The Characteristics of Buddhism In China

Chinese Buddhism has the following characteristics:

Comprehensive: As mentioned above, during the two-thousand-year history, China imported all the contents of the three periods of Indian Buddhism, forming three major language systems of Buddhism. From the biographies and translation history of Dharmarakṣa, Xuanzang (596-664), and Āryadeva, we know that the original texts of Mahayana and Tantric Sutras and commentaries are best preserved in China. Many important Buddhist texts that were not widely circulated in India, such as the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, and the Mahaprajñāpāramitopadeśa, were well-preserved in China.

Richness: The richness of Chinese Buddhism is mainly manifested in two aspects: the vastness of the scriptures and the diversity of the sects.

  • Among the Chinese-language Buddhist scriptures, there are currently 1,482 translated works with a total of 5,702 volumes. Excluding duplicates, there are still about 4,400 volumes, of which the Theravada Canon accounts for about 1,400 volumes and the Mahayana Sutras and commentaries account for about 3,000 volumes, estimated to be around 2.5 million verses in Sanskrit. In addition, there are over 10,000 volumes of Chinese Buddhist writings throughout history, which is equivalent to 70 to 80 million verses in Sanskrit. The total number of scriptures is estimated to be about 10 million verses. The Chinese-language portion of the “Zhonghua Dazang Jing” includes over 23,000 volumes. The Tibetan-language “Kangyur” and “Tengyur” together contain 5,962 translated works, estimated to be about 3 million verses in Sanskrit. The amount of Tibetan-language writings is also enormous. In addition to the Pali Canon, the Dai-language Buddhism also has many Dai-language translations and writings. The richness of the Buddhist scriptures in the three language systems is extremely astonishing. Taking the Chinese-language system as an example, Chinese culture has a long history and an abundance of literature. However, the “Yongle Encyclopedia”, compiled between 1403 and 1407, only contains 22,878 volumes, which is roughly equivalent to the Chinese-language Buddhist scriptures. This shows the significant role of Buddhism in Chinese culture. As for the Buddhist scriptures in the other two language systems, they are almost equivalent to the entire literature of each ethnic group.
  • In India, Mahayana Buddhism was only divided into two schools of thought, “Madhyamaka” and “Yogacara”, and two vehicles, “Bodhisattva” and “Mantra”, without forming any schools or sects. However, after its introduction to China, due to long-term study and analysis of the teachings, many schools gradually emerged. These include the school of “Abhidharma”, the school of “Sarvastivada”, the school of “Yogacara”, the school of “Nirvana”, the Tiantai school, the school of “Madhyamaka”, the Vinaya school, the school of “Dharma Characteristics”, the Huayan school, the Tantric school, the Pure Land school, the Chan (Zen) school, and the Sanjie teaching, among others. The Chan school later split into seven schools. Tibetan Buddhism, which belongs to the Tibetan language family, is divided into the Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya, Shije, Jokhang, Jolong, Guozha, and Xia’ru sects, among others. The Dai Buddhist tradition, which belongs to the Pali language family, is divided into the Run, Baizhuang, Duolie, and Zuodi sects, among others. Buddhism in China has formed a “hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend” situation, which is a concrete manifestation of the richness and diversity of Buddhist content.
  • Chinese Han and Tibetan Buddhism, although developed in close connection with national culture, have not become national religions, but have spread widely to other nations and countries. For example, Chinese Han Buddhism has spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other places, while Tibetan Buddhism has spread to the Mongolian and Manchu ethnic groups. In modern times, these two language families of Buddhism have also spread to various countries in Europe and America.