The spread of Buddhism in China is inseparable from the translation of Buddhist scriptures. The earliest translation was the “Forty-two Chapter Sutra” translated by Kāśyapa Mātaṅga and Dharmaratna during the reign of Emperor Ming of Han Dynasty, and there were reportedly other classics as well. This is the earliest translation.
Among the translators in the early period (2nd and 3rd centuries AD), we cannot fail to mention An Shigao from the Parthian Empire (in the region of present-day Iran), Zhu Luojia from Yuezhi Kingdom, Kang Senghui and Kang Sengkai from Kangju Kingdom (in the present-day Kyrgyzstan area of the Soviet Union), and the Chinese monk Zhufahu, who was one of the earliest to travel to India for Buddhist teachings and had some Yuezhi ancestry. There was also Zhu Shixing, who went to India in 260 AD to seek Buddhist teachings. Thanks to their efforts, many scriptures of both the śrāvaka and mahāyāna traditions were translated into Chinese.
These translators mainly belonged to two schools: one was the Theravada school, which focused on the Agamas and the Zen sutras, represented by An Shigao; the other was the Mahayana school, which focused on the Prajñāpāramitā sutras and the Pure Land sutras, represented by Zhu Luojia. Both schools coexisted at the same time.
At that time, the translation work was still in its initial stage, and due to various limitations, it had not yet been planned and systematized. The scriptures translated at this time were mostly not complete translations, and the translation style had not yet been established. However, these translators had already done an excellent job of pioneering the field, establishing a position for Buddhism in the intellectual world of China, and had a profound influence.
The great popularity of Buddhism in China began in the 4th century, when the Chinese monk Dao An was an important figure and played a significant role as a Buddhist leader. He was China’s earliest enthusiastic missionary and dispatched his disciples to propagate Buddhism throughout the country. He was also the first person to establish the sangha system in China. He made efforts to seek the Vinaya and to compensate for the deficiencies of the incomplete Tripitaka at that time. He established the monastic code that was followed nationwide (after becoming a monk, Chinese monks and nuns abolished their original surnames and adopted “Shi” as their surname, a practice initiated by Dao An). Dao An compiled the translated sutras and composed the first “Sutra” in China. He strongly encouraged translation and for the first time summarized the experience of translation. Under the guidance of Dao An, many important Buddhist texts were translated, and many scholars and translators were concentrated and trained, laying the potential favorable conditions for the large-scale translation campaign by Kumarajiva later on.
Dao’an and his disciples were zealous in seeking the precepts, which greatly promoted the completeness of the Vinaya Canon. During his lifetime, Dao’an had already obtained a large number of Vinaya texts and had translated some of them, but unfortunately those books have been lost. Soon after, Frodoluo and Tanmoluzhi from Kashmir helped Jiumoluo translate many sections of the “Ten Recitations Vinaya”. With the assistance of Jiumoluo’s teacher, Bimo Luocha, this Vinaya was greatly propagated in Jiangxi. In AD 410, the Kashmiri Bhadanta Yuezhe translated the “Four Part Vinaya” of the Tamraparniyan school. By order of Ven. Buddha-ghosa, Sangharakshita from Sri Lanka came to China and translated the “Samantapasadika” Vinaya, while in the early 5th century, Faxian traveled to India mainly to seek the precepts. Faxian is a well-known ancient Chinese seeker of the Dharma and traveler, but his enduring “Pilgrimage” and other achievements may easily overlook his initial motivation for seeking the precepts and his achievements in this regard. In addition to bringing back many books, he also brought back the “Maha-samghika Vinaya” and the “Sarvastivada Vinaya”. The former was translated into Chinese by himself and Buddhabhadra of Kapilavastu (now Nepal), while the latter was translated after his death by Buddha-sena from Kashmir. Another great seeker of the Dharma, Yijing in the 7th century, also traveled far with the intention of learning the precepts. He brought back the Vinaya texts and translated all eleven works of the Abhidharma, thereby making the Vinaya Canon complete. The Chinese translations of the Vinaya Canon include 61 volumes of the “Four Part Vinaya”, 157 volumes of the “Sarvastivada Vinaya”, 61 volumes of the “Ten Recitations Vinaya”, as well as the various Karmavacana texts and precepts, and commentaries on the Vinaya texts, totaling about 500 volumes that still exist today. As for the transmission of the monastic precepts among Chinese bhikkhus, during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the “Four Part Vinaya” was transmitted in the north, while the “Ten Recitations Vinaya” was transmitted in the south. When the Sui Dynasty unified China and politically united the north and the south, the Buddhist monastic precepts followed suit, and from the Sui Dynasty onwards, only the “Four Part Vinaya” of the Tamraparniyan school in the north was transmitted. In the Tibetan Buddhist region, the entire Vinaya is traditionally transmitted, while in the Dai region, the same Theravada Vinaya as that of Sri Lanka and Myanmar is transmitted, which has the same origin as the “Four Part Vinaya” (Dharmaguptaka Vinaya).
