Lecture Nine


Scope: While the Han dynasty was sliding toward collapse, a new religion was making its presence felt in China. Buddhism came from India around the 1st century C.E. At first largely a matter of novelty and court patronage, Buddhism’s message of transcendence became increasingly popular as life became more difficult for large numbers of people with the decline of the Han. In this lecture, we will explore the basic concepts of Buddhism, its origins in India, and later transmission to China.


I. Buddhism originated in India around the end of the 6th century B.C.E.

A. This period is sometimes known as the Axial Age.

1. Around this same time, major philosophical figures lived in several parts of the world.

2. It was the age of Confucius and Laozi in China.

3. This was the age of the great Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

4. In India, this was the period when the Buddha developed his ideas.

B. The founder of Buddhism is known by several names.

1. He was a prince in one of the many royal families living in what is now northern India and southern Nepal.

2. His given name was Siddhartha, and he was also called Gautama.

3. He is sometimes known as Sakyamuni, which means “the light of the Sakya family.”

C. Siddhartha was raised in relative luxury but turned to a life of spiritual questing.

1. Many stories recount his initial awakening.

2. In one, he overhears the wailing of a funeral procession and learns about death and suffering in this way.

3. In another, as a young prince, he is given a beautiful princess bride, but when he sees her drooling in her sleep, he realizes there is imperfection in the world.

4. He left his family home and went into the world to seek answers to his spiritual questions.

D. The Buddha attained enlightenment and embarked on a path of teaching.

1. He studied with hermits and other spiritual masters, but none of them satisfied his mind.

2. One day when he was at a park near modern Varanasi, he sat under a Bodhi tree and had a sudden enlightenment.

3. He then set out to share the insights he had achieved and developed a corps of devotees who traveled with him.

4. After a number of years, he announced that it was time for him to leave this material world.

5. In some accounts, he ascended bodily into the heavens, while in others, he shed his physical body and attained pure spiritual liberation.

6. After his departure from this world, his followers became his interpreters, giving rise to various schools of Buddhism.

II. The teachings of the Buddha are fairly simple and straightforward.

A. The key to his enlightenment is the realization of the nature of suffering.

1. Suffering is part of the normal life of people.

2. Suffering arises from our attachment to things.

3. If we wish to be free of suffering, we must liberate ourselves from our attachments.

4. There is a way to do this through meditation and renunciation.

5. These are the Four Noble Truths.

B. Buddhism denies the permanence of phenomena.

1. All things arise and pass away; everything has a beginning and an end.

2. The appearance of permanence in things is an illusion, sometimes called may a.

3. This does not mean, as is sometimes said, that nothing is real, merely that no reality is permanent.

4. Because all things pass away, attachment to them can yield only suffering.

5. Therefore, the way to free oneself from suffering is to realize and accept the impermanence of all things, including oneself.

III. Buddhism developed in India over the next several centuries.

A. Two major schools of Buddhism took form.

1. The first was Theravada, which was concerned with individual liberation.

2. Theravada emphasized meditation and withdrawal from the world.

3. Communities of Theravada monks formed the first monasteries.

4. The second school, which developed around the 3rd century B.C.E., is called Mahayana, which means “Great Vehicle.”

5. It is concerned not only with individual salvation but with the spiritual liberation of all sentient beings.

6. The Boddhisatva, an enlightened spiritual being who chooses to remain in the phenomenal world to aid others, was the ideal of the Mahayana path.

B. Buddhism spread across northern India and to parts of Southeast Asia.

1. The Indian king Asoka became a patron of Buddhism, staging great debates among masters from different religions.

2. Theravada Buddhism took root in Sri Lanka and in what is now Burma and Thailand and moved to the Indonesian archipelago.

3. Mahayana Buddhism spread to the northwest and, eventually, to Central Asia and China.

IV. Around the beginning of the Common Era, Buddhism first appeared in China.

A. Buddhist monks traveled along overland routes from northwest India to

Central Asia. The trade routes of the Silk Road provided the main avenues for these sojourners.

B. Sometime in the lst century C.E., the first monastery was set up in China, near the Later Han capital at Luoyang.

1. Han emperors wished to appear as patrons of all spiritual paths.

2. Buddhist monks became teachers at the imperial court, though without the same high status as Confucian scholars.

C. As the Han dynasty faltered and life became more difficult, many ordinary people began to embrace Buddhism.

1. The Buddhist emphasis on suffering and the impermanence of things offered hope in times of trouble.

2. Buddhism moved beyond the realm of elite patronage and became a more popular religion.

3. At the same time, Buddhism was becoming the common religion of non-Chinese peoples living in Central Asia.

4. At the beginning of the 4th centuiy, these peoples began to move in to China in large numbers, launching a period of instability and cultural change, which we will turn to in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History.

Supplemental Reading:

Liu Xinru, Ancient Indict and Ancient China.

Questions to Consider:

1. How did Buddhism differ fundamentally from the traditional indigenous thought systems of China?

2. Coming from India, what obstacles might Buddhism have faced in finding a place in Chinese culture?

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