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The Acceptance of Buddhism into China

Updated on December 31, 2011
Buddhist Stone Carvings at Longmen Cave, China
Buddhist Stone Carvings at Longmen Cave, China | Source

Buddhism, an Expansion

As a continuation of an article I wrote on Japanese Buddhism, I hope to expand on that by giving a brief overview of how Buddhism came to be accepted in China. It wasn’t always the religion of choice in China, in fact, it was condemned as barbaric by Daoists and Confucianists at first.

During the late Han Dynasty Buddhism began making its way into China, not as a religion, but as literature that could enlighten them on the question of immorality. Even the most devout Confucian could argue that it wasn’t the foreign religion itself that they didn’t agree with. It was what they considered barbarous customs that they could not tolerate. The Chinese response to these customs was both critical and harsh at times, but on both sides, Confucianism and Daoism were used to explain away, or refute Buddhism.

Dumbed Down Daoism?

Buddhist apologetics were a popular method to explain and criticize this foreign religion. The Daoist priest, Gu Huan, claimed that both Confucius and Lao Zi were the Buddha. His claim was an attempt to explain Buddhism in general, but also to justify its popularity with the Chinese. There was no question that this foreign religion was very similar in philosophy to Daoism, it was just the barbaric practices that didn’t sit right with the Chinese. He further went on to explain how Buddhism was actually Daoism in a treatise he wrote to separate truths from falsehoods:

Thus, what the two traditions say are like the two halves of a tally, Tao is the Buddha; the Buddha is Tao. In their ideal of sageliness they are identical; only in their outward manifestation are they at odds.

Gu Huan’s approach was to show that what was being introduced in China as Buddhism, was really Daoism. Although he didn’t excuse the barbaric customs, he explained them by saying that when among birds, a sage must chirp like a bird, and so when among barbarians, a sage must be able to communicate with them in a language that they can understand. In other words, Buddhism was a dumbed down form of Daoism. Basically, he claimed that Daoism was the more sophisticated philosophy and, unless you were an uncouth barbarian who couldn’t understand Chinese, why would anyone want to imitate a lesser “Way”?

Tit for Tat

Something as simple as disputing each religion’s respective destination was enough to reaffirm that Buddhism, in fact, was not the same or even close to Confucianism and Daoism. In Yuan Can’s response to Gu Huan, he stated:

For Confucius and Lao Zi, governing the world was their starting point. For Sakyamuni transcending the world was his ideal. Since their starting points were divergent, their destinations were also different. The notion of their “matching like two halves of a tally” naturally proceeds from [unsupported] opinion.

Yuan Can basically supported the opinion that Buddhism was the better philosophy and asserted that not only are the Dao and Buddhism different, but, like Gu Huan stated, why would anyone want to follow the lesser? He also argued that the Buddha’s descent and birth took place before Lao Zi, therefore, he could not have possibly been the Buddha. In a direct response to the critique of barbaric customs, he cited that Xiang Tong greeted an emperor by crawling on his hands and knees, and even the King of Zhao circumambulated the King of Zhou’s throne three times before stopping; showing that these customs were not so barbaric. Both Gu Huan and Yuan Can made interesting points that could be debated either way. The important thing to understand is that Buddhism was of enough importance to the Chinese that they wanted to explain it, even if it meant twisting history to make it fit into their ideology.

The Struggle For Buddhist Acceptance

During the Tang Dynasty, emperors were trying increasingly harder to keep Buddhism as an accepted religion. Emperors, like Xianzong, were convinced that everything they did to increase the acceptance of Buddhism would generate merits. Stupas were built to house rare Buddhist relics that were only taken out occasionally. One such occasion was in 819 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Xianzong. For the sixth time during the Tang Dynasty, a true relic of the Buddha was brought out for worship. A prominent writer named Han Yu took this opportunity to express his anti-Buddhist stand. Here, specifically, Confucian school of thought was called upon by Han Yu to demonstrate to the Emperor why Buddhism was wrong for the Chinese.

Han Yu went back to the Yellow Emperor, citing that he reigned for one hundred years, and that each subsequent emperor also enjoyed a lengthy reign. “This was a time of great tranquility under heaven. The people enjoyed peace, happiness, and longevity while there was no Buddha in the Middle Kingdom.” He went on to cite how after the introduction of Buddhism in the late Han Dynasty, emperor’s reigns were shortened and only chaos and destruction prevailed. This wasn’t his only complaint. Like Gu Huan, Han Yu criticized Buddhism for its barbaric practices. He worried that adopting barbaric customs and practices merely to accept this foreign religion would make China proper a laughingstock. But from a more Confucian standpoint, he stated:

The Buddha was originally a man of the barbarians who did not speak the language of the Middle Kingdom and was dressed in clothes of a different cut from ours. Neither did he cite the edifying discourses of the ancient sovereigns, nor did he don their proper attire. He was ignorant of the sense of duty between sovereign and subject, and the affection between father and son.

Family, tradition, and filial piety were first and foremost in the Confucian ideal, and Buddhism only threatened to bring chaos, according to Han Yu. This was a typical response to Buddhist traditions, not necessarily to Buddhist philosophy, but in Han Yu’s opinion, Buddha worship only brought misfortune.

An Elitist Attitude

Based solely on the Chinese response to Buddhism, the Chinese attitude towards foreign cultures tends to be elitist. When confronted with a different way or approach to things, if it cannot be explained in a way that fits in with their thinking, it is classified as barbaric, or beneath them. The Chinese have a tendency to rewrite history whenever convenient for them, and the Buddhist case is no exception. Gu Huan tried to do that by claiming that Confucius and Lao Zi were the Buddha. This wasn’t necessarily an attempt to make Buddhism more acceptable, but a way to make the Chinese look that much more important. If that approach didn’t work, then. criticizing foreign customs and calling them barbaric was the typical response, as in Han Yu’s case. He claimed that Buddhism wasn’t a part of Chinese history; therefore, it shouldn’t be accepted now. Ultimately, Buddhism did become widely accepted in China and there is no lack of explanations for it.


Victor H. Mair, Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

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    • emmaspeaks profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Kansas City

      Absolutely. It's a case of if you can't beat them, join them.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting, no matter what they tried Buddhism prevailed. I guess the way to calm the troubled beast is with patience and understanding.


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