Confucianism and Buddhism

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Chinese religions are traditionally divided into the three teachings of Confucianism (Rujiao), Daoism (Daojiao), and Buddhism (Fojiao). Because Chinese cultural patterns (wen) were disseminated, primarily in the form of writing, throughout East Asia, these three teachings spread to Korea, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia. Confucians (ru) were scholars who took as their principal task the administration and maintenance of an ordered society, which they hoped to achieve by remaining active participants in it (zaijia). Buddhists lived as monks and nuns in monastic communities (saṄgha), renouncing the world (chujia) behind walls and gates to free themselves and others from the bondage of the cycle of life and death (saṂsĀra). Over the course of two millennia of close interaction in China, Confucians and Buddhists clashed on issues ranging from bowing to the emperor and one's parents to the foreign ancestry and routines of the Buddhist faith. Even so, indigenous Chinese Buddhist doctrines and practices stimulated developments within the late-imperial Confucian renaissance known in Western scholarship as neo-Confucianism.

Historical and cultural considerations

The history of interaction between Confucianism and Buddhism in China is the history of Chinese Buddhism in the public and social sphere. Because Confucian teachings were initially transmitted to Korea and Japan principally by Buddhist monks, successful, separate, and local Confucian traditions did not develop in Japan or Korea until the neo-Confucian era; the relationship between Buddhism and Confucianism that developed in China is representative of wider trends throughout the East Asian region.

Confucianism became a religious and philosophical tradition (ruxue) with the establishment of the five classics (wujing) as the basis for official education in 136 b.c.e. The five classics include the Shijing (Classic of Poetry), the Shujing (Classic of History), the Yijing (Classic of Changes), the Liji (Record of Rites), and the Chunqiu zuozhuan (Zuo Commentary to the Annals of the Spring and Autumn Period). In addition to these books, the sayings of Confucius (Kong Qiu, 551–479 b.c.e.), called the Lunyu (Analects), and the teachings of Mencius (Mengzi, Meng Ke, ca. 371–289 b.c.e.) and Xunzi (Xun Qing, d. 215 b.c.e.), among other classical commentaries, as well as state-promoting ritual manuals and cosmological treaties, were sponsored by early Confucians (rujia).

Scholars and the clergy: The question of Buddhist patronage

During the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.), Buddhism remained essentially an elusive, foreign creed, practiced primarily among the many Central Asian merchant communities that grew in Chinese trade centers. Buddhism did not pose an institutional threat to the burgeoning Confucian orthodox tradition of statecraft or to the emergent Huang-Lao proto-Daoist religious groups. During the interval between the fall of the Han and establishment of the Sui dynasty (581–618), however, piecemeal Buddhist doctrines and practices—especially teachings about dhyĀna (trance state) and ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness) as explained in the prajÑĀpĀramitĀ literature—were of great interest to both non-Chinese rulers in the north and southern aristocrats. Serindian monks and their Chinese counterparts in the north and south after 310 c.e. began to trade verses of poetry with aristocrats to communicate Buddhist theories in a Chinese context. The outcome of these exchanges between Confuciantrained aristocrats, Buddhist monks, and Daoist adepts is known as "dark learning" (xuanxue). "Pure talk" (qingtan) exchanges that included discussions about poetry and comparisons between MahĀyĀna Buddhist thought and the Laozi and Zhuangzi—two Chinese classical texts that later became associated with Daoism—resulted from this interaction.