The large-scale systematic translation of Buddhist scriptures and treatises began in the early 5th century with Kumarajiva. Kumarajiva had exceptional conditions that his predecessors did not have, such as the strong support of the government (Yao Qin) at that time and the assistance of a large group of highly cultured monks gathered under the influence of Dao’an. However, Kumarajiva’s great achievements were due to his rich knowledge and persistent efforts. This wise and outstanding master, who was born with Indian ancestry in Kuche, Xinjiang, China, is a glorious representative of both the Chinese and Indian peoples. Kumarajiva and the later master Xuanzang were the two giants of the translation movement. The more than 300 volumes of scriptures and treatises that Kumarajiva translated are not only treasures of Buddhism but also important literary legacies that had a significant influence on Chinese philosophical and literary thought. Under Kumarajiva’s teaching and guidance, thousands of talented people were trained, greatly improving and promoting the development of Buddhism at that time. As far as Buddhist studies are concerned, Kumarajiva’s most important contribution was the introduction of the Madhyamaka system established by Nagarjuna. Thanks to his efforts, a series of works on this system, such as the Madhyamaka Shastra, the Shata Shastra, the Twelve Gate Treatises, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Mahaprajna Paramita Sutra, the Prajnaparamita Upadesa, and the Diamond Sutra, as well as the interpretation of the Mahaprajna Paramita Sutra and the Mahaprajna Paramita Shastra, were brought to China, opening up a vast field for the Faxing School of China. Secondly, Kumarajiva also translated a significant treatise of the Sravakayana, the Chengshi Lun. Initially, it was complementary to the Madhyamaka Triad (or the Four Treatises: the Madhyamaka Triad plus the Mahaprajna Paramita Shastra), but later it gradually developed into an independent school, which was extremely prosperous during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and was later called the Chengshi School. This school is relatively close to the Mahayana tradition in the Sravakayana.
Master Kumarajiva’s translation career, between 401-413 AD, comprehensively and systematically introduced the Mahayana Madhyamaka and Yogacara teachings of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu. After Kumarajiva, important translators successively arrived, and the main sutras and treatises were continuously translated. For example, Jue Xian translated the Avatamsaka Sutra in 418-421 AD, Tanwuchan translated the Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 421 AD, and Qiu Na Batuo translated the Lankavatara Sutra in 443 AD. The translation of these classics had a significant impact on the development of Chinese Buddhist philosophy. In the early 6th century, Bodhiruci came to China (508) and translated the works of the Yogacara school, including the Ten Grounds Sutra, which had a great influence and led to the formation of the “Land Doctrine School” (divided into two paths, South and North). Later, Zhenjue Sanzang (498-569) came to China in 546 AD and translated the Shatasahasrika-prajnaparamita Sutra and Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha in 563 AD, as well as the Samdhinirmocana Sutra in 564 AD. Zhenjue was not only a master translator but also a master of Buddhist philosophy. After a long stay in China, he became skilled in the Chinese language and would lecture on the sutras and treatises he translated, and his disciples’ notes became commentaries. His followers were called “Abhidharma Masters” and “Madhyamaka Masters.” Despite facing the turmoil of war during his more than twenty years in China, Zhenjue was still able to translate more than a hundred volumes of important sutras and treatises, forming an important school of Chinese Buddhist philosophy. He was the most significant translator in the two hundred years after Kumarajiva and before Xuanzang.
