41: Rise, Fall & Transformation of Buddhism during the T’ang

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Another unsuccessful attempt at imperial Taoism

The ascendancy of the Sui Dynasty under Emperor Wen was based in part around religious tolerance. This policy was continued under the T’ang. The initial phase of the T’ang Dynasty is considered to be incredibly tolerant towards any belief system, except those that challenged the supremacy of the central government. This attitude was a nomadic cultural trait that we will see again under the Mongols of Genghis Kahn in the 13th century. The tolerance of the T’ang led to a religious flowering.

With the re-establishment of the Empire under the T’ang dynasty, the government tried unsuccessfully to establish Taoism as the state religion but was confounded by its variability.

“The founders of the T’ang dynasty (618-907) … tried once again to take over Taoism to make it into a state cult. Despite these maneuvers, state control of Taoism remained incomplete and provisional. The ancient Mysteries would never become a religion of universal salvation. [Footnote: “Taoism has always remained exclusive. The revealed books were never put into general circulation. To this day the liturgy is only transmitted in the form of handwritten (never printed) texts. Moreover, in Taoism there is no tradition of preaching.”1] … Taoism, united in its diversity (the Tao is not the One), firmly maintained its base in the countryside and preserved its exclusive and initiatory character. Thus, the great dynasty of the T’ang, though officially Taoist, stands out as the high point of Buddhism in China.” 2

Exclusive Taoism not for masses or state

This quote reiterates some common themes. Because of its lack of dogma, Taoism would never become controlled by the state, nor would it become a mass religion. It is too exclusive, too individual, and requires too much work. Both the Han and T’ang Emperors attempted unsuccessfully to make Taoism the state religion.

The Spread of Buddhism into China through writings

Buddhism into China from north and south

Although Taoism continued to exert considerable influence on Chinese thought during the T’ang Empire, it was Buddhism that flourished and grew during this Chinese Golden Age. During the T’ang Empire, the influence of Buddhism grew rapidly in China. Buddhism spread from India both south into Southeast Asia and north into Afghanistan. From these two diffusion centers it entered China from both the north and south3.

Han Buddhism from external sources

Individuals coming from the west or south into China did much of the early missionary work, especially during the Han. They were foreigners attempting to communicate a foreign religion to the exclusive Chinese culture. Little inroads were made until the Chinese made Buddhism Chinese. This occurred through translations of Buddhist works into the Chinese language by Chinese speakers.

Buddhist works brought to China

The first Buddhist works were brought to China from India by way of translator-missionaries. The most prominent of these was Kumarajiva. In later times,

 “Chinese such as Fa-hsien (?340-?420), Hsüan-tsang (596-664) and I-tsing … undertook the hazardous journey to India by land or sea in order to obtain scriptures for China. Sometimes these journeys were taken with Imperial patronage.”4

Hsüan-tsang’s Quest

The ‘hazardous journey’ taken by Hsüan-tsang to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures is the journey to the west written about in the book of the same name, a.k.a. The Monkey Book.  In the novel, he received royal patronage for his trip. Hsüan-tsang is Tripitaka. Tripitaka means three baskets of Buddhist teachings. It could also refer to the three ways – Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The foundation of Journey to the West is based upon a real historical incident.

Hsüan-tsang started his 14 year trip under the expanding reign of the second T’ang Emperor, T’ai-tsung, (626-649). He was the half-breed, who expanded China’s influence to the Mediterranean. While Hsüan-tsang’s journey was treacherous, at least it was undertaken in a period of stable international relationships. Because of the expanding Chinese power, this part of the world was relatively safe during this time.

Chinese preference for ‘Utterances of the Original Master’

Entire schools of Chinese Buddhism were and are based upon these acquired scriptures.

“One feature of East Asian in contrast to Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, was the development of schools based on the study of particular sutras. … In the great Chinese schools philosophy arises out of reading the sutras; in Tibet, Indian schools of philosophy, thoroughly mastered, are used as hermeneutic tools in order to understand the sutras themselves. One reason for this Chinese emphasis on sutras and exegesis, one suspects, is that study of the Original Master’s utterances and commentary on their meaning was very much part of traditional Confucian learning.”5

It seems that there is a distinct difference between Indian/Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. The Chinese took the sutra as the starting point for understanding philosophy. In contrast, Tibetans took the sutra as the ending point, something to be understood after studying Indian philosophy.

