Buddhism in China

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Buddhism in China. Buddhism was introduced into China about the beginning of the Christian era by Buddhist monks who travelled the overland route across Central Asia. During the first two centuries it maintained a precarious existence in its new surroundings, but with the downfall of the Han dynasty in the 3rd cent., a period of disunity and social turmoil ensued which affected the fortunes of the religion. The message of Buddhism, that existence is suffering (dukkha), that life is transitory (anicca), that there is an iron law of rewards and retribution (karma), and that all beings can achieve salvation, proved to be an attractive magnet drawing the Chinese to the religion.

To refute the charge of unfiliality, the Chinese Buddhists observed memorial services for the departed anceśtors, just as the Chinese did. Indian deities (such as the future Buddha Maitreya) took on a Chinese appearance as the fat jovial Laughing Buddha with children climbing all over him, while the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara became the female Kuan-yin, the giver of children, in which form she was worshipped by countless numbers of Chinese women anxious to have children.

The accommodation to the Chinese scene may also be seen in the two most popular Chinese schools of Buddhism which flourished during the T'ang dynasty, the Pure Land and Ch'an. Major efforts at translation led to the monumental Chinese Buddhist canon, the latest modern edition of which was printed in Japan during 1922–35, consisting of 55 volumes, each one approximately 1,000 pages in length.

Buddhist art also played a prominent role in the dissemination of the religion among the Chinese. Images of Buddhist deities were carved out of the rocks in such centres as Yün-kang and Lungmen which may still be seen today as mute testimony to the emotional fervour of the faithful devotees.

By the end of the 8th cent., however, the fortunes of Buddhism in China began to decline. The persecution of 845 in China accelerated the process. Though the religious community in later centuries continued to ordain monks and carry on religious activities, it became clear that the religion was no longer a creative spiritual and intellectual force in Chinese society. Chen-yen, a form of Mantrayāna (stressing the effectiveness of the mantra) died out in China under persecution, but was of importance in Korea and Japan. On the many other schools in China, see BUDDHIST SCHOOLS.