Chinese Religion/Philosophy directions

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Chinese Religion/Philosophy

DIRECTIONS: Carefully read the introductory information about Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism and Buddhism. Then read each quote. Then discuss the following critical thinking questions in your small group and write your answer. Be prepared to share/present your answers and give reasons for your answers.


Confucius – also known as Kongzi, (“Confucius” is a westernized version of the Chinese name), and the “First Sage” – was born to humble circumstances, yet through his writings and teaching was able to influence many. Confucian influence has continued for hundreds of years to this day.

THE LIFE OF CONFUCIUS: Confucius lived from 551-479 B.C.E., during the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C.E.). Before he was born, legends about Confucius state that his mother had a dream about a unicorn who gave her a jade tablet that said her child would one day be as important as a king. Although his ancestors were aristocrats, by the time Confucius was born, his family had become poor. His father died when he was three years old, so he was raised by his mother. Despite these difficult circumstances Confucius was given a sound education, and he proved to be a fast and eager learner.

Although well educated, Confucius did not have an illustrious political career. He did not advance very far politically; he served as a magistrate, assistant minister of public works, and minister of justice in his home state of Lu. Throughout his working life, Confucius continued his studies, especially those concerning rituals and music. Although Confucius advocated that those with talent & education enter political life, he himself was often frustrated in his career. At the time, advancement in politics often meant engaging in flattery and attaching oneself to a powerful figure to assist him in the unprincipled exercise of power. Confucius was, “too frank and fussy for such a life. He was a troublesome person to have around.” In his mid-50s, he left politics when he realized his superiors were not interested in his ideas or policies.

Confucius traveled among other warring states. He began teaching at age 30, & the number of people he taught whoever wanted to learn, regardless of their rank in society. This differed from existing schools which were affiliated with the government & taught only those of noble birth. Confucius finally returned to the state of Lu when he was 67 years old to write and teach. By the time of his death at age 73, he supposedly had 3,000 followers.


Reviewing the Past for Guidance: Confucius was a great admirer of early Zhou Dynasty rulers, particularly the Duke of Zhou. Having lived during the time of the decline of Zhou Dynasty, Confucius thought that studying the ways of the early Zhou Dynasty would lead to answers about how current society should be governed. In essence, he believed in reviewing the past to “know the new.” In particular, Confucius believed in li, the ancient court rituals and etiquette of the early Zhou Dynasty. Li is also translated as “propriety” (see the following sections).

The Five Basic Confucian Virtues: Confucius believed that humans are intrinsically good and that the only worthwhile goal a human could have is to become as good a person as possible.

The five Confucian virtues are:

Benevolence/Humanity* (ren) Righteousness Propriety (li) Wisdom Trustworthiness

*Confucius regarded benevolence/humanity as the most important moral quality a person could possess. As to what Confucius meant by “benevolence,” in the Analects he states, “Unbending strength, resoluteness, simplicity and reticence are close to benevolence.”

The importance of Education: Confucius believed that human nature is innately good. However, he believed that this goodness needs to be nurtured and cultivated through education. Confucius believed in educating anyone who wished to be educated. He believed that the men who are the most talented and able have a duty to enter the government and lead the rest of the people. These ideas formed the basis of China’s civil examination system. Benevolence was attainable through self-cultivation, education, and performance of the li (rituals and code of behavior).

Confucian Relationships: Confucianism requires not only self-cultivation, but the cultivation of what is around oneself, i.e., relationships with other people, beginning with family. Through cultivating relationships within family, individuals are linked with the past and also gain a sense of continuity into the future. After the cultivation of family, individuals are expected to cultivate their community through which they cultivate their country.

The five most important relationships in Confucianism are:

Parent and Child* Ruler and ruled ** Husband and wife Elder sibling to younger sibling Friend to friend

In all of these relationships, li, benevolence, duty, and responsibility are expected from the superior to the inferior. In return, respect and obedience are expected from the inferior.

*The Parent-Child Relationship: One of the most important relationships in Confucianism is the parent-child relationship. Filial piety is the deference or respect children must have for their parents. This parent-child relationship also defines parents’ responsibilities; parents are expected to provide for their children’s education and moral training.