This could be due to the tendency of the Chinese to place great value on these ‘utterances of the Original Master’. As evidence the Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu, and the Chinese classics, which include the writings of Confucius as well as the I Ching, are all highly venerated. The Chinese Buddhist monks in their journeys to India in search of Buddhist scriptures must have felt like they were seeking out rare and precious gems, in that these too were the utterances of the Original Master. Hence we have Hsüan-tsang taking a real trip to India for real scriptures. (The author of Journey to the West uses this journey as a metaphor for the quest for transformation and realization. We will note later what an interesting twist the author gives to these scriptures.)

In the West: the Bible, utterances of the original Master, God

In our Biblical culture, we also seek out these literary jewels. The Protestant revolution is partially based upon the attribution of the authorship of the Bible to God himself, the ultimate source. While the Jews tended to view the Old Testament Bible as a compilation of history and poetry, the Christians attributed divine authorship to it. While the Catholics venerated the Bible, they gave nearly equal weight to current theological writings and statements of their religious leaders. Being closest to God, the Pope was also considered his mouthpiece. A Papal Bull, a holy statement of the Pope, was considered as God’s opinion and so would rank up with the Bible.

Bible is ‘utterances of the Original Master’, God

In Chinese style, Protestants went right back to the original source to draw inspiration. In this process, they elevated every Biblical writer to be a channel for God himself. The Word of the Bible became the beginning point for understanding the world. One didn’t study philosophy and history to understand the Bible. One studied the Bible to learn about philosophy and history. According to many Christians:  “The Earth is approximately 6000 years old according to the Bible. If scientists say that the Earth is billions of years old, they must be wrong. If it is not in the Bible then it is not worth studying.” For Protestants the ‘utterances of the Original Master’ are contained in the Bible, and God is the Original Master.

Importance of sutras due to difficulties of cross-cultural communications

Difference between Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism

Although the Chinese may have elevated the sutra to the highest level because of their traditional respect for ‘utterances of the original master’, a more important consideration could be the inherent difficulty of conceptual communication between the Chinese and the rest of the world. Although blue is blue, one is one, and tall is tall no matter which language is spoken, certain philosophical concepts are nearly impossible to understand outside the originating tradition.

For instance the Chinese words jen and yi are translated as compassion and justice respectively. Reading a translation, we would place our cultural bias on these words. A more fruitful approach would be to attempt to understand the words jen and yi themselves rather than thinking that they are their translations. It is simplistic to think that Confucius based his philosophy around the concepts of compassion and justice, rather than jen and yi with their multi-level meanings, among which are compassion and justice. While similar, western ‘compassion’ and Chinese jen are not the same. Jen has unique connotations and meanings, which have already been explored earlier in the paper.

Western Religious concepts have no direct Chinese translations

Just as Chinese philosophical concepts never have direct European translations, similarly European sentences, including the Sanskrit of Buddhism, which describe philosophical concepts, are not directly translatable into Chinese. The concept of God in the west has no Chinese equivalent. The concept of chi in China has no European equivalent. These are not unique examples, but are the norm rather than the exception.

The Chinese must use many words to explain our word ‘God’ and even then their descriptions fall far short of all the Western implications of the word. Similarly the Chinese word taiji, which is translated as Grand Ultimate, would need an essay to explore its full implications. This discussion would still fall short unless one had an actual experience of taiji. As an example, a description of sex, no matter how good, falls far short of the reality of the experience.

Difference of the Void in China and India

The first transmissions of Buddhism to China came from Buddhist missionaries. However their attempt to translate Sanskrit concepts into Chinese concepts was fragmented and incomplete. One of the Buddhist concepts that Chinese translators distorted for centuries was the notion of emptiness. In yin-yang philosophy of the I Ching, the idea of wu also meant emptiness. However, the primordial wu in the I Ching immediately transforms into yin and yang through the mechanism of taiji.

Chinese emptiness is incredibly active, inevitably transforming into something. When the Chinese seek emptiness, it is with the awareness that this state will immediately turn into something. Master Ni says that when one faces the void that there is something there. For centuries, the Chinese understood the Buddhist notion in this context.

