The Buddhist Conquest of China
or the Chinese Transformation of Buddhism?
Hong Kong's Big Buddha on Lantau Island
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Animation of an earthquake's epicenter over the map of China
From Resistance to Growth
Laughing BuddhaIn the course of its initial entry and subsequent growth in China, Buddhism elicited a variety of responses, which ranged from enthusiastic acceptance to benign indifference to outright rejection and trenchant criticism. ... [S]ome among the Chinese officials and literati articulated a set of explicit critiques of Buddhism that drew attention to supposed areas of conflict between it and the prevalent Confucian-based ideology. ... Buddhist monks were accused of not being filial — a major transgression from a Confucian or Chinese point of view — because their celibate vocation meant they did not produce heirs and thus failed to secure the continuation of their families’ ancestral lineages. Other criticisms against the monastic order were based on economic and political foundations. Monasteries and convents, along with individual monks and nuns, were accused of being economically unproductive, thereby placing unwarranted financial burden on the imperial state and the general populace. ... In addition, some Chinese intellectuals critiqued Buddhist teachings and practices for being primarily concerned with individual salvation and transcendence of the world of everyday affairs, at the expense of an ingrained Confucian emphasis on human interactions and the fulfillment of social obligations. ... Buddhism was also dismissed by some of its detractors as being unsuitable for the Chinese on account of its foreign (or “barbarian,” in traditional Chinese parlance) origin. (ICR, 116-8)
Animated map showing political instability from the 3rd  to 6th centuries
Notwithstanding the qualms and impediments surveyed above, by the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE Buddhism managed to obtain a footing among the Chinese, and its growth accelerated during the subsequent period of disunion (311-589). ... In the eyes of many members of the Chinese elites, the collapse of the Han imperial order brought about a crisis of cultural confidence and stimulated a more reflective mood. That led many of them to question the tenability of old values and institutions, especially those linked with the prevailing Confucian ideology. ... During the period of disunion Buddhism was attractive to the non-Chinese rulers in the north, who were eager to use its universalistic teachings to fortify their authority and successfully rule over mixed populations. Buddhism thus became a potent tool in their quest for political legitimacy, although undoubtedly the official support for Buddhism, which became increasingly prominent as time went on in both the north and the south, was also influenced by the personal faith of individual emperors. (ICR, 119-20)
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Cartoon image of "Journey to the West" characters'
The Indigenization of Buddhism
Sculpture of Xuanzang in front of the Big Goose PagodaThe reunification of the Chinese empire under the Sui dynasty (589-618) initiated a new phase in the historical growth of Chinese Buddhism. ... The pattern of remarkable flourishing and ingenious development continued during the succeeding Tang dynasty (618-907), a prosperous period marked by unprecedented dynastic power and extraordinary cultural effervescence that is widely considered the golden age of Chinese civilization. ... During the Sui-Tang period Buddhism was undoubtedly the most powerful and influential religious and intellectual tradition in the Chinese empire. To a large degree Buddhism eclipsed Confucianism and Daoism, although the other two traditions also flourished during this period, which was marked by cultural openness and imaginative embrace of religious pluralism. The main schools of Chinese Buddhism surveyed in the next chapter were also formed during this era, representing the formation of uniquely Chinese systems of Buddhist philosophy and methods of spiritual praxis, which were accompanied by new forms of literature and art. These involved the formulation and wide diffusion of Buddhist beliefs, doctrines, practices, and institutions that were uniquely Chinese. In light of these developments, the Sui-Tang period is often recognized as the apogee of Buddhism in China, which coincided with the most glorious epoch of China’s long history. (ICR, 131-2)
Map showing Xuanzang's historical journey to India
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Bodhidharma (Chan Buddhism)Zhiyi (Tiantai)Chinese character for a religious tradition (zong)
Vairocana (Huayan)Amitabha (Pure Land Buddhism)