According to Xuanzang’s account, Jie Xian was born in the year 528 AD, which suggests that Hufa was born in 530 AD. Zhenyi was born in 498 AD, making him more than thirty years older than Hufa. Zhenyi translated Chen Na’s “Discourse on the Dust of Non-Attachment” (which Xuanzang translated as “Treatise on the Meaning of Consciousness-Only”) and the “Vijnaptimatrata-siddhi-sastra” (which Yi Jing translated as “Discourse in the Palm of the Hand”). Chen Na was a disciple of Vasubandhu and was the teacher of Hufa. Therefore, Zhenyi was a great master of the Buddhist Yogacara school, between Chen Na and Hufa. According to Xuanzang, Hufa’s teachings were considered the orthodox doctrine, while Zhenyi’s teachings and the views of the masters of the “Treatise on the Grounds of Consciousness” were considered old translations or old views. Xuanzang’s translations were considered new translations. The ancient scholar Tang Lingrun summarized 14 different interpretations of this. For example, old translations believed that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, while new translations believed that there is one part of sentient beings without Buddha-nature; old translations believed that the enlightenment of the Buddha is not different from his wisdom, while new translations believed that the wisdom is different (i.e., the two fruits of discrimination and enlightenment); old translations included both the all-ground and the dependent-ground in the three natures, while new translations only included the all-ground. Additionally, old translations considered the basis of dependent origination to be only the eighth consciousness, while new translations considered each consciousness and its corresponding mental object to be the basis of dependent origination. Furthermore, Zhenyi’s “Treatise on Transforming Consciousness” considered the Alayavijnana (a synonym for the Store Consciousness) as the seventh consciousness, while new translations considered it to be the eighth consciousness. The Satyasiddhi-sastra transmitted by Zhenyi also established the ninth consciousness, which new translations did not mention. In summary, both old and new translations belonged to the Yogacara school, with the same objective but different interpretations due to differences in time. Zhenyi’s teachings caused a great stir in the Chinese Buddhist community during the Sui and Tang dynasties, and this motivated Xuanzang to travel to India for further study. During the eighty or so years from Zhenyi’s arrival in China to Xuanzang’s departure for India (546-627 AD), Indian Buddhism also underwent dramatic changes. Initially, Hufa and Qingbian criticized the concept of emptiness. Then, Moon and Qingbian quarreled and split the Madhyamaka school into two factions, the Svatantrika and the Prasangika. Moon also engaged in a long debate with Moon Palace. Hufa’s disciple, Facheng, also made new reforms to the Yogacara teachings of his master, Chen Na. The doctrine was always evolving, with later developments surpassing earlier ones. Xuanzang’s teachings were generally more precise than the old translations. This great traveler spent 17 years traveling alone, covering 50,000 miles and leaving his footprints throughout the Western Regions and 130 countries in India. He also left behind an immortal travelogue called “The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions”. This great Buddhist scholar, who was proficient in both Chinese and Indian languages and had a deep understanding of the Tripitaka, served as a lecturer at Nalanda, the highest institution of learning in India, in the guise of a student monk. He was highly respected and revered by kings, monks, and laypeople in India and the Western Regions. Xuanzang devoted his life to promoting cultural exchanges between China and India, translating 1,335 volumes of Buddhist scriptures (approximately 500,000 verses) with a systematic approach, rigorous translation style, and tremendous results, leaving a brilliant example in the history of Chinese translation. His achievements and contributions in Buddhism and academia are profound. Xuanzang not only comprehensively and systematically translated the Yogacara teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, but also fully translated the fundamental Prajnaparamita Sutra of the Madhyamaka school and almost all the important scriptures of the Sarvastivada school of Hinayana Buddhism. Moreover, he obtained the rare secret transmission of the protector bodhisattva, Haribhadra, in India, including the commentary on the “Sutra of One Hundred Dharmas” of the Two Vehicles and the protector’s commentary on the “Vijnaptimatratasiddhi Shastra” which had no transmission in India. It can be seen that Xuanzang was the foremost figure in the development of Indian Buddhist studies. Therefore, at the 18-day unobstructed ceremony held in his honor by the King of Jiri, he stood tall on the lion’s throne, expounding the Dharma and establishing the truth, and no one dared to argue with him. As a result, he was universally respected by Mahayana scholars as the “Mahayana Tian,” or the “Mahayana God,” which was the highest honor in academic exchanges between the two great ancient civilizations of China and India. Over a hundred years later, when the Japanese monk Kongosanmai visited India around 818 AD, he saw that the monasteries in China and India had paintings of Xuanzang’s sandals and utensils, which were surrounded by colorful clouds, and the monks there would worship them on fasting days. It is known that the Buddhist community in India at that time revered and worshiped Xuanzang’s sandals as if they were the Buddha’s footprints. Apart from the founders of major religions, no scholar has ever received such high respect in a foreign country. Even today, Japanese Buddhist scholars still believe that talents like Xuanzang can only be produced by the great Chinese nation.
