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


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]

Finally, the most popular and widespread form of Buddhism in China, the Pure Land School helped to develop a full-blown soteriology, with its emphasis on reaching a western ‘Pure Land’ paradise.[15] Although the ‘Pure Land’ concept was prevalent in Chinese Buddhism, Indian Buddhism placed no such emphasis on it.[16] In fact, before the emergence of the Pure Land School, no such developed doctrine existed.[17]

Therefore, as it developed, Buddhism morphed into four relatively distinct, strongly Chinese schools of thought and practice.

Why Buddhism Evolved the Way It Did

It is more difficult to ascertain why Buddhism transformed into its uniquely Chinese form than it is to merely describe how it changed; however, some factors were clearly significant. Interestingly, some factors that shaped Buddhism’s entrance into China had little to do with China per se.

For example, the variant of Buddhism that was first introduced was the Mahāyān (or ‘Great Vehicle’) tradition, a more universally oriented strand of the religion.[18] This is in contrast to the ‘original’ Hīnayāna (or ‘Small Vehicle’) tradition, which also eventually made its way into Chinese Buddhist thought.[19] Hence, due to its predominant position in Chinese history, the Mahāyān school of thought has been comparatively more popular in Chinese Buddhism.[20]

While, as Huai-Chin explains, the Hīnayāna has been viewed from the perspective of the Mahāyān system, both traditions have always been ‘included and practiced…together’.[21] More specifically, the Madhyamaka branch of the Mahāyān tradition has, in Liu’s words, ‘exerted a considerable influence’ on the development of Buddhism in China.[22] Furthermore, the missionaries who introduced Buddhism to China were not Indian. Instead, they came from various Central Asian countries, including Khotan, Kush and Sogdia.[23]

As a result, Chinese people viewed Buddhism through the cultural lenses of these nations. From the start, China did not receive an ‘original’ or ‘traditional’ Indian form of Buddhism. In its earliest stages, Chinese Buddhism was heavily influenced and shaped by the unique forms of faith that had developed outside of India.

In one sense, then, China was receiving Buddhism ‘second-hand’ from India. To some degree, these circumstantial factors determined how Buddhism manifests itself in China today.

Sacred Texts: Translational Issues

As the Buddhist sacred texts made their way into China, numerous translational issues inevitably affected the manner in which they were received and, hence, how Chinese Buddhism developed.

These original texts were translated from Sanskrit, a language that is extremely different from Chinese.[24] Lettere has studied the difficulties in translating works from Sanskrit to Chinese, concluding that there are numerous textual and linguistic barriers between the two languages.[25] In their selection of texts, early missionaries tended to ‘render into Chinese the kinds of texts that would appeal to native audiences’; however, sometimes these texts were ‘somewhat peripheral’ to the traditional Buddhist canon.[26]

Thus, China developed an emphasis on certain minor texts and practices that were not generally prominent in Indian Buddhism.[27] Often, as Shi notes, the translational difficulties were so challenging that translators merely introduced Sanskrit words directly into Chinese.[28]

Furthermore, particular Buddhist words in Sanskrit simply could not be translated according to their original meanings.[29] As a result, Nakata points out that translators often drew on locally understood cultural or religious concepts to portray what they felt was meant by the word.[30] In Lettere’s words, ‘specific Chinese elements’ were often used where a text was judged to need cultural mediation.[31]

Therefore, as will be shown below, Chinese (particularly Daoist) philosophical conceptions began to influence Chinese readings of the Buddhist sacred texts. These early translations left a great deal of flexibility for local believers to interpret the texts according to their cultural worldview.

How Local Chinese Culture Influenced Buddhism

In its earliest forms, Buddhism often clashed with Chinese culture, but, eventually, Chinese cultural values came to significantly define Chinese Buddhism. In his book, The Buddhist Conquest of China, Zürcher details how many Buddhist doctrines and practices clashed with Chinese Confucian values.[31]

Fundamentally, the Chinese worldview was, as Poceski summarises, ‘humanistic, this-worldly, and family focused’, while the Indian Buddhist tradition was prone to ‘exuberant flights of religious imagination’.[32] Nonetheless, through an ‘ingenious’ process of ‘interpretation and selective appropriation’, China came to possess its own unique form of Buddhism.[34] In addition to the textual factors above, a substantial Chinese Apocrypha was developed, and it helped to ground Buddhism within the Chinese context.[33]

The Chinese worldview emphasised values like the essential goodness of humanity, the importance of community, and the value of conceptual structure.[34] Consequently, the Chinese began to emphasise certain aspects of Buddhist teachings and interpret others according to their cultural preconceptions.