Scholars habitually approach the study of Chinese Buddhism in terms of particular “schools” or traditions (zong). The Chinese term zong is somewhat ambiguous and has multivalent connotations. In the Buddhist context it can signify a a particular doctrine, tradition or canonical exegesis, essential principle of a scripture, religious group that adheres to a set of principles or ideals, or a combination of some of these. But even when the expression is used in the sense of a distinct group or faction within Buddhism, in the Chinese context it does not designate separate sects, as the notion of “sect” is defined by sociologists or religion. In the sociological sense, the idea of a sect stands in contrast to that of “church,” and implies an exclusive stance or character, which is accompanied with opposition to existing social and religious institutions. ... The Chinese schools of Buddhism were primarily doctrinal or exegetical traditions, or in some instances loosely-organized religious groups that were subsumed within the mainstream monastic order, rather than standing in opposition or outside of it. There was thus no way for an individual to be formally ordained as a “Chan monk,” for instance, although it was possible to choose to be a follower of the Chan school, perhaps while also adhering to beliefs and practices associated with other Buddhist traditions. While there were occasional doctrinal disputes and squabbles over authority, sometimes permeated with quasi-sectarian sentiments, on the whole Buddhism in China tended to be ecumenical and accepting of diverse perspectives and approaches. ... It is also useful to keep in mind that in general, despite their great historical significance, the main schools of Buddhism involved only a limited segment of the monastic elite (with a possible exception of the Pure Land tradition), while local and popular manifestations of Buddhist piety among the general populace often had little to do with them directly. (ICR, 148)
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Mt. Tiantai
Map showing the dominance of "intellectual" Buddhism in the southChinese characters for the Tiantai traditionTiantai was the earliest of the so-called new Buddhist schools of the Sui-Tang era [589-907]. Tracing its canonical foundation back to the popular Lotus Scripture, the school’s name is derived from a mountain in southern China that was historically important and functioned as a major center of Tiantai studies. Tiantai school’s balanced and sophisticated approach to the study and practice of Buddhism combined meticulous scriptural exegesis, creative metaphysical speculation, and comprehensive systematization of meditative practice. Tiantai school’s founding figure and best known representative is Zhiyi (538-597), one of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of East Asian Buddhism. Zhiyi synthesized the prevalent strands of Buddhism at the time, bringing together the intellectually-oriented traditions of southern Buddhism with the contemplative practices characteristic of Buddhism in the North. By integrating these two main streams into a coherent whole, he produced a comprehensive system of theory and praxis that is widely acknowledged as one of the hallmarks of Chinese Buddhism. (ICR, 150)
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Zhiyi (founder of Tiantai Buddhism)
Map showing "intellectual Buddhism" dominating the southTiantai's Three TruthsA central philosophical framework formulated by Zhiyi was the doctrine of three truths, which expanded on the doctrine of two truths propounded by the Middle Way tradition of Indian Buddhism [i.e. the tradition associated with Nagarjuna]. The two truths postulated two levels or aspects of reality, conventional and absolute. Zhiyi presented an analysis of reality in terms of three integrated and interrelated aspects: (1) emptiness, (2) conventional existence, and (3) the mean (or “middle”), which incorporates the first two into a unitary reality. Ultimate reality itself is deemed to be inconceivable, its inestimable subtlety being beyond the human ability for conceptualization or verbal explanation. Within Zhiyi’s interpretative scheme, the three truths point to the unitary nature of reality, which encompasses all modes of existence, from the denizens of hell all the way up to the fully enlightened Buddhas. That led Zhiyi to formulate a peculiar understanding of reality that encompasses the existence of all things in the universe, succinctly expressed by a famous Tiantai maxim, according to which “the three thousand realms of existence are inherently present in each moment of thought.” (ICR, 150)
The "triple world" generating 3000 worlds
Zhi-yi says: “One thought contains the ten dharma realms. Each dharma realm also contains the ten dharma realms. Each dharma realm contains thirty worlds; so one hundred dharma realms contain three thousand worlds. These three thousand worlds are contained in one thought.” ...