In the year 399 AD, the monk Faxian, at the age of 65, made his way to Chang’an, starting a journey that would take him tens of thousands of miles across the Gobi Desert, the Congling Mountains, and northern India. He visited sacred sites, learned Sanskrit, copied scriptures, and spent many years on his journey. He eventually crossed the seas to Sri Lanka and Java before returning to China at the age of 80, where he continued his translation work of Buddhist texts. His most famous work, the “Record of Buddhist Kingdoms,” became an important historical document.
Another monk, Yijing, set out for India to seek Buddhist texts some time after Xuanzang. He spent over 25 years traveling through more than 30 countries, seeking the Vinaya texts and paying his respects to sacred sites. Upon his return, he translated over 50 sutras and Vinaya texts, writing the “A Record of Buddhist Practices Sent Home from the Southern Sea” and the “Biography of Eminent Monks of the Great Tang Dynasty.”
Like Xuanzang, Faxian, and Yijing, all of whom had an indomitable spirit and were devoted to the Buddhist scriptures, they were immortal translators, thinkers, and travelers. They made an indelible contribution to the development of Chinese culture.
The Chinese Buddhist translation movement lasted for ten centuries, from the 2nd to the 11th century. In total, over 1,690 sutras, treatises, and vinayas were translated into Chinese, totaling over 6,420 volumes. Over 200 famous translators from China and abroad contributed to this movement. Besides those mentioned earlier, famous Indian translators include Dharmakṣema, Buddhabhadra, and Bodhiruci; famous Pakistani translators include Jñānagupta and Śikṣānanda; famous Afghan translators include Prajñā and Lokakṣema; famous Cambodian translators include Mandhūka and Saṅghabhadra; and famous Sri Lankan translators include Kumārajīva, Bodhiruci, and Amoghavajra. Through the tireless efforts of many, all the systems of Buddhist doctrine, such as the Śrāvakayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna, Yogācāra, Mādhyamaka, and Tantra, were introduced to China, creating a vast treasure trove of Chinese Buddhism.
