Buddhism Comes to China

Buddhism originated in India, but within a millennium had spread to many parts of East and Southeast Asia. Exactly when Buddhism first came to China is unclear. Scholars debate whether the earliest Buddhist missionaries to China arrived by boat or came overland along the Silk Road. According to one account, Buddhism was introduced to China around 65 CE by the Han emperor Ming, who had a dream about a golden Buddha flying through his room and sent a delegation to India to learn about Buddhism. According to the story, the delegates returned with two Indian Buddhist missionaries and a number of Buddhist sacred writings. From the emperor’s court, the new religion slowly began to spread throughout China.

At first, Buddhism grew slowly in China. Chinese rulers tended to be hostile to foreign influences, and monkish ideals of celibacy and asceticism were alien to the practical-minded and family-oriented Chinese. However, when Chinese translations of Buddhist texts started to circulate in the fourth century, the religion began to spread. A number of schools of Buddhist thought arose, and monasteries were built throughout the land. Most of the schools belonged to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Unlike the stricter Theravada tradition of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhists rely upon scriptures that appeared later in the Buddhist canon and generally pursue salvation through prayer and devotion to various supernatural beings, rather than through the arduous spiritual discipline recommended in the earliest Buddhist texts. Three of the most popular schools of Chinese Buddhism were the Pure Land school, the Chan (Meditation) school, and the Tiantai (Lotus) school. Of these, Chan (or Zen, to use the more familiar Japanese term) Buddhism has had the greatest impact on Western thought. Unlike many strands of Mahayana Buddhism, Chan stresses enlightenment through direct spiritual insight rather than salvation through devotion to supernatural beings.

Though Confucianism has always been the dominant philosophical or wisdom tradition in China, Buddhism has profoundly shaped Chinese culture. Many of the deepest works of Chinese philosophy have emerged from the Buddhist tradition.

The courtyard of the White Horse Temple in the ancient city of Luoyang, Henan Province, in east-central China. Built in 68 under Emperor Ming, it is one of the first Buddhist temples established in China.”

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