Buddhism was born in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, modern India. This kingdom was to the west of China and in ancient times the Chinese referred to it simply as the “West.” Some Buddhist texts even called India the “Buddhist Kingdom of the Western Heaven.” So, it was from this western region that Buddhism spread eastward to China.
Buddhism entered China between the Han dynastys (206 BCE–220 CE), namely, around the time of the birth of Christ. During this period, along with the development of the Western Regions and the prosperity of the Silk Road, economic and cultural exchange between Chinese and foreigners developed and matured. Buddhism was transmitted to China along two trade routes: the first, through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang region of China and then into the mainland, where it eventually reached Luoyang, the capital of the Han dynasty; the second, across the Indian and Pacific oceans, through the southeast Asian islands before arriving in Guangzhou, and then moving northward into the mainland. Judging from existing historical records, it is more likely that Buddhism was introduced to China from the first route, the Silk Road.
During the five hundred years following Buddhism’s entry into China, various schools developed and grew. The founders of these schools did not forget Buddhism’s Indian origins and most of them adopted specific Indian sutras as the principle texts of their own school or sect. Chan Buddhism (better known in the West as Zen) is an exception. The teachings of Huineng (638–713), the founder of the Chan school, were recorded in a work known as the sutra of the Chan school, namely the Platform Sutra (full title Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch). In Buddhist tradition, only the recorded words of the Buddha can be referred to as a sutra; so, for the Chan school to create a sutra of their founder’s words is unusual. It is also surprising that of the eight schools of Buddhism in China, it is the Chan school which has had the greatest influence. The eight schools are the Three Treatises school, the Celestial Platform school, the Dharma Nature school, the Vinaya (religious discipline) school, the Pure Land school, the Huayan (flower garland) school, the Chan school, and the Esoteric school.
Buddhism is both a religion and a culture that makes its mark on society and people’s lives. Buddhism has greatly influenced Chinese literature, particularly vernacular literature. There are many Buddhist themes in China’s plays, stories, and novels, such as karmic retribution and the idea of performing good deeds and doing away with evil acts. In addition, those towering pagodas, resplendent monasteries, images of the Buddha, and Buddhist grottoes are treasures of Chinese art.
Among the many mountains associated with Buddhism, there are the “Four Famous Mountains”—Mount Wutai, Mount Emei, Mount Putuo, and Mount Jiuhua. Located across the country, are the five largest statues of the Buddha: the (seated) Buddha at Yungang in the north, the Longmen statue of Buddha in the Central Plain, the Giant Buddha at Leshan in the west, the Tian Tan Big Buddha at Hong Kong in the South, and the Grand Buddha at Lingshan in the east. These five Buddhas, one in each cardinal direction, correspond with each other.
There are two distinctive features to the Buddhist cultural exchange that has taken place between China and foreign lands: one is “inviting in,” the other is “going out.” “Inviting in” refers to early Buddhist cultural exchange, from around the first century BCE/CE to the eleventh century when Chinese monks were learning about Buddhism. During this period, some went to India and the kingdoms in the Western Regions to search for scriptures and study Buddhism. At the same time, many monks from India and the Western Regions came to China, proselytizing. “Going out” refers to Buddhist cultural exchange in later periods, between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries. During that time, Chinese Buddhism had gradually formed its own characteristics, and had begun to be an important influence on neighboring nations.
In the modern and contemporary eras, Buddhist cultural exchange between China and foreign lands has continued. Buddhologists learn from each other and bring new ideas and understanding back to their countries. Studies in Chinese Buddhism have grown and developed in Europe and the United States; in return, research in these countries have also influenced Buddhist studies in China.