Buddhism’s philosophy and moral teaching in China

Buddhism’s philosophy and moral teaching in China


            Buddhism refers to a type of religion as well as dharma that integrates different traditions, beliefs, and even spiritual activities that are mainly founded on teachings associated to Buddha. The religion emerged from India between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE and later spread to most parts of Asia while on the other hand declining in India particularly in middle ages. As explained by Creel (1970:12), two main branches of this religion are generally popular among scholars and they include Theravada, which refers to the Elders’ school, as well as Mahayana, which refers to the Great Vehicle. The religion is the fourth largest in the globe with more than five hundred million followers known as Buddhists. This figure is equivalent to seven percent of the entire global population. Buddhism is normally taught in certain institutional as well as doctrinal divisions known as Buddhist schools that greatly vary from each other depending of the nature of each school’s liberation path, the significance of different teachings as well as scriptures and the various practices that each school undertakes. Buddhism practices include Dharma, Sangha, finding protection in Buddha, studying scripture, upholding the moral concepts, meditation, repudiation of desire as well as attachment, loving-kindness, nurturance of wisdom, sympathy, Mahayana aspect of bodhicitta as well as Vajrayana aspect of generation and completion stages (Rhine 2010:198).

In Buddhism, Theravada, which is one of the religion’s main branches, is driven by one major goal that entails enhancing the realization of sublime nature of Nirvana. Nirvana is usually attained through upholding the eightfold-Noble path, which in return enables a person to escape a recurrent circle of suffering as well as rebirth. As explained by Hoobler, Thomas, and Dorothy (1993:36), Theravada has a great deal of followers particularly in most parts of Sri Lanka as well as Southeast Asia. The second branch, Mahayana, which encompasses various traditions including Zen, Singon, Pure Land as well as Tiantai is mostly found in East Asia (Tang 1991:12). Unlike Theravada that aims to enhance the realization of Nirvana, Mahayana aims to enhance the attainment of Buddhahood through the bodhisattva path. The state of Buddhahood allows a person to remain in the recurrent circle of rebirth so as to ensure that he/she can help other beings attain the awakening state. Although Vajrayan, which also refers to the Diamond vehicle, may be perceived to be a third branch in Buddhism, it has widely been viewed as a mere portion of Mahayana that is linked to the Indian siddhas’ teachings. Tibetan defines another form of Buddhism that particularly upholds the Vajrayana teachings that were practiced in India during the eighth century. This type of Buddhism religion is widely practiced in areas surrounding the Himalayas, Kalmykia as well as Mongolia. Tibetan is mainly driven by one major goal, which is to inspire people to attain Buddhahood or what is popularly known as rainbow body (Creel 1970:20).

While it is obvious that different religious branches were driven by varying goals, the spread of Buddhism beyond the Indian territories was guided by varying philosophical teachings as well as practices that would enhance the realization of the ultimate goal. As explained by Tang (1991:22), different emissaries were sent to spread Buddhism in different countries situated in completely opposite directions. As such, these countries adopted varying teachings and philosophies depending on the goal that involved emissaries intended to promote. This paper will look at how Buddhism prevails in China. It will specifically look into the general overview of the religion, its philosophy and moral teachings as well as how it impacts the Chinese Society.