However, we must also point out an easy-to-overlook yet very important point. China has been a large family of multiple ethnic groups since ancient times. Every brotherly ethnic group has made significant contributions and outstanding achievements in creating a national culture, especially in the area of Buddhism. During the Tubo Dynasty in Tibet, the introduction of the Tang Dynasty culture and the belief in Buddhism was due to the marriage of the two princesses, Wen Cheng and Jin Cheng, and they created the writing system that is still in use today. During the time of Chisong Dezan, famous scholars such as Jihuo, Lianhua Jie, and the master of Esoteric Buddhism, Lianhua Sheng, were invited to build temples and establish monasteries, engage in systematic translation, and invite Han monks to teach Chan Buddhism and speak about the sutras. During the reign of Chikyabba (or Parisuzhe or Yitai Zanpu, 815-836), many Indian masters and Tibetan scholars were invited to discuss the translation of names, correct old translations, and translate a large number of sutras and commentaries. After the tenth century AD, Tibet began its post-Buddhist expansion period, and for three to four hundred years, great masters from India and Tibet exchanged teachings and practices. The most famous of these was Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana (982-1053), a great master of learning and virtue in India at the time, who was invited to Tibet in 1042 and founded the Kadampa sect. His teachings were inherited by the master Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), who established the Gelug sect (also known as the Yellow Sect), which spread throughout Tibet, China, and Mongolia. The Karmapa of Tibet also traveled to India three times to study Buddhism and established the Kagyu sect (also known as the White Sect), which controlled local Tibetan politics for a long time during the Ming Dynasty. The world-renowned Tibetan saint Milarepa was the second-generation patriarch of this sect. The names of other great masters who translated and propagated the sutras and teachings are too numerous to mention. Between the mid-eighth century and the middle of the next five hundred years, Tibet had already translated more than five thousand nine hundred sutras and texts, which were counted in the Ganzhu and Danzhu regions, totaling about three million verses, or about ten thousand volumes in Chinese translation. Few of the Tibetan translations have been re-translated, so the actual content is much greater than that of the Chinese translations. Especially noteworthy are the works on the two schools of emptiness and existence, the works of Yogacara, medical treatments, and the teachings of the Indian late-period Esoteric Buddhism, which are all abundant and unmatched by Chinese translations. Due to the Tibetan translation’s attention to the grammatical changes and sentence structures of Sanskrit, it is extremely easy to restore the original Sanskrit text, and therefore has received high attention from modern Buddhist scholars. In addition, during the Qing Dynasty, there was also a translation of the Manchu Buddhist canon. In modern times, remnants of the Western Xia and the Hui Buddhist canon have also been discovered. The Dai culture in our country has always been little known, and it was only after liberation that it was discovered that the Dai people have a rich collection of Dai language works, including a Dai language translation of the Theravada Tripitaka. It can be seen that the Great Canon of various ethnic groups’ written languages in our country is an extremely rare and magnificent monument in human cultural history. It embodies the wisdom and hard work of many predecessors, as well as their tenacity and great spirit, which are invaluable spiritual treasures.
Also known as the Shravaka Vehicle, it is one of the three vehicles in Buddhism. Voice-Hearer disciples are followers of the Buddha’s Hinayana teachings. They listen to the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths, overcome their delusions, and attain Nirvana.
In Sanskrit, it means “Great Vehicle.” The term “great” refers to the fact that it is not only concerned with personal salvation but also with the salvation of all beings. Mahayana practitioners aim to attain Buddhahood and become Bodhisattvas.
In contrast to Mahayana, Hinayana refers to the “lesser vehicle.” It mainly refers to the two vehicles of Voice-Hearers and Pratyekabuddhas.
One of the three baskets (Tripitaka) of Buddhist scriptures. The Vinaya contains the monastic rules and regulations for the Buddhist order.
A famous Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who lived during the Later Qin dynasty. He translated over 380 Buddhist texts, and his translations have had a significant impact on the development of Chinese Buddhism.
A Buddhist philosopher who lived in South India in the 2nd century CE. He is considered one of the most important Buddhist thinkers and is the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school of Buddhist philosophy.
One of the three schools of Buddhist philosophy, along with Yogacara and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka. The Madhyamaka school teaches the doctrine of emptiness, which holds that all phenomena lack inherent existence.
The teaching of emptiness is one of the central teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. The concept of sunyata, or emptiness, emphasizes the interdependence and lack of inherent existence of all phenomena.
One of the early schools of Buddhism that emerged in India around the 3rd century BCE. The Sarvastivadins believed that all phenomena exist in the past, present, and future.
A Mahayana Buddhist concept that suggests that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood because they possess a “Buddha-nature” or “Buddha-essence” within themselves.
One of the three schools of Buddhist philosophy, along with Madhyamaka and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka. Yogacara teaches that all phenomena are only mind and that external reality is a projection of consciousness.
A Chinese Buddhist school founded by the monk Zhiyi in the 6th century. Tiantai teaches the concept of “three thousand realms in a single thought moment” and emphasizes the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching of the Buddha.
Also known as the Flower Garland Sutra, it is one of the most important Mahayana Buddhist sutras. The sutra presents a vision of the universe as a vast interdependent web of phenomena.
Also known as the Diamond Vehicle, it is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the use of esoteric rituals and practices to attain enlightenment. It is most commonly associated with Tibetan Buddhism.