Because Confucianism at this time comprised a diffuse category of aristocratic pursuits and interests (at least in part because the failings of Confucian statecraft were considered responsible for the downfall of the Han) rather than an exclusive set of doctrines and precepts, Buddhism began to surface as a formidable religious institution. During the early decades of the fifth century, full translations of Indian Buddhist monastic codes (vinaya) were completed; the vinaya regulated the lives of monks and nuns in Chinese monasteries in ways that were more consistent with Indian societal norms. This development prompted Emperor Wudi (r. 424–451) of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) to initiate the first anti-Buddhist persecutions at the request of both his Daoist and Confucian ministers Kou Qianzhi (d. 448) and Cui Hao (381–450). Both advisers wished to transform the state into a more sinified society, and saw members of the recently disciplined saṅgha as world-renouncing and discourteous to the emperor and secular worthies. Emperor Wudi of the Northern Zhou (557–581) also accepted this rationale and instigated anti-Buddhist persecutions that resulted in the widespread defrocking of monks and nuns and the confiscation of monastic property. These policies indicate that by 446 the institutional footprint of the Buddhist church was broad enough to challenge indigenous Chinese power blocks.

With the establishment of Sui hegemony over north and south China by 589, the Buddhist church became both an instrument of state promotion through its Buddhist relic (śarīra) distribution campaigns, and the object of censure by Confucians and Daoists critical of Buddhist economic and social influence throughout China. During the early decades of the Tang dynasty (618–907), Confucian and Daoist advisors submitted memorials to the throne condemning the Buddhist church for myriads of reasons, including claims of illegal ordinations, religious arrogance, commercial activities, and tax evasion, which led emperor Gaozu (r. 618–627) in 626 to proclaim Confucianism and Daoism the two pillars of the state. Prior to Empress Wu Zhao's (r. 690–705) foundation of the short-lived Zhou dynasty and the An Lushan rebellion (755–763), the Tang court and its Confucian administrators adopted a policy of tepid tolerance toward Buddhism and allowed it to expand. Emperor Taizong (r. 627–650) famously sponsored Xuanzang's (ca. 600–664) translation projects after his return from India with hundreds of Sanskrit manuscripts.

Empress Wu Zhao forever changed the world of Confucians and Buddhists in China. Her rise to power conflicted with traditional Confucian ideology favoring male rulers, which prompted her to institute sweeping reforms in the Confucian official examination system. Wu Zhao employed an open examination system for officials in order to counter the power of the ingrained aristocratic families who were hostile to her. Thus, the examination system originally set up during the Han, and institutionalized during the Sui, became a vehicle to promote scholars who did not necessarily hail from aristocratic or influential families. When the Tang ruling house was reestablished under emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–755), the cultivation of belles lettres—defined as refined knowledge of the classics and the composition of poetry (shih)—remained the basis for receiving the highest honors in the palace examinations as "presented scholars" (jinshi). Confucian learning during Xuanzong's reign was memorialized in the writings of Wang Wei (701–761), Li Bai (701–762), and Du Fu (712–770)—three of China's greatest poets—while bureaucrats implemented imperial decrees designed to restrain the institutional power of Buddhist monasteries, which had been extravagantly patronized by Wu Zhao. In 725 Xuanzong traveled to sacred Mount Tai to perform the Confucian state rites of feng and shan, and during his reign he received Indian esoteric Buddhists at court and helped to establish a small esoteric Buddhist institution in China.

The most significant anti-Buddhist persecution in China occurred during the Huichang era (841–845). Emperor Wuzong took note of memorials to the throne by Confucian stalwarts like Han Yu (768–824)—who, after witnessing a procession of a finger-joint relic of the Buddha in 819, wrote the polemical Lun fogu biao (Memorial on the Buddha's Bone)—and adopted policies to suppress the influence of Buddhism throughout Chinese society. Wuzong ordered the seizure of monastic properties, expelled monks and nuns from monasteries, and prohibited youths from taking tonsure. By 845 Wuzong's policies had led to the defrocking of 260,000 nuns and monks and the destruction of more than 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 shrines. Wuzong's antiforeign decrees also effectively eradicated Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, and Manichaeism from China in an attempt to address the threat that the Uighurs and Tibetans posed from the northwest and west.

