The Story of Chinese Buddhism: How an Indian Religion Became Chinese


The first-century Han emperor Ming went to bed one night and dreamt of a golden man/deity with light glittering around his face, floating around his palace. When he awoke the next morning and discussed this dream with his courtiers. His most trusted adviser informed him that he had dreamt of Sakyamuni Buddha of India. Inspired, the emperor sent people to India to seek out the disciples of Buddha so that they might return to China and impart the teachings of Buddha. The Emperor’s men returned with two Indian monks, Kasypa Matanga and Dharmaraksha. Subsequently, the emperor oversaw the construction of a grand temple known as the White Horse Temple. This tale of Buddhism’s initial entry into China was first recorded in ancient Chinese documents (Gao Seng Zhuan and Hou Han Shu) and has been propagated by both politicians and scholars. Although this legend has been a pervasive version of the events surrounding the spread of Buddhism into China, it is now known to be a total fabrication.

The earliest extant historical reference to Buddhism in China dates to around 65 CE. According to the Hou Han Shu (Book of Later Han) published sometime during the fifth century, Emperor Ming’s cousin Liu Ying reported having witnessed people fasting and offering sacrifices to the Buddha in what is now the Shandong Province.   The earliest record of Liu’s observation dates to the second century and is contained within a document called the Dongguan Han Ji. Such evidence, along with various archaeological discoveries undermines the previously held notion that Buddhism took hold of China in the turbulent Eastern Han Dynasty due to people’s disillusionment with Confucianism in the second and third centuries.

This essay will examine and discuss how and why Buddhism in the Chinese religious tradition has grown from a purely Indian import to a distinctly Chinese enterprise. In so examining and discussing, previously held beliefs about these two questions – how and why Buddhism in China became a distinctly Chinese religion – will be evinced and refuted with the application of modern scholarship on early Chinese Buddhism. This essay will address the development of Chinese Buddhism under the following four sub-headings:

  1. The Blending of Indigenous Chinese and Indic beliefs
  2. The Composition of Chinese Buddhist texts: Apocrypha
  3. The Establishment of Chinese Pilgrimage sites
  4. The Creation of Unique Chinese Buddhist Divinities

The Blending of Indigenous Chinese and Indic Beliefs

The quest for immortality was one which occupied the minds of the people of ancient China. Early Daoist texts attest not only to the Chinese belief that human beings could achieve immortality, but that it was an important belief in ancient China. In Chinese, ‘xian’ (‘immortality’ or ‘transcendence’) is represented by the following character: 仙. This character comprises two pictographs, a man and a mountain.   Kohn discusses the early sources for this character and its variant, saying: ‘The character for ‘xian’, “immortal” or “transcendent”, consists of the graphs for “man” and for “mountain.” Another variant appears in the Shijing (Book of Songs), meaning “to dance with flying sleeves.” The Shuowen defines this as “living long and vanishing in flight”…The commentary on the Shuowen further details that the “man and mountain” variant means “to reach old age and not die”…The obvious basic implication of the term ‘xian’ is therefore twofold. It connotes, first, the idea of a takeoff, a separation from normal life, be it in an ecstatic dance or by going into the mountains; and, second, the notion of longevity and the complete avoidance of death’.

One of the earliest Chinese beliefs about Sakyamuni Buddha was the belief that he was a deity who could bestow immortality upon his devotees. This misunderstanding, according to Sen, was probably due to the fact that the earliest sources describing Buddha in China were neither textual nor doctrinal, but purely visual.  Describing the second to mid-third century engravings of Buddha found on Mount Kongwang in the Jiangsu Provence, Sen notes: ‘These images date from the late second century and are engraved on the boulders of the mountain. They include figures of the Buddha in standing, seated and parinirvana postures. There are also representations from the Jataka tales, foreign donor figures, other secular figures wearing foreign dresses (identified as of Kusana style), and the traditional Chinese motif of moon and a toad. In addition to suggesting the presence of Buddhist beliefs among foreign traders in the region, these images also indicate the early amalgamation of Buddhist ideas with indigenous Chinese beliefs’. Thus, even before the introduction of Buddhist teachings in China, the Chinese had already begun the process of amalgamation that eventually turned a purely Indic belief system into a purely Chinese one.

