Buddhism's Northern Transmission


A different thrust took Buddhism northwards from India into Central Asia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, as well as the kingdoms straddling the Himalayan chain: Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Ladakh. Both Theravâda and Mahâyâna was disseminated in the process, but in the long run the Mahâyâna was to prevail.


Ghandara with Purushapura (Peshawar), Kashmir and parts of Punjab were the springboard for Buddhism to Afghanistan, parts of Iran and Central Asia and further to the north and to the east. This area was one of the breeding grounds of Mahâyâna Buddhism. Buddhist missionaries are thought to be sent to Ghandara not long after the Parinirvâna of the Buddha but it only became firmly rooted under the rule of Emperor Ashoka, whose grandfather Chandragupta Maurya had extended imperial power in this direction. Ashoka himself was a viceroy at Taxila, a great centre of learning and trade that once flourished near Ghandara.

After the decline of the Mauryas during the 2nd century BC, the Greco-Bactrians reasserted their powers and strengthened Buddhism (King Menandros/Milinda). Later the Greeks were suplanted by other peoples, including the Scythians and the Parthians. Afterwards came the Kushâns, a nomadic people originating from China. They built a great empire (from Chinese Turkestan into Afghanistan and northern India and as far as Lake Aral) and became later (after initial enemyship towards Buddhism) great supporters of Buddhism and built many monasteris and stûpas. Thus between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, Buddhism blossomed in this vital part of the world. Its greates patron was King Kanishka (c. 78-101 AD).

The Kushâna dynasty was ousted by the Iranian Sassanids which were followers of Zarathustra but were tolerant towards Buddhism. Bamiyan with the largest Buddha statue in Afghanistan was created in this time. Buddhism had reached its apogee in the 5th century AD, thereafter it declined, hit by the depradations of the White Huns (Hephthalites), by general economic decline and a resurgence of Hinduism.

The Silk Road

The importance of the ancient communities along the different routes of the Silk Road (Parthians, Soghdians, Bactrians, Kûshans, Indians etc.) was not merely as staging posts on the route along which the Dharma was transmitted to China. A great Buddhist civilisation, now called Serindian or Sino-Indian, once flourished here, brought no doubt by Buddhist missionaries from the Central Asian springboard and consolidated by Kanishka's conquests in this area. It had its own art too, in which Greco-Roman and Iranian as well as Indian influences were strongly reflected, with traces of Chinese influences.


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Later Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) and Period of Disunity

Around the turn of the common era, Buddhism started to move into China from Central Asia via the Silk Road. Down to the end of of the Han period, during which China enjoyed a fairly stable centralised government, its progress among the native Chinese was fairly slow due to the deep-rooted xenophobia of the Chinese and due to the fact that Buddhism was in many cases inimical to the prevailing ideology, which derived from the sayings of the sage of Confucius (551-479 BC). Confucianism is a this-worldly creed and uphelds the ideal of a stable, harmonious social order in which every human unit plays its part according to hallowed custom. Thus, its devotees could only look with disfavour on any religion in that seemed to encourage the abandonment of all worldly ties in favour of the pursuit of a remote and vague spiritual idea. Also the fact that the Buddhist Sangha did not work but looked to other people to support them cut totally against established Chinese values.

Gradually, however, the barriers began to break down, aided by the Chinese mystical tradition of Taoism. Taoism is derived from the teachings of the mythical Yellow Emperor Huang ti (2698-2597 BC) but it was reformed by the great sage Lao Tzu, author of the classic Tao Te Ching. The Taoist were very un-Confucian in their dislike of the social world. They advocated a return to simplicity and harmony with nature. The Chinese found thus points of similarities between Taoism and Buddhism. The existence of a serious Buddhist community in Loyang emerged in 148 AD, when a Parthian missionary An Shih-kao made his appearance. A Kûshan named Lokaksema played also a role. They brought the Mahâyâna teachings to China. The early appearance of "meditation handbooks" showed a special Chinese brand of Buddhism.

The fall of the Han dynasty in 220 AD and the prevailing instable circumstances (Period of Disunity) created the right conditions for Buddhism with its profound teaching on suffering and impermanence to gain popularity and spread to other parts of China. Buddhism started to infiltrate court circles in many parts of the fragmented empire. Under the northern Wei dynasty, patronage of Buddhism soared and colossal schemes for building monasteries, temples, pagodas and stûpas were initiated. Buddhism was also taken up by native rulers in the south, notably by the 6th century ruler Wu, who tried to develop into a kind of Chinese Ashoka by surpressing Taoism in favour of Buddhism. This resulted in the emergence of a native Sangha by the middle of the 3rd century when a Chinese version of the Vinaya (monastic code) was produced.

Due to worldly developments and the jealousy of Confucians and Taoists there was an anti-Buddhist backlash around 446 and 574.

Buddhism also gained ground on the popular level. Chinese Buddhism therefore developed into a two-tier system, with a sophisticated brand and a popular variety with a strong superstitious element in it. But, even on the height of Buddhism in China, there has always been Confucianism, Taoism and the folk religions.

