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 The Heyday of Buddhism in China

By By Householder Fo'en

Q: Following its introduction, when was the heyday of Buddhism in China?
A: The golden age of Buddhism in China occurred during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The various schools emerged one after another, like the spectacle of a hundred flowers blossoming.

Q: A brief introduction, please.

A: Many sects sprang up at the time, with eight major Mahayana schools being particularly influential: the Sanlun (Madhyamaka, or Middle Way), Yogacara, Tiantai, Huayan (Avatamsaka), Ch'an (Zen), Pure Land, Vinaya (monastic discipline), and Esoteric schools.

The Sanlun school was founded chiefly on the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), the Sata Sastra (Treatise in One Hundred Verses) and the Dvadasamukha Sastra (Treatise on Twelve Topics), translated by Kumarajiva. Its central doctrine is the integration of absolute and relative truth and its ultimate aim was to perceive the reality of the Middle Way. This school was in fact directly descended from the Madhyamaka thought of Nagarjuna. It was founded during the Sui Dynasty by Master Jizang at Jiaxiang Monastery in Shaoxing. It was also called the Jiaxiang school.

The Yogacara school was based on the Samdhinirmocana Sutra (Sutra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets), the Yogacaryabhumi Sastra (Treatise on the Stages of Yogic Practice) and the Vijnapitmatratasiddhi Sastra (Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Mere Consciousness). It followed the Yogacara doctrine established by Asanga and Vasubandhu -- thus its name. Its chief tenet is that "all phenomena are consciousness-only" and "the Three Realms exist only in the mind." Its purpose is to convert consciousness into wisdom. Tripitaka Master Xuanzang, abbot of Ci'en Monastery in Chang'an, was the first to translate the Yogacara works and propagate its doctrines. He founded the school, and compiled the thought of ten masters into the Vijnapitmatratasiddhi Sastra. Yogacara is also known as the Ci'en or Faxiang school.

The Tiantai school was founded on such texts as the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra (Treatise on The Great Perfection of Wisdom). Its doctrines were formed by assimilating the ideas of various Indian schools and systematically reorganizing them. Its main creed is the theory of the Five Periods and Eight Teachings, and its central ideas are Three-fold Contemplation With One Mind and the Perfect Harmony of the Three Truths. The school was named after Mt. Tiantai in Jiangsu, where its founder Master Zhizhe lived. And because its principal scripture was the Lotus Sutra, it was also known as the Lotus Sutra school.

The Huayan school took the Avatamsaka Sutra as its foundation and made comprehensive studies and penetrating explications of the text. Its thought was developed from the theories of earlier thinkers and schools, such as the Sanlun, Tiantai and Yogacara. This school classifies the entire Dharma into the Five Teachings, core tenets of which are the Six Features, Ten Metaphysical Entrances (doors) and Three Contemplations. Its founder was the preceptor of state, Xianshou (Master Fazang), who inherited the thought of Dushun and Zhiyan. Thus is also called the Xianshou school. And because it developed the principle of the "Dependent Origination of the Dharma Realm," another name was the Dharma Realm (Fajie) school.

The Ch'an school advocates ch'anding (samadhi practice), meaning meditation or tranquil contemplation. The aim is to focus on a single point and contemplate, so as to become aware of the true nature of one's own mind. It was also known as the "Buddha-Mind school." Its founder was Bodhidharma from India. The subsequent transmission was to Second Patriarch Huike, Third Patriarch Sengcan, Forth Patriarch Daoxin and Fifth Patriarch Hongren. The school then divided into two sub-sects, the Northern and the Southern. The Northern branch was headed by Shenxiu, who propounded gradual cultivation. It flourished for a time, but declined before long. The Southern sect was led by Huineng, who advocated sudden enlightenment. His lineage thrived and he was venerated as the Sixth Patriarch by later generations.

The Ch'an lineage was transmitted on a one-to-one, mind-to-mind basis. Though it emphasized non-reliance on language and "special transmission without using the scriptures," it had its own canon. Master Bodhidharma bequeathed the four-fascicle Lankavatara Sutra to Second Patriarch Huike. Moreover, Hongren and Huineng taught their followers to recite and practice the Diamond Sutra. Later appeared the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch and many other recorded quotations.

The Pure Land school was established on the basis of the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation of Infinite Life Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra and the Treatise on Rebirth in the Pure Land. It was founded in the Tang Dynasty by Master Shandao, who inherited and synthesized the Pure Land thought of Masters Tanluan and Daochuo. The school classifies the Buddha's teachings into the Difficult Path and the Easy Path, self-power and other-power practice, and the schools of the Sacred Path and the Pure Land school. The aim of this school is rebirth in the Land of Bliss through recitation of Amitabha's name.

Those schools that cultivate the precepts, meditative concentration and wisdom through self-power methods, taking three great asamkhyeya-kalpas in this world to accomplish Buddhahood, follow the difficult Sacred Path. By contrast, the easy Pure Land path focuses on Amitabha-invocation, exclusively reciting "Namo Amitabha Buddha." Adherents depend on the (other-) power of Amitabha's vows to be reborn in the Pure Land and gain Buddhahood there.

For practitioners, it is not necessary to master the Buddhist scriptures, meditate or undertake special self-cultivation. They can recite "Namo Amitabha Buddha" while walking, standing, sitting or lying down. So long as they have sufficient faith in Amitabha's deliverance, aspire to rebirth in the Pure Land and recite single-mindedly, they will be guided to the Pure Land by Amitabha Buddha when their lives end. (For further detail of the Pure Land teaching, please refer to the Complete Works of Master Shandao, compiled by Master Huijing.)

Because of its simplicity, and convenience and ease of practice, the school has drawn the greatest number of adherents since the Tang Dynasty. Even many followers of other schools practice its methods, making Pure Land the most popular path in China.

The Vinaya school is known for its focus on the study and practice of precepts. Its de facto founder was Master Daoxuan of the Tang Dynasty. Because it was established according to the Vinaya in Four Divisions (Dharamaguptaka) of the Vinaya Pitaka, it was also known as the Four-Division Vinaya school. And as Master Daoxuan lived in the Zhongnanshan (mountains), it was alternatively called the Nanshan Vinaya school or the Nanshan school. Its popularity meant that learners of the Mahayana's three disciplines of precepts, meditation and wisdom also attached importance to the Vinaya Pitaka of the Theravada tradition.

Key to the study of Vinaya rules is to distinguish among the concepts of flexibility, protection, abidance and violation as they apply to monastic discipline. Flexibility means that certain Vinaya precepts normally regarded as inviolable, may be breached under certain circumstances. Protection refers to certain precepts without inherently sinful nature, but which may be inducement to the violation of Vinaya rules -- such as drinking alcohol. In certain circumstances, it isn't easy to judge whether there has been an infraction. Study of the Vinaya texts is necessary, so that the demarcations among flexibility, protection, abidance and violation can be determined.

The Esoteric school was introduced into China from India by Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, among others. Based on the Mahavairocana Sutra and the Vajrasikhara Sutra, this school established the Three Secret Yoga, performing meditative contemplation and specific actions to achieve integration with a sacred being or master (guru-yoga). To preserve its esoteric nature, the school does not permit those who have not undergone abhiseka (empowerment by pouring water on the head) from freely displaying and passing down its traditions. Hence the name Esoteric school.

From Buddhism for Beginners – Questions and Answers


  • Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
  • Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
  • Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
  • Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime

Amitabha Buddhas

The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha

If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.

Guiding Principles

Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings