Bodhidharma Brings Chan Buddhism to China

Bodhidharma brought the Chan form of Buddhism to China, where it eventually became the dominant religion.

Summary of Event

Bodhidharma is said to be the founder of the Chan school of Buddhism, which was a blend of the dominant Mahāyāna school with the Daoist tradition of China. Bodhidharma’s Chan school helped to bring Buddhism to its pinnacle in China, as the dominant state religion, and continues to influence the beliefs of the Buddhist religion to this day. Bodhidharma

The Buddhist religion began in India, with the enlightenment of Prince Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, in the fifth century b.c.e. The followers of the Buddha quickly spread the religion throughout India and gained significant strength with the ascension of the Mauryan emperor Aśoka (r. c. 273/265-c. 238 b.c.e.), a patron of Buddhism.

Contact between India and China was helped during the historical Buddha’s life through the end of the third century c.e. by a combination of the Pax Romana in the West and the Pax Sinica in the East. The Roman Empire in the Mediterranean and the Han Dynasty in China had developed road and caravan systems that traveled between the two large empires; these trade and travel routes have become known as the Silk Road. Traffic on the silk routes was brisk and prolific and carried much more than silks to Rome or wine to Changan (modern-day Xi’an). Missionaries, pilgrims, merchants, itinerant artisans, and others traveled the silk routes in search of fortune or to spread the word of their faith. Travelers went two ways: The Indian Buddhists went into China, and Chinese interested in Buddhism, such as Faxian (Fa-hsien) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), went to India in search of better scriptures and to further their religious understanding.

Among the first references to Buddhism in China is the dream of Mingdi (Ming-ti; 29-c. 75 c.e.), the Eastern Han Dynasty emperor. The emperor claimed that he had a vision in which he saw “a golden god who could fly” in his palace. Despite this early vision, Mingdi was a strict Confucian, and Buddhism’s early impact on China was quite limited, owing to the religion’s conflicts with Confucianism.

Confucianism’s main argument with Buddhism was its view that worldly involvements, including service to the state, marriage, and procreation, were of little significance and were not the path to enlightenment. Because Confucian dogma held that to be virtuous, one had to serve the emperor, be faithful to one’s parents, and procreate, Buddhism was in diametric opposition to the beliefs of the Chinese creed.

It was not until the establishment of the Mahāyāna (Greater Vehicle) school of Buddhism, which emphasized the ability of an individual to become enlightened and be reborn into a paradise filled with beings similarly freed from the world that Buddhism was able to begin to succeed in China. The Mahāyāna school became established in China in about 148 c.e., when Parthian Buddhist scholar An Shigao arrived in the capital of Luoyang (Lo-yang) with a Buddhist canon that could be translated into Chinese.

The Buddhist canon, known as the Tipiṭaka (collected c. 250 b.c.e.; English translation in Buddhist Scriptures, 1913), literally, the “three baskets” of wisdom, had an immediate impact on the Daoists. Although an ethnic Chinese religion, Daoism had heretofore not had an organized literature of its own. As the Celestial Masters (Tianshi) movement of Daoism began, a vital task for the early Daoists was to codify their own religious views to better articulate to the Buddhist community the precepts of Daoism. Because in Chinese the Buddhist canon was translated as the sanzang (three baskets), the Daoists called their canon the Daozang.

As the two traditions began to compare their methods and beliefs, the Buddhist canon began to undergo changes; texts were sinicized and made more palatable to the Daoist intellectuals. This was the situation that existed c. 401 c.e. when the next great translator of Buddhist texts, Kumārajīva, arrived on the silk routes. Kumārajīva’s translation of the Lotus Sutra (1st century b.c.e.-1st century c.e.) marked an important milestone on the path of the creation of Chan. The Lotus Sutra is one of the most important texts of the Mahāyāna school, and the symbolism of the Lotus Sutra was a perfect meld of both Daoist and Buddhist tradition and was greatly studied by both faiths.

The Lotus Sutra is a complex parable about the Buddha delivering a sermon on Vulture peak, surrounded by his disciples, while twirling a lotus blossom between his fingers. Other followers of the Buddha questioned his teaching, but it was Mahākāshyapa who recognized that the real teaching of this particular episode was the silent twirling of the flower in the Buddha’s hand. During the sutra, Mahākāshyapa stayed silent and smiled, and the Buddha recognized that he alone had learned the lesson. The story in the Lotus Sutra would prove to be pivotal in the formation of Chan Buddhism.