Timeline of the universe
The mind does not exist substantially, since it relies on the world to generate its cognitive content. At the same time, the world relies on the mind’s cognition to contain all dharmas. According to Zhi-yi, neither the mind nor dharma has the power to arise spontaneously on its own. Since each one is the condition for the other’s arising, each one depends on the other for its existence. “When they are separate they do not arise at all.” Because of their ontological interdependence, the mind and the world are logically coexistent — one is not prior to the other. As Zhi-yi puts it, “We do not say that the mind exists first and dharmas come to be later; nor do we say that dharmas exist first while the mind comes to be later.” (An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 282-4)
"If a tree falls in the forest and it isn't posted on facebook, did it really happen?
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Map showing "Contemplative Buddhism" dominating the north
Zhiyi also systemized the meditation traditions of medieval Buddhism, producing a comprehensive schematization of contemplative practice that brought together the two basic approaches to Buddhist meditation, calmness and insight. In this multifaceted scheme Zhiyi took into account the needs and dispositions of a wide range of practitioners. ...
Sculpture of Zhiyi
The profuse variety of contemplative practices propounded by Zhiyi was directed towards a broad audience of individuals with diverse abilities and backgrounds, but they were all structured according to common principles. At their core was intuitive discernment of the fundamental principle of Tiantai theory and praxis: the emptiness of mind and phenomena, which leads to the realization of ultimate reality. (ICR, 151)
Meditating Gnu
Tiantai Practice
Constantly Sitting/Constantly Walking

Chih-i identifies the first of the four kinds of samadhi [the samadhi through constant sitting] with the practice known as i-hsing san-mei, rendered here as one-practice samadhi.” ... As Chih-i describes it in the Mo-ho chih-kuan, one-practice samadhi is to be performed in a quiet room or a secluded and untrammeled spot. The essential requisite is that the immediate environs be free of any disturbance, human or otherwise. Only a single rope bed for meditation is to be placed in the hall; no other seats or daises should be added. The practice itself lasts for a fixed period of ninety days and may be performed alone or in a small group. Over the entire duration of this three-month period the meditator applies himself zealously to the practice of sitting motionless in the traditional lotus” meditation posture. With the exception of brief stretches of walking meditation and attending to such necessities as eating and relieving himself, he vows never to sleep, lie down, stand, wander aimlessly about, or lean against any object for support. For this reason the practice is referred to as constantly sitting.” ...
Womb Mandala
Chih-i distinguishes two basic approaches to meditative practice in this one-practice samadhi: the radical approach of directly contemplating the reality of the Dharma-realm (or the Dharma-body of the Buddha) and the more expedient approach of concentrating the mind on the name, idealized image, and merits (the body of form) of a particular Buddha. ...
Amitabha Altar
Amitabha BuddhaConstantly walking samadhi is identified with the practice known as ... pratyutpanna samadhi, [shorthand for] the samadhi wherein one finds oneself standing face to face with all the Buddhas of the present age.” ... Like the one-practice samadhi, the pratyutpanna samadhi is to be performed in isolation. The meditator selects and adorns a hall for practice, prepares all the necessary accoutrements of offering, and lays out various delicacies, fruit, incense, and flowers. Having washed himself thoroughly, he changes into a new set of robes, which is to be worn at all times in the inner sanctuary where the practice is performed. Whenever he leaves this chamber to tend to necessities, he changes once again into an older set. The practice itself lasts for a fixed period of ninety days, over the duration of which the meditator must continuously circumambulate an altar to the Buddha Amitabha. He vows never to entertain worldly thoughts or desires, never to lie down or leave the hall, and, aside from the times when he eats his meals, never arbitrarily to sit down or stop to rest until the three months are completed. (The Experience of Buddhism, 303-4)

Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
Illustration from the Huayan Sutra
Huayan Buddhism
Chinese characters for "Huayan Buddhism"The Huayan school is primarily known for its thorough and rarefied system of religious philosophy, which is usually perceived as a high point of doctrinal development in Chinese Buddhism. As suggested by its name, the Huayan school was based on or inspired by the Huayan Scripture (see Chapter 5). The central Huayan themes and concepts were derived from this voluminous scripture, but the tradition also used other canonical texts and was predisposed towards ingenious theoretical innovation. Even as Huayan thinkers integrated the major traditions of Mahayana scholasticism and cited a broad range of canonical text, their writings show a distinctly Chinese penchant for harmony and balance. Huayan texts display a tendency to focus attention on the phenomenal realm of everyday reality, even while adopting a cosmic perspective and engaging in rarefied metaphysical speculation. (ICR, 152)
The jeweled net of Sakra is also called Indra’s Net, and is made up of jewels. The jewels are shiny and reflect each other successively, their images permeating each other over and over. In a single jewel they all appear at the same time, and this can be seen in each and every jewel. There is really no coming or going.