**The Relationship Between Ruler and the Ruled: Rulers are expected to be just and moral and are subject to the Mandate of Heaven. The Confucian sense of heaven is that it is a force that decides the destinies of all beings in the universe, not like the Judeo-Christian sense of heaven as a place. The Mandate of Heaven is the idea that rulers who maintain a harmonious and peaceful social order have the right according to the heavens to rule over the people. The people who are ruled have the right to overthrow rulers who are unwilling or unable to meet these criteria.

Belief in a Hierarchy: Confucius believed in a set hierarchy. In Confucianism, every person has a place in society and each place in society has a set of norms and behavior that one should follow. People are expected to be respectful of their elders and of people of superior rank or status. For instance, a son has his place in a family, and the father has his, and the mother and daughters have their places as well. Children are expected to obey their parents and parents are expected to care for their children. Going against these norms creates disorder and chaos. The Confucian understanding of the role of women has changed over time. In the past, women were in charge of many matters inside the home and had the important task of being the first teacher to a couple’s children. Neo-Confucian philosophers, downgraded the role of women because women supposedly were more emotional & lacked the reasoning power of men.

Spirituality in Confucianism: Although he believed in spirits, Confucius did not concern himself with issues concerning what may or may not happen after death. In the Analects when one of Confucius’ pupils asks about the nature of death, Confucius replies, “You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?”


China During Confucius’ Lifetime: The political and social climate at the time of Confucius’ life was conducive to the spread of his teachings and ideas, albeit not among the political elite. Confucius lived during a time of great social and political unrest. The Zhou Dynasty was in decline and its rulers possessed no real power. As a result, China was divided into many feudal states by ambitious warlords. Warfare among these states was frequent and deadly, causing great disorder and suffering among the people. However, this competition among states also resulted in an environment which was more open to ability rather than background, making Confucius’ idea of teaching all who wanted to learn regardless of rank more feasible. Many, including Confucius, were dissatisfied with the turbulent times in which they lived. They discussed the causes and sought solutions to society’s problems.

CONCLUSION: Over the years, Confucianism adopted aspects of Chinese religions such as Daoism and Buddhism. Although Confucianism has changed, its basic tenets have endured. From the time of Confucius (when his ideas constituted only one of many schools of thought) to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) when Confucianism became the state orthodoxy, through the time of challenges from outside religions, Confucianism has continued to influence and shape civilizations and individuals throughout Asia and other parts of the world.


The origins of Daoism are uncertain. However, this religion has successfully coexisted for centuries with Confucianism and Buddhism as one of the three main religions or philosophies of China. Daoism essentially advocates the study of the Dao or “the Way,” which is believed to be the origin of all creation and force, lying beneath the functions and changes of the natural world. Daoism is also a cumulative religion, readily adapting and integrating beliefs from different religions, including Buddhism. Over the years, it has provided a complement to the hierarchical and practical nature of Confucianism. Daoism addresses people’s spiritual needs and the concept of the individual, aspects that are not the focus of Confucianism. As a result, many in China hold both Confucian and Daoist beliefs. The number of people who have Daoist beliefs in China exceed 100 million.

THE LEGEND OF LAOZI: Although the exact details concerning the origin of Daoism are not known, Laozi (born c. 604 B.C.E. and a contemporary of Confucius) is traditionally credited as the founder of Daoism. There is little evidence regarding his life, and the stories about him often take on the form of legend. For instance, one story states that Laozi’s mother was pregnant with him for decades so that when he was finally born, he was old and wise with a long white beard. He supposedly lived during the decline of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C.E.) and was the keeper of the archives of the Zhou court. According to legend, Confucius visited these archives and consulted with Laozi in his studies. Confucius, according to Daoists, was impressed with the wisdom of Laozi.

In legend, Laozi later left the tumult and chaos of China to go west into Central Asia, wanting to live his later years in peace and quiet. Sensing that Laozi would not be returning, a border guard asked Laozi to write down his teachings. Laozi did so, and the resulting work is one of the classics of Daoism, the Daodejing (Book of the Way and Its Power). In actuality, however, there is probably no single founder of Daoism and no single author of the Daodijing. There is so little evidence or detail surrounding Laozi’s life that many believe he never really existed.


