Buddhism in China: Origins, Growth and Temple Etiquette

 Buddhism in China: Origins, Growth and Temple Etiquette
Jun 02, 2016 By Elaine Pang , eChinacities.com

Buddhism has been in China so long that it is almost forgivable for the average Chinese to think that it originated on their turf. Yet no other religion in China is subject to as much contradictory treatment by the governing authority of the day. On one hand, Tibetan Buddhism predictably faces considerable oppression, albeit owing to the political issues rather than religious. Other forms of Buddhism are treated more hospitably, possibly to counteract the rise of other major religions with “foreign” origins in China. This is ironic, considering that Buddhism really originated in India.

Buddhism in China
Photo: Gill_Penny

How Buddhism came to China

The only religions indigenous to China are Taoism and Confucianism, although the latter may be considered more a philosophy. Buddhism either entered China overland via the Silk Road, much like Islam, or through maritime routes through South China. The latter explains the prevalence of Buddhism in the coastal areas. Since Buddhism has been in China since the late Han Dynasty, it is understandable how many Chinese have begun to think it was their own idea.

Although Buddhism had been in China since around 202 BC, the faith only flourished following the decline of the Han dynasty. Later Chinese rulers of the Sui and Tang Dynasties took Buddhism as their personal faith. The folk legend, Journey to the West, depicts how a monk journeys with disciples in the form of three mythical creatures to carry sutras from India back to Tang China. Foreign rulers, such as those of the Yuan and Manchu Dynasties similarly used the religion to identify with the Chinese and further cement their rule.

Following the reign of the Communists in 1949, Buddhism, together with other “opiates”, was persecuted and driven underground. Hundreds of temples were destroyed and thousands of monks put to death. Yet Buddhism continued to flourish especially with the economic reforms of the 1980s, with old temples restored and new ones built. Since 2006, China has been organizing the World Buddhist Forum, held once every two years. Today, Han Buddhism is freely practiced, possibly to counteract the exponential growth of Christianity in China. Yet Tibetan Buddhism receives the opposite treatment, ostensibly a noble attempt by the central government to free Tibetans from oppression by the Lamas.

Some statistics

Although China does not have a Buddhist majority, it does have the largest Buddhist population in the world, with estimates between 100 to 200 million adherents. Chinese devotees account for more than half the world Buddhist population. Around 33,000 Buddhist temples are scattered across China.

China’s versions of Buddhism

Buddhism in China is practiced more like a folk religion with strong elements of Taoism and Confucianism. Like other homegrown religions, Buddhism is practiced in a family-oriented setting and with no requirement for exclusive adherence.

Buddhists in China largely follow a Chinese version of Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Zen and Pureland Buddhism. Unlike Theravada Buddhism, largely practiced in Southeast Asia, Mahayana Buddhism has no fixed canon of scriptures and unified code of orthodox teaching. The Mahayana is made up of a diverse body of sects with a diverse body of literature and a lack of orthodoxy in teaching, which is why Buddhism is so highly contextualized in China and often combined with other faiths or philosophies like Taoism or Confucianism.

In Tibet, Vajrayana Buddhism is the school largely subscribed to. Sometimes characterized as a form of Mahayana Buddhism, it is similarly subject to the same ambiguity, with strong emphasis on esoteric Tantric influences. Despite official disapproval, there has been a growing trend of Han Chinese sojourning to Tibet to convert to Tibetan Buddhism, a significant number of whom are students.

Temples in China

Buddhist temples in China bear strong elements of Chinese architecture instead of being direct implants of Indian Buddhist temples. Like palaces, they comprise of a courtyard and the temple with a pagoda at the centre. Monks and nuns can be seen walking around in the open space of the courtyard. More often than not, temples are located in scenic areas like mountains or in lush forests.

Things to note when visiting temples

On the whole, temples visited by the average tourist have largely become paid attractions. Hence attitudes towards visitors are relatively relaxed, compared to Buddhist establishments in other countries. In most cases, the only real rules would be to remember to pay for admission and don’t bother to bring your own incense as such places only allow offering of joss sticks bought on their premises. In case you want to show yourself as truly enlightened, keep the following in mind (or simply use common sense):

1.Silence: this is, after all, a place of worship, so save the loud conversations for later. Similarly, silence all mobile devices.
2.Photography: temples housing relics should not be subject to flash photography and some may frown upon photographing statues within the temple. Other than that, photography is generally tolerated, as long as it is not too intrusive to ongoing ritual participants. If in doubt, check with the monks or temple staff.
3.Cover up: not an absolute must in China, as compared to countries where Buddhism is adhered to more devoutly, but showing respect often goes a long way in China. Generally speaking, shoes and hats should be removed in the main worship area. If you see a pile of shoes outside, this is an obvious indication of where to leave them.
4.No touching: for ladies, touching a monk is a no-no, or he would have to subject himself to “cleansing” rituals afterward.

Visiting Tibetan Buddhist Temples

Tibetan Buddhism is more strictly observed, so do note the following additional guidelines:

1.Obtain permission before taking photos
2.No smoking or alcohol on the premises
3.No PDAs
4.Don’t cause anything to be killed on temple grounds
5.No placing of trash in the fire
6.No touching the Buddha statues

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Keywords: Buddhist temples in China Buddhism in China


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This article is a good concise introductory outline. I beg to differ in one little detail though. Bon Po in Tibet and other folk religions -if you wish paganlike- originate in various areas of what today is China in addition to Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism is usually found in syncretism with folk beliefs, ancestor worship and the like, but it clearly distinct.

Jun 03, 2016 19:18 Report Abuse



Chinese "monks" smoke like chimneys and defecate behind statues

Jun 03, 2016 06:25 Report Abuse



This is what i think: This looks like some stats and info copied and pasted from an online encyclopedia. The only people I've seen here practising 'buddhism' are corrupt money hungry prossie shagging middle aged men whose superstitions take over and they believe buying beads and rubbing them will lead to great fortune and wealth. Surely not all are like this, but this is what i have personally come across. 'Temples' that i have seen are people investing in tourism and making bucks off the rest of the peoples' desperations/superstitions that it will bring more money to visit these temples occasionally. Money money money money money. Quite funny considering the belief preaches not having attachments. I believe behind most of these temples there are some fat corrupt middle aged dudes using the earnings to shnarf k粉 and shag prostitutes at the best karaoke bars while they have a good laugh.

Feb 15, 2015 10:57 Report Abuse



What would the Buddha say to this kind of 'buddhist monks' in Shaolin temple of China? www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/china-business/6831187/Shaolin-Temples-kung-fu-monks-prepare-IPO.html

Jan 29, 2015 20:43 Report Abuse



buddhism is not from china it comes from the place now called nepal

Jan 29, 2015 16:55 Report Abuse



Nepal is India in cultural, historical, and ethnic terms. Whether the political map of today reflects that or not is a different issue altogether. Buddhism is a splinter of Hinduism, anyway.

Jun 03, 2016 19:20 Report Abuse



did anyone think to advise the Chinese of the same etiquette when visiting a Buddhist temple? Or is it one set of rules for the Chinese, and another for foreigners?

Jan 26, 2015 22:29 Report Abuse



It's one for the Chinese, and one for us Aliens.

Jan 27, 2015 01:20 Report Abuse



I think the rules are universal- just because others may choose not to follow them doesn't mean we shouldn't be respectful. Why so defensive?

Jan 27, 2015 10:00 Report Abuse



if it's anything like buddhism in Thailand it is just a con for lazy blokes to scam money from old women.

Jan 26, 2015 14:13 Report Abuse