The Influence of Buddhism in China

The various schools of Buddhist teachings have had an indelible impact on Chinese thought, after long periods of study and widespread dissemination. For example, Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism was clearly influenced by the Huayan, Chan, and other Buddhist theories, which is a recognized historical fact in the intellectual community. During the late Qing Dynasty, the study of Buddhism was prevalent among Chinese intellectuals. Some enlightenment thinkers, such as Tan Sitong, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Zhang Taiyan, adopted certain Buddhist doctrines as materials for enlightenment. The ideas of compassion, equality, impermanence, and selflessness in Buddhism stimulated and inspired the intellectual community of the time.

Thousands of volumes of classics translated from Sanskrit into Chinese are themselves great and magnificent literary works. Among them, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Shurangama Sutra are particularly loved by literary figures of all ages and are often studied as pure literature. The modern literary giant Lu Xun once donated money to the Jingling carving scripture office to engrave a copy of the Hundred Parables Sutra. The parable stories in this sutra are often translated into vernacular and published in today’s newspapers as literary works to be appreciated. Buddhism has brought many new artistic conceptions, literary styles, and methods of expression to Chinese literature. Ma Ming’s “Praise of the Buddha’s Conduct” brought a model for narrative poetry. The Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, and the Hundred Parables Sutra inspired the creation of Jin-Tang novels. The thoughts of the Prajnaparamita and Chan Buddhism influenced the poetry creation of Tao Yuanming, Wang Wei, Bai Juyi, and Su Shi.

In order to spread Buddhism and make it popular in ancient times, a special form of literature called “bianwen” was created. This involved transforming the contents of Buddhist scriptures into more easily understandable and singable vernacular language. The various forms of bianwen discovered in the Dunhuang caves are lively and imaginative works of popular literature, and they are considered the precursor to later forms of Chinese popular literature such as storytelling, novels, and drama. Another special literary genre that emerged from records of the teachings and conversations of Zen masters is “yulu,” a simple and lively style of spoken language that was imitated by Song and Ming Confucian scholars to create various forms of yulu literature. Additionally, the study of phonology, such as the phonetic notation system used in Chinese dictionaries, was developed under the influence of Sanskrit pronunciation. Overall, Buddhism has made rich and varied contributions to Chinese literature.

As Buddhism spread to China, the art of building pagodas and creating statues quickly became popular throughout the country. The Longhua Temple pagoda in Shanghai and the Bao’en Temple pagoda in Suzhou, both of which were built during the Three Kingdoms period in the 2nd century AD and later restored, are still standing today. From the 4th to 6th centuries AD, magnificent pagodas and temples were built all over the country, including famous Buddhist grotto temples such as Dunhuang, Yungang, and Longmen. These ancient repositories of sculpture and mural art spanned several centuries, from Xinjiang in the west to Liaoning in the east and Jiangnan in the south. In China, there are many forms of pagodas, which can be roughly divided into two categories: Indian-style pagodas, which have many variations, and Chinese-style pagodas, which are mainly built in the form of traditional Chinese pavilions. The study of Chinese architectural art places great emphasis on pagodas and temples. As for Buddhist statues, there are many different types and methods of construction, including grotto sculptures, carvings in wood, stone, jade, and ivory, castings in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, clay sculptures, papier-mache sculptures, brick sculptures, porcelain sculptures, embroidered sculptures, and painted sculptures. These statues drew inspiration from Gandharan and Indian styles and developed into a unique form of Chinese-style statue art, which is a great cultural heritage of China.

Buddhist painting is mainly in the form of murals. The murals preserved in the Dunhuang grottoes provide a wealth of artistic and historical materials. It is worth noting that the originally prevalent paintings depicting the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives gradually gave way to “sutras and biographies” paintings during the Tang Dynasty. Just as there is “bianwen” in literature, “sutras and biographies” in Buddhist painting means to depict the stories and metaphors in the sutras as pictures. The “Weimo bian” depicting the “Weimo Jing” and the “Pure Land bian” depicting the Pure Land Sutra in the Dunhuang grottoes are all great and vivid works. The rise of “sutras and biographies” painting greatly enriched the content of murals and made the Buddhist murals flourish during the Tang Dynasty, reaching the peak of their development. Many famous painters at that time, such as Yan Liben and Wu Daozi, were mainly engaged in Buddhist painting. This shows that Buddhism had a far-reaching influence on painting during that period.

Chinese painting also developed from literati painting of the Wang Wei school to the popular freehand style after the Song and Yuan Dynasties. This is closely related to the thoughts of Prajna and Zen Buddhism. Buddhist woodblock prints have been produced since the publication of Buddhist scriptures. The earliest woodblock prints in China can be seen in the Buddhist paintings in the Tripitaka, while the Tang Dynasty carved-line Buddhist paintings in the Fangshan Stone Sutra and the Guanyin paintings, Luohan paintings, and water and land paintings since the Song and Yuan Dynasties were all popular at that time.

Along with Buddhism, there were also transmissions of astronomy, music, medicine, and other disciplines. In the early eighth century, an Indian monk who came to China to propagate Esoteric Buddhism, named Shanyue, was also an accomplished astronomer who wrote the “Dayan Calendar” and determined the meridian line, making outstanding contributions to astronomy. As for medicine, there were more than ten medical books and prescriptions translated from India and recorded in the Sui and Tang histories. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition also has a study of medical science called “Gso-ba Rig-pa.” Speaking of music, the popularity of the “Fanbei” music had already spread in China in the second century AD. In the early seventh century, the kingdom of Pyu, located in present-day Myanmar, presented ten kinds of Buddhist music to China and sent thirty-two musicians. Chinese Tang Dynasty music absorbed music from Buddhist countries such as India, Kucha, Anguo, Kangguo, Piao, and Linyi. Some Tang Dynasty music is still preserved in certain Buddhist temples.

Buddhists engage in a wide variety of public welfare activities, such as practicing medicine, building bridges and roads, digging wells, establishing schools, and planting trees. These activities were frequently recorded in ancient times. In particular, the achievement of planting trees and forests was remarkable. In places where there are Buddhist temples and pagodas throughout China, the green branches and blue grass are abundant, the environment is quiet and pleasant, and the scenery is beautiful. Among the lush greenery, red walls and blue tiles, and magnificent palaces and pavilions can be seen, adding infinite spring colors to nature.

These facts illustrate that Buddhism has flourished in China and has extended to various fields of national culture, bearing rich fruit. The ancient sages have established indelible achievements in Buddhist affairs, cultural affairs, and human friendship. They not only translated thousands of volumes of scriptures and wrote many immortal works, leaving valuable common heritage to the world, but also exchanged the fruits of wisdom of various ethnic groups, enriching the cultural treasures of each ethnic group. Today, the historical achievements of the Buddhist predecessors who have worked hard have already shown their brilliance, and they continue to play a new and positive role.

Noun explanation:

梵呗 (fà bèi): A declaration of a Buddhist ceremony, which is a Buddhist song. The chanting music in temples.