Overview of the religion

The spread of Buddhism, under the shear guidance of Ashoka together with his descendants, marked the initial strides that contributed to its rapid growth in China. As explained by Rhine (2010:206), significant support offered by Ashoka perpetuated the construction of important Buddhist memorials that enhanced rapid spread of the religion into various regions neighboring India, which included East and central Asia, Sri Lanka as well as Mauryas. As documented in Asoka’s edicts, missionaries had been dispensed to various nations neighboring India to spread Buddhism. While some were dispensed to the eastern provinces in the neighboring Hellenistic as well as Seleucid Empires, others took the opposite direction and entered both the Central and Western regions of Asia (Tang 1991:36). Buddhism in these regions particularly grew as a result of important influences perpetuated by Greek-speaking monarchs as well as the ancient Asian business routes. Evidence of this expansion can be drawn from the Buddhist records that prevail both in Chinese and Pali languages, which include the Milindapanha as well as the Greco-Buddhist artistic work. On the other hand, the Theravada school started spreading southwards from India particularly in the third century BCE to parts of Sri Lanka and eventually to Asia. The spread of this religion to Silk Road eventually paved way for its rapid expansion into China, which is perceived to have occurred in late first or second century BCE. As reported by Creel (1970:27), expansion of this religion in China was further enhanced by its important translation into Chinese language; an activity that was undertaken by alien Buddhist monks especially in the second century CE. During the same period, the Mahayana Sutras rapidly spread to China among other nations, such as Japan and Korea, where they were equally translated into Chinese.

Before Buddhism was introduced into China, two other religions, Daoism and Confucianism, were widespread in the country. Daoism, which is also known as Taoism was founded by a man named Lao Tsu, who believed that to find happiness an individual must learn how to go with the flow of nature to receive happiness. According to Creel, the word Tao refers to the way, path or road that a person pursuing happiness must follow. According to Daoist teachings, a person pursuing happiness must not force it but should rather wait for happiness to make its way into his/her life (Tang 1991:41). This way, a person will be able to obtain true happiness and make the process of realizing this goal quick and easy (Creel). Lao referred to this approach as “Wu-Wei”, which means having no activity “… a man should restrict his activities to what is necessary and what is natural”. To him, ‘Necessary’ means the need to achieve a certain purpose without going overboard while ‘Natural’ means following one’s Te with no arbitrary effort” (Creel). From this explanation, it is obvious that the Daoist philosophy demands that a person pursing happiness should allow nature to take its course, which ensures that they soon get what they wanted. This means that many individuals who work so hard trying to get what they want will always struggle. Struggling can be from living off from paycheck to paycheck as a person tries to generate surplus money but cannot do so because he/she needs to pay bills or cater for other personal needs (Hoobler and Dorothy 1993:58). A person can also struggle as he/she tries to save money for a vacation but something comes up and forces them to use that money for that purpose. For these reasons, Wu-Wei encourages individuals to control their inner self, go with the natural flow and let nature do its job instead of forcing anything to happen. However, if a person decides to go against nature and do much of the work, he/she tends to harm him/herself because of working too hard and not being flexible. Working very hard and lacking flexibility makes an individual to be stressed out with everything from their day-to-day lives to work. When this happens, the individual will neither be healthy nor happy because all he/she has to think about is the problem he/she has to deal with and all the efforts he/she has to make before he/she can realize his/her ultimate goals. In order to ensure that people can have healthy, happy and better lives, Taoism thus established the “Wu-Wei” concept that required humans to let things go with the flow of nature (Rhine 2010:257).

Confucianism was the second religion that prevailed in China before Buddhism was introduced. According to Tang (1991:58), Confucianism, which was also referred to as Ruism, was a tradition, a religion as well as a philosophy that encompassed the Confucius teachings. These teachings were perpetuated by a Chinese philosopher known as Confucian, who introduced this system between 501 and 479 B.C.E. This Chinese philosopher was known as Confucius because of introducing this philosophical system to the Chinese people but his real name was Kong Fuzi. Confucian was both a philosopher and a teacher. He taught everyone to do their job and treate others as they would want to be treated. With the core emphasis of this religion being the significance of family as well as social harmony, Confucian taught the people in the republic of China to properly fulfill their duties irrespective of whether a person is serving in government or is being a mother and sister (Creel 1970:33). He taught people how to be open minded rather than being negative about others. He therefore developed a religion that perpetuated a common belief that humans are generally good, perfectible, teachable as well as improvable particularly through personal as well as communal efforts.  The religion thus perpetuated a great deal of positive impact among the Chinese people by cultivating the virtue aspect as well as maintaining ethics (Tang 1991:69).

