Buddhism in China

As one of the world’s major religions and the most influential religion in China, a basic understanding of Buddhism will enrich any visit to China. You will most obviously encounter the religion at China’s many, many Buddhist temples. But as Buddhism was practiced by Chinese royalty during many dynasties, the religion’s influence can also be seen in various palaces and tombs of the emperors.

Buddhist Beliefs

Buddhism is a religion of self-development with the goal of finding inner peace and enlightenment, or liberation from suffering. The Buddhist idea is based on The Four Noble Truths:

1. There is suffering.
2. Suffering exists because of attachment or desire.
3. Suffering can be overcome by letting go of attachment or desire.
4. The Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering.

The precepts of Noble Eightfold Path are:

1. Right View (Understanding the Four Noble Truths)
2. Right Intention (Understanding what is right and wrong)
3. Right Speech (Not telling lies, gossiping, manipulating or being abusive)
4. Right Action (Acting ethically: not taking life, stealing or engaging in sexual misconduct)
5. Right Livelihood (Avoiding occupations that could cause harm to others)
6. Right Effort (Endeavoring to abandon or prevent all that is unwholesome in oneself)
7. Right Mindfulness (Being alert and aware of factors that can affect the mind and body)
8. Right Concentration (Meditation with a view to purer understanding)

The eight factors are, of course, inter-connected and can be divided into three divisions: wisdom (right view and right intention); ethics or morality (right speech, right action, right livelihood); and meditation or concentration (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration). The eight-fold path leads to enlightenment, or nirvana.

Essential principles of Buddhism are refraining from doing harm to others and doing things in moderation. The goal is to not be dependent on anything. So, for example, it’s fine to drink alcohol, but you shouldn’t feel like you need alcohol. The other well-known concept is that of karma: that every action has a consequence. Our actions extend to future lives as well.

Is Buddhism a Religion?

Probably it depends how you want to define what a religion is, but generally Buddhism is considered to be a religion. The Buddha is not a god in the sense of the Abrahamic religions. Instead he is the ideal towards which followers of Buddhism should strive. It might be somewhat confusing, therefore, when you visit a Buddhist temple and see people bowing and making offerings to statues. The best way to understand it is that they are showing their reverence or gratitude for the Buddha’s teaching.

What are the statues in Buddhist temples?

Most imagery in Buddhist temples are representations of the Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha), the celestial Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas. The five celestial Buddhas, or Dhyani Buddhas, are those that have achieved enlightenment in other worlds or realms. Meanwhile, the Bodhisattvas are those who have decided not to enter Nirvana so that they can help teach others the path to enlightenment.

The Buddha

Siddartha Gautama, the founder of the Buddhist tradition, was born a prince in modern-day Nepal in around 500 BC. Gautama lived a life of luxury, sheltered from the outside world in his palace. It was not until he was 29 that he ventured outside and saw the suffering of his people, in the forms of an old man, a sick man and a corpse. He also saw a monk and took this to be a sign that he should pursue a holy life. Soon afterwards he left the palace and began a program of discipline and self-denial. However, having achieved no spiritual breakthrough after six years, Gautama gave up his ascetic practices and adopted the Middle Way: a lifestyle that stressed moderation in everything. After embracing the Middle Way, he sat under a fig tree and determined to stay there meditating until he achieved enlightenment. And, eventually, so it was that Gautama had a breakthrough and became the Buddha, the enlightened one. The remaining years of his life were dedicated to traveling and teaching others how to do the same.

History of Buddhism

Buddha traveled and taught throughout Nepal and northern India. His message was spread further by his disciples and, after receiving the royal patronage of Ashoka the Great (mid 3rd Century BC), began to spread to other Asian countries.

After reaching Central Asia, Buddhism moved into China in the first and second centuries AD. Initially it was viewed by many as a foreign form of Taoism. Indeed, the similarities with Taoism are noteworthy, and consequently Chinese Buddhism became intermixed with Taoism to an extent. Buddhism really took off in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and continued to have a strong influence in China throughout the subsequent dynasties.

It is generally considered that there are three main schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is the school that is practiced in most of China and, indeed, most of East Asia, while Theravada Buddhism is practiced in south-east Asia (though its influence can be seen in south-west China). Tibetan Buddhism is, naturally, practiced in Tibet and also in parts of provinces neighboring Tibet.

Buddhist Tourist Attractions in China

Every Chinese city you visit will have a number of Buddhist temples vying for your sightseeing attention. Some of the most famous and beautiful are the Lama Temple in Beijing, the Big Goose Pagoda in Xian, the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, the Hanshan Temple in Suzhou and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou.