The Spread of Buddhism

Essential Question

What were the reasons for the spread of Buddhism under the Tang Dynasty?

The Spread of Buddhism

While China was experiencing changes in its government, another major change was taking place in Chinese culture. A new religion was spreading quickly throughout the vast land, Buddhism. Buddhism is one of the world's major religions, originating in India around 500 BC. Buddhist missionaries, people who travel to spread their religion, had traveled from northern India to China as early as the first century A.D. during the Han dynasty. But for some time, there were few Buddhists in China.

Buddhism's status changed during the Period of Disunion. The Period of Disunion was after the Han dynasty collapsed and China split into several rival kingdoms, each ruled by military leaders. During this troubled time, many people turned to Buddhism: They took comfort in the Buddhist teaching that people can escape suffering and achieve a state of peace. By the end of the Period of Disunion, Buddhism was well established in China. As a result, wealthy people donated land and money to Buddhist temples, which arose across the land. Some temples were architectural wonders and housed huge statues of the Buddha.

Buddhism continued to influence life in China after the country was reunified in the Tang Dynasty. Although the Tang emperors were usually Taoists themselves, they favored Buddhism, which had become extremely popular and continued to grow. The Tang government extended its control over the Buddhist monasteries. Buddhism influenced many aspects of Chinese culture, including art, literature, and architecture. In fact, Buddhism was so important in China that the period from about 400 to about 845 can be called the Age of Buddhism.

During this Age of Buddhism, several Chinese schools developed their own distinctive approaches to Buddhism. There was also a great expansion in the number of Buddhist monasteries and the amount of land they owned. It was also during this period that many scholars made pilgrimages to India and returned with texts and spiritual and intellectual inspiration that greatly enriched Buddhism in China. Chinese missionaries extended the influence of Buddhism by introducing Buddhism to Japan, Korea, and other Asian lands.

Although Buddhism was incredibly popular, it was never able to replace Taoism and Confucianism. The capital cities of the Tang, Ch'ang-an, and Loyang, became melting pots to many cultures and religions. People began to blend elements of Buddhism with elements of other philosophies, especially Confucianism and Daoism, to create a new way of thinking.

This golden age of Buddhism came to an end when Tang Emperor Wuzong launched a campaign against Buddhism. He burned many Buddhist texts, destroyed many temples, and took their lands. According to records, 4,600 Buddhist temples and 40,000 shrines were destroyed, and 260,500 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life.

The emperor's actions weakened the influence of Buddhism in China, but they did not destroy it completely. Buddhism continued to play a key role in Chinese society for centuries. As it had during the early Tang period, it continued to shape Chinese art, literature, politics, and philosophy.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Buddhism change under the Tang Dynasty?

  • How did Buddhism changes during the Tang dynasty allow it to spread over China and Korea?

Activity 1: What were the causes of the spread of Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty?

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