The Basic Structure of the World: In the basic structure of Daoism, the Dao, origin of all creation, is believed to lie behind all the functions and changes of the natural world.

Qi, Yin and Yang, the Five Elements: Qi, or energy, is what transforms and is transformed, serving as the foundation or the breath and energy of the universe. Qi is then divided into yin and yang (pronounced “yahng”). Yin (black portion of the yin-yang symbol) represents the moon, water, north, feminine, dark, soft, passive, earth, and the limit to expansion. Yang (white portion of symbol) represents sun, fire, south, masculine, bright, hard, active, heaven, movement, and expansion. Neither is good nor bad; they are complements to each other. Daoists further divided and classified the world to include the Five Elements: wood (vegetation), fire, earth, metal, and water.

The Goal of Daoism: The basic goal of Daoism is to understand the Dao. According to Daoist belief, doing so would result in not only inner peace and power, but also “a mental clarity that would dissolve all other intellectual problems” as well as “absolute personal freedom from conventions, from attachment, and from all social entanglements.”

Ways to Achieve the Dao: Wu-Wei and Living in Accordance with Nature: The method in which the Dao is achieved is through wu-wei (nonaction). Wu-wei is spontaneous action that, being completely devoid of premeditation & intention, is wholly appropriate to a given situation. Daoists believe that individuals should not indulge in useless effort and should not do anything that contradicts nature. Daoism often focuses on the theme of nature, being that the order and social harmony of the natural world is far more stable than any social order constructed by humans. Nature is a refuge. Fighting and struggling to achieve the Dao is futile; the only way individuals can understand the Dao is to let it operate naturally. In fact, the ideal state of the Daoist is one in which “people are innocent of knowledge and free from desire.”

For Governments and Society: In the Daodejing, wu-wei is advocated for governments as well as society. The Daodejing states that “governing a large state is like boiling small fish.” This suggests that “an empire is something that can be ruined with the slightest handling.” In addition, Daoism avoids the social precepts outlined in Confucianism and believes that standards, definitions, distinctions, and classifications are devices destructive to the healthy state of nature.

Attitude Toward Death: To the early Daoists, death was regarded as natural; not something to be feared

Later Daoists: Daoism, in addition to discussing how to achieve “the Way” and govern through nature, suggests that living in accordance with nature could lead not only to a healthy human life, but also to an unusually long life, even immortality. Laozi is rumored to have lived until at least 160 years of age. To this end, many experiments were conducted with nature and served as the basis of many Chinese medical beliefs and practices which exist to this day. Daoist priests taught breath control and gymnastics as a way to attain agelessness and deathlessness. Early Daoists and later Daoists differ in regard to the issues of immortality and death. Zhuangzi felt that death is natural and should not be mourned, but later Daoist schools thought that death should be avoided and individuals should strive for longevity and immortality. Both believed, however, in a simple life in accordance with the Dao.

Daoist experiments form the basis of many Chinese healing arts today, such as Tai Chi (a type of movement art or exercise), acupuncture & acupressure (stimulation of specific points in the body with needles and pressure), feng shui (the science of placement and orientation of dwellings, rooms, doors, windows, and furnishings in relation to the environment to maximize the force of Qi and harmony with one’s environmental surroundings), & other healing practices which are used not only in China but throughout the world. Daoist experiments also led to the invention of gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass (for use in feng shui calculations).

Spirituality in Daoism: An additional characteristic of Daoism is a belief in spirits, which are everywhere affecting human fate. With the arrival of Buddhism in China by the 2nd century, Daoism adopted many Buddhist characteristics; priesthood, monasteries, temples, & a Daoist pantheon. Daoist gods include the head of the spirit world the Jade Emperor & the Queen Mother of the West. Daoist mythology includes stories of the Eight Immortals, who started out life as mere mortals but were able to achieve immortality. Many Daoist gods & immortals are depicted in Chinese art.

DAOIST TEXTS: Daodejing (Book of the Way and Its Power): Laozi is given most credit for writing this Daoist classic. Many now believe that the Daodejing was written by more than one person.