Void really empty in Buddhism

For the Hindus/Yogis and Buddhists of India, the void is really empty. There is really nothing there, not even the thought of nothing. The Buddhist concept of the void is related to their notion that existence is an illusion. For the Chinese, who were so rooted in this world that they sought immortality in the attempt to avoid death, the idea of illusion was difficult. They couldn’t understand the Buddhists who wanted to die completely to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. While the earth-bound Chinese could easily relate to the idea of reincarnation, because they loved this life, the idea of escape was foreign. Thus the initial exposure of the Chinese to Buddhism was through ‘foreign barbarians’ with a poor grasp of Chinese thought.6

Distortions of Chinese translations

The second exposure was through Chinese translators. The initial translations must have been incredibly inadequate. In terms of the West, the Chinese to European translations of the early 20th century are so bound by Western thought that many Chinese concepts are distorted. While the early translators were Christians attempting to make sense of these foreign concepts, the modern translators of the Chinese classics have become involved in Chinese disciplines to varying degrees. Additionally, there are many Chinese that have been raised in America with Chinese parents who can more readily understand both traditions.

Tripitaka lives in India for cultural immersion

The same difficulties plagued the early translations of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. This is where Tripitaka came in. He traveled to India as a Chinese, lived there for years before returning, and then translated the Indian classics. Through this cultural immersion, he was better able to understand the Indian psyche and hence the Indian religion of Buddhism. Then as a Chinese he was able to transmit a foreign religion into indigenous Chinese thought.

Journey as an original utterance

In terms of interpreting Journey to the West, we are in a similar position to Hsüan-tsang. We have a translated work from a foreign culture. In attempting to understand the novel, it is necessary to understand the roots of Chinese culture. In some ways, this extended paper is meant as cultural immersion into Chinese literary culture and history in order that The Journey can be understood from a more complete cultural perspective. In many ways, we are viewing The Journey as the ‘utterances of an Original Master.’

Taoism & Confucianism join forces

The merger of shamanism, the Heavenly Masters, and the local cults

In the later T’ang period in China, the rituals of the Mysteries, the liturgy of the Heavenly Masters, and the local fertility cults merged on a loose level. The Mysteries derived from prehistoric shamanistic practices; they were for initiates and included inducing non-verbal trance-like states. The Heavenly Masters tradition was based upon Lao Tzu’s return and writings, while the local festivals were based upon age-old traditions founded in prehistory. Taoism, the way-less Way, accommodated any manifestation and so became the umbrella for a large number of practices. To call it Taoism implies unity, when in actuality the diversity was endless. The real Tao can’t be named.

“From the 8th century on, the rituals of the Mysteries and the liturgy of the Heavenly Masters were associated with local festivals. The gods of the people became Taoist saints and vice versa.”7

Confucianism, Taoism and the I Ching

With the ascendance of Buddhism under the T’ang, Taoism and Confucianism were thrown together. As usual Mama Tao did not oppose Confucianism but instead became its protector against the foreign influence of Buddhism. It was during this period that the abstract philosophy behind the I Ching, one of the Confucian/Chinese classics, was assimilated by the Taoists.

“Far from the capitals, Taoism then found an ally: Confucianism, the doctrine of the literati. … Not in opposition with this tradition, Taoism even assimilated it and became its guardian. … This had a profound effect on the evolution of Taoism whose traditional mythological cosmology was gradually replaced by the abstract one of the Book of Changes, the I-ching. At the same time, the literati became interested in the arts of longevity and took up alchemy.”8

Because of a more intimate relationship with Confucianism, Taoists became more involved in the yin yang theories of the I Ching. Due to their involvement with Taoism, Confucians became more interested in breathing practices and the arts of longevity.

Cultural struggle: Chinese vs. outsiders

This neat little package should be clarified a bit. The literate ju class, i.e. the Confucians, having lost a lot of political influence during this age of warrior kings, did find solutions to life’s chaos in Taoist literature. The popular Taoist organizations also found new meaning in the I Ching.

The bigger meaning was that the traditional opposing elements of Chinese society were joining forces against the newcomers. Buddhism and the ruling classes were both entering China primarily from the northwest. Eventually this trend was to have disastrous consequences for Buddhism.

