The Integration of Buddhism and Chinese Culture

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition has integrated with the local culture, combining the traditional Indian teachings with the best aspects of Chinese and Indian culture to create a magnificent Tibetan Buddhist culture. On one hand, it maintains the original Indian traditions in terms of its teachings, while on the other hand, it incorporates the cultural advantages of Chinese and Indian culture into its forms.

The Dai Buddhist tradition, which is based on the Pali Canon, maintains the traditions of Theravada Buddhism, and has become an essential part of Dai culture in different regions.

As the religion with the longest history of transmission in China, Buddhism has undergone many changes and developments, and has had a profound and far-reaching influence on Chinese culture. The integration of Buddhism with Chinese culture can be divided into three aspects: academic, artistic, and social.


When Buddhism was introduced into China, it faced a society with a highly developed traditional culture. From the beginning, the educated class of this society accepted Buddhism as a system of thought, and devoted themselves to studying and teaching it. Thanks to the convenience of writing tools, every newly translated sutra or commentary could soon spread throughout the country, and it became a trend to give lectures, record, annotate, and explain them. Therefore, in the research of Buddhist doctrine and teachings, a high level was quickly achieved, earning the praise and admiration of Buddhist scholars from abroad at that time. For example, Dao’an (312-385) in the Eastern Jin dynasty was praised by Buddhist master Kumarajiva from the Western Regions as the “saint in the East”, and he was “always distant, yet paying homage to him.” Tanluan, a prominent monk in the Northern Wei dynasty, was renowned for his translations of the Nirvana Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Indian Buddhist scholar Bodhiruci, who came to China, “paid homage to him upon seeing him, calling him the Eastern Bodhisattva”. Bodhiruci also translated Tanluan’s work, “The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom”, into Sanskrit and sent it to “Great Xia”, where readers in that region all revered him as a saint facing the East. Xuanzang of the Tang dynasty was honored as the Great Master of the Mahayana and the Tathagata who Dispels Doubts in India, which is a well-known fact. Historical facts show that after Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into China, the study of Buddhist doctrine was always the mainstream, which led to the emergence of more than ten sects and the appearance of over 23,000 volumes of translated works and original writings.

Artistic Development:

Before the introduction of Buddhism to China, Chinese art and craftsmanship had reached a high level of sophistication. Calligraphy, painting, manufacturing, textile, and architecture were all superb and renowned in the world. After the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism, it absorbed the strengths of Chinese culture in this area, resulting in the development of arts and crafts such as portraiture, sculpture, and temple architecture. The face of Buddhism was completely transformed. Around 301 AD, the monk Qiyu who came to China saw the magnificent temples, pagodas, and palaces in Luoyang and praised them, saying, “This is like the palace of the gods in heaven.” After the completion of the Yongning Temple in Luoyang in 516 AD, the patriarch Bodhidharma saw it, recited “Namo” and clasped his hands in praise, saying, “This temple is exquisite, surpassing the palace of the Yan Kingdom.” “Even the Western Paradise cannot compare to this.” He also saw the statue of the Vajra in the Xiu Fan Temple, which was lifelike, and praised it, saying, “It has achieved the true nature.” The stories of famous painters such as Gu Kaizhi, Wu Daozi, and Yang Huizhi creating murals and sculptures for Buddhist temples that caused a sensation are well-known. Today, the artistic value of Dunhuang murals, Longmen Grottoes, Leshan Giant Buddha, Yonghe Temple Buddha, Zhashilunbu Temple Buddha, Potala Palace, and temples, pagodas, and stone carvings throughout the country are recognized worldwide. In fact, the direction of the development of Mahayana Buddhism is to use the highly sophisticated art of Chinese culture to express Buddhist ideology and teachings. In modern times, some people believe that Buddhism is a polytheistic religion and idol worship, which is a misunderstanding of Buddhist teachings and a disregard for historical facts. In fact, Mahayana Buddhism adheres to the doctrine of “dependent origination and emptiness of all phenomena.”


Chinese Mahayana Buddhism inherited the idea of “all living beings possess the potential to become Buddhas” from Nagarjuna and the concept of needing to cultivate the Five Wisdoms to achieve enlightenment from Maitreya. Many famous scholars emerged among both monks and laypeople who were influenced by these ideas, including Yixing, Daoxuan, Wang Wei, and Sun Simiao, who were astronomers, doctors, historians, and literary figures. During the time of the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Huineng (638-713), the idea of “the Buddha Dharma exists in the world and is not separate from worldly awakening” was put forth. Later, Huaihai (720-814) proposed the principle of “not working, not eating” to integrate Buddhism into society, achieving the ideal of Shakyamuni Buddha’s “maturing sentient beings and adorning the Pure Land,” and Mahayana Buddhism thus developed into a “Buddhism for the people.”

For more than a thousand years since the ninth century, great Buddhist monks and virtuous people have engaged in bridge building, road construction, water conservancy projects, afforestation, medical care, disaster relief, and the provision of social welfare services. They have also worked to promote ethnic unity and preserve cultural heritage. Notable figures include the Tibetan Nyingma sect’s great master, Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, who was deeply influenced by the Chan school of thought. While serving as the Tibetan religious leader in Tubo, he advocated for peace negotiations, leading to the establishment of a monument and alliance between the Tang and the Tubo peoples, which ended a hundred years of conflict and opened up a new era of mutual interaction between the Han and Tibetan peoples. In the Ming Dynasty, the monk Daoyan (1335-1419) oversaw the compilation of the Yongle Encyclopedia, which consisted of 22,878 volumes and brought together all of China’s cultural knowledge, becoming the largest encyclopedia in the world. By this time, Mahayana Buddhism had completely merged with Chinese culture, and the two were inseparable.

In summary, it can be seen that after Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into China, it developed in many aspects through its combination with Chinese culture. On the one hand, it combined with Chinese speculative philosophy and developed towards academicization. The more the teachings were studied, the more refined they became, leading to the establishment of various schools of Buddhism and the high prosperity of Buddhism itself. On the other hand, it combined with Chinese fine craftsmanship and developed towards artistic expression, making Buddhism a magnificent and colorful treasure trove of art. On the other hand, it combined with Chinese ideals of life and developed towards socialization, establishing a close connection between Buddhism and Chinese society. All of these aspects have made Buddhism an integral part of Chinese culture. Since Mahayana Buddhism proposed that bodhisattvas should cultivate the five wisdoms, Buddhism has shifted from a religious faith and speculative philosophy of seclusion and self-cultivation to the field of scholarship, literature, theoretical science, and production technology. More than a thousand years of history has proven that Buddhism, by drawing nutrients from Chinese culture and moving in the direction of worldly Buddhism, has received a great response in the vast land of China. The great ideal of Shakyamuni Buddha to “mature friendship and adorn pure lands” has to a certain extent become a concrete realization in the vast eastern region. Among all the ancient cultures created by mankind, Buddhism has become an important pillar of Eastern culture and civilization with its unique and profound philosophical ideas, abundant spiritual wealth, huge literary treasure trove, and exquisite cultural heritage. While pursuing the sublime cause of “mature friendship and adorn pure lands,” Buddhism has also become more mature and pure itself.