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From Indian Import to Local Enterprise: How Chinese Buddhism became uniquely ‘Chinese’

Updated: Dec 21, 2022


Buddhism continues to play an important part in the lives of many in both China and India. This essay seeks to determine both the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of Buddhist development in China.

Broadly, it first tackles the question of how Buddhism in China is distinct from that in India (the ‘how’ question). This first section will attempt to highlight the unique nature of Chinese Buddhism: how it differs from Indian Buddhism. In the second part of the essay, four factors that contributed to the evolution of Chinese Buddhism will be investigated (the ‘why’ question). Inevitably, these factors are interlinked and interdependent; however, they each underline a different aspect of the development of Buddhism within the Chinese context.

More specifically, after showing the key ways in which Chinese Buddhism differs from the Indian variant, this paper commences by exploring the religious context in which Buddhism entered China. Here, circumstantial factors are shown to have played a role in determining the nature of Buddhism in China. Next, particular linguistic aspects are addressed. In this regard, it is clear that the selection and translation of sacred texts has also fed into the complex, local transformation of Buddhism in China. Thirdly, this study assesses some cultural and worldview aspects of the question before concluding with a brief survey of religious influences on the evolving nature of the tradition.

Ultimately, this paper contends that numerous interlinked factors have fed into the unique nature of Chinese Buddhism today. Even in its earliest manifestations, Chinese Buddhism can be easily distinguished from the more original Indian forms of the faith.

Differences Between Indian and Chinese Buddhism

Historically, there were few fundamental differences between Indian and Chinese Buddhism; both were still at their essence ‘Buddhist’. Nevertheless, Chinese Buddhism did tend to diverge from Indian Buddhism on points of emphasis, style and practice.

At the doctrinal level, Chinese Buddhists tended to emphasise certain aspects of traditional thought, but not others. For example, they eagerly embraced and developed ideas around the Buddhanature and tathāgatagarbha (the embryo of the Buddha-hood present in each person).[1] In contrast, these two doctrines were considered ‘relatively minor’ in the Indian tradition.[2]

From the start, Chinese Buddhism was dominantly Mahāyānan in its orientation, placing a greater emphasis on universal salvation than on personal transformation.[3] In terms of worship, Chinese practitioners favoured many of the same cosmic Buddhas (bodhisattvas) as their Indian counterparts; however, Guanyin (the embodiment of compassion) gained a particularly venerated position in China.[4]

Significantly, through a gradual transformation, China was also responsible for the feminising of the Guanyin’s image.[5] Invariably, Chinese Buddhism developed its own unique practices – many of which were associated with particular schools. Following the development of local myths, the Chinese began to associate particular central bodhisattvas with important mountain sites.[6] These mountains then came to be seen as important sites for pilgrimage.[7]

Hence, Chinese Buddhism in general constituted a unique expression of traditional Indian Buddhism, with some different beliefs, distinctive styles and focusses of worship, and different sacred sites.

The Four Schools of Chinese Buddhism

As it continued to develop, Chinese Buddhism manifested itself in four main localised schools. Although these strands each recognised their Indian heritage, they were all uniquely Chinese.

Following the division of Chinese Buddhism into Northern and Southern branches, Zhiyi managed to synthesise and expound on many of the major teachings of Mahāyānan Buddhism, founding the Tiantai School in the sixth century A.D.[8] In contrast to traditional Buddhism, which held to the ‘two truths’ paradigm (conventional versus absolute), Zhiyi affirmed three: emptiness, conventional existence and the mean.[9] He laid an important intellectual foundation for subsequent Chinese schools of Buddhism.[10]

Following the Tiantai in their intellectual tradition, the Huayan School conducted further rigorous doctrinal study and compiled a magisterial system of religious philosophy.[11] As Poceski notes, their work was also ‘distinctly Chinese’ in that it particularly emphasised ‘harmony and balance’.[12]

The Chan School was the first and most prestigious of the practice-focussed schools.[13] Instead of tracing its roots and legitimacy to the scriptures and sacred texts, the Chan School maintained that the ‘essence’ of the enlightened Buddha was passed on from teachers to disciples.[14]