Buddhism was introduced into China during the Han Dynasty in the third century B.C. The spread of this new religion among the Chinese occurred when the Han Dynasty intensified its power in central Asia thereby tightening trade as well as cultural link between the two regions. The Chinese people were particularly impressed by the fact that Buddhist beliefs and practices were closely related to Daoism. The beliefs were all about learning about karma, rebirth, the four noble truth, and enlightenment of an individual. While Daoism and Confucianism taught the Chinese people how they can align their inner self to the spiritual world, they believed that adopting Buddhist practices would eventually make the entire religious system strong as well as make China a better place to live (Hoobler and Dorothy 1993:87). As such, Chinese interest in Buddhism significantly grew, which led to a huge demand for the religion’s texts that were being translated from Indian to Chinese language. This demand in return led to the arrival of many translators that came from Central Asia as well as China. This attributed to the drastic increase in Buddhist texts that were written in Chinese language. As a result, Buddhism gained popularity among the Chinese people especially because they related it to the prevailing Taoist tradition (Rhine 2010:269).

 Buddhism’s Philosophy and Moral teachings

The introduction of Buddhism into the Chinese territory paved way for the introduction of new philosophical and moral teachings that would eventually make significant changes on Chinese people’s culture. This is because the philosophical and moral teachings are fundamental to the religion, and hence, anyone that denies them is often considered as being non-Buddhist. One of the philosophical principles that are linked to Chinese Buddhism is momentariness, which is often used to mean that nothing prevails for a long time. According to this philosophical principle, everything occurs as a completely new existence that is usually succeeded by another new existence. Chinese Buddhism also teaches about relative existence where it states that nothing exists by itself (Creel 1970:42). According to this philosophical teaching, things that prevail in isolation can be termed as shunya, which means that they are empty. This means that everything prevails in relation to everything else that already prevailed before. This philosophical teaching is closely related to the teachings of Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between phenomena and things that prevail in themselves. The interpretation of this philosophical teaching is that there is no duration in this religion, and hence, everything, including human beings live only for an instant and then vanish. This means that one being can pursue enlightenment, which is in return merited to another being. On the same note, one being can commit evil but the Karma punishments that he deserve are merited to another being that did not commit the evil (Tang 1991:83).

Buddhism also teaches the philosophy of reincarnation. According to this philosophical teaching, a person, even after death, is usually reborn, which continues until such a person attains Nirvana. A person, who is usually made of feelings, perceptions as well as thoughts that tend to interact with the body in an evenly changing way, is usually re-established in a completely new body, which perpetuates their continuity. An individual’s reincarnation is based on their karma, which defines the type of actions they engaged in during their lifetime in the universe. Different Buddhist interpretations explain the reincarnation process differently (Rhine 2010:289). Some interpretations state that rebirth occurs immediately after death while others state that it occurs after forty nine days. Some state that there is a transitional stage known as antarabhava while others state that there is no transitional stage between death and rebirth. Although Taoists believe in reincarnation, they tend to be unsure how the process occurs. They believe that an individual must enjoy live to the fullest without doing anything that is out of their comfort zone. They perceive death as a place where a person that has been enjoying life can go and rest in peace without facing any form of punishment. This means that Taoism does not have any explanation on rewards and punishment after death (Hoobler and Dorothy 1993:108).

In terms of morality, Buddhism teaches about karma, which defines a person’s ultimate fate that is guided by their past actions. This concept explains that people remain tied up in reincarnation due to their intentional actions, which are usually perpetuated through speech, mind as well as body that attributes to future consequences. According to this moral teaching, people can engage in positive actions that are outlined in the Eightfold-Noble path so as to be liberated from rebirth. This moral teaching is contrary to the Confucian teachings, which only require people to undertake their roles properly without defining the consequences that would result from such actions.  Similarly, Taoism and Confucianism teach the importance of engaging in morally acceptable behaviors so as to safeguard the entire generation from calamity. According to these teachings, if one person in a family does evil, the whole generation is bound to face calamity (Tang 1991:122). Contrary to these teachings, Buddhism teaches that whatever an individual does attributes to their own fate, that is, it is their karma, and it will not harm his/her family or generation. This teaching has given the Chinese people a completely different view on doing what is right or evil.

