Buddhism in Chinese history

Kuan Yin

The Spread of Buddhism Among the Chinese

During the third century B.C., Emperor Asoka sent missionaries to the northwest of India, that is, present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. The mission achieved great success as the region soon became a centre of Buddhist learning with many distinguish monks and scholars. When the merchants of Central Asia came into this region for trade, they learnt about Buddhism and accepted it as their religion. By the second century B.C., some central Asian cities like Kotan, has already become important centres for Buddhism. The Chinese people had their first contact with Buddhism through Central Asians who were already Buddhists.

When the Han Dynasty of China extended its power to Central Asia in the first century B.C., trade and cultural ties between China and Central Asia also increased. In this way, the Chinese people learnt about Buddhism so that by the middle of the first century C.E., a community of Chinese Buddhists was already in existence. As interest in Buddhism grew, there was a great demand for Buddhist texts to be translated from Indian languages into Chinese. This led to the arrival of translators from Central Asia and India. The first notable one was Anshigao from Central Asia who came to China in the middle of the second century. With a growing collection of Chinese translations of Buddhist texts, Buddhism became more widely known and a Chinese monastic order was also formed. The first known Chinese monk was said to be Anshigao's disciple.

MaijishanThe early translators had some difficulty in finding the exact words to explain Buddhist concepts in Chinese, so they often used Taoist terms in their translations. As a result, people began to relate Buddhism with the existing Taoist tradition. It was only later on that the Chinese came to fully understand the teachings of the Buddha.

After the fall of the Han Dynasty in the early part of the third century, China faced a period of political disunity. Despise the war and unrest, the translations of the Buddhist texts continued. During this time, both foreign and Chinese monks were actively involved in establishing monasteries and lecturing on the Buddhist teachings.

Among the Chinese monks, Dao-an who lived in the fourth century, was the most outstanding. Though he had to move from place to place because of the political strife, he not only wrote and lectured extensively, but prepared the first catalogues of them. He invited the famous translator, Kumarajiva, from Kucha. With the help of of Do-an's disciples, Kumarjiva translated a large number of important texts and revised the earlier Chinese translations. His fine translations are still in use to this day. Because of political unrest, Kumarkiva's disciple were later dispersed and this helped to spread Buddhism to other parts of China.

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