Another theory which attempts, or at least attempted, to describe how Indic beliefs were transformed into indigenous Chinese ones, has to do with the translation of Indian Buddhist texts into the Chinese language. ‘Geyi’, numerous scholars have alleged, means ‘matching terms’, and it was a frequent starting point for expositions of how Indian Buddhism became Chinese. Proponents of this theory posit that when Indian sutras were translated into Chinese, existing Chinese Daoist concepts were used to ‘match the meaning’ of the Sanskrit terms. This, it was argued, caused Indic beliefs to take on Chinese meanings which altered their nuances to make them Chinese. More recent scholarship, however, has brought both the meaning of the term ‘geyi’ and the theory it describes into question. Mair, employing a philological rather than philosophical approach, argues: ‘Unfortunately, ‘matching meanings/concepts’ is an inaccurate rendition of geyi. There is no serious problem with the second syllable (‘meanings’ or ‘concepts’), but rendering ge as ‘matching’ falls wide of the mark’. Mair translates ‘ge’ not as ‘matching’, but as ‘lattice’, which is a term relating to mathematics, specifically, algebra, and therefore, according to Mair, was probably intended to mean   ‘categorization’.  Further, Mair argues that geyi was an exegetical system used only for describing the numbers on Buddhist texts, and on top of this, it was only used by a handful of early Buddhist scholars for a very short period of time.  Given the terms failure to appear in early Daoist texts and its infrequent occurrence in Chinese Buddhist sutras, and based on primary source evidence that Mair argues demonstrates that ‘ge’ is never rendered ‘matching’, Mair concludes: ‘There is thus no lexicographical warrant for the currently ubiquitous translation of geyi as ‘matching meanings’. We must conclude, therefore, that ‘matching’ is simply an ad hoc, unsubstantiated rendering of the graph devised by modern scholars perplexed by its occurrence in the shadowy expression geyi’. Although the concept and previously believed meaning of ‘geyi’ has been roundly refuted, it does not necessarily mean that the translation process did not assist in the sinification process, for it is only natural that purely Chinese linguistic conventions which existed prior to the introduction of Buddhism would have almost certainly been employed to interpret Buddhist texts.

Another means by which Indic and Chinese beliefs became amalgamated was through the establishment of Chinese Buddhist schools. Zhiyi, the head of the Tiantai School of Buddhism in China asserted that all Buddhist texts, regardless of doctrinal orientation, whether they belonged to Mahayana or non-Mahayana sects of Buddhism, expounded the true teachings of Buddha.  Further, the Pure Land School emphasized the notion of a paradise in which only gods and worthy humans resided. According to Ch’en, such schools ‘were the products of the Chinese response to Buddhism, and indicated how the Chinese mind took over certain basic principles and reshaped them to suit the Chinese temperament, so that the schools were no longer Indian systems introduced into China, but were really schools of Chinese Buddhism’. The Huayan school of Buddhism, Buswell observes, is a good example of sinification, with its ‘mythopoetic motifs and doctrinal tenets of Indian provenance, on one hand, with philosophical outlooks and spiritual sentiments representative of indigenous Chinese religious and intellectual traditions, on the other’.

Finally, Buddhism’s flexibility and numerous philosophical parallels to indigenous Chinese systems of philosophy and religion helped to turn Buddhism into a purely Chinese religion. Numerous ancient Chinese scholars remarked on the similarities between Buddhism and the local philosophies and religions of China. In one of the earliest extant Chinese biographies of the Buddha, the Taizi ruiying benqi jing, the author asserts that the Buddha manifests in numerous forms: ‘As to his transformations, he manifested himself in accordance with (the exigencies of) the times, sometimes as a saintly emperor, sometimes as the ancestor of the Forest of Literati (儒林之宗), or as the Daoist National Teacher (國師道士); everywhere he manifested his innumerable transformations’.

Further, the renowned Buddhist Hui-yuan, who authored a treatise ‘On the sramana not paying homage to the ruler’ sometime between the fourth and fifth centuries CE, wrote: ‘It has always been my opinion that the Buddhist doctrine and Confucianism (名教), the Tathagata and Yao-and-Confucius, in spite of their difference of starting-points latently correspond to each other, and that they eventually are identical… Sometimes he will become a super natural genie or a saintly emperor Turner of the Wheel (cakravartin), sometimes a chief minister, a National Teacher or a Daoist master’.

