodhisattvas such as Maitreya. Also attractive were Buddhism’s festivals and rituals, as indeed were its monasteries, which were places of refuge for many during the troubled times. To the intellectuals it offered a more developed religious philosophy than that of Taoism, and, perhaps most important of all, to the state it represented a force for order and peace.
In the north, as Buddhism gained official patronage and came under the service of the state, the numbers of converts and temples increased rapidly, despite two brief periods of persecution. Interest in meditation techniques and devotional practice continued, and the religion also developed a magical aspect. Buddhism also prospered in the south, and received some state patronage, although not to the same extent as in the north. The interest in Prajnaparamita philosophy that began with the Han Prajna School grew, and became dominant, as the educated gentry, now disenchanted with Confucianism, discussed the meaning of the texts with Buddhist monks. This gave rise to the so called “Six Schools and Seven Sects” (ca. 350 CE), each representing one of the various interpretations of the texts put forward. Only fragments of their ideas survive, but their concern with metaphysical questions, in being shared with the Taoist philosophical Hsuan-hsueh or “Mysterious Learning” School, resulted in significant Buddhist - Chinese interchange and rapprochement.
Throughout the long period of disunity many hundreds of new texts, chiefly of the Mahayana tradition, were brought into China by missionary monks and returning Chinese pilgrims. Translation methods were greatly improved at the beginning of the fifth century, and over the next one hundred and fifty years more and better translations were produced. It was as a response to these new materials that the early scholastic sects or study groups sprang up. The custom was for a group of Buddhists to single out a certain text for concentrated study and interpretation, the group then being known by the name of that text. However, although these groups often thought that the particular text they studied contained the most important and profound truths of Buddhism, they were not, as a rule, exclusive in character. An individual might study in more than one group, and a group might take an interest in more than one text, even if that text was the special focus of another group.
Before this scholarly activity the Chinese had had difficulty in understanding Buddhist texts and teachings, primarily because they had translated and interpreted them using Taoist terms and concepts. The more accurate translations enabled more faithful interpretations, and by the end of the sixth century Chinese Buddhist scholars had grasped many of the main doctrines of the Indian Mahayana. At the same time the new religion had consolidated its position in both north and south, the sporadic criticisms from Confucian and Taoist quarters notwithstanding.
It was at this point that China was reunified under the Sui (581-618) and T’ang (618-907) Dynasties. The meeting of north and south engendered a period of growth and creativity which found its fullest expression in the Buddhist religion, now entering its most prosperous period. Buddhism had support in all sections of society as mass Buddhist festivals took place and thousands of monasteries and shrines were built. One consequence of this new expansion and confidence was the formation and consolidation of the ten Schools of Chinese Buddhism, five of which were essentially transplants from Indian Buddhism, and five Chinese innovations. Significantly, the four most important Schools were all of the latter variety, these being the T'ien-t'ai, Hua-yen, Ch’an, and Ching-t'u.
If, doctrinally speaking, the first centuries of Buddhism in China up to 400 CE were characterised by misinterpretation, and the next century and a half by correct interpretation, then this period was one of creative reinterpretation. One of the problems which increasingly confronted Chinese Buddhists was how to reconcile the bewildering variety of doctrines they encountered in texts which represented nearly a thousand years of Buddhist diversification and change in India and beyond. The T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen Schools can both be seen partly as answers to this question. Both developed detailed hierarchical systems in which texts were classified according to the period in the Buddha’s life when they were preached, and the level of teaching which they contained. At the top of the hierarchy was the text which each school respectively considered to be the reconciliation and culmination of all the others. In interpreting these texts the T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen succeeded in producing the most profound and harmonious philosophies in the history of Buddhism.
Very different from the T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen, but no less innovative, was what would prove to be the most important Chinese School of all, the Ch’an (Jap. Zen). Ch'an can be understood as partly a reaction to the rituals, abstruse philosophising, and worldly involvement, of much of T’ang Buddhism, and as an attempt to get back to the roots of the Buddhist religion in the enlightenment experience itself. Thus the Ch’an School emphasised meditational practice, and, either within that practice or outside of it, a spontaneous and direct apprehension of one’s own intrinsic Buddhahood.
The fourth major School was the Ching-t'u, which rather than pursuing enlightenment by personal effort, sought instead salvation by grace. Faith and devotion had been a part of the Mahayana in India, but the Ching-t'u stressed them to an extent not seen before in the history Buddhism. Those who found philosophy or meditation too demanding could simply chant the name and sing the praises of the Buddha Amitabha, in order to be reborn in his Pure Land. The method was straightforward, and the rewards attractive, giving the Ching-t'u great popular appeal.
The last of the distinctly Chinese Schools was that of the San-chieh or Three Periods. It instituted the popular theory, derived from certain scriptures, that Buddhist doctrine passed through three historical stages, during the last of which it fell into decay and disrepute. The San-chieh believed the final stage had come, and it advocated almsgiving, strict moral discipline, and the recognition of the potential for Buddhahood in all, as the only useful practices at such a time.
Of the other schools, three - the Chu-she, Fa-hsiang, and San-lun, were quite faithful transmissions of Indian philosophical schools, of the Abhidharma, Yogacara, and Madhyamaka respectively. The Lu School was concerned with promoting the rules of monastic discipline which were not observed with any degree of rigor in many monasteries at the time. The last School to appear was the Tantric Chen-yen, which was transmitted directly to China by Indian masters.
