Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

6. The Chinese Buddhist Schools

Although the ideas and literature of many different forms of Buddhism reached China – including Sarvāstivāda, Mahīśāsika, Saṃmitīya, Dharmaguptaka, Sautrāntika and others – only Madhyamaka and Yogācāra developed Chinese schools and lineages. Madhyamaka disappeared as an independent school after Jizang, but its influence and the preeminence of Nāgārjuna never abated. The sixth century was basically a battleground of competing Yogācāric theories.

In the seventh century the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (600–64) spent sixteen years travelling in Central Asia and India. He returned to China in 645 and translated seventy-four works. Due in part to his accomplishments as a traveller and translator, and in part to the eminent favour bestowed on him by the Chinese emperor upon his return, Xuanzang became the most prominent East Asian Buddhist of his generation. He promoted an orthodox form of Yogācāra as it was then being practised in India, and students flocked to him from Japan and Korea as well as China. Not everyone was enamoured of the Buddhist ideology he had brought back. Zhiyan (602–68), who would later be considered one of the patriarchs of the Huayan school, was openly critical of Xuanzang’s teachings, and Fazang had joined Xuanzang’s translation committee late in Xuanzang’s life, only to quit in disgust at Xuanzang’s ‘distorted’ views. While in India, Xuanzang had discovered how far Chinese Buddhism had deviated from its Indian source, and his translations and teachings were deliberate attempts to bring Chinese Buddhism back in line with Indian teachings. The ideas he opposed (primarily but not exclusively those that had been promoted by Paramārtha’s school) were already deeply entrenched in Chinese Buddhist thinking. While he was alive his pre-eminence made him unassailable, but once he died his detractors attacked his successor, Kuiji (632–82), and successfully returned Chinese and East Asian Buddhism to the trajectory established by the conflationists. (Wônch’ūk, a Korean student of Xuanzang, was a rival of Kuiji who fared better with the revivalists since he attempted to harmonize the teachings of Paramārtha and Xuanzang.) The underlying ideology of this resurgence, which reached its intellectual apex over the course of the Tang and Song Dynasties (sixth–twelfth centuries), was neatly summarized by the label ‘dharma-nature’ (faxing), that is, the metaphysical ground of Buddha-nature qua dharma-dhātu qua mind-nature qua tathāgatagarbha. Fazang argued that orthodox Yogācāra only understood dharma characteristics (faxiang), that is, phenomenal appearances, but not the deeper underlying metaphysical reality, ‘dharma-nature’. After Fazang, all the Sinitic Buddhist schools considered themselves dharma-nature schools; Yogācāra and sometimes Sanlun were considered merely dharma characteristics schools.

Four dharma-nature schools emerged. Each school eventually compiled a list of its patriarchs through whom its teachings were believed to have been transmitted. Modern scholarship in Japan and the West has shown that these lineages were usually forged long after the fact, and frequently were erroneous or distorted the actual historical events. For instance, while Huiyuan was an active promoter of the Sarvāstivādin teachings introduced during his time by Sanghadeva and Buddhabhadra, the later Pure Land schools dubbed him their initial Chinese patriarch on the basis of his alleged participation in Amitābha rituals, allegations that were probably first concocted during the Tang Dynasty. Similarly, the lineage of six Chan patriarchs from Bodhidharma to Huineng is unlikely; the Huayan lineage (Du Shun to Zhiyan to Fazang to Chengguan) was largely an invention of the ‘fourth’ patriarch, Chengguan: his predecessors were unaware that they were starting a new lineage and rather thought that they were reviving the true old-time religion of Paramārtha. It was also during the Tang dynasty that Tantra briefly passed through China, from whence it was brought to Japan and became firmly established as the Shingon school.

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. The Chinese Buddhist Schools. 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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