When Bodhidharma arrived in China around 470 c.e., it was an auspicious time to complete the marriage of Daoism and Buddhism to form a completely new school of thought. Bodhidharma’s lineage was impeccable: He was recognized as the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism. The patriarchy counted Mahākāshyapa, the “constant companion” of the Buddha on earth, as its first patriarch.

The traditional story of Bodhidharma’s enlightenment places him at a monastery in China. Reportedly, Bodhidharma entered the Shaolin monastery, sat, and did nothing but meditate before a wall, not moving for nine years. After the end of the nine years, he was enlightened. Sculptures of Bodhidharma often show him with legs withered by the years that he spent in sitting in meditation.

The method of Bodhidharma’s enlightenment marked a major change from the traditional Buddhist path to nirvana, a state of escape from the world. Previously, Buddhism had emphasized the Eightfold Path, which stated that enlightenment came from a process in which one followed the eight correct views: right beliefs, right resolve, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mind, and right meditation. In addition, Buddhist adepts were to follow the Five Precepts of not killing, not stealing, not lying, not consuming alcohol, and chastity. This meant that those who followed certain occupations, such as fisherman and stock herders, could never become enlightened because of their professions, which obligated them to kill living things. Emperors, who were obligated to procreate to produce a successor, also were unlikely to achieve nirvana.

The Chan enlightenment of Bodhidharma was a sudden, abrupt change from this tradition. It implied that sudden enlightenment could happen to anyone, regardless of whether they followed the Five Precepts and Eightfold Path. Removing these obstacles for the elite class greatly improved the potential for Bodhidharma to find followers for his faith in China. Another factor that appealed to the intellectual elite was that the Chan school emphasized study with a master—if at all possible, with the patriarch himself. In playing on Mahākāshyapa’s pivotal role in the Lotus Sutra, the Chan school emphasized that the patriarch had esoteric knowledge, passed down through the line of patriarchs from the Buddha himself, which could guide the novitiate into enlightenment. These esoteric teachings were not written down but were transmitted orally or in secret from master to disciple.

The concept of studying with a master was an extremely old Chinese value, beginning with the Confucian bureaucracy. The Chan school was able to tap into this concept by emphasizing the private learning that a student did with his master and the fact that the master taught the student things that could not be learned merely by reading the literature. This opened the way for the bureaucrats, long the intellectual elite of China, to be able to study with a Chan master in a manner that would give great kudos to the student. Teachers often taught their students through gong-an (known as kōan in Japanese), cryptic questions that encouraged students to break the bounds of logic and dogma to obtain the “flash” of wisdom that led to enlightenment.

The rise of the Chan school is strongly associated with the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907 c.e.), which is regarded as the greatest epoch in Chinese history economically, militarily, and culturally. The literature created during the dynasty and the government reforms that were instituted became the benchmarks for all successive Chinese governments. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism became the dominant religion in China, helped by the patronage of the religion under the emperor Taizong (T’ai-tsung; r. 627-650 c.e.). Taizong’s investiture of monasteries and monks and the recognition he gave to the religion allowed Buddhism to usurp both Confucianism and Daoism as the dominant religion in practice. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism achieved its aim of obtaining imperial investiture on a scale it had never previously attained, whether in India or Central Asia, and Chan Buddhism became the preferred school of Buddhism in China.


Although credited as the founder of the Chan school, Bodhidharma did not really create the school as such. Bodhidharma’s two great contributions to the Chan school were the concept of sudden enlightenment through everyday tasks and the establishment of his successor and a patriarchy of his own. The melding of Buddhist and Daoist philosophy, combined with the concept of learning from a master, made the religion extremely attractive to the Chinese.

Although later dynasties directly proscribed Buddhism, the Chan school survived and thrived, in particular when monks brought the religion to Japan, where it became known as Zen and today is still the dominant religion in that country. In the West, Zen teachings became popular during the 1960’s, when kōan were translated and popularized. Buddhism remains the dominant religion throughout East Asia, and after the Open Door policy was instituted in China in 1900, it staged a remarkable comeback in that country.

Further Reading

  • Faure, Bernard. Chan Insights and Oversights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. One of the best overall approaches to the formation of the Chan school.
  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. An excellent survey on the many religions of China, with a special emphasis on Buddhism.
  • Verellen, Franciscus. Buddhism in Chinese Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. A fascinating study of the wealth created by the amassing of largess from donors in Buddhist monasteries.
  • Yampolsky, Philip. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. The sixth patriarch, Huineng, is revered as one of the most important Chan teachers. Includes critical background detail on the formation of the Chan school.
  • Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China. 2 vols. 1959. Reprint. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972. Zürcher’s work is quite possibly the single most definitive study of the history of Chinese Buddhism.

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