This lesson will trace Buddhism's rise to prominence in China. In doing so, it will highlight the Han and Tang Dynasties as well as Emperor Wuzong's persecution of the Buddhist monasteries of the 9th century.
Buddhism Comes to China
Today we're going to discuss the history of Buddhism in China. As we do so, we'll take a look at the ups and downs this religion has faced in becoming one of the most predominant religions of China.
For starters, Buddhism claims India as its birthplace. However, unlike Hinduism, the faith of the Buddha no longer has a strong presence on the Indian subcontinent. Instead, it has a stronghold in the country of China.
It's believed Buddhism was brought to China around the time of the Han Dynasty, one of China's longest dynasties. At this time, the rulers of the Dynasty and the elite of China were deeply rooted in the Confucian practice of filial piety, or in simpler terms, a deep respect, almost worship, of one's parents and ancestors. Due to this, the Buddhist philosophies of detachment from any earthly ties or bonds, including one's family, met with great resistance in the lands of China.
Buddhism & Taoism
However, as time went on, Buddhism began to seep into Chinese society. In fact, it found almost an ally in one of China's other religions known as Taoism - a Chinese faith that, like Buddhism, emphasizes humility and religious devotion. Since these two religions shared similar philosophies, and even meditative practices, some Chinese began almost tailoring Buddhism to fit into their culture.
In fact, many of the writings of early Chinese Buddhists contain a good deal of Taoist terminology and phrasings. However, unlike traditional Buddhism, in which devout followers were encouraged to leave their families for a life of monasticism, most Buddhist believers in China continued to devote themselves to their families. Very, very few left their ordinary lives to become monks or pursue asceticism, and for a time, Buddhism co-existed rather peacefully with Confucianism, Taoism, and the Chinese culture.
However, this all began to change with the fall of the Han Dynasty around the year 220 CE. With the fall of this once-powerful and centralizing dynasty, China slid into political turmoil, with tribes warring for power within the lands.
Buddhism Gains Power
With this, Confucianism began to lose its hold on the elite of Chinese society. While Confucianism and the Hans were losing power, Buddhism was gaining it. Ironically, the faith of the Buddha, which has at its heart the idea of detachment from wealth and the material world, began sort of cozying up to the educated of Chinese society.
In fact, in the absence of a strong emperor, the upper classes of China began allying themselves with Buddhist monks, and soon these same Buddhist monks were becoming their advisors. In short, almost a noble class of powerful Buddhist monks was formed. With this new place of prestige, these Buddhist monks were not only given power, they were given land, money, and exemption from state taxes. In other words, they were quite a force to be reckoned with!
Fortunately for the Buddhist, this special treatment of sorts lasted well into the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China from about 600-900 CE. However, as political turmoil continued to plague China, the rulers of the Tang Dynasty began seeing the powerful Buddhist monks as one of their biggest problems.
To the Tang rulers, all the land and money that had been conceded to the monks had weakened the state and made it hard for them, the actual rulers, to really rule. With this, the rulers began calling for, shall we say, cutbacks to the Buddhist wallets and lands! However, the Buddhists had become quite powerful and weren't all that willing to give up their seats of prominence. Therefore, the efforts to curb them went almost unheeded.
This all changed when Emperor Wuzong came to power. Ruling over the Tang Dynasty around the year 845 CE, Wuzong had just about enough of the powerful Buddhist monks. With some estimates saying the Buddhist monasteries held about 40% of all of Chinese lands, Wuzong was ready to rid his lands of Buddhist influence. Being a devout follower of Taoism, the new emperor wanted all of China to join him in his Taoist faith. With this, Wuzong and his dynasty turned against the Buddhist faith.
He began by attacking Buddhist monasteries, killing thousands of the once-powerful Buddhist monks. As the monasteries fell, Wuzong and his forces not only killed their inhabitants, they destroyed their art, their literature, and their architecture, all the while gladly absorbing their wealth and their lands. Those Buddhists who were not killed were ordered to give up the life of monasticism and return to ordinary Chinese life. Adding insult to injury, Wuzong proclaimed that only one Buddhist monastery would be allowed per city.
After this carnage, Buddhism was reduced once again to a fringe religion of China, and it looked like it would stay this way throughout the rest of time. However, the death of Wuzong (who by the way accidentally poisoned himself by drinking a potion that was ironically supposed to bring him immortality) saved the day for the Buddhists of China.
Much to the delight and relief of the surviving Buddhist monks, the new emperor was a much more tolerant fellow. Named Xuanzong, Wuzong's successor lifted the ban on Buddhism and ended the Taoist threat to Buddhism. With this, the way was cleared for Buddhism to thrive and become one of the leading religions of modern-day China.
Coming to China around the year 500 CE, Buddhism has had some real ups and downs on its way to becoming one of the major religions of the Chinese people.
At first, being snubbed by those who practiced filial piety, or deep respect for their elders and ancestors, Buddhism soon began to seep into Chinese culture, and by the time of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monks held a position of great power within Chinese society.
However, when Wuzong came to lead the 9th-century Tang Dynasty, he desired to reclaim the power and land the Buddhist monks had taken. What followed was a time of persecution in which thousands of Buddhist monks were killed and Buddhist monasteries were stripped of their wealth and prestige.
Just when all seemed lost for the Buddhist faith, Wuzong died, and in his place rose a much more tolerant leader. Fortunately for Chinese Buddhism, this new leader lifted Wuzong's persecution, and the ancient faith was free to thrive, paving the way for it to become one of China's most predominant religions.
Once you've finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Explain how Buddhism initially grew in Chinese society and describe the early power held by Buddhist monks
- Recall the persecution inflicted on Chinese Buddhists by Wuzong in the 9th century
- Summarize how Buddhism was freed from persecution after Wuzong's death