This included, for example, the way the Chinese monastic system functioned. Like in Indian Buddhism, Chinese monastic culture permitted the entrance of both men and women; however, Chinese Buddhists happily adapted the monastic institution further ‘to suit local conditions and predilections’.[35]

As Tsai argues, in contrast to Indian Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism greatly encouraged the participation of women in Chinese Buddhist practices and enhanced their opportunities.[36] Furthermore, the Chinese emphasised – in fact, created – an impressive system of doctrinal taxonomies (panjiao), reflecting, in Poceski’s words, their cultural ‘concern for order and conceptual clarity’.[37]

A good example of this blending of Chinese traditions with Indian doctrines can be evidenced in the famous T’ai-p’ing sheng-chün pi-chih (Secret Instructions of the Holy Land on the Scripture of Great Peace), which contained, as Sommer puts it, ‘[c]ontemplative techniques introduced from India combined with native Chinese practices for developing the forces within the body’.[38]

In this way, various elements of the Buddhist religion were appropriated and translated to align with the Chinese cultural worldview.

How Pre-Existing Chinese Worldviews Influenced Buddhism

Finally, and more specifically, pre-existing Chinese religions – particularly Daoism – fed into Chinese perspectives on, and interpretations of, the new faith.

In Huai-Chin’s words, the ‘interweaving of the Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist systems has…irrigated and enriched the cultural life of China’.[39] Due to their mutually intertwined history, we cannot really consider any of these religions ‘in isolation’ from the others.[40]

At the popular level, Confucian values held primary authority in China for significant portions of its history, and, as shown above, these values greatly affected the Chinese version of Buddhism.[41] At the philosophical level, however, Daoism was also involved in the transformation of Buddhism upon its entry into China.[42]

Firstly, as Nakata argues, there was an indirect role played by Daoism through the infiltration of its own philosophical concepts into the Buddhist sacred texts as they were being translated.[43] Most intriguingly, the Chinese introduced the concept of the Dao into the Buddhist philosophical vocabulary.[44]

At a more abstract level, Pecoski notes that the Chinese Buddhist interpretation of the Buddha-nature doctrine was in direct contradiction to the mainstream reading.[45] As a result of preconceived philosophical conceptions, the Chinese ascribed an element of substantial existence to the Buddha-nature that was unthinkable to traditional forms of Buddhism.[46]

In traditional Buddhism, as Gethin points out:

…the strict doctrinal formulation of Buddhist texts is this: one cannot say that the Buddha exists after death, one cannot say that he does not exist, one cannot say that he both exists and does not exist, and on cannot say that he neither exists nor does not exist.[47]

Instead, a Buddha is seen as beyond the realm of existence and non-existence, transcending ‘the round of rebirth’.[48] This was a particularly radical example of pre-existing, local Chinese religious beliefs affecting the indigenous interpretation of Buddhist teachings.


To conclude, the entrance of Buddhism into China from India was conditioned by various complex factors. This work has considered both the unique Chinese nature of Buddhism and the numerous elements that contributed to its evolution.

After exploring several key distinctives in the Chinese tradition, it highlighted the four localised schools that emerged out of this tradition. Following this discussion, the study turned to the various factors that influenced Buddhism on its arrival in China.

Firstly, it considered the nature of Buddhism at the time of its arrival in China. Next, it addressed linguistic and textual factors that fed into the unique expression of Chinese Buddhism.

In the final two paragraphs, the powerful effects of both the Chinese cultural worldview and local religious philosophies are assessed.

On this basis, it is contended that all of these factors assisted in forming the unique brand of Buddhism that is present in China today. Buddhism was never a purely Indian import. From its earliest times in China, it had unique doctrinal and practical features and emphases that Indian Buddhism lacked.


[1] Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism, (trans.) James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter, N.P., 2005, pp. 142-144; Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions, London and New York, 2009, p. 128; Paul Williams, Mahayan Buddhism, e-Book edn, London and New York, 2009,, accessed 27 August 2021, p. 103.