The parallel between Hui-yuan’s treatise and the earlier Taizi ruiying benqi jing is apparent, and Zurcher explains: ‘The fact that Huiyuan in paraphrasing the passage from the Taizi ruiying benqi jing also mentions the “Daoist master” (which naturally refers to Laozi) among the manifestations of the Buddha may indicate that he does not exclude Daoism from his theory. However, here as elsewhere he is mainly concerned with proving the underlying unity of Buddhism and Confucianism, not as two ways of thought which more or less accidentally happen to show some similarities, but as two doctrines which, having originated from the same source, are finally destined to meet and to merge again’. It seems clear that Buddhism was seen as having been compatible with indigenous Chinese philosophical and religious traditions, which offers one explanation as to why Buddhism became synthesized with pre-existing schools of Chinese thought and belief.

The Composition of Chinese Buddhist texts: Apocrypha

The birth of Chinese Buddhist apocrypha coincided with the translations of Indian Buddhist texts in the mid-second century CE. The number of apocrypha increased with each generation and cataloguers were extremely contemptuous of identified apocryphal works, labelling them as “spurious” or “suspected” scripture, so there was a determined movement from the mid-second century to the end of the manuscript period in the tenth century, to root out indigenous Chinese manuscripts. The amalgamation of Indic and Chinese Buddhism appears to have been largely the result of the composition of Chinese Buddhist texts, which included apocrypha and various Chinese commentaries on Buddhism. According to Buswell: ‘it is apocryphal texts, rather than exegeses of translated Indian scriptures, that often exhibit what is most distinctly Chinese about Chinese Buddhism’. One of the most popular apocryphal works which significantly contributed to the sinification of Buddhism into a purely Chinese religion was the Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith (Ta-sheng ch’i-hsin lun). Although debate continues over the origin of the Treatise on Awakening of Mahayana Faith, the consensus among scholars holds that this work is apocryphal. Regardless of the debate surrounding the authenticity of its authorship, however, there is little doubt that the impact this treatise had on the sinification of Buddhism in China was significant.  This apocryphal work, which was initially accredited to the late-first and early-second century Indian Buddhist Asvaghosa, is significant because it synthesized three primary strands of Indian Buddhist doctrine, ‘sunyata’ (emptiness), ‘alayavijnana’ (storehouse consciousness) and ‘tathagatagarbha.’ Discussing the amalgamating effect of this treatise, Buswell notes: ‘…the Awakening of Faith became perhaps the most prominent example of the impact apocrypha had on the development of Chinese Buddhist ideology, as it became the catalyst for the development of the sectarian doctrines of such indigenous schools as Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan. The text is also a prime example of the ways in which an indigenous author selectively appropriated and ingeniously synthesized Indian materials in order better to suit a Chinese religious context’.

The progression of sinification through the production of apocryphal literature continued and from this process the legend of the appearance of the Bodhisattva Munjusri at Mount Wutai was born, and it would quickly become a crucial component in the development of Chinese Buddhism. Sen remarks: ‘Starting from at least the fifth century, the Buddhist translators began adding references to China in the Buddhist prophesy about the future appearance of Mañjusrı. They also composed new texts that made comparisons between Mount Wutai and Mount Gandhamandana in the Himalayan range, which is mentioned in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra as the future adobe of Mañjusrı. Apocryphal texts further popularised the legend by providing miracle stories about the appearance of Mañjusrı at Mount Wutai and the pilgrimages of South Asian monks to the mountain to venerate the Indian divinity now purportedly living in China’. Chinese Buddhists now had a resident Buddhist Bodhisattva, and despite Manjusri’s Indian origin, he became, from the creation of this mythical tradition, a Chinese Buddhist deity.