A matrix of water beads representing Indra's Net
Now if we turn to the southwest direction and pick up one of the jewels to examine it, we will see that this one jewel can immediately reflect the images of all the other jewels. Each of the other jewels will do the same. Each jewel will simultaneously reflect the images of all the jewels in this manner, as will all of the other jewels. The images are repeated and multiplied in each other in a manner that is unbounded. Within the boundaries of a single jewel are contained the unbounded repetition and profusion of the images of all the jewels. The reflections are exceedingly clear and are completely unhindered.

If you sit in one jewel, you will at that instant be sitting repeatedly in all of the other jewels in all directions. Why is this? It is because one jewel contains all the other jewels. Since all the jewels are contained in this one jewel, you are sitting at that moment in all the jewels. The converse that all are in one follows the same line of reasoning. Through one jewel you enter all jewels without having to leave that one jewel, and in all jewels you enter one jewel without having to rise from your seat in the one jewel. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 473)
Indra's Net  
At the core of the Huayan school’s comprehensive doctrinal system is a holistic view of the cosmos as a dynamic web of causal relationships, in which each individual thing or phenomenon is related to everything else, and all phenomena are perfectly interfused and interpentrate without any hindrance. This interpretation of reality represents an ingenious adaptation of the principal Buddhist teaching of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), according to which all things are empty of self-nature and lack independent existence, but exist provisionally through the interaction and combination of assorted causal factors. ... Huayan theory also goes a step further, explaining the causal relationship that  obtains among discrete phenomena. Since everything lacks self-nature and is dependently originated, each and every thing is determined by the totality of all phenomena, namely the whole cosmos, even as the totality is determined by each of the infinite things and events that comprise it. Therefore, all things are interdependent and interpenetrate with each other, even as each one retains its individual character and identity. According to this perspective, nothing exists by itself, but requires everything else to be what it really is, while the totality of all things is also causally dependent on each thing that is included in it. (ICR, 153)
Enso with Chinese character for Buddha (fo)
IBPS Foguangshan
Late imperial China — the period from the Song (960-1279) era until the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) — can be seen as a distinct late phase in the history of Chinese Buddhism. This period was marked by the consolidation of mainstream doctrines and practices, amidst a prevalent sense of religious and institutional conservatism. The history of Buddhism during this era, especially from the late Song period onward, is usually told as a narrative of protracted decline devoid of significant changes, punctuated by sporadic attempts at reform and efforts to revive the tradition’s ancient glories. ... The intellectual decline of Buddhism was manifest in the lack of compelling and effective responses to the formidable challenge brought about by the Neo-Confucian revival, which started with the Song era. The gradual shift of interest away from Buddhism and towards Confucianism among the Chinese elites was given a major boost when Neo-Confucianism was officially instituted as state orthodoxy during the fourteenth century (see Chapter 8). For the rest of the imperial period Buddhism continued to exist as a notable religious presence, but in diminished capacity when compared to the glories of the Tang and Song eras, often finding itself on the margins. (ICR, 134-5)
Budai holding up the sky