“During the whole second half of the T’ang and up to the ninth century, Confucianism and Taoism coexisted and together prepared the great renaissance of the Sung (960-1279). They also took on Buddhism together.”9

The Death of T’ang Tolerance

Tolerance of Early T'ang

In many ways, the defeat of the T’ang in 750 in the southwest marked the beginning of the end for their dynasty. Let it be remembered that the T’ang dynasty was based upon tolerance. During the T’ang Golden Age, prior to 750, tolerance was venerated. Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, all operated freely throughout China. As usual in Chinese politics there was tolerance for anything except anti-government sentiment. The early T’ang was the peak.

751 AD Lose Decisive Battle with Moslems

The defeat of the T’ang in 750 marked the beginning of their political decline, as well as a global decline in tolerance from which we have yet to recover. The Biblical idea of one Nation under one god had already militarized the West. Prior to the Moslem expansion, the Romans and the Greeks had been religiously tolerant, while politically intolerant like the Chinese. However after the Moslem expansion and invasion, religion was politicized in a way that it had never been before. While the Jewish nation had always associated their religion with their government, they had not been able to expand very far because of their exclusivity. This politicization of religion by the Biblical religions indirectly also destroyed religious tolerance in China.

“In 751 the Arabs attacked the western frontiers, and at the Battle of the Talas River overwhelmed the Chinese garrisons. This was one of the decisive battles of the world, for it destroyed China’s power in central Asia and cut her off from the overland trade routes to the west and to India. It also sealed the fate of Buddhism in that area. What had been one of the great strongholds of the faith became in time converted to Islam, and Mohammedanism was to spread far into north-west China and even into Yünnan Province in the south-west.”10

In the first three quarters of this millennium, Buddhism was on the rise throughout Asia. It spread to China from the north through the steppes of Central Asia and spread from the south through Southeast Asia. In the last quarter of the millennium, the rise of militaristic Islam split Buddhism into parts. Prior to this point, Buddhism had spread without restriction throughout the Asian subcontinent. After the defeat of the Chinese in 751, the geographical branches of Buddhism were disconnected and developed in relative isolation.

We must remember that the tolerance of the Chinese was based upon their intolerance of state criticism. Citizens could believe what they wanted as long as they didn’t advocate changing the political system. One of the thrusts of the Biblical religions is their orientation towards a nation of God on Earth. Thus in the West, we have Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish nations. Many of the wars of the west were based around establishing a national religion. Indeed the European period of the Reformation was based in part around which religion ruled which territory.

This was never true in China. Taoists had never fought anyone for political control. Indeed the Chinese Imperial government through the 21st century has primarily treated the whole world in the same manner. “Pay us tribute, taxes, and respect our system and we will leave you alone. We are quite happy with what we have.”

The Moslem attack from the west was attacking their whole imperial system. While the Muslim nations are just as tolerant as the Chinese as soon as they take control, they do need to be in charge. This is diametrically opposed to the Chinese Imperial system because it is identical to it.

“Alas and alack”, said the previously tolerant Chinese aristocracy. “These foreign religions are threatening our precious social stability. Our local religions, Taoism and Confucianism, understand that it is necessary to respect the Emperor for social stability. Foreign religions are bad.” Woe to the Buddhists for this distorted connection.

The Death of Institutional Buddhism

Buddhism receives the Credit & the Blame

Recall that the early T’ang was the Golden Age of Buddhism in China. With royal patronage, many Buddhist temples and monasteries had been built. Buddhism had many features that were not typically Chinese. For instance, Buddhist monks were meant to refrain from marriage and sex, plus they left the family for the spiritual quest. However, the peace, prosperity, and strength of the early T’ang dynasty was somewhat attributed to Buddhism.

With the fall of the dynasty and the rising chaos throughout the Empire, Buddhism also became associated with its fall. With the credit comes the blame.

Rising Nationalism combined with Buddhist suppression

With the increasing chaos, there was a greater need for more taxes and more soldiers. The peaceful Buddhist way had proved unsuccessful in taming the aggressive human nature. Confucianism with its more worldly perspective reemerged to fill the void. With the rise of Confucianism came the rise of traditional Chinese values, such as filial piety and government respect. With the rise of these worldly values, the unworldly Buddhist values came under attack. As long as the T’ang world was strong, the Chinese didn’t question Buddhism. Once their traditional world was collapsing, they reverted to the traditional philosophies that worked in the past.