China During Laozi’s Lifetime: Laozi is believed to be an older contemporary of Confucius, living during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.E.), a time when the Zhou Dynasty was in decline. The Warring States period (403-221 B.C.E.), which immediately followed the Spring and Autumn period, was one of great social disorder and religious skepticism. It was during this time, however, that Chinese intellectual activity flourished.

Daoism at Its Height: During the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E – 220 C.E.), Confucianism became the state orthodoxy. It became discredited however when the Han Dynasty was in its decline. The fall of the Han Dynasty resulted again in great social disorder and instability, with the population declining from 50 million in 156 C.E. to 7.6 million in the years after 220 C.E. Daoism was influential during these tumultuous times in that it provided a comforting approach to life.

The most important feature of Daoism is its adaptability & ability to incorporate & integrate new ideas. Although possessing beliefs that differ in many ways from Confucianism, Daoism eventually incorporated Confucian ethics. In addition, when Buddhism entered China, Daoism adopted many of its institutions (established monastery and pantheon) & beliefs as well. Daoism reached its peak in China from 618- 907 C.E.

Daoism Today: Despite communist antireligious movements of the 20th century that deemed religion an obstacle to social progress and the subsequent improvement of Daoist temples, Daoism has continued to be present in Chinese society. Several years after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the government realized the need for religion among the people and came to accept the existence of Daoism and its role in society. There was a resurgence of Daoism in the 1980s, when a limited number of Daoist temples were refurbished and reopened. Government administrators carefully monitor these to prevent resurgence of political power.


In contrast to Daoism's intuitive anarchy, and Confucianism's benevolence, Legalism is a Classical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes the need for order above all other human concerns. The political doctrine developed during the brutal years of the Fourth Century BCE. The Legalists believed that government could only become a science if rulers were not deceived by pious, impossible ideals such as "tradition" and "humanity." In the view of the Legalists, attempts to improve the human situation by noble example, education, and ethical precepts were useless. Instead, the people needed a strong government and a carefully devised code of law, along with a policing force that would stringently and impartially enforce these rules and punish harshly even the most minor infractions. The Ch'in founder based his rule on these totalitarian principles, and had strong hopes that his government would endure forever.

The founder of the Legalistic school was Hsün Tzu or Hsün-tzu. The most important principle in his thinking was that humans are inherently evil and inclined toward criminal and selfish behavior. Thus, if humans are allowed to engage in their natural proclivities, the result will be conflict and social disorder. As a solution to this problem, the ancient sage-kings invented morality. Since morality does not exist in nature, the only way of making humans behave morally is through habituation and harsh punishment. Hsün Tzu, much like the Italian political philosopher Machiavelli, draws a clear distinction between what pertains to heaven and what pertains to man. Later Legalist thinking influenced Chinese political theorists like Tung Chung-shu, who believed in a rigid mathematical proportion in social arrangements.

Because Legalism was a remedy to social chaos and the difficulty of administering a rapidly changing society, where the predominant concern was social stability and the stability of the ruler's position before the preservation of any social classes, the harshness of their laws were directed indiscriminately against everyone, including the nobility.  This was different from the previous rule in the Zhou Dynasty that penal laws would not be applied to the nobility, whose communication and regulation would depend on their observance of the li (rituals and decorum), and laws could only be applied to the commoners. (Fung, 155)  Before the law, everyone was equal.  This legal egalitarianism had a very strong middle class overtone, and contrasted sharply with the Confucian approach to social hierarchy and reform through rituals and decorum.  The Confucian social order, after all, still relied on, if not the nobles, at least the traditions of the nobles, and the furtherance of an elite culture, replete with elaborate genteel behavior, that would seem too feeble to control a chaotic state in the 3rd century B.C., the century of the Legalists.

Even though both Confucianism and Legalism called for governmental hierarchy and adherence to tradition, the difference between the two schools is that Confucianism advocated ruling benevolently by example. It possessed an optimistic view of human potential. (Mencius is often held up as a contrasting example of a Confucian philosopher in opposition to the legalistic doctrine of Hsün-tzu). The difference also appears starkly in the imagery of each philosophy's writings. The dominant imagery in Legalism's writings is of forcefully straightening or unbending twisted tree limbs so that they grow perfectly straight, or using hot irons to burn the tree limbs so that they will grow in the desired direction.


Introduction: Buddhism is a religion based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, which means “enlightened one”. Gautama lived in India from 563-483 BCE. Buddhism was brought to China around AD 200 by Buddhist monks and traders who traveled to China from India and central Asia along the Silk Road. The Buddha’s teachings are summed up in the Four Noble Truths: 1) All life is suffering and pain; 2)suffering and pain are caused by desire for wealth, pleasure, fame, and power; to end suffering one must overcome desire; 4)to overcome desire , one must follow the Middle Way. The Middle Way stresses virtuous conduct and compassion for all living things, which leads to calmness and purity of mind. Buddhism preaches reincarnation-the rebirth of the soul after death. The first goal in life, Buddhists believe, is to attain nirvana, the condition of desiring nothing. When one attains nirvana, the cycle of life and death is broken. There is no further reincarnation. The final goal for Buddhists is to devote their lives to bringing others to enlightenment.

The Legend of Shakyamuni

According to Buddhist tradition, Shakyamuni (a name meaning “Sage of the Shakya Clan) is the founder of Buddhism. He is also referred to as Siddhartha Gautama. Shakyamuni was born around 490 BCE to a royal family who lived in a palace in the foothills of the Himalayas. From the moment he was born, he did not lead a typical life. Legend states he was born from his mother’s hip while she stood in a grove of trees. In his youth, Shakyamuni’s father provided him with everything he wanted and encouraged him to excel in his studies. However he did not permit him to leave the palace. Shakyamuni grew up in luxury, married a beautiful princess but was still not happy. He longed to see beyond the palace thinking that a clue to his search for meaning of life lay beyond it.

At the age of 29, Shakyamuni left the palace on four separate occasions to explore. He as deeply affected by what he saw. During the first trip outside the palace, he say a very old man who was bent over and had trouble walking. As Shakyamuni passed by in this carriage, the old man peered up at him, his eyes squinting from his severely wrinkled face. In his second outing, Shakyamuni observed a sick man, wailing in pain. During his third excursion, Shakyamuni came upon the still and lifeless body of a dead man. He was shocked and saddened by the sights of old age, sickness, and death. During his fourth outing, he saw a wandering monk, a seeker of religious truth. These four outings and what Shakyamuni saw, are called the “Four Sights” Meeting the monk inspired Shakyamuni to leave the palace, his wife, and his newborn son. He wanted to understand more about life, why human beings suffered, and how one could help relieve suffering in the world. Thus, he began his religious quest.

Shakyamuni began his search for enlightenment. According to Buddhist belief, enlightenment is the experience of true reality, an “awakening” through which one could comprehend the true nature of things. Shakyamuni thought he could reach enlightenment by practicing asceticism, a lifestyle of severe discipline. Sometimes he would not eat or drink for long periods of time. After six years of enduring many hardships, Shakyamuni realized that he had not come to a deeper understanding of life. He realized that neither luxury nor starvation would lead ot enlightenment and instead decided to follow a moderate path or the Middle Way. He went to a village called Bodh Gaya where he became awakened to a true understanding of life. The moment of his enlightenment took place while he was seated in meditation under a tree. In his enlightenment, he gained the power to see his former lives, the power to see death and rebirth of all types, and finally the realization that he had eliminated all desires and ignorance within himself. He had become a Buddha, a title meaning “awakened one” The Buddha gave his first sermon, known as the “First Discourse”, explaining his realization to the group of ascetics with whom he used to practice. These men became his first disciples, or followers. He continued to spread his knowledge throughout towns in India for 45 years, gaining increasing numbers of followers until his death at 80.

The Basic Tenets Of Buddhism: Dharma, Reincarnation, Karma

Buddhists believe that human beings have the potential to become free from suffering by practicing meditation and cultivating a lifestyle prescribed by the Buddha. The Buddha gave many lectures before his death. The teachings are referred to as the Dharma. The wheel is a very important symbol in Buddhism because it depicts the cycle of life and death. Buddhists believe that after beings die, they are reborn or reincarnated into a new form. The new form could be a deity, human, animal, some lower creature like a hungry ghost, (a being with a small head and huge stomach, and therefore always hungry), or an inhabitant of hell. It is believed that all positive thoughts and actions cause good karma and may direct one into being reborn in a higher form. The consequences of one’s negative deeds, bad karma, may result in rebirth in a lower form. This endless cycle of rebirth, called reincarnation or samsara, reflects the impermanent nature of human existence.

