The Spread of Buddhism in Tang China

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  • 0:01 Buddhism & China
  • 0:56 Xuanzang, the Buddhist Monk
  • 2:19 The New Buddhist Culture
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the rise of the religious philosophy Buddhism in the Tang dynasty of Chinese history. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Buddhism and China

Ommmmmmmmmm. Ommmmmmmmmm. Ommmmmmmmmm.

I'm meditating, trying to reach enlightenment by clearing my mind. This is one of the practices of Buddhism, an Asian religion of peace that teaches cycles of rebirth and spiritual harmony. Buddhism was developed in India millennia ago by a man later called the Buddha, and spread to China by the 1st century BC.

Chinese Buddhism, which is Buddhism interpreted slightly differently through Chinese philosophies, has been one of the major religions in China throughout history. At some points it was more popular, and at some times it was less popular, but it hung on. During the Tang dynasty, a period from 618-907 when the Li family of Tang ruled the Chinese Empire, Chinese Buddhism reached its peak and became one of the most influential practices in Asia.

Xuanzang, the Buddhist Monk

At the very beginning of the Tang dynasty, a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang travelled from China to India between 629 and 645. While there, he studied with the great masters and learned about the origins of Buddhism. When Xuanzang returned to China, he brought back 22 horses piled high with Buddhist relics and prayer objects, as well as 657 Buddhist texts written in the Sanskrit language that had never before been translated into Chinese.

Xuanzang began the immense task of translating the Buddhist texts into Chinese. Since communication between China and India was not exactly easy in the 7th century, not many Chinese Buddhist monks, priests, or worshipers could make the trip, so there was some inconsistency and confusion about certain Buddhist practices. Having the new texts available in Chinese helped Buddhists standardize their teaching about ideas like karma and rebirth.

The impact of this was huge. The Tang emperors were very supportive of Xuanzang, and soon the new wave of Buddhism was spreading all over China. Translating Buddhist texts into Chinese became a major priority, and the Tang capital city of Chang'an turned into the fourth-greatest translation center in the Buddhist world. Chinese Buddhists studied the new texts and figured out how to combine their teachings with the Chinese religious philosophies of Daoism and Confucianism. This was acceptable because Buddhism, by its nature, allows for coexistence with other religions and philosophies.

The New Buddhist Culture

With the dramatic rise in Chinese Buddhism, Buddhist art thrived. This was especially true after 694, when Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty issued an imperial edict to build giant statues of the Buddha all across China. This edict was taken especially seriously in certain sacred areas, where Buddhist monks had gone to teach and pray for centuries.

The most prominent of these were caves near major rivers, places of harmony and peace, where worshipers had already carved images of the Buddha into the cave walls. During the Tang dynasty, these caves were filled with literally thousands of carvings that are artistically intricate and wondrous. The most prominent of these Buddhist sites are the Mogao Caves, the Longmen Grottoes, and the Yungang Grottoes. At the height of this era of building in 713, a monk named Haitong started work on the giant Buddha, carved into a cliff side near Leshan, China. When the Leshan Buddha was completed, it stood 233 feet tall, making it not only the largest Buddha statue in the world to this day but the largest sculpture in the world at that time.

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