The Establishment of Chinese Pilgrimage sites

Manjusri’s association with Mount Wutai also meant that Chinese Buddhists had gained another pilgrimage site in China. This resulted in further sinification by further confining Chinese Buddhist pilgrimages within the borders of China. Sacred Chinese Buddhist sites brought Buddha out of India and located him in China. The ‘four sacred mountains’ – which include Wutai-shan in Shanxi Provence, Emei-shan in Sichuan Provence, Jiuhua-shan in Anhui Provence, and Putuo-shan in Zhejiang Provence – became part of a growing Chinese Buddhist landscape. However, as Robson observes, there is no historical evidence that these four sacred mountains were considered as such prior to the Tang Dynasty, and that the term ‘sida mingshan’(‘four great Buddhist mountains’) cannot be found in the extant historical records until after the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) – and the phrase was not common until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Therefore, although these sites represent the eventual sinification through the creation of sacred Chinese Buddhist sites, they are a relatively late component of this gradual process. The significance of pilgrimages in Buddhism cannot be overstated. This integral aspect of the Buddhist expression phenomena began with the first sermon allegedly given by Sakyamuni Buddha in which he expounded on the path (‘marga’) to enlightenment, which served as an etiological metaphor for the Buddhist practice of pilgrimage. Considering the significance of Buddhist pilgrimage, that sacred sites began to manifest in China was crucial to the process of making Buddhism in China a purely Chinese enterprise. 

The Creation of Unique Chinese Buddhist Divinities

From the turbulent period in Chinese history marked by the division of the northern and southern dynasties, numerous Chinese Buddhist deities became popular. Among them was Guanyin, the goddess of Mercy. Guanyin is the Chinese name given to the Indian Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and the anniversaries of her birth, enlightenment and death are celebrated in important festivals by Chinese Buddhists. Further, the transformation of the male Avalokiteshvara to the female Guanyin was also another important aspect of the sinification of Buddhism in China, because she became relatable to an earlier Chinese feminine deity, Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea. Regarding the change of gender that Avalokiteshvara underwent in China, Gunde comments: ‘In India, Guanyin had been portrayed as a male, but in China by around the eleventh or twelfth century, somehow he got transformed into a female…The popular devotion to Guanyin as the “Goddess of Mercy”, who comforted the suffering and blessed the women and children, reflected the enduring popularity of mother figures in Chinese religion’. Gunde warns against interpreting this gender transformation as a sign that the sinification of Buddhism in China meant greater gender equality and he highlights how the elitist and patriarchal culture that existed in China prior to the advent of Buddhism caused some Indian Buddhist texts to be translated to further benefit patriarchy in China. The examples Gunde evinces relate to two verses from Buddhist sutra. The first example when translated from Sanskrit into English reads, ‘Husband supports wife’, which was changed in the Chinese version to read, ‘Husband controls wife’. The second example in the original version read, ‘The wife comforts the husband’ and in the Chinese version was rendered, ‘The wife reveres the husband’. From this it is evident that the process of transforming Buddhism into a Chinese religion was marked by the cultural resilience of the Chinese, who, despite being open enough to accept a somewhat new religious and philosophical framework through which to view the world, would not allow a new religion to completely conquer their culture.


The fabricated tale of Emperor Ming’s dream, despite being a fiction, serves to illustrate the Chinese drive to infuse and legitimize Buddhism as an exclusively Chinese religion. This process of sinification began with the misunderstandings surrounding Buddha’s nature and function. The first-century Chinese observers thought Buddha to be a Taoist-styled deity who bestowed immortality upon devotees, which was one of the primary indigenous beliefs and desires of that time and the epochs leading up to the introduction of Buddhism in China.  Once the Chinese began to receive the actual doctrines of Indian Buddhism, they started translating them into Chinese, and this process, although less noteworthy than the development of Chinese apocrypha, was a weighty force behind the progressive movement toward the establishment of a purely Chinese Buddhism. The production of Chinese apocrypha, which spanned the entire manuscript period, was probably one of the most significant processes behind the development of Chinese Buddhism. It was within this collection of apocryphal texts that legitimacy was granted to not only new Chinese Buddhist interpretations of previously Indic beliefs, but also to certain sacred pilgrimage sites within China, which assisted in the transformation of Buddhism in China. Further, the role played by the establishment of Chinese Buddhist schools cannot be overstated, for within these schools the growth of Chinese Buddhist doctrines flourished and spread across China.  Finally, it was within this rich textual and scholastic traditions that Chinese Buddhist deities were created and they added a purely Chinese characteristic to Chinese Buddhism, with former male Indian deities being transformed into amalgamated versions of pre-existing female Chinese deities. To conclude, the process by which Indian Buddhism in China became a purely Chinese enterprise was a multifaceted and gradual one. It spanned centuries and the sinification necessary to transform this Indian religion into an indigenous Chinese one was due not only to the resilient cultural traditions of China, but also to the philosophical and practical flexibility of the Buddhist religion itself.

By Michael A. Sherlock


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