Change of Chinese Attitude to Buddhism Over Time

During the period if instability in China from 220 – 570 CE, some Chinese were in favor of Buddhism because they wanted to see it thrive and they felt it established order. Around 350 CE, China was invaded by a group of central Asian steppe nomads. During this time, author and scholar Zhi Dun wrote that anyone who follows the path of Buddhism accurately and faithfully will be “enlightened in his spirit, and then he will enter Nirvana” when he/she dies. Zhi Dun is faithfully following the way of the Budd Buddhism was founded in India in 6th Century BCE. It was brought to China following the collapse of the Confucian Han Dynasty in 220 CE. Following this, there was a period of large instability from 220 – 570 CE.

During this period, some of China had a positive view of Buddhism and it was frowned upon by others. A multitude of scholars and high ranking officials thought that Buddhism established order and control because just like Daoism and Confucianism and they wanted to save it from being wiped out in China. Even after the period of instability, people like Tang Emperor Wu believed Buddhism would poison China by undermining Confucianism through the weakening of society. These responses were a result of the instability of China and the popularity of Buddhism. The most positive responses came from those who looked for more peace in times of instability, while those in power believed Buddhism was a threat to their rule. ha because he believe s it will help him escape and reach peace during this time of volatility.

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This statement was written because Zhi Dun strongly believes Buddhism will help pacify China through its peaceful ways and means. Also during this period, around 500 CE, an anonymous Chinese Scholar writes The Disposition of Error and states that he who follows the Way will accumulate “goodness and wisdom” in exchange for “worldly pleasures”. This statement was written to show that mental stability and wisdom is highly valued in this time of uncertainty. The monks who practice Buddhism give up ‘worldly pleasures’ because they believe the peace achieved through Buddhism is more valuable to their life during this time. However, once peace was restored under the Tang Dynasty, those in power like Emperor Wu began to frown upon Buddhism. After 570 CE, imperial structure in China was restored under Tang Emperor Wu and those in power rejected Buddhism because they felt it was a threat to their rule.

The year was 845 CE and Emperor Wu had established a strong imperial hold on China. In regard to Buddhism, Emperor Wu felt that Buddhism “wears out the people’s strength” and “pilfers their wealth”. Wu wanted to maintain a firm grasp on the Chinese by removing all potential threats. He believed Buddhism would corrupt his citizens and make them harder to control. Thus, he issued this statement to show his intentions to eradicate this ‘evil’.

In 819 CE, Han Yu, a leading Confucian scholar and Tang official, wrote Memorial on Buddhism, which, had it been written later, would have corroborated with the statements of Emperor Wu. In this document, Han Yu states that Buddhism is a “cult of the barbarian peoples”. Yu goes on to describe how the Buddhists dress differently and live differently, displaying that the reason he felt this way is because “it did not exist this way in ancient times”. For the most part, Chinese men in power were opposed to Buddhism and its integration into Chinese society. Although most of the Tang imperial household was opposed to Buddhism, Zong Mi, a leading Buddhist scholar and friend of the Tang, wrote On the Nature of Man detailing his thoughts on Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism while entertaining the Tang Emperor as his audience in the early ninth century CE.

Zong Mi believes all three philosophies are similar because they encourage the “perfection of good deeds, punish wicked ones, and reward good ones”. Zong Mi is a scholar and a Buddhist so he is aware of the positives and negatives of all three philosophies. It makes sense that he has a positive outlook on Buddhism. This proves that Buddhism was favorable to some people, even during instability, as Zong Mi continues to maintain support for Buddhism during a state of imperial control over China. In conclusion, during the period of instability in China, most scholars favored Buddhism because it established order and they supported it to help it thrive.

On the other hand, during a time of imperial rule, those in power like Tang Emperor Wu were opposed to Buddhism because it posed a threat to their control. Even during this time, some dedicated scholars like Buddhist Zong Mi continued to support Buddhism to save it from eradication. The spread of Buddhism is an example of a trend throughout history where favorable ideas spread all over the world. This is similar to how Greek culture was spread through Hellenization and how the ideas of agriculture and domestication were popular all over. This trend in history allows us to study the effect of one philosophy or notion and its effect on many types of society.