The Silk Road remained the Buddhist activity route from Central Asia into China with many translations. The Indo-Scythian Tun-huang (late 3rd century) translated the Saddharma- Pundarîka Sûtra (White Lotus of the True Dharma Sûtra), a highly influential Mahâyâna scripture that was to become the basic text of the indiginous T'ien T'ai school. The other four most influential Mahâyâna Sûtras in China were: Prajnâaramitâ, Vimalakîrti- nirdésa, the Sûrângama-samâdhi and the Sukhâvati-vyûha.

The Vimalakîrti-nirdesa was re-translated by Kumâravija who was most influential in the north (Kucha, Karashar, Kansu, C'ang-an)(around 400 AD) in the spreading of Mahâyâna and Mâdhyamîka teachings.

Sui and T'ang Dynasties (581-907)

During the Sui And T'ang dynasties a fully fledged Chinese Buddhism reached its golden time. In particular, a number of highly developed schools emerged, nearly all of the Indian by origin but adapted to Chinese culture. These schools were subsequently transmitted to Korea and Japan.

The following are the principal schools:

Vinaya School (Lü-tsung)

The principal text is Vinaya in four parts: translated by Buddhayashas and Chu Fo-nien. This strict monastic order school was founded by Tao-hsüan (596-667)

Realistic School (Chü-she)

The principal text is the Abhidharma-kosha of Vasubhandu. It derived its inspiration from ideas by Vasubhandu, the brother of Asanga and a native from Purushapura (Peshawar) who, before his conversion to Mahâyâna, was an ordained member of the Sarastivâda (All-Things-exist), one of the 18 schools of the Hînayâna.

The Abhidharma-kosha was translated into Chinese by Paramârtha (563-567) and later Hsüan-tsang. The school that arose in China eventually became an appendage of the Idealist School (Fa-hsiang).

The Three Treatises School (San-lun)

The principal text is the Mâdhyamika-shâstra and the Dvâdashadvâra (Twelve Gates) of Nâgârjunja, also the Shata Shâstra (One hundred Verse Treaties) of Aryadeva. The school is based on the Mâdhyâmika or "Middle Way" teachings of Nâgârjuna who sought to advance the perfect wisdom of absolute emptiness by the use of a "transcendental dialect" negating all views. Introduced by Kumarajiva, these teachings were refined by Chih-tsang (549-623) in the Chia-hsiang monastery. The school declined after the rise of the Idealist School (Fa-hsiang), but was later revived by the Indian master Suryaprabhasa (679).

The Idealist School (Fa-hsiang)

The principal text is the Vimsatikâ-kârikâ or "Twenty Stanzas" and other texts by Vasubandhu and his followers. This is the Chinese development of the Indian Yogâcâra school (founded by Vasubandhu and Asanga which propounded the Doctrine of citta-mâtra (mind only)). Its great teacher in China was Hsüan-tsang (596-664). He studied in India at Nâlandâ Yogâcâra philosophy under his teacher Sliabhandra before he returned to Ch'an-gan in 645.

The Mantra or Tantric School (Mi-tsung or Chen-yen)

The principal text is the Mahâvairocana (Great Brilliance) Sûtra. This school is the Chinese manifestation of Tantra with its esoteric paraphernalia of yogas, mantras, mandalas, mudrâs, dharanis, initations and secret doctrines. It was introduced from India during the T'ang dynasty by Subhakarasimha (637-735) who translated the Mahâvairocana Sûtra into Chinese. In 720 Vajrabodhi (670-741) and later Amoghavajra (705-774) came from India in order to strengthen Tantra in China. The school flourished for less than a century and was finally supplanted by Lamaism. It was taken to Japan by Kukai, where it became known as Shingon.

The Avatamsaka or "Flower Adornment" School (Hua-yen)

The principal text is the Avatamsaka Sûtra. Although it emerged from India it developed fully in China and was later transmitted to Japan (Kengon). Avatamsaka is regarded as the ultimate teaching by Buddha. It can be described as a link between Yogcâra and Tantra (although it was not concerned with the attainment of liberation by magical manipulation but rather by contemplation and aesthetic appreciation).

The outstanding figure in the early history of Hua-yen is Fatsang (643-712/3) (third patriarch). Finally, when the general decline of Buddhism commenced in the 9th century, the Hua-yen school also went into eclipse.

The T'ien-t'ai or White Lotus School (Fa-hua)

The principal text is the Saddharma- Pundarîka Sûtra (White Lotus of the True Law). It was founded by Chih-i as a truely genuine Chinese development. The T'ien-t'ai differs from the Hua-yen in providing alternative classifications of Buddhist scriptures. The White Lotus Sûtra is thought to include the essence of all the other teachings. It was therefore the perfect mean that could ferry all men across the ocean of Samsâra to the far shore of Enlightenment. Allied to this was the notion of a single vehicle (ekayâna) in which all other doctrines were united. Most important was the "Three Levels of Truth"-development, which bears traces of the influence of Nâgârjuna: Void of Emptiness, Temporariness and Mean which have to be treated as "all in one and one in all". Emptiness means that no dharma can exist by itself but is causally generated in dependence. Mean arises from the fact that void and temporariness are two sides of a dualism. The school advocated "concentration and insight". Concentration puts an end to erroneous thinking by making it clear that all dharmas are devoid of self-nature and hence exist without really existing. Insight means to fully penetrate the core of all dharmas and to become grounded in Absolute Mind (Womb of the Tathâgata). After Chih-i the line of T'ien-t'ai was contined by several schools (Kuanting, T'ien-kung, Tso-chi, Ch'an-jan and Tao-sui) and was finally introduced to Japan (Tendai) in the 9th century.