The Four Noble Truths: As part of the Dharma, Buddha taught about the Four Noble Truths.

These are:

  1. Life is suffering

  2. Suffering is caused by craving

  3. Suffering can have an end.

  4. There is a path which leads to the end of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths form the basis of Buddhist thought. It is believed that suffering, in part, is due to the impermanence of life. Even if one is happy at a given moment, this happiness is not permanent. Since it is believed that life is suffering, the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to end the cycle of suffering, the cycle of repeated death and rebirth. The achievement of this goal is called nirvana.

Nirvana: The goal of Buddhism is to become enlightened and reach nirvana. Nirvana is believed to be attainable only with the elimination of all greed, hatred, and ignorance within a person. Nirvana signifies the end of the cycle of death and rebirth. According to the Four Noble Truths, “life is suffering” so ending the cycle of rebirth is something to be desired. Some Buddhists think of nirvana as a type of heaven where there is no suffering; other Buddhists view nirvana as a state of mind free from suffering. According to Buddhist belief, a final nirvana is attained at the time of an enlightened being’s death, and is no longer part of the cycle of reincarnation and death.

How to Achieve Nirvana: Buddhists believe that the path toward nirvana, called the Middle Way or the Eightfold Path, outlines how people should live in order to reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path consists of three categories: moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom.

Moral conduct consists of:

1. right speech (refraining from falsehood, malicious talk, and abusive language)

2. right action (refraining from stealing, killing, and unchastity)

3. right livelihood (earning a living through proper means, not killing living beings, making astrological forecasts, or practicing fortune-telling)

Concentration consists of:

4. right effort (energetic will to prevent or get rid of evil and promote goodness)

5. right mindfulness (to be diligently aware, mindful, and attentive)

6. right concentration (to rid oneself of unwholesome thoughts and achieve pure equanimity and awareness)

Wisdom consists of:

7. right thought (selflessness and detachment, universal thoughts of love and nonviolence)

8. right understanding (understanding of things as they are, a full understanding of the Four Noble Truths)

Bodhisattvas: Some schools of Buddhism including those of Chinese Buddhism believe that becoming a bodhisattva is a more important goal for individuals than achieving nirvana. A bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment, but vows not to enter into final nirvana until all living things are released from suffering. Bodhisattvas choose to be reborn so that they can continue to work to relieve the suffering of others and try to make them aware of the Buddha’s teachings. In China, bodhisattvas are sometimes worshipped as much as the Buddha. For example, the female bodhisattva Guanyin became widely worshiped in Buddhist temples throughout China. In Buddhism, Guanyin is the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion.

INDIA DURING BUDDHA’S LIFETIME: Buddha’s ideas applied to people regardless of their rank in life, and stated that individuals are in charge of their own destiny. These ideas were in stark contrast to the ideas that were dominant during Buddha’s lifetime. Buddha was born during a time when Brahmanism was the main religion in India. Among other practices, Brahmanism encouraged the sacrifice of animals and the offering of gifts to Brahmanic priests for salvation. The society at the time of Buddha’s lifetime was also rigidly divided into castes. The caste system determined who people could marry, and what kinds of jobs they could have. Buddhism differed in that it did not believe in social distinctions between human beings or claims to superiority based on birth. Buddhism was accessible to anyone. Buddhism also did not support animal sacrifices. In fact, Buddha believed that compassion should be cultivated among all living beings.

BUDDHIST TEXTS: After the death of Buddha, there was no one to take his place or to lead the new religion. Different schools of Buddhism formed, each with their own unique characteristics. Over the centuries, Buddhism has spread/changed. However, there are Buddhist works such as the Pali Canon, the “First Discourse” (Buddha’s first speech after gaining enlightenment), as well as many sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, popular in China and Japan, that have provided important continuity to the religion.


