Buddhism was possibly the most influential organised religion in traditional China. However, Chinese Buddhism is not the same as the Buddhism which began spreading to China from India around 0-50AD. As with all foreign influences, the Chinese absorbed and Sinicised Buddhism, the Chinese didn’t become Buddhist so much as Buddhism became Chinese.
In 563BC a son was born to the king of an Indian state. The son’s name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father strived to keep all the suffering and injustice of the world out of his son’s sight, but one day the young prince slipped out of the palace unaccompanied. He so moved by the scenes of death and sickness he was confronted with that he swiftly decided to dedicate his life to the alleviation of suffering. At the age of 35, after many years of meditation, he finally became enlightened. Siddhartha Gautama is now better known as Buddha or the Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The Chinese call him 释迦牟尼 (Shìjiāmóuní).
Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering because sickness and death are inevitable to everyone. All life faces reincarnation, the exact nature of which is determined by karma, which is affected by all one’s actions. (In other words, act badly in this life and you’ll come back as a dog. Be a bad dog and you’ll come back as a tapeworm.) However, the thing to remember is that the aim is not to be really good in this life and get reincarnated as a pop star, because sickness, suffering and death come to all things. Instead, the aim is to escape entirely from the cycle of reincarnation by obtaining enlightenment.
Enlightenment leads to nirvana, sometimes erroneously referred to as the Buddhist heaven. Nirvana is not heaven, but rather a state of complete calm and serenity which unites the soul with the fundamental forces of the universe. Unfortunately, being a good person and getting good karma doesn’t put you any closer to enlightenment and nirvana, these can only be obtained through meditation.
The colour, chanting, mysticism and clear conception of the afterlife and the way to live proved popular with Chinese used to austere Confucianism and “Everything anyone says about it is wrong” Taoism. However, the individualist nature (meditate and you’ll reach nirvana) of the dominant Theravada (or small vehicle) school of Buddhism didn’t much appeal to the group-oriented, ancestor worshipping Chinese, and so it was that the relatively unimportant Mahayana School (or large vehicle) came to dominate in China.
The Mahayana School taught that since there is only one reality the fates of all individuals are linked – there cannot be perfection for one unless there is perfection for all – really a very Chinese doctrine indeed.
The Mahayana School also teaches that those who obtain enlightenment do not just float off into nirvana never to be heard of again, instead they postpone their own entry into nirvana in order to help others and are known as Bodhisattvas (Púsà – 菩萨 in Chinese). Bodhisattva worship proved very popular in China, indeed so popular that Buddhist practice came to consist primarily of maintaining a good relationship with the Boddhisattvas – a practice remarkably similar to the Confucian and pre-Confucian Chinese practice of ancestor worship.
Buddha himself avoided talking about Gods and creation because such things distracted people from meditation. The Mahayana school however, is replete with deities, many of which could be conveniently identified as figures the Chinese people had already been worshipping for centuries.
Buddhism and Taoism entered into a long rivalry, with Taoist employing various tactics to survive – among them claiming that Buddha was simply a reincarnation of Lao Zi, and appointing a pope of Taoism to exert political influence. Various governments tried to stamp out both faiths in favour of the other and all failed. In the end Taoism censored itself to meet Buddhist moral standards and the two co-existed. Zen Buddhism, or Chánzōng (禅宗) in Chinese is basically a fusion of Buddhist and Taoist ideas.
Buddhism made major contributions to Chinese culture. It was allegedly during the translation of Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit that the Chinese first became aware of the tonal nature of their own language. Much of China’s religious art is Buddhist, the astounding cave grottoes at Luoyang and Dunhuang remain some of the most interesting and most visited sites in China. Buddhism was also rather important in the development of kung-fu thanks to the establishment of Shaolin Temple.
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.