Buddhism Enters China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Popular Buddhist legend holds that after seeing an image of the Buddha in a dream, Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty sent envoys to India in search of Buddhist texts. Their return marked the introduction of Buddhism to China.

Summary of Event

According to popular legend, sometime during the seventh decade of the first century (between 60 and 68 c.e.), Emperor Ming of the Eastern, or Later, Han Dynasty (25-220 c.e.) dreamed of a tall, golden man emitting a brilliant light and hovering in the air in front of his palace. On questioning his ministers about the meaning of the dream, the emperor learned that he had seen the Buddha. Wishing to learn more about this figure, Mingdi had envoys sent to the west. They traveled as far as Yuezhi in northern India, where they met with two Buddhist monks. Together with these monks, the envoys loaded a host of images and texts onto a white horse and returned to the Han capital at Luoyang, where they took up residence at the newly built White Horse Monastery (Baima si), the first Buddhist monastery in China. One of the texts said to have been brought back to Luoyang was the Sutra in Forty-two Sections (Si shi er zhang jing), popularly held to be the first Buddhist text translated into Chinese (although there is disagreement about whether the text was translated or composed in China). The official introduction of Buddhism to China is traditionally traced to these events. Mingdi

The legend of Mingdi’s dream is but one of many stories regarding the introduction of Buddhism to China found in historical texts; other accounts place the introduction as early as the third century b.c.e. Although this story has been taken as an accurate description of the introduction of Buddhism to China from at least as early as the fourth century c.e., modern scholarship suggests that it is little more than a legend. The first appearance of the story is found in the Hou Han ji (fourth century c.e.; record of the Later Han), written by Yuan Hong (328-397 c.e.) some three hundred years after the original event. The noted French sinologist Henri Maspero has concluded that the story of Emperor Ming’s dream has no basis in historical fact and that it is a creation of the third century. In his detailed study of the early history of Buddhism in China, Erik J. Zürcher suggests that, although the actual date and details of the introduction are unknown, it must have occurred sometime between the first half of the first century b.c.e. and the middle of the first century c.e. Finally, scholar of Chinese Buddhism Kenneth Ch’en argues persuasively that Buddhism was already present in China at the time of Emperor Ming. Although the precise details of the events may never be clear, scholars agree that the introduction of the Buddhist religion, with its accompanying literature, arts, and technologies, was under way by the mid-first century c.e.

The undoubtedly long and complicated process of Buddhism’s introduction to China was facilitated through Sino-Indian trade networks. It is likely that Buddhism traveled with the foreign merchants and refugees along the Silk Road, entering China in the northwest and eventually reaching the capital at Luoyang. In addition to Luoyang, there is evidence of early Buddhist communities at Pengcheng in the lower Yangtze region of east China and Tonkin in present-day coastal Vietnam. The latter location demonstrates that at an early date, Buddhism was entering China from sea via Indian traders as well as overland along the Silk Road.

At first, the religion seems to have been restricted to immigrant populations and the Chinese-born children of non-Chinese families, only later spreading to the Han Chinese. Although there is some evidence that indigenous Chinese may have converted to the Buddhist order as early as the Eastern Han Dynasty, traditional histories relate that there were no Chinese monks in China until the fourth century c.e.

The three hundred or so years after the introduction of Buddhism to China was a time of translation and assimilation. Many of the most important translators of Buddhist texts in China were of Central Asian origin rather than from the Indian subcontinent, pointing to the pivotal role played by Central Asia in the early development of Chinese Buddhism.

Significance

The significance of the introduction of Buddhism to China can hardly be overstated. During the first century c. e., China had a well-established Confucian tradition as well as small but growing communities practicing Daoism. As Buddhism began to take hold and enter into dialogue with native philosophical and metaphysical systems, each tradition inspired innovations in the others. Sometimes coexisting peacefully, at others vociferously opposed to one another, all three traditions were undoubtedly shaped through their interactions. At the same time, Buddhism, like Confucianism and Daoism, was a great political and cultural force in China. Although critics would never forget Buddhism’s foreign origin, they could never deny the impact the religion had on the history of China.

The introduction of Buddhism into China was also a seminal event in the history of the Asian continent as a whole. Once in China, the Buddhist religion would undergo a long and complicated development and transformation. Religious traditions inherited from India and Central Asia were assimilated into native Chinese cultural systems, resulting in what has been called the Sinification of Buddhism. Many of the uniquely Chinese schools of Buddhism that developed during the sixth and seventh centuries in China, including Tiantai and Chan (Tendai and Zen in Japanese), would later be introduced to Korea and Japan. Tibetan Buddhism was also influenced by Chinese Buddhism as well as Indian Buddhist traditions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. A good introduction to the history of Chinese Buddhism from its introduction through the modern period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsüan-hua. The Sutra in Forty-two Sections Spoken by Buddha. Burlingame, Calif.: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1994. A translation into English of one of the earliest texts available to Chinese Buddhists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ikeda, Daisaku. The Flower of Chinese Buddhism. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Weatherhill, 1986. A selective history of Chinese Buddhism from its Indic origins through the Tang Dynasty, with special attention given to the Tiantai school.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsukamoto Zenryū. A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Hui-yüan. Vol. 1. Translated by Leon Hurvitz. New York: Kodansha International, 1979. A detailed treatment of the early years of Chinese Buddhist communities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zürcher, Erik J. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972. The most authoritative and reliable work on early Chinese Buddhism available in English.
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