Historical China represents a cultural, and, most of the time as well, a political unity. But the country was not completely ignorant of or entirely untouched by outside influences. There had always been contact with Central Asia and India, the center of another great civilization at the time. And this happened especially through the spread of the Buddhist religion. India, in contrast to China, had often been more politically fragmented than unified. For this reason, India never posed a real threat to China and her sense of self-importance. As a religion of foreign origin from India to China, Buddhism in the Chinese context, between Islam and Judaism on the one side as ethnic religions, and Buddhism and West Christianity on the other side as missionary religions. However, the beginnings of Buddhism behaved somewhat differently to Chinese culture, arousing much more attention as well as controversy as it attempted to make its impact upon the Chinese society.
At 1st century A.D. or earlier, this religion of Indian origin had already undergone several centuries of development both in theory and practice. It acted as a harbinger of civilization in many areas, introducing knowledge of Indian languages and scripts, especially Sanskrit and eventually a technical vocabulary in Chinese for translation purpose, also inspiring art, literature and philosophy. But China was already home to a vigorous civilization with an ancient canon the Confucian classics and time hallowed traditions. The meeting of the Buddhism religion and Chinese culture was a momentous one, marking an encounter between the Indian worldview and the Chinese. In many ways, the pre-Buddhist Chinese ways of seeing things was much closer to the Western ways than to the Indian. The idea that all creatures possess the Buddha-nature and are capable of attaining to Buddha hood, linked to the doctrine of karma and the belief in rebirth, was attractive to rich and poor alike . Buddhist scholars were all the time seeking to interpret their religion in such a way as to make it attractive to the Chinese.
The growth of Buddhism was achieved in spite of the fact that in several respects, its ideas and teachings were opposed to indigenous culture. The Chinese held the view that life is good and to be enjoyed, and this went counter to the Buddhist teaching that all is suffering and illusion . The Buddhist practice of celibacy was inimical to the Chinese emphasis on family life and the need for numerous progeny. The mendicant monk was on object of scorn to those who believed that all able-bodied people should be engaged in productive labour. The concept of a monastic community possessing its own government and laws was entirely unacceptable to the Confucian, who believed in the unity of the empire less than one supreme ruler. Yet in a time of lawlessness and confusion it was the monastery that provided refuge for the disillusioned scholar and the multitude that sought escape from the difficulties and burdens of life. Buddhism offered an irresistible appeal just where Confucianism had failed.
Though the various schools of Chinese Buddhism are seen best in their period of fullest development under the Tang dynasty, the roots of most of them go back to the fifth and sixth centuries and even earlier. It must be borne in mind that, when Buddhism became firmly established in China, Indian Buddhism had been flourishing for about a thousand years. “The Chinese, with their deeply ingrained confidence in the written word, accepted the Buddhist scriptures in Chinese translation as the word of the Buddha” . The different Buddhist sects in China resulted largely from the fact that the volume of translated Buddhist scriptures had grown so vast the few scholars could hope to be reasonably familiar with them all, and the teachings contained in them were so extremely diverse as to appear at times to be contradictory. Furthermore, as the writings of the great Indian Mahayanist writers became familiar in Chinese translation, Chinese Buddhist scholars, stimulating new currents of thought, avidly seized upon their distinctive interpretations of the Buddhist dharma. Though all the scriptures were treated as canonical, schools arose under distinguished teachers who adopted widely different interpretations truth, and claimed that they presented the quintessence and perfection of the Buddha’s message.
If Buddhism was to continue as an effective religious force in China there was need for drastic reform and an intellectual awakening. Towards the end of the Ching dynasty this began to gradually take place and gathered momentum during the early decades of the twentieth century. This was in large the result of the stimulus of Christianity and Western influences. The account of the reforms instituted in 1890-1947 and the intellectual awakening which goes back to1890-1911, together with the set-back to Buddhism, and indeed to all religions through the rise of a militant Communism, will be dealt on the religious situation in modern China.