In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Monasticism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographical Accounts of Modern Masters
  • Monks and the State
  • Monasteries and Economy
  • Architectural Organization of Chinese Buddhist Monasteries

Chinese Studies Buddhist Monasticism
Ann Heirman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0076


In symbiosis with the laity, Buddhist monasticism has played a major role in the development of Buddhism in China. Starting shortly after the beginning of the Common Era, in the Later Han Dynasty, monasteries developed to become an essential part of Chinese society. Even today, although monastics are less numerous than they used to be throughout most of Chinese history, Buddhist monasteries still have an influential voice. The first monastic activities that scholars focused on were the translation efforts conducted by prominent masters and the pilgrimages undertaken by famous Chinese Buddhist monks. In their travel accounts, monks described the roads both to India and to Southeast Asia and the way they saw the land of the Buddha. The institutionalization of Buddhist monasteries also became an important topic. In historical research, the political and social role of monasteries attracted growing attention. These first studies were very text-oriented. Gradually, other materials were also analyzed, such as archaeological findings, architectural layout, inscriptions, murals, musical instruments, and other artifacts. Over recent years, interdisciplinary research combining data and studies of different fields has been published, and the study of Buddhist monasticism has expanded. It now analyzes the role of Buddhist monastics over a wide area of fields, discussing the impact of monasteries in many, often interacting, contexts: religious, historical, social, political, economic, ethical, and so on. A very new approach, still to be expanded, is based on anthropological fieldwork. The study of monasticism is relatively complex and broad, and source materials are scattered but often pertinent to the particular monastic feature one wishes to study. As far as possible, they have been included in the relevant sections of this article.

General Overviews

The complexity and the wide range of fields and sources have prevented a comprehensive study of Chinese Buddhist monasticism. Nevertheless, broad studies on several aspects of Buddhism involving monks and monasteries have made a rich contribution to our understanding of the role and impact of monasticism in China. This is the case with the standard works Ch’en 1964, Ch’en 1973, and Zürcher 2007 (first published in 1959) that discuss how Buddhism became an integral part of Chinese society. Mechanisms that allowed this to happen, or, on the contrary, that might have hampered this development, are discussed in Heirman and Bumbacher 2007. The general role and impact of monasteries in specific periods of Chinese history are discussed in Ebrey and Gregory 1993 and Jones 1999. Ebrey and Gregory also compare the impact of Buddhism on Daoism and other religious movements, a comparative approach also used by Goossaert 2000 in its careful analysis of monasteries and temples throughout Chinese history. An interesting viewpoint is offered by Bodiford 2005, which draws attention to institutional recognition as an essential requirement for any monastic movement. Andrews, et al. 2017 offers a discussion of important monastic issues in Medieval China.

  • Andrews, Susan, Jinhua Chen, and Cuilan Liu, eds. Rules of Engagement: Medieval Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Regulation. Hamburg Buddhist Studies 9. Bochum, Germany: Projekt Verlag, 2017.

    An interesting collection of papers on monastic issues in medieval China and beyond. Particularly stimulating are the several discussions on the implementation of monastic regulations, including debates on clothing, on transgressions, and on astrology. The volume is equally important for its contribution to the study of the history of Chinese monastic regulations.

  • Bodiford, William, ed. Going Forth, Visions of Buddhist Vinaya. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005.

    An essential study on the development of ordination practices in China and Japan. Its major focus is on interpretations of Buddhist monastic ordinations in the sociocultural contexts of medieval East Asia.

  • Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

    Although a bit outdated, this work remains a standard contribution to research on the development of Buddhism in China. It pays particular attention to the social and political role of Buddhist monasteries.

  • Ch’en, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

    Discussion of how Buddhism became an integrated part in Chinese society in the 6th to 13th century. Analyzing the ethical, political, economic, literary, educational, and social features of Buddhism, the book enhances our understanding of the role played by Buddhist monasteries in the Chinese context.

  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Peter N. Gregory, eds. Religion and Society in T’ang and Sung China. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993.

    A comprehensive analysis of the relationship between religion and society in Tang and Song China. The impact of Buddhism, Daoism, and other religious movements is extensively discussed, with a focus on the role of monastics and monasteries.

  • Goossaert, Vincent. Dans les temples de la Chine: Histoire des cultes, vie des communautés. Paris: Albin Michel, 2000.

    A carefully researched work on the development of religious institutions in China, approaching Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian monasteries and temples in a comparative way.

  • Heirman, Ann, and Stephan Peter Bumbacher, eds. The Spread of Buddhism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    Discusses the mechanisms that stimulated or hampered the spread of Buddhism and of Buddhist monasticism in Central Asia, Tibet, China, and Korea.

  • Jones, Charles Brewer. Buddhism in Taiwan, Religion and the State 1660–1990. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999.

    An excellent overview of the development of Buddhism in Taiwan, it provides an extensive discussion of the role of monks, monasteries, and institutions. Most interesting is the analysis of how the identity of Taiwanese Buddhism was shaped through the arrival (after 1949) of Mainland Chinese monks.

  • Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. 3d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004156043.i-472

    A standard work on the development of early Buddhism in China, with a particular focus on institutions and their interactions with the Chinese sociopolitical and religious contexts. Although originally published in 1959, the book remains an essential work on the formative phase of Chinese Buddhism, drawing particular attention to the essential role of monks and monasteries.

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