The majority of these Schools had connections with earlier scholastic study groups, movements, or societies, of which they can be seen as the culmination, both organisationally and doctrinally. As with the study groups before them, the relationships between the Schools themselves were generally harmonious, with doctrinal distinctions rarely being sources of conflict. In typically Chinese fashion, differences were seen as complementary rather than contradictory, and mutual influence and exchange was common. A Buddhist might well study the doctrines of one or more of the philosophical Schools, along with practising meditation and praying to Amitabha Buddha.
In 842 the Buddhist success story in China was abruptly curtailed with a period of severe persecution that lasted three years. The T’ang Taoist Emperor Wu-tsung, facing rebellions and economic crisis, condemned Buddhism as a foreign superstition and a parasitic burden on the state, and issued sweeping anti-Buddhist decrees. The result was the destruction of forty-five thousand monasteries, and the forced return to secular life of a quarter of a million monks and nuns. Monastery lands were redistributed, bronze images melted down, and scriptures burned.
In 846 the Emperor died and the persecution ended, but the damage was done. Only the Ching-t'u and Ch’an Schools survived in strength, the former due to its widespread popular support, the latter because its monks worked to maintain themselves, and because the School was not reliant on scriptures or images. The other Schools largely ceased to exist as independent entities, although some of their doctrines, particularly those of the T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen, were absorbed and preserved by the Ch’an tradition. However, during the T’ang Dynasty many of the Schools were transmitted to Korea and Japan, and some of them were to survive in these countries.
The T’ang Dynasty fell in 907 CE, and only after a half century of conflict was China reunified in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). The Sung emperors looked favourably on Buddhism, and it more than recovered in terms of numbers of monasteries and adherents. The Ch’an and Ching-t'u developed closer links, with a Buddhist occasionally becoming a master in both Schools. However, the religion’s creativity and diversity had gone, and, as a whole, qualitatively it was in decline. A resurgent (Neo-) Confucianism criticised Buddhist teaching as world-denying and escapist, and Buddhism produced no one able to meet the challenge. Lay societies, popular, but hardly profound, proliferated, and the religion increasingly became identified with the lower classes.
Under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Chinese Buddhism was tolerated, but the Mongols were understandably more inclined toward Lamaism with which they were more familiar, adopting it as their state religion.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was more encouraging of Chinese Buddhism. The trend toward laicisation continued, as the religion was seen as as much the preserve of the people as of the monastic community. So too did the syncretic tendency, as both the practices and doctrines of Ch’an and Ching-t'u were almost unanimously accepted as compatible and complementary. Meanwhile, the mistrust and criticism which had characterised relations between Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, began to dissipate as the belief in their basic unity and underlying harmony became popular.
The Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911), like the Mongol Yuan, patronised Tibetan, rather than Chinese, Buddhism. However some of the early Manchu emperors were interested in Ch'an, and the Ching-t'u maintained its popular support. During this time measures were instituted to reform the monastic community which had become increasingly decadent. Late in the Ch’ing Buddhism suffered greatly at the hands of the Christian-influenced T’ai-p’ing rebellion of 1850 to 1864, which destroyed Buddhist monasteries, temples, and libraries.
In the Republic of China (1912-49), with its rejection of the traditional, Buddhism was barely tolerated, and the situation worsened as a result of the arrival of Marxist ideology in the 1920’s. The monk T’ai-hsu (1889-1947) worked tirelessly to reform and rejuvenate the religion, but to only limited affect.
Under the People’s Republic (1949-) Buddhist activities since 1953 have been under the supervision of the government founded Chinese Buddhist Association. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Buddhism was subject to yet more suppression, although in the last two decades state religious policy has become more liberal and tolerant and the religion is enjoying a minor revival.
Today, the richness and diversity of the T’ang Buddhist Schools has gone, and of these Schools only the Ch'an and Ching-t'u prevail in strength. In monasteries both Ch'an and Ching-t'u practices are performed, sometimes in a combined form, and, with a few exceptions, all monks belong to one of the two Ch’an lineages. However, the philosophical Schools are preserved in the notion of doctrinal traditions, and a monk may recount the doctrine he has received as being that of the T'ien-t'ai, Hua-yen, or Fa-hsiang. In a similar way, the Lu School persists as the monks disciplinary tradition.
Guide notes for the Chart:
1) The Schools of Chinese Buddhism proper appear in bold type in enclosed boxes, while the date given is the date the School was founded. These are considered to be the true Schools on the criteria that each has a founder, and, when the School persisted, a definite lineage.
2) Names not enclosed in boxes are of movements, or scholastic sects or study groups, which, although often called schools, lack such a founder and lineage, but which were nonetheless influential in the formation of Chinese Buddhism and the true Schools. With the exception of the dates for the White Lotus Society and the Six Schools and Seven Sects, the dates given are the dates of the translation of the text(s) on which the movement or group was based. Where a group was the precursor of a particular School, it is mentioned under the entry for that School.
3) Where the connection between a particular movement or group and a later School is direct and strong, it is shown by an unbroken line, and where weaker, by a broken line. Similarly, broken and unbroken lines are used to give a general indication of the relative strength of a School’s existence.
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