Roughly two thousand years have passed since Central Asian Buddhists first set foot on Chinese soil. At first restricted to the Central Asian communities in the “Middle Kingdom,” Buddhism developed along with the vicissitudes of Chinese political, social, and economic history and, along with the expansion of Chinese culture to East Asia and to Southeast Asia, also was introduced to these regions. After the first translations of Buddhist texts written in an Indic language into Chinese had been made in the 2nd century CE, the final collapse of the Han Confucian state in 220 CE enabled Buddhism to make its major breakthrough in Chinese society. Situated at the easternmost end of the Silk Roads, northern China, where a series of non-Chinese reigns established themselves after the fall of the Han, continued to receive a philosophical and religious influx of Indian and Central Asian Buddhism, as well as of non-Buddhist religions and philosophies. One of the results of these contacts, was that Buddhist art started to flourish in northern China. Furthermore, during this period, Chinese scholar-monks moved south to escape the political turbulences of the North. Dissatisfied with the quality of the existing translations and with Chinese knowledge of Buddhism in general, Chinese Buddhist monks ventured into Central Asia, India, and Ceylon in search of original Buddhist texts and relics. This formative period was followed by the emergence of the major schools of Chinese Buddhism from around the 6th century onward. The development of these schools of Buddhism was not unrelated to social and political developments in China. Starting from the 6th century, Buddhism thus developed to be an important factor in Chinese political life as well. As a result of China’s relations with her neighboring territories, Chinese Chan 禪 Buddhism influenced the development of Buddhism in Vietnam, where Indian Buddhism may have been present as early as the 1st century CE. It was in the 6th century, more precisely through a delegation from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in about 550 CE, that Chinese Buddhism was introduced to Japan. In Korea, Buddhism was well-established by the middle of the 4th century. Esoteric Buddhism (mizong 密宗) emerged as an important school in the 8th century, and became an important political factor. When Esoteric Buddhism entered China as a result of the country’s incorporation in the Mongol empire (1279–1368), a struggle with the Chan monks, whose school had become institutionalized and had become the dominating Sinitic school since the Song dynasty (960–1279), set in. Manchu rule (1644–1911) also brought in Tibetan Buddhism as an important political factor. Since the middle of the 19th century, religious believers, academics, and politicians have continued to redefine Buddhism and its role in Chinese society. Also today, Buddhism is a multifaceted enterprise, with monastic adherents of a variety of Buddhist denominations and with Buddhism as the lived experience of its believers.
Whereas the earliest general overviews of Buddhism used to take a historical approach, the more recent overviews apply a more thematic approach. For an assessment of Buddhism prior to its entry into China, Bronkhorst 2011 is a thought-provoking study that challenges the traditional view that Buddhism originated as a reaction to Brahmanism. An overview work that is arranged according to geographical region is Reat 1994. Harvey 2013 provides an integrated thematic approach to Buddhism, including its development in China. Strong 2015 provides a similar approach. The most important general overview of Buddhism in the Chinese language is, apart from Tang 1987, Ren 1981. The Zhongguo Fojiao xiehui (Chinese Buddhist Association) has published a general introduction to Chinese Buddhism in 1989. Bechert and Gombrich 1993 is an excellent layman’s introduction.
Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich, eds. The World of Buddhism. Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
An adequately illustrated introduction to the rich world of Buddhism in South, Southeast, Central, and East Asia, originally published in 1984. The contributions to this edited volume cover topics such as doctrine, monastic life, and Buddhist art.
Bronkhorst, Johannes. Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Section Two. South Asia. Vol. 24. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.
In this work, Johannes Bronkhorst addresses the interaction of Buddhism with Brahmanism, and, in doing so, challenges some of the traditionally accepted views on the origin and early development of Buddhism.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism. Teachings, History and Practices. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
This very readable work is an excellent introduction to Buddhism. The work is thematically arranged and covers a variety of topics such as Buddhist doctrine, devotion, ethics, monastic life, and (Chinese) Buddhism beyond Asia.
Reat, Noble Ross. Buddhism: A History. Religions of the World Series. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1994.
Apart from an introduction to the life of the historical Buddha and to the major teachings of Śrāvakayāna and Mahāyāna Buddhism, this work is mainly devoted to the development of Buddhism in the different regions of East and Southeast Asia. In its treatment of these developments, the Chinese heritage is taken into account.
Ren, Jiyu 任继愈, ed. Zhongguo Fojiao shi 中国佛教史. 3 vols. Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1981.
A standard Chinese reference for the history of Buddhism. The first volume discusses Buddhism in China up to the period of the Three Kingdoms, the second volume discusses the period of the Jin dynasty, and the third volume discusses the period of the North–South division. Throughout the work, attention is given to religious and philosophical developments, main religious figures and texts, as well as to the development of Buddhist art.
Strong, John S. Buddhisms: An Introduction. London: Oneworld, 2015.
With concern for regional variation, this work addresses a variety of topics such as Buddhist doctrinal developments, the development of Buddhist practice, and Buddhist monastic life.
Tang Yongtong 汤用彤. Han Wei liang Jin Nanbeichao Fojiao shi 汉魏两晋南北朝佛教史. 2 vols. Taipei: Luotuo Chubanshe, 1987.
Although originally published in 1938, this work remains the classic of classics of Buddhism in the Chinese language and remains a point of reference. The work discusses the history of Buddhism from the Han to the Jin dynasties, and deals with the most important figures of Chinese Buddhism during this period. Attention is also given to philosophical developments and the monastic institution.
Zhongguo Fojiao 中国佛教. Zhongguo Fojiao xiehui bian. 4 vols. Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe, 1989.
Zhongguo Fojiao has become a Chinese standard reference work. The four volumes comprise a historical overview of Buddhism from the Han up to the Qing dynasties, a discussion of the Indo-Chinese contacts, an overview of the Chinese schools of Buddhism and their most prominent figures and texts, a discussion of the institutional organization of Buddhism in China, and an explanation of some Buddhist philosophical concepts.
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