The impact of Buddhism on China’s Society

Buddhism has for a long time impacted the Chinese society in diverse ways including way of worship, art, philosophical doctrines and moral teachings among others. In terms of its impact on way of worship, Buddhism introduced a wide range of new religious concepts, doctrines as well as beliefs. For instance, the religion brought with it the reincarnation belief as well as the Karma doctrine, which eventually paved their way in the Chinese people’s way of life. Additionally, Buddhism impacted the various behaviors that Chinese people engaged in during worship. This is because the religion introduced practices such as seated meditation, the act of making offerings in front of images, consecration as well as confession rites and new gestures of pressing palms together (Tang 1991:130).

Buddhism has also impacted the Chinese art by inspiring some of the popular artists in the country to specialize in drawing as well as sculpting Buddha images. Similarly, the Bodhisattvas image that Buddhists brought into China has inspired Chinese artists to create similar images that members of the society use when worshipping on a day-to-day basis on their altars. As explained by Rhine, The Bodhisattvas represents a female deity that the Chinese people refer to as Guan Yin. The Chinese people have bestowed this deity with the responsibility of listening to the people’s cries, pain and sorrow (Rhine 2010:299). Furthermore, Buddhism has impacted Chinese art by introducing the idea of making the image of Buddha using different structures and color. Buddhism has also impacted Chinese literature by perpetuating a wide range of Buddhist concepts. For instance, there is a lot of Chinese literature that describes the concept of heaven and hell, which is a new concept that was brought into Chinese society through the new religion (Hoobler, Thomas, and Dorothy 1993:189).

Emic analysis of significance of Buddhism to the society

            An emic analysis of this religion indicates that Buddhism has played an important role in shaping the wider Chinese society especially because it has helped to modify its followers’ behaviors as they pursue to live an overly acceptable way of life. As explained by Tang (1991:97), inquiries drawn from varying Buddhists show that they particularly benefit from the reincarnation teachings. This is because the teachings have enables most Buddhists to realize that they have the freedom to choose the circumstances surrounding their rebirth. From these inquiries, it is obvious that most Buddhists have chosen to abandon destructive factors like negative emotions as well as desires, which might make them to sway from Karma and instead draw back to life through rebirth.

Etic analysis

            An etic analysis of this religion also indicates that Buddhism has impacted the way non-Chinese members of the wider society perceive the Chinese society. According to Rhine (2010:288), a keen analysis of Buddhism indicates that the religion has some aspects that disapprove the popular belief that any religion must solely depend on the integration between humans and supernatural beings. Although Theravada Buddhism was for a long time perceived to be an atheistic religion, its emergence into Chinese territory has impacted the perception of most westerners by proving that it does not necessarily have to atheistic. This is because many people within the religion do not necessarily have to maintain their relationships with supernatural beings, although some still do. Contrary to the popular belief, the emergence of Buddhism into China has shown that most people do not necessarily have to worship spirits but they instead work in contrary to spiritists’ practices.


            Buddhism is a popular religion that was introduced into Chinese territory from India by emissaries that were greatly committed to the religion’s primary goals. Prior to the introduction of this religion into China, two other religions, Confucianism and Daoism, prevailed in this country and dictated the Chinese people’s way of life. Although these two religions had completely different philosophical and moral teachings, Buddhism introduced new philosophical and moral concepts that prevailed in terms of teachings on reincarnation, Karma, momentariness, and relative existence. These teachings have greatly impacted the Chinese society in diverse ways including way of worship, art, literature and philosophical as well as moral doctrines.


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Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Chinese Culture. Peking: University of Peking.