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Period of Disunion (220-589), The Spread of Buddhism

Chinese religions, suppressions, universal religion, vow of celibacy, Buddhist concepts

During this period of near-constant political and military strife, Buddhism found a receptive audience in China, while the influence of Confucianism waned. Buddhism had arrived in China in the 1st century ad as the religion of merchants from Central Asia. During the next three centuries, the Chinese encountered a great variety of ideas and practices identified as Buddhist. Buddhism differed markedly from earlier Chinese religions and philosophies. A universal religion, it embraced all people, regardless of their ethnicity or social status. It also had a founding figure, the Indian prince Siddhartha (Buddha), who lived during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. To many Chinese, Buddhism seemed at first a variant of Daoism, as Daoist terms were used to translate Buddhist concepts. A more accurate understanding of Buddhism became possible after Kumarajiva (343?-413?), a Buddhist monk from Central Asia, settled in Chang’an and directed several thousand Chinese monks in the translation of Buddhist texts.

The Buddhist monastic establishment grew rapidly in China. By 477 there were reportedly 6,478 Buddhist temples and 77,258 monks and nuns in the north. The south was said to have 2,846 temples and 82,700 clerics some decades later. Given the traditional importance of family lines in China, it was a major step for a man to become a monk. He had to give up his surname and take a vow of celibacy, breaking from the ancestral cult that connected the dead, the living, and the unborn. Buddhists who did not become monks or nuns often made generous contributions to the construction or beautification of temples. Among the most generous patrons were rulers, in both the north and south. Women turned to Buddhism as readily as men. Although being born a woman was considered inferior to being born a man, it was also considered temporary because in the next life a woman could be reborn as a man, and women were encouraged to pursue salvation on terms nearly equal to men.

China also had critics of Buddhism, who labeled it immoral, unsuited to China, or a threat to the state because monastery land was not taxed. By the end of the 6th century, critics had twice convinced the court to close monasteries and force monks and nuns to return to lay life. These suppressions did not last long, however, and no attempt was made to eliminate private Buddhist belief.



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