Chinese Buddhism

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Institutions of Chinese Buddhism
Zhuhai Jintai Temple inner court view and monks.jpg
Buddhist monks at Jintai Temple in Zhuhai, Guangdong
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Interior of the Ling Shan Brahma Palace in Wuxi, Jiangsu
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A Buddhist house assembly
Chinese Buddhism
Traditional Chinese 漢傳佛教

Teaching and practice

Buddhist monastics and laypeople chanting sutras in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore Praying monks and nuns in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple of Singapore.jpg
Buddhist monastics and laypeople chanting sutras in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore
Buddha statues at the Mahavira Hall of Baoning Temple, Hunan, China. Mahavira Hall, Baoning Temple in Changsha 2022022507.jpg
Buddha statues at the Mahavira Hall of Baoning Temple, Hunan, China.
Volunteers of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation at a health screening event for foreign workers in Taipei. Tzu Chi Health Care For Our Foreign Friends in Taiwan and Fill The World with Love 20111009.jpg
Volunteers of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation at a health screening event for foreign workers in Taipei.

Doctrine and texts

Chinese Buddhism is a sinicized form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which draws on the Chinese Buddhist Canon (大藏經, Dàzàngjīng, "Great Storage of Scriptures") [1] as well as numerous Chinese traditions. Chinese Buddhism focuses on studying Mahayana sutras and Mahāyāna treatises and draws its main doctrines from these sources. Some of the most important scriptures in Chinese Buddhism include: the Lotus Sutra , the Flower Ornament Sutra , the Vimalakirtī Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, and the Amitābha Sutra. [2] [50]

As such, Chinese Buddhism follows the classic Mahāyāna Buddhist worldview, which includes a belief in many realms of existence, the existence of many Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as many other kinds of divine beings, ghosts, and so on. [2] Chinese Buddhism also upholds classic Mahayana Buddhist doctrines like karma (報應) and rebirth (超生), the bodhisattva path, and the doctrines of emptiness, buddha-nature, and the one vehicle . [2]

When it comes to Buddhist philosophy, Chinese Buddhism contains various doctrinal traditions, the most important being the Tiantai, Huayan, Sanlun, and Weishi schools of thought. [2] These different doctrinal traditions developed their own scriptural commentaries and treatises and also various doctrinal classifications (panjiao), which hierarchically ordered the mass of Buddhist scriptures in order to advance their school's hermeneutical worldview. [2] For example, according to master Zhiyi's "eight teachings and five periods" classification, the final and supreme teaching of the Buddha is found in the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra. [2] According to the Huayan masters like Fazang, the Huayan sutra contains the supreme teaching, while the Weishi school held that the Yogachara texts are where the "third turning" of the Dharma can be found, and thus, represent the final and ultimate teaching of the Buddha.


Chanting the Buddhist Scriptures, by Taiwanese painter Li Mei-shu Chanting The Buddhist Scriptures,by Li Mei-shu.jpg
Chanting the Buddhist Scriptures, by Taiwanese painter Li Mei-shu

Chinese Buddhism contains a wide array of religious practices and observances. Ritual and devotional practices are commonly seen as generating karmic merit, which can bring about positive results in this life or the next. [2]

According to Mario Poceski, for the vast majority of ordinary Chinese Buddhists, "prevalent expressions of Buddhist piety were (and still are) channeled via a variety of popular modes of worship and ritual observance." [2] Worship services can include Buddhist devotional practices like offerings to an altar (of items like incense, flowers, food, and candles), ceremonial bowing, and extensive liturgies (including repentance ceremonies, rites for good health, and memorials for the dead). [2] According to Chün-fang Yü, the most popular Chinese Buddhist ritual that is most widely performed today is the Great Compassion Repentance associated with Guanyin and the Great Compassion Dharani . [51]

Keeping sets of ethical rules, like the classic Buddhist five precepts, are another key part of Buddhist practice. Taking up the ethical precepts in a ceremony, along with taking refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), is a common way of entering the Buddhist path. [2] Another important set of ethical precepts is the "bodhisattva precepts" of the Brahmā's Net Sutra, which are often practiced by both laity and monastics. [2] Acts of charity or social service (結緣) are also an important of part of Chinese Buddhist ethics.

