21.01.2019 in Analysis
Comparing the Rise of Buddhism in China and Japan

Comparing the Rise of Buddhism in China and Japan


Religion is one of the major factors in the human history and, for this reason, has its special functions. It shows a person the true essence of the world, fleshing out his/her place, and points out the essence of life; it becomes a source of hope and vital support for people. A person that has any religious ideal can be internally reborn and become able to carry the religion idea  to establish good and justice. Religion controls human behavior through its system of values, attitudes, and taboos; it contributes to bringing people together, assisting in the folding of nations, forming and strengthening of the state. It remains the spiritual foundation of society and helps to consolidate and perpetuate specific social order, traditions, and laws of life. Our research paper is devoted to Buddhism as one of the most influential world religions, which obviously has all the mentioned features, and its emergence in such culturally and politically important centers as China and Japan. Buddhism played  significant but different state-creating roles in China and Japan because of its non-parallel development and amplification on the territories of these countries and unequal level of its adoption by both nations.

Origin and Essence of Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest religions. Christianity is younger for five and Islam for twelve centuries. Originating more than two and a half thousand years ago in India as a religious and philosophical doctrine, Buddhism has created a unique and diverse canonical literature, numerous religious institutions, arts, educational system, etc. In other words, it has formed the entire civilization. Buddhism can be regarded as a religion and a philosophy, an ideological and a cultural center, a way of life and a path of spiritual development.

The name of Buddhism comes from the name, or rather from the honorary title of its founder, Buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha). He was the sage of the Shakya tribe and lived in India in the V-IV centuries B.C. His name means “Enlightened One.” India (more precisely, the valley of the Ganges) is the birthplace of Buddhism. For a long time, the most influential religion in ancient India was Brahmanism. Its cult practice consisted mainly of numerous sacrifices to gods and elaborated rituals that accompanied almost every event. Society was divided into Varnas: the Brahmins (the upper class of spiritual teachers and priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishya (merchants), and the Shudras (servants of all other estates).

From its very inception Buddhism denies the efficacy of sacrifice and does not accept the Varna system. This religion examines the human not as a representative of a class, clan, tribe, or a particular sex, but as an individual. Opposing followers of Brahmanism, Buddha believed that women are able to achieve higher spiritual perfection as well as men. Only personal merits are significant. For example, any noble and wise person, regardless of his/her lineage, was called “Brahmin” by Buddha.

Buddhism has absorbed many different traditions of those countries that fall into its sphere of influence. It has also established a way of life and identity of millions of people in these countries. Nowadays, the greatest number of Buddhism’s adherents live in the South, Southeast, Central, and East Asia: Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, and Laos.

Followers of Buddhism have appeared in Europe and in the United States since the end of XIX – early XX centuries. Almost all significant trends and schools that exist in the East have spread on the territory of Western civilization.

Buddhism was and still is a system of beliefs that takes different forms depending on conditions of its promotion. Chinese Buddhism is a religion that speaks to believers through the language of Chinese culture and national perceptions of the most important values of life. Japanese Buddhism, as another branch, represents the Buddhist synthesis of ideas, Shinto mythology, Japanese culture, and so on. This ability to integrate harmoniously with the surrounding cultural landscape clearly establishes Buddhism among other world religions.

This study focuses on comparison of the rise of Buddhism in China and Japan, exploration of its appearance, development, and strengthening; a modification of beliefs and values; an interrelation with the social life and politics; an influence on the upper class and an emergence of a new religious branch in both countries.

Appearance, Development, and Strengthening of Buddhism in General


Buddhism spread into China from India, mainly in its northern form of Mahayana in the II century. The process of strengthening and development of this religion in China was sophisticated and time-consuming. It took many centuries and the enormous efforts of preachers’ and text interpreters’ generations to work out and further use of Chinese equivalents of Hindu-Buddhist concepts and terms. In addition, a lot of things in Buddhism, including its perception of life as suffering and evil, contradicted Confucian ethics and principles of conduct that is popular in China. Only Taoism that was shaped in parallel and drawn from the treasury of Hindu-Buddhist wisdom helped to strengthen Buddhists on Chinese soil. Not surprisingly, the first Buddhist communities were perceived in China only as one of the sects of Taoism.

The era of Southern and Northern Dynasties (III-VI cent.) “promoted” the gradual strengthening of Buddhism by its crises, strives, and instability of life. In such a situation Buddhists’ calls to renounce earthly vanity and to hide behind high walls of a monastery could not but seem attractive. In III-VI centuries, there were about 180 Buddhist monasteries, temples, and shrines around such metropolitan centers as Luoyang and Chang’an, and by the end of V century there were already 1800 cloisters with 24 thousand of monks in the Eastern Jin Dynasty State (Tejada, 2011).


Unlike China, the new religion did not come to Japan from India. Moreover, opposite to China, Buddhism was adopted there much later.

At the beginning of the VI century Buddhism penetrated Japan from China across the state Pyakche. In those days Japan was a backward edge of the East Asian civilization. Bodhisattva doctrine was perceived there as a kind of magic for a long period of time. Today 85% of Japanese are Buddhists. According to another verified sources, Buddhism came with a diplomatic delegation from Korea in 538 (Zhang, 2012).

Significantly, in Korea or China, Buddhism did not play such a prominent historical role as in Japan. The number of Buddhist temples grew rapidly: according to the Nihongi Chronicle there were 46 sanctuaries in 623. At the end of the VII century, was issued a special decree on the establishment of altars and images of Buddhas in all official institutions. Then, in the middle of the VIII century, it was decided to build in the capital Nara a huge Todaiji temple. The 16-meter figure of the Buddha Vairocana, covered by gold collected from the whole country, had to be placed in its center. There were thousands of Buddhist temples. Many schools-sects of Buddhism, including those which were not able to develop or even to survive on the mainland, found their second home in Japan.


Modification of Buddhism Beliefs and Values


Extending and strengthening, Buddhism was influenced by significant “chinazation.” Any foreign ideology, no matter how powerful and all-encompassing it was, penetrating into China, was inevitably exposed to such a strong transformation caused by chinazation. It leaded to the creation of a unique system of ideas and institutions adapted to Chinese customary principles, concepts, and standards. After such kind of evolution, the mentioned ideology reminded its original form only in the most general terms. Buddhism became an indicator of Chinese civilization as well. 

In the IV century, Chinese Buddhists, for example Sun Cho, tried to prove that Buddha was the embodiment of the Tao. Stressing that the main thing in their teaching was high moral standards (kindness, patience, virtue), Buddhists respectfully supported the Confucian principle of Xiao. Unconsciously separate lines of the sutras were changed accordingly to Chinese lifestyle. For example, instead of “the wife takes care of the convenience for her husband” it was rewritten into more natural for the Chinese “wife honors her husband.” (Hodus, 2003) It is significant that monuments and statues in honor of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that were erected at expense  of Chinese Buddhists in the cave temples were usually accompanied by gifts and inscriptions in the typically Chinese-Confucian manner (e.g., to pray precious ancestors for the salvation of  souls).

Changes were made in other spheres as well. For this reason, the ideas and principles of the Buddha, which were the most consistent with traditional Chinese norms and ideals, came to the forefront of Chinese Buddhism. The beginning of such changes was made by the famous Tao-an who was the first well-known Chinese patriarch of Buddhism and the founder of the monastery in Xianyang. Confucian-educated, he was deeply interested in Buddhism and became its brilliant expert and an active preacher. Based on Vinaya Pitaka commandments, Tao-an translated a plenty of texts into Chinese. Moreover, he created exemplary monastic regulations. Tao-an proposed Buddhist monks a family sign Shi from Chinese transcription of the kindred of Gautama (Shakya). However, the peak of Tao-an’s activity was marked by founding of the Maitreya Buddha-coming (Milefo) cult. Many generations of Chinese Buddhists associated their hopes for a better future and general welfare with his arrival, as well as Christians – with the second coming of Christ or Muslims – with coming of Mahdi.

The second authority among Chinese Buddhists after Tao-an was Hui-yuan (334-417). He was also Confucian who passed through Taoism passion and joined Buddhism then. Sinification of Buddhism in his activity was manifested in the establishment of the Western Buddha – Amitabha cult, the patron saint of the “Western Paradise”, “Pure Land”, that put the beginning of Chinese and then Japanese Amidaizm. The cult of Amitabha, as the cult of Maitreya in China, was closely connected with dreams of a rebirth in the future life and entering paradise (Goucher, Le Guin, & Walton, 1998).


A few of its sects, traditionally called schools, formed during the adoption of Buddhism in Japan. All of them belong to the Mahayana or the so-called northern branch of Buddhism. The most ancient sects (e.g. Kegon, Ritsu, and Hosso) were formed during the Nara period and eventually lost their influence. They are quite different from each other by the nature.

As well as in China, Amidaizm remains one of the most common branches of Buddhism in Japan, which forms the basis of the cult of Buddha Amitabha (in Japan – Amida), who is the Lord of the Pure Land or Buddhist paradise. The most popular Amidaizm schools Jōdo shū (School of Pure Land) and Jōdo shinshū (True Pure Land School) were founded later in the XIII century by preachers Honen and Sinran (NMRKOB, 2013).

Overall, the role of Buddhism in Japan is comparable to the one that the religion has played in the history of China. Nevertheless, the place that Buddhism occupied in the traditional Japanese society was more significant than in the Chinese one. In Japan, it did not face such a powerful enemy as the Taoists religion that fought against supporters of the Mahayana. Japanese culture is characterized by the division of roles and spheres of influence between Buddhism, Confucianism borrowed from China, and native Japanese ritual religion Shinto (A View on Buddhism, 2011). The last two doctrines remained common or collective aspects of human existence. In this case, the mental problems including the fate of an individual as well as his solace in adversity or preparing for the inevitable death were entirely controlled by the rules of Buddhist morality.

Interrelation of Buddhism, Social Life, and Politics


Free of taxes and harassment of their patron authorities, Buddhist monasteries attracted peasants or runaway townspeople, who were expelled from their land by nomads, as well as wealthy aristocrats who sought peace and solitude. Buddhism became a real force, and a lot of emperors of both southern (Chinese) and especially northern (non-Chinese or “barbarian”) dynasties sought its support, and some of them even adopted it as an official state ideology.

Transformation of Buddhism on Chinese soil forced this religion to adapt to the social structure of China, standards, and requirements of the traditional Chinese society (Garfield, n.d.). Particularly, it is evident that this doctrine, as well as other religious doctrines of China, acted in its various guises relating to both the educated upper and peasant lower classes.

Enrolling in a pantheon of gods plenty of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhist saints, ordinary people in China choose the most important Buddhism concepts. This system of beliefs associated with the relief of suffering in this life and salvation or eternal bliss in the hereafter.


This religion spread to Japan in the form of Mahayana and did much for the establishment and consolidation there the developed culture and nationhood. Consisting not only of the Indian philosophical thought and Buddhist metaphysics, but also of Chinese civilization’s traditions, Buddhism helped to design in Japan the administrative-bureaucratic hierarchy and some fundamental principles of ethics and law. For this reason, it is noteworthy to admit that there was no accent, as it was done in China, on the absolute authority of the ancient wisdom and the insignificance of the individual for the whole social opinion and system of traditions. On the contrary, in the “Law of 17 articles” published in 604 (Matsunami, 2004), the tenth article stresses that each person can have his/her own opinions and beliefs, perceptions of right and wise, although it is still worth acting according to the will of the majority. Obviously, this article contains important differences that predetermine, along with a number of various factors, the internal structure and political fate of Japan in comparison to China, whose civilization greatly influenced Land of the Rising Sun.

In other words, within the ancient Japanese Buddhist civilization, norms, even subjected to chinazation and so-called confucianization, proved stronger and played a significant role in the foundation of the Japanese culture. From the VIII century Buddhist influence became a determinant of the political life of the country (Rowan, n.d.). According to entire political traditions, an emperor during his lifetime had to abdicate in favor of the heir and run the country as regent, becoming a monk.

Buddhism Influence on Upper Class and Emergence of New Religious Branch


Chinese society, and especially its intellectual elite, borrowed from Buddhism much more than representatives of the lower class. Emphasizing the philosophy of this teaching and its metaphysics, they often neglected its rituals and magical practices. In the private conditions of cells and large libraries of major Buddhist monasteries, the richest and wisest citizens were immersed in the ancient texts and studied sutras, trying to find something new, important, secret, or sancta. They wanted to adapt it to the new conditions and Chinese reality.

Chan Buddhism (in Japan – Zen Buddhism) emerged uniting the synthesis of ideas and concepts learned from the philosophical depths of Buddhism, traditional Chinese thought, and Confucian pragmatism originated in China. It is one of the most interesting and deep, intellectually rich and still popular branches of the World Religious Thought (Eno, 2008). An ancient Buddhist teaching named “dhyana” urged its followers to stay away from the outside world and, following ancient Indian traditions concentrate their thoughts on one thing and feel its depths and mysterious essence. The aim was to achieve dhyana trance during meditation. It was believed that such kind of trance could help to reach depths of undercurrents and find enlightenment or truth as it had happened with the very Gautam Shak-Yamuna under the Bo tree (Bodhi).


Buddha teachings became the weapon of noble Japanese families in a fierce political struggle for power. By the end of the VI century, this fight was won by those who bet on Buddhism. Even now, the influence of Buddhism on the cultural and religious traditions of the Japanese people throughout the history of the state development forms a relationship to Buddhism as the main type of religious worship of modern Japan along with Shinto (Hoffman, 2010).

As well as  many centuries ago in China, the school of Zen Buddhism that preached an achievement of the ideal or revelation of the essence of Buddha by immersion in-depth contemplation, had the significant development in Japan (Zengwen, 2010). Zen Buddhism had an enormous influence on the development of Chinese, Japanese, and the entire Far Eastern culture. Many outstanding masters of literature and art were grown up by exploring the paradox, canons, and ideas of this religious stream.


It should be mentioned that Buddhism developed and strengthened in China and Japan in different way. China was the first one to adopt Indian Buddhism and substantially modify it under the influence of Confucianism. This fact enabled Japan to choose between pure Buddhism and its changed version. In Japan, Buddhism played a much more important role in the nation holding and state creating process than in China. Japanese Buddhism became a weapon in the struggle for political power inside the country and made a significant contribution to the development of the administrative system. Oppositely, China distinguished Buddhism as one of the central components of its cultural life for centuries. Finally, Buddhism became the basis for the development of many minor religious movements; some of them became very influential. Those religious branches included Amidaizm and Chan, or Zen Buddhism that were supported by both China and Japan.

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