Han Yu's memorial, however, epitomized the anti-foreign sentiment from a Confucian standpoint by suggesting that Buddhism was a barbarian cult, and that the Buddha himself was a barbarian—meaning someone who does not know the proper relationship between ruler and minister, father and son, or who does not wear ancient Chinese garb. Hence, if the Buddha were to arrive in China the emperor would merely give him an audience, a banquet, and award him a suit of clothes, after which he would be escorted under guard to the border. Han Yu thought that Buddhism threatened the Confucian administration of Chinese society by inciting people to publicly worship the Buddha bone.

Confucian and Chinese patriarchs

During the Song dynasty (960–1279) Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks were both bitter enemies and close allies. The early Song court supported new Buddhist translation projects, awarded exceptional patronage to followers of the Chan school, and facilitated debates between Confucian officials about fiscal, educational, and social policies. After the An Lushan rebellion, patronage for Buddhism and its institutions fell to a new southern gentry class, formed through the massive population shift southward as people fled the war-torn north. Between 742 and 1200, the population of north China grew by 58 percent, while it doubled or tripled in the south. Most of the new southern gentry were not connected to the elite families that provided the pool of civil-service applicants between the Han and Tang dynasties. Therefore, the Song imperial examinations provided the basis for a much more loyal and dynamic Confucian-educated bureaucracy than ever before. On the borders of Song territory, non-Chinese states threatened the Confucian world order, and the gentry literati (wenren) produced by the examination system responded in two ways: the "learning of culture" and neo-Confucianism.

Adherents of the learning of culture approach, including the poet and scholar Su Shi (1036–1101), argued that Chinese (Confucian) culture endured through literature, including the cultivation of poetry and prose. To Su Shi, Buddhist doctrines did not clash with Confucian principles, and Buddhist monks, especially from the Chan lineage, could appreciate the value of cultural patterns and transmit them too. Those who supported neo-Confucianism, however, vehemently condemned the renunciant lifestyle and popular appeal of Buddhism. Initially, Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) and the Cheng brothers—Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and Cheng Hao (1032–1085)—and later Zhu Xi (1130–1200) advocated studying the path of ancient Confucian sages, in particular Mencius, in order to rectify one's character, become a moral leader of society, and follow the principle, rather than the manifested phenomena (ji), of the ancients. Zhu Xi, in particular, encouraged followers to study the "four books" in addition to the traditional five classics: the Analects, the teachings of Mencius, Daoxue (Great Learning), and Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean). Later followers sometimes included the Xiaojing (Classic of Filial Piety) instead of Mencius. Neo-Confucians contended that they transmitted the knowledge and foundation for dynastic and social legitimacy (zhengtong), which had been ignored since the time of Mencius. Even though neo-Confucian notions of transmission and self-cultivation were directly borrowed from the Chan school, Chan Buddhists became the principal focus of neo-Confucian indignation.

Gentry and popular Buddhism

It was not until 1313 that the neo-Confucian approach to official education outlined in the Cheng-Zhu school was adopted as the state orthodoxy. During subsequent dynasties, tensions grew between Cheng-Zhu trained officials and Buddhist monks and nuns. Without learning of culture supporters, the Chinese san ˙ gha, which was now dominated by members of the Chan lineage, became more focused on obtaining patronage from local gentry than from the state. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the Confucian official Wang Yangming (1472–1529) turned to Chan Buddhist practices and teachings to create a Confucian meditation practice known as quiet sitting (jingzuo). Monasteries received largesse from local gentry and became centers of learning and culture at a time when the state could no longer support local Confucian academies. Buddhism during the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties became an integral part of the three teachings triad of institutionalized Chinese religions. This occurred despite the increasing divide between Confucian officials and Buddhists, and Buddhist rhetoric to the contrary, which was influenced by foreign imperial houses importing Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist traditions into the Chinese capital of Beijing.

See also:China; Daoism and Buddhism; Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings


Bol, Peter K. "This Culture of Ours": Intellectual Transitions in T'ang and Sung China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Brook, Timothy. Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Gernet, Jacques. Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries, tr. Franciscus Verellen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Zürcher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1959. Reprint, 1972.

George A. Keyworth

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Confucianism and Buddhism

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