The Pure Land School (Ching t'u)

The principal text is represented by the Smaller and Larger Sukhâvatî- vyûha Sûtras. The devotees of this school venerate Amithâba and seek rebirth in the Western Paradise (Pure Land of Amithâba), also called Sukhâvatî. This school is founded on the idea that during degenerate periods Enlightenment could not be achieved by the own effort, but that oneself would be dependable on external grace: Amithâba. This represents the opposite of egoistic "self-power" but "other-power" (tariki). Pure Land Buddhism reflected the Mahâyâna accommodation to devotional forms of practice. The mantric repitition of the name Amithâba (O-mi-tô-fô) was the practice developed here.

The teachings of this school were later transmitted to Korea and then to Japan, where divisions into the Jôdo and Jôdo Shin sub-schools occurred.

The Dhyâna School (Ch'an; Jap.: Zen)

This school is actually based on the Lankâvatâra, Heart, Vimalakirti- nirdésa and Vajracchedikâ Sûtras. Ch'an represents the finest achievement of Chinese Buddhism: an original and highly creative re-expression of the essence of Buddha's teaching in terms that are distinctively Chinese. It can be regarded besides Abhidharma, Mahâyâna and Tantra as a major creation of Buddhism. It was transmitted to Korea (Son), to Vietnam and Japan (Zen).

Ch'an is often described as the "down-to-earth" practical attitude of simplicity of the Chinese while the Indians, on the other hand, are more airy and metaphysical. Ch'an is about a return to the basic Buddhist essentials with the final objective of Enlightenment. The general thrust of Ch'an (dhyâna) is typified by its rejection of book- learning and verbalisation. What, however, was transmitted was Enlightenment itself from master to disciple and, in-spite of the contempt of the written word, the Ch'an- masters were well-versed with the Lankâvatâra, Heart, Vimalakirti- nirdésa and Vajracchedikâ Sûtras. What the early Chinese masters stressed was the "non-abiding mind" - the mind that rests nowhere, beyond all thought and relativity. Ch'an can be practised during the normal activity of the day: continual introspection of the mid arouses an inner potentiality (nei chih) which eventually breaks through into ordinary consciousness and finally into marvellous emptiness.

A leading figure in early Ch'an is Bodhidharma, a south Indian master, who is said to have arrived in China around 520. The history of the Ch'an school begins in earnest with the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713). Some later sub-schools survived: the Lin-chi (Jap. Rinzai) and the Ts'ao-tung (Jap. Sôtô). Ch'an also managed to break the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. In a similar spirit, some Ch'an masters were disposed to announce that there was nothing special about any of Buddhism.

The picture that emerges of Buddhism in T'ang dynasty China is very impressive with thousands of temples and monasteries and flourishing Sanghas where the Sangha was often and in very Chinese style practically involved in doing good works. As a cultural contribution the invention of printing by Chinese Buddhists is of great significance (9th century). Buddhist monasteris developed into powerful centres of commerce which introduced modern-style capitalism and banking in China, but since bureaucracy was pioneered in China, the Sangha was later strictly controlled by the authorities.

Church/state tensions became acute towards the middle of 9th century the T'and dynasty was ravaged by civil war. This resulted in a weakening of Buddhism in China and a revival of Confuzian values, as new and improved variety, equipped with a sophisticated metaphysic that owed not a little to Buddhist philosophy. Another blow was the decline of Buddhism in India due to the penetration of Islam and some deterioration in the quality of the Sangha, caused in part by the practice inaugurated by the Sung dynasty (960-1279) of trafficking in monk certificates in order to raise funds, although the Sung period can be seen as golden Ch'an age.

The decline of Buddhism in China was inevitable. A minor but perhaps indicative popular development during the Sung period was the transformation of the dignified Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be, into Pu-tai, the "Hemp Sack Monk", often known as the "Laughing Buddha". As Pu-tai is depicted as a grinning, pot-bellied hedonist, he suggests the celebration of worldly rather than spiritual values: there is also a hint of decadence about him.

The Mongols established the Yüan dynasty in China in 1280 and made Buddhism (Lamaism) the state religion - for the final time.

Vietnam and Korea

The Sri Lankan Theravâda Buddhism was not successful in Vietnam due to the strong links with China. Chinese forms of Mahâyâna Buddhism (Ch'an and Pure Land) were introduced.

Buddhism was introduced in Korea from China around the 4th century AD. The transmission continued consequently and many of the principal Chinese schools were introduced but, at the end Korea concentