Buddhism in China is woven into the country’s rich history and culture. This interconnectedness makes it virtually impossible to complete your travels without gaining some perspective and understanding of how this religion has impacted the life, spiritual pursuits, philosophy, and learnings of Chinese people for thousands of years.
While the origins of Buddhism in China have long been debated, there is a general consensus that it is part of the country’s cultural fabric, having survived the impact of competing ideologies such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism throughout the many dynasties.
At its heart, Buddhism values enlightenment of the human soul and morality. Buddhist believers practise discovering the truth of life and the universe in accordance with the methods practised by Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, and a prince of Kapilavastu. The ultimate goal is to transcend life, death, and suffering.
Historians believe that Buddhism reached China in the north via the ancient Silk Road of Northwest India. It is believed to have also reached China’s shores in the south coming across the sea.
Buddhism in China differs from Indian cultural traditions, although the translation of Indian Buddhist scriptures began as soon as these arrived in China. These were embraced by Chinese Buddhist monks who learned the scriptures and became responsible for search, interpretation and teaching to the people. Chinese translation of Buddhist scriptures is said to be the most comprehensive, systematic, and complete, and it’s not hard to see why when you discover the proliferation of temples, statues, and more, which are evidence of the deep impact of Buddhism on Chinese culture.
A visit to China will reveal the connections in many ways. Pagodas, temples, caves, statues, scriptures, precious objects, art, and music have all been influenced and created in reverence to Buddhism in China. In fact, there is an overwhelming number in every destination that it can be very difficult for outsiders to understand the relevance and significance.
One distinct difference between Buddhism in China and its original teachings is that Buddha is both a god to be prayed to, as well as a spiritual teacher. The popularity of Buddhism over Confucianism and Taoism is its emphasis on karma and reincarnation. That said, there was a convergence of all three such that visitors will find some shrines allow for the worship of all three. Major sects within Buddhism in China include Chan (or Zen) school, which became known for its less orthodox methods of teaching and the way it made enlightenment more accessible to common people; Tiantai; and Pure Land Buddhism. The Mahayana school of Buddhism is by far and away from the most prominent in China today.
Visit the highlights of Buddhism in China
Having infiltrated so much of China’s history, it’s difficult to distill the highlights of Buddhism in China for a western traveler. Whether you’re planning a first time or you’ve enjoyed multiple trips to China, there is no doubt you’ll feel drawn to every corner of the country. So, to make things easier (or maybe it makes things harder!), we’ve put together our list of must-see Buddhist highlights for western travelers in China.
White Horse Temple, Luoyang
Considered “the cradle of Chinese Buddhism”, White Horse Temple was the first temple established in China in 68 AD at the time of Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty. The significance of the temple has been preserved and renovated, along with the original stone statues that give the temple its name and many of the glorious halls and gardens can be found in this fascinating complex.
Leshan Giant Buddha, Leshan
From every perspective, you will be amazed at the scale and craftsmanship of the world’s largest and tallest stone Buddha statue, carved into the sandstone cliff where the Min, Qingyi and Dadu rivers come together. From the water, it appears awesome and from the top, you’ll appreciate the intricacies of the carving as well as the beauty and significance of the amazing natural site directly facing Mt Emei near Chengdu. Built over 1200 years ago and taking 90 years to complete, this giant Buddha statue towers 71 meters above the rivers. Breathtaking!
Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an