Another key part of Chinese Buddhism is engaging in Buddhist meditations such as chanting the Buddha's name (nianfo), which is the core practice of Pure Land Buddhism, and seated meditation ( zazen ), which is the focus of the Chan tradition. The practice of recitation of the Buddha's name is commonly done in a group setting, sometimes as part of an intensive nianfo recitation retreat, which can last for several days. These retreats might also include chanting sutras, taking of the eight precepts, silent meditation, and Dharma lectures. [52]

Textual practices are also commonly practiced by monks and laypersons. These include printing, copying, propagating and reciting Buddhist scriptures, studying Buddhist texts, and attending lectures. [53] [54] Buddhist temples may also have special elements associated with sacred texts, such as lecture halls or dharma halls, libraries, and scripture platforms (施法壇), a kind of sacred podium. [53] [54]

Other important Buddhist rituals are those related to death, which is seen as a key moment for Buddhists who want to attain a good rebirth in the pure land of a Buddha (the most popular being Amitabha's pure land). [52] The focus of these rituals is to keep the dying person free of distractions and offer spiritual support (so they can focus their minds on Amitabha Buddha through the repetition of the Buddha's name). [52] It is commonly believed that during these rituals one can experience auspicious signs, like visions of Amitabha and bright lights. [52]

Pilgrimages to well-known monasteries and sites, like the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains (Mount Wutai, Mount Emei, Mount Jiuhua, and Mount Putuo) are also undertaken by monastics and lay practitioners alike. [55]

Another popular practice is the use of mantras and dhāraṇīs, such as the popular Mahā Karuṇā Dhāraṇī and the Cundī Dhāraṇī. [55] Robert Gimello has also observed that in Chinese Buddhist communities, the esoteric practices of Cundī enjoyed popularity among both the common people and the elite. [56]

Deities and temples

The Spring Temple Buddha, a colossal statue of Vairocana, in Henan, China. He Nan Lu Shan Xian Shi Jie Zui Gao De Fo Jiao Zao Xiang  - panoramio.jpg
The Spring Temple Buddha, a colossal statue of Vairocana, in Henan, China.
Statue of Samantabhadra at Mount Emei Golden Summit (Jinding) (17264931860).jpg
Statue of Samantabhadra at Mount Emei
Shrine to Cintamanicakra within the Universal Wisdom Hall of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, Singapore. 2016 Singapur, Chinatown, Swiatynia i Muzeum Relikwi Zeba Buddy (26).jpg
Shrine to Cintāmaṇicakra within the Universal Wisdom Hall of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, Singapore.

Various Mahāyāna Buddhist deities are venerated in Chinese Buddhism, most of which are Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Some of the key figures include: [57] [2]

Chinese Buddhist temples usually include numerous images and statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. They are often ritually carved and installed as part of a consecration ritual that may include chanting and scripture reading. [58] Devotion towards these are a major part of Chinese Buddhism. As Chün-fang Yü writes, "people in China worship Buddhas and bodhisattvas in rituals, write poems and novels about them, praise them in songs and hymns, and tell stories and stage plays about them. And above all else, they worship the images of these holy beings." [59]

According to Mario Poceski, Chinese Buddhist temples generally follow a traditional Chinese palace layout. They "consist of a series of halls and courtyards that are arranged symmetrically around a central axis, which usually runs from north to south. The main hall is typically a large building that is centrally located along the main axis. In larger monasteries or temples, a number of ancillary halls also house the images of lesser Buddhist divinities, giving residents and visitors alike a wide choice of objects of worship and supplication." [2]

Another common structure is a pagoda, which may contain Buddhist relics and statues or images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. [60]

There is a conception of an "impersonal god" in Chinese Buddhism likely inspired by Shangdi. [61]


Buddhist Monks at Kunming Yuantong Temple Buddhist Monks Kunming Yuantong Temple.jpeg
Buddhist Monks at Kunming Yuantong Temple

Buddhist monasticism is an important part of Chinese Buddhism. Chinese Buddhist monastics (both male and female) follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, which is known as the Four Part Vinaya (Sifen lü) in China and has 250 rules for monks and 348 for nuns. [2]

Buddhist monks and nuns perform numerous religious practices and services, including offerings to altars, liturgical services, circumambulating the Buddha hall, preaching the scriptures, Dharma lectures, ritual meals, and chanting at mealtime, as well as confession and repentance rituals. [54]

There have been many different types of monasteries throughout Chinese Buddhist history. There are city monasteries, country monasteries, and monasteries deep in the mountains. Some monasteries may be large and rich, with thousands of monastics, while others are small with just a few monastics. The most prestigious monasteries have support from rich elites, and the smallest are usually in small villages. [62]


The vegetarian restaurant of South Putuo Temple is well known throughout China. Puzhaolou Vegetarian Restaurant (20170121123110).jpg
The vegetarian restaurant of South Putuo Temple is well known throughout China.