History: When Laozi left China to travel westward, some Chinese legends state that he traveled to India & became known as the Buddha. Although Buddhism was a religion that began outside of China, many countries, including China, adapted it & made it its own. Merchants, traders, & Buddhist pilgrims helped spread Buddhist ideas to China by the 2nd century C.E. Buddhism offered the Chinese new ideas such as karma, reincarnation, hell, monks, & monasteries. Buddhism encountered opposition in China, especially from Confucians, but was able to grow/thrive.

The Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) which had established Confucianism as their state doctrine, had collapsed by 220 C.E. The disorder caused by the collapse of the Han Dynasty made it easier for a religion such as Buddhism to be accepted because people, including the defeated Chinese aristocracy, became freer to choose their religious practices. Buddhism and its ideas also provided comfort to many during this troubled and tumultuous time. By the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317-589 C.E.), Buddhism had become established at all levels of Chinese society.

For a long period during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), Buddhism was not only accepted in China, but it also flourished. Buddhist temples owned large amounts of land and did not have to pay taxes. Many Buddhist monasteries became very wealthy. When the Tang Dynasty fell on hard times, however, many Daoist and Confucian bureaucrats resented the wealth of the Buddhists. As a result, in 844-45 C.E., the government took Buddhist lands and profits away from them and destroyed their temples. This persecution ended with the death of the emperor who had begun it. Once again, Buddhism became accepted even though the temples did not regain their wealth. In the following years, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism adopted aspects of each other’s religious ideas and thoughts.

During the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism was once again suppressed. However, Buddhism and its influences still remain woven into Chinese cultures.

Pure Land and Chan Buddhism: Buddhism in China was undoubtedly quite different from Buddhism as it was originally practiced in India. Two major schools of Buddhism that originated in China are Pure Land Buddhism and Chan Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism is based on the idea that buddhas or advanced bodhisattvas can create blissful paradises known as “Pure Lands.” These pure lands can be reached through successful rebirths and devotion to the Buddha of the pure land. According to tradition, there once was a king named Amitabha who became a monk after learning about Buddhism. When he became a Buddha, he came into possession of the pure land called the Western Paradise. Individuals can supposedly reach the Western Paradise through devotion to the Amitabha Buddha. Calling the name of Amitabha, especially at the hour of one’s death, is supposedly enough for an individual to ensure a rebirth in Western Paradise.

Chan Buddhism developed in China in the sixth and seventh centuries. According to legend, the monk Bodhidharma was the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism. He is said to have meditated for nine years, cutting off his eyelids to stay awake. Chan Buddhism emphasized the importance of meditation in achieving enlightenment. Meditation, to the Chan Buddhists, was more important than sutra chanting, religious rituals, or worship of Buddha images.

Tibetan Buddhism: Buddhism in Tibet is quite different from traditional Chinese Buddhism. Tibet adopted Buddhism centuries after China and did not model itself on Chinese Buddhism. Rather, in the seventh century, Tibet actively studied and imported aspects of Indian, rather than Chinese, civilization. As a result, Tibetan Buddhism is closer to Indian Buddhism than Chinese Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism also adopted many rituals of Bon, Tibet’s native religion. Another unique characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism is how some lamas, including the Dalai Lama, are identified through reincarnation. Advanced lamas supposedly can know the identity of their rebirths. Many reincarnations of lamas have been found among the children of wealthy or influential patrons. These children are then trained and guided until they are ready to take on the responsibilities of a lama. The Dalai Lamas are considered to be the manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, choosing to reincarnate and delay final nirvana to help humankind.

THE SPREAD OF BUDDHISM: Buddhism spread from India to China and also to other countries in Asia, such as Korea, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Prince Shotoku of Japan, for example, wished to learn more about Buddhism to help Japan become stronger like the larger and more advanced China. During the Tang Dynasty, Japan embraced Chinese Buddhism. This was just the beginning of Japan’s adoption of many things Chinese, including China’s system of government and bureaucracy. Over the years, Buddhism has gained followers and has spread to other countries. China and other countries have adapted Buddhism to fit their own societies. Undoubtedly, this flexibility has contributed to its influence and longevity in the world.

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