Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

When Buddhism first entered China from India and Central Asia two thousand years ago, Chinese favourably disposed towards it tended to view it as a part or companion school of the native Chinese Huang–Lao Daoist tradition, a form of Daoism rooted in texts and practices attributed to Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) and Laozi. Others, less accepting of this ‘foreign’ incursion from the ‘barbarous’ Western Countries, viewed Buddhism as an exotic and dangerous challenge to the social and ethical Chinese civil order. For several centuries, these two attitudes formed the crucible within which the Chinese understanding of Buddhism was fashioned, even as more and more missionaries arrived (predominantly from Central Asia) bringing additional texts, concepts, rituals, meditative disciplines and other practices. Buddhists and Daoists borrowed ideas, terminology, disciplines, cosmologies, institutional structures, literary genres and soteric models from each other, sometimes so profusely that today it can be difficult if not impossible at times to determine who was first to introduce a certain idea. Simultaneously, polemical and political attacks from hostile Chinese quarters forced Buddhists to respond with apologia and ultimately reshape Buddhism into something the Chinese would find not only inoffensive, but attractive.

In the fifth century ad, Buddhism began to extricate itself from its quasi-Daoist pigeonhole by clarifying definitive differences between Buddhist and Daoist thought, shedding Daoist vocabulary and literary styles while developing new distinctively Buddhist terminology and genres. Curiously, despite the fact that Mahāyāna Buddhism had few adherents in Central Asia and was outnumbered by other Buddhist schools in India as well, in China Mahāyāna became the dominant form of Buddhism, so much so that few pejoratives were as stinging to a fellow Buddhist as labelling him ‘Hīnayāna’ (literally ‘Little Vehicle,’ a polemical term for non-Mahāyānic forms of Buddhism). By the sixth century, the Chinese had been introduced to a vast array of Buddhist theories and practices representing a wide range of Indian Buddhist schools. As the Chinese struggled to master these doctrines it became evident that, despite the fact that these schools were all supposed to express the One Dharma (Buddha’s Teaching), their teachings were not homogenous, and were frequently incommensurate.

By the end of the sixth century, the most pressing issue facing Chinese Buddhists was how to harmonize the disparities between the various teachings. Responses to this issue produced the Sinitic Mahāyāna schools, that is, Buddhist schools that originated in China rather than India. The four Sinitic schools are Tiantai, Huayan, Chan and Pure Land (Jingtu). Issues these schools share in common include Buddha-nature, mind, emptiness, tathāgatagarbha, expedient means (upāya), overcoming birth and death (saṃsāra), and enlightenment.

    Citing this article:
    Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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