Vegetarianism is widely promoted and practiced in Chinese Buddhism, though not all Chinese Buddhists are necessarily vegetarians. [2] The monastic Vinaya does not require vegetarianism, but the practice is promoted in various Mahayana sutras, like the Lankavatara Sutra . [2]

Monastics are often required to be vegetarian and meat is often banned in Buddhist temples and monasteries. [2] Other dietary restrictions may include avoiding eggs, dairy, and certain types of leeks. [2]

Devout laity are also often vegetarian. Some laypersons may practice being vegetarian on certain sacred days, during religious retreats, or on certain festivals.

Temples and monasteries often have vegetarian dining halls and vegetarian feasts are a common feature of popular celebrations. [2]

Laypeople in Chinese Buddhism

Lay Buddhists at the recitation hall of the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou. Liurongsi Mooks.jpg
Lay Buddhists at the recitation hall of the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou.

In Chinese Buddhism, lay Buddhist practitioners have traditionally played an important role, and lay practice of Buddhism has had similar tendencies to those of monastic Buddhism in China. [55] Many historical biographies of lay Buddhists are available, which give a clear picture of their practices and role in Chinese Buddhism. In addition to these numerous biographies, there are accounts from Jesuit missionaries, such as Matteo Ricci, which provide extensive and revealing accounts to the degree Buddhism penetrated elite and popular culture in China. [55]

Traditional practices such as meditation, mantra recitation, mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha, asceticism, and vegetarianism were all integrated into the belief systems of ordinary people. [55] It is known from accounts in the Ming dynasty that lay practitioners often engaged in practices from both the Pure Land and Chan traditions, as well as the study of the Buddhist sutras. The Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra were the most popular, followed by the Lotus Sūtra and the Avatamsaka Sutra . [55]

Syncretism and multiple religious belonging

A statue of Guan Yu at Daxiangguo Temple Daxiangguo Temple - Guan Yu Statue.jpg
A statue of Guan Yu at Daxiangguo Temple

Chinese Buddhism also include influences from native Chinese Religions, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion. [2] This ecumenical attitude and embrace of religious pluralism has been a common feature of Chinese culture since ancient times. [2] For example, Chinese Buddhists may practice qigong, tai chi, and gongfu, venerate native Chinese deities (like Guan Yu, Mazu, and Monkey King), engage in ancestor veneration, practice traditional Chinese medicine, and make use of Feng shui and Chinese talismans. Chinese religions like Taoism and Confucianism were also, in turn, influenced by Chinese Buddhism. [2]

The ancient idea of the compatibility of the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) is common in China and is expressed in the phrase thethree teachings harmonious as one ( ; Sānjiào Héyī). [63] [64] Chinese Buddhism developed Chinese mythologies and philosophies which incorporated and accommodated Chinese religions. For example, Chinese Buddhist apocryphal texts tell of how Laozi was actually a disciple of the Buddha and also how Confucius was a bodhisattva. [8] Chinese Buddhist thinkers like Guifeng Zongmi argued that all three teachings should be followed and practiced since they all contain important truths (though he also considered Buddhism to reveal the highest truth). [65]

One such important element of Chinese Buddhism are religious practices focused on one's ancestors, something that is shared in common with other traditional Chinese religions. This can include paying respect to them at various sites and at festivals like the Qingming and Zhong Yuan Festival, as well as participating in services to pray for one's deceased ancestors.

The ritual burning of incense (shaoxiang, jingxiang) is another common religious practice in Buddhist spaces derived from traditional Chinese religion. During the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese believed that smoke resulting from burning of sandalwood would act as a bridge between the human world and the spirits. [66] The practice remains a common offering in Chinese Buddhism, which it shared with other Chinese religions.

Another common feature of Chinese religion is multiple religious belonging. As such, Chinese adherents may also practice Buddhism alongside other Chinese religious practices without seeing this as conflicting. According to Mario Poceski:

many or even most people who actually come to worship at Buddhist temples are not hardcore believers. A good number of them assume the kinds of fuzzy or hybrid religious identities that are typical of Chinese religiosity; among other things, that can mean that many of them also worship at Daoist temples or shrines associated with popular religion. This is one of the reasons why it is very difficult to arrive at reliable data about the number of " Buddhists " in China. [2]

During the Tang and Yuan dynasties, Chinese Buddhism was also in proximity to Chinese branches of the Church of the East [67] and Christianity in general, and competed with these traditions, [68] especially in the Tang dynasty. [69] Chinese, [68] Tibetan, and Mongolian Buddhism [70] were also significantly influenced by them [71] as Mongolian Buddhism, influenced by Nestorian beliefs [70] and Tibetan Buddhism, spread out during the Yuan dynasty. The three Buddhist traditions also heavily influenced each other at the time.


