Buddhism in China

Essential Question

How did Buddhism spread and change in China during the Han Dynasty?

Buddhism in China

Buddhism is a system of beliefs that developed around the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, or “the Enlightened One.” The Buddha lived in India between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. For the first 200 years after the Buddha's death, Buddhism stayed just in India. Starting in the third century B.C., it began to spread outside India's borders.

According to tradition, Buddhism was introduced into China after the Han emperor Mingdi (58–75 A.D.) had a startling dream. In his dream, the Buddha appeared to Mingdi as a flying golden god. Convinced this was a sign and that the Buddha was communicating with him directly, the emperor sent a group of men to India. They returned to China with the holy texts of Buddhism.

In fact, Buddhism entered China slowly and in stages. It was introduced primarily via Central Asia, and later by way of the Silk Road and other Southeast Asian trade routes. Around the first century A.D., trade between India and China brought Indian people and ideas into China.

Over time, the Han government becameless stable. People ignored laws, and violence was common. As rebellions flared up, millions of peasants went hungry. Life became violent and uncertain. Many Chinese looked to Daoism or Confucianism to find out why they had to suffer so much, but they didn't find helpful answers.

Buddhism seemed to provide more hope than the traditional Chinese beliefs did. It offered rebirth and relief from suffering. This promise was a major reason the Chinese people embraced Buddhism. However, while popular, Buddhism did not become the major faith of China until the fourth and fifth centuries.

At first, Indian Buddhists had trouble explaining their religion to the Chinese. Then they used ideas found in Daoism to help describe Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism in China was deeply affected by ideas borrowed from Chinese Daoism. Both religions, Daoism and Buddhism, were taught according to similar ideas. It was widely believed that Laozi, the founder of Taoism, had been reborn in India as the Buddha. Many Chinese emperors venerated Laozi and the Buddha on the same altar.

After the Han period, Buddhist monks were often used by non-Chinese emperors in the north of China because they supposedly were skilled in magic. At the same time, in the south, more scholars became interested in Buddhism.

During the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., Buddhist schools from India were opened in China. New Chinese schools also began to be formed. Buddhist monasteries sprang up everywhere, and Buddhism became established among the farmers and the poor. During the Sui dynasty (581–618 A.D.), Buddhism became an official religion of the dynasty.

Buddhism's introduction to China is an example of diffusion, the spread of ideas from one culture to another. Elements of Chinese culture changed in response to the new faith. For example, scholars translated Buddhist texts into Chinese. Many Chinese became Buddhist monks and nuns. Artists carved towering statues of Buddha into mountain walls.

Excerpt from Newsela "How Buddhism came to China"

Discussion Questions

  • How did Buddhism reach China?

  • How did Buddhism spread throughout China and mix with other systems of belief?

  • Why did some Chinese rules oppose Buddhism at first?

Activity 2: How did Buddhism spread to and in China?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities