How Did Buddhist Beliefs Impact Chinese Thoughts?

Chinese depiction of the Buddha.
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As Buddhism traveled from India through China, it both changed and was changed by the perspective of the Chinese. As Arthur F. Wright notes in his book "Buddhism and Chinese History," no two cultures could have been more different. With their gradual spread through the third century, Indian Buddhist modes of language, grammar, literature and beliefs had a major impact on early Chinese society, and continue to affect culture to this day.

1 Buddhism and Cultural Traditions

The Chinese incorporated Buddhism into their society by blending the legends and lexicon of Indian Buddhism into the belief system that was most popular at the time, called Daoism (or Taoism.) For example, Wright cites the translation of the word "tao" (the path, the way) into the Buddhist term dharma (the teaching). Other concepts were reinterpreted through Confucian morality -- though Buddhism placed a relatively high value on women in society, Confucian interpretation of Buddhist ideas placed women in a more subservient position.

2 Buddhism and Chinese Beliefs

Much like their cultural effects, Buddhist beliefs were gradually woven into pre-existing Chinese folklore. Buddhism introduced the idea of an afterlife that resembles hell to the Chinese, and altered their belief system about the destiny of families. During the Sung period, the concept of a chain of lives, or reincarnation, joined prevailing beliefs about divine retribution. Other stories, such as the creation story of the cosmic egg born from chaos, remained intact.

3 Buddhist Places of Worship

In China, Buddhist temples evolved in a way that ultimately differentiated them from Buddhist temples in India and elsewhere. Stylistically, they resemble ancient imperial palaces, while sharing characteristics with other Chinese buildings such as a southern-facing entryway to provide good luck, a tendency borrowed from the concept of feng shui. The entryway includes carved depictions of Chinese intepretations of the Buddha. This precedes a great hall, where the altar of a particular Buddha can be found.

4 Buddhism in China Today

Contemporary China integrates Buddhism seamlessly into their complex religious fabric. Scholar David Bonavia writes about the resurgence of Buddhism in China since the 1970s, describing temples which had been shuttered during the Mao years being opened for historical interest. On mountains Chinese Buddhists consider sacred, the government has banned mining for materials such as lead, zinc, and iron ore. Some have turned to Buddhism as a method of spiritual healing and feeling of connectedness in an increasingly capitalistic society.

Kat Stromquist received a master's in creative writing from the University of New Orleans. She writes about interior design and lifestyle issues for a variety of print and web outlets.