Donglin Temple at Mountain Lu, considered the birthplace of East Asian Pure Land Buddhism Lu Shan Dong Lin Si Da Xiong Bao Dian .JPG
Donglin Temple at Mountain Lu, considered the birthplace of East Asian Pure Land Buddhism
Bailin Temple (Hebei), a Chinese Chan temple Bo Lin Shan Si bai lin chan si - panoramio.jpg
Bailin Temple (Hebei), a Chinese Chan temple
A model of Guoqing Temple, a center of the Tiantai school Model of Guoqing Temple 01 2017-01.jpg
A model of Guoqing Temple, a center of the Tiantai school
The Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, a modern Chinese Esoteric tradition temple. Jing'an, Shanghai, China - panoramio (7).jpg
The Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, a modern Chinese Esoteric tradition temple.

Major Chinese Buddhist traditions

Traditional Chinese Buddhist scholars like Sheng-yen enumerate thirteen Buddhist traditions or schools (Chinese: zōng). [72] This list is also found in traditional Japanese Buddhist histories, particularly that of Gyōnen (1240–1321). [73]

Over time, some of these schools survived or were revived as living traditions, while others are now defunct historical traditions or were absorbed into other schools. These "traditions" are not rigid designations and there has always been much intermixing, and many temples and communities are influenced by many of these traditions (and also by local Chinese custom and traditional Chinese religions like Taoism). Some traditions may also have numerous sub-schools or sects. [74]

The various Chinese Buddhist traditions are not exclusivist, and are better seen as trends, emphases, schools of thought, or "dharma-gates" (法門, fǎmén), instead of as separate sects. [23] [75] Chün-fang Yü quotes a famous saying which describes the harmonious situation in Chinese Buddhism, "Tiantai and Huayan for doctrine, Chan and Pure Land for practice." [76]

As Mario Poceski notes, Chinese Buddhism "lacks clear [sectarian divisions of the kind we find in other Buddhist traditions". [2] All Chinese monastics follow the same ordination procedures and monastic precepts, and as such, there is no rigid separation between "schools" or "sects". While traditions like Chan and Tiantai are understood as distinctive teachings, they are all part of the single Chinese Buddhist tradition, which is "characterized by broad-minded acceptance of a variety of styles of discourse, modes of worship, and approaches to spiritual cultivation." [2] Due to Chinese Buddhism's acceptance of diversity, ecumenism, and difference, most Chinese Buddhists would not identify themselves as being part of a specific "school". [2] That being said, there are still disagreements and doctrinal debates within the community. [2]

The "thirteen schools" are: [72] [77] [78]

Many of these traditions were also later exported to other East Asian nations, like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

According to Sheng-yen, the Chan school is the most popular school in China today, though this is often combined with Pure Land practice as well. [80] Sheng-yen also notes that the Tiantai, Huayan, Three Treatises, Consciousness Only, Vinaya, and Esoteric traditions are also present in modern Chinese Buddhism, though to a lesser extent. [80]

There is also a modernist movement called Humanistic Buddhism, which emphasizes humanism, charity, and other humanitarian practices that help improve social conditions.

New religious movements

There are many sects and organisations proclaiming a Buddhist identity and pursuit (fo or fu: "awakening", "enlightenment") that are not recognised as legitimate Buddhism by the Chinese Buddhist Association and the government of the People's Republic of China. These groups include:

Holidays and festivals

Traditional Buddhist ceremony in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Chinese Buddhist Monks Ceremony Hangzhou.jpeg
Traditional Buddhist ceremony in Hangzhou, Zhejiang
Ghost festival floating lanterns, Hong Kong Zi Yuan He Deng Ge Jie 3.jpg
Ghost festival floating lanterns, Hong Kong
Buddha's Birthday celebration of bathing baby Buddha statues. HK Hung Hom square Xiang Gang Ti Yu Guan Coliseum B09 bathing Buddhists May-2013 Xiang Gang Fo Jiao Lian He Hui Hong Kong Buddhist Association.JPG
Buddha's Birthday celebration of bathing baby Buddha statues.

Chinese Buddhists celebrate numerous religious festivals and holidays and these are the most widely attended and popular Chinese Buddhist events. [82]

During religious festivals, Chinese people visit temples to take part in rituals, chanting, food, celebrations, parades, and to make offerings of prayers, incense, fruits, flowers, and donations. On such days, they may observe the moral precepts very strictly, as well as a full day's vegetarian diet. Some of the most important holidays celebrated by Chinese Buddhists include: Buddha's Birthday (on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month), Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival (on the first and fifteenth days of the first lunar month), and the Ghost Festival (fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month). [83]

List of Holidays

The following holiday dates given are based on the Chinese calendar, so that 8.4 means the Eighth day of the fourth month in Chinese calendar and so on. [84]

See also


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    Further reading


    First Buddhist revival

    Contemporary Chinese Buddhism