As is the cycle in China, there was a rising nationalism during the chaos of the later T’ang that was increasingly intolerant of anything foreign. Buddhism came to bear the brunt of the attack.

“From 841 to 845 the government imposed the severest suppression in the history of Chinese Buddhism. The court had Buddhist temples all over the country destroyed, …. It was reported that 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines were wiped out; 260,500 monks and nuns were returned to the laity; and millions of acres of tax-exempt farm-land were confiscated and returned to the tax registers.”11

This suppression did not exterminate Buddhism from China. However this period certainly signaled the end of its institutional political influence. Buddhism went through a crucial shift at this time.

Buddhism + Taoism = Ch’an [Zen] Buddhism

The institutional attack upon anything of foreign origin, including Buddhism, created an incredible religious transition. Although institutional Buddhism reached the zenith of its importance during the early T'ang, it was still heavily linked with Indian Buddhism across the Central Asian Steppes. With the closure of this route by Muslim invaders, Chinese Buddhism was forced to evolve in isolation from India. Further with the imperial and national backlash against things of foreign origin, Buddhism was forced to sinofy – become Chinese.

Early T’ang great melting pot

The early T’ang was the great melting pot. The local religious practices were assimilated under Taoism’s umbrella. Also Confucianism and Taoism shared concepts and practices in reaction to the foreign religion of Buddhism. Mama Taoism, in her ultimate tolerance of the myriad ways, also interacted with Buddhism. Although Taoism is based upon wordless practices, they established and accumulated the Taoist canon in response to the proliferation of Buddhist texts.

While Taoism’s response to Buddhism was to become more verbose, Buddhism’s response to Taoism was to become quiet, stressing practice over ideas.

“T’ang Buddhist doctrine shows a move from introduction to absorption and creative internalization. Among the predominantly practice-oriented Buddhist traditions which become progressively more important as time passes, particularly after the 842-5 persecution, we find Ch’an (Zen) on the one hand, with its stress on meditation verging sometimes on an antinomian anti-intellectualism, and deep devotion to a Buddha, particularly Amita-bha, on the other.”12

Ch’an [Zen] Buddhism developed under the T’ang dynasty. Its emphasis on practices and separation from study, sutra, and teachings is characteristically Taoist.

“Ch’an [Zen Buddhism] was typically Chinese, practical, concrete and above all Taoist. Ch’an thought, at odds with the scholasticism of the Buddhism of the Great Vehicle, borrowed from Taoist mysticism its shattering of concepts, its teaching without words, and its spontaneity. Its simplicity and its proximity to the masses would allow it to survive when the Buddhist high church itself collapsed. Alongside a rediscovered Confucianism and basic Taoism, Ch’an became the third component of this reawakening which marks the beginning of modern China.”13

Stages of Buddhism in China or Beginning Three Doctrines

Summarizing there were three stages of Buddhism in China. First it was a foreign religion, which attracted few converts. Then with social chaos, its philosophy of detachment became attractive to the Chinese, drawing many converts. During this phase, the scriptures from India assumed paramount importance, because the Chinese wanted to learn about this foreign religion. Because of the difficulties of translation and interpretation, the Buddhist monks became quite intellectual; the deeper understanding of Buddhism became reserved for the elite. In the final stage, Buddhism was assimilated and made Chinese. After Mahayana morphed into Ch’an, it became Taoist, non-verbal and spontaneous. With these ideas in mind, the emerging Three Doctrines make more sense.


1 The Taoist Body, Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993, p219

2 Schipper, p. 12

3 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan, p 69, “During the second century there was also a flourishing Buddhist community in Katigara (modern Tonkin), whence the new faith gradually spread northwards into South China and Szechwan.”

4 Williams, p. 119

5 Williams, p. 116

6 In terms of personal experience, it is difficult to understand Chinese philosophy from Master Ni because he is coming direct from Chinese culture. Reading a mixture of sources, Chinese and American, and using him as a backdrop to personal experience has proved most effective to the understanding Chinese words and philosophy.

7 Schipper, p. 13

8 Schipper, p. 13

9 Schipper, p. 13

10 Chinese Art, Finlay MacKenzie, Paul Hamlyn Ltd. 1961 p14

11 Charles Hucker, China to 1850, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1978, p. 99

12 China to 1850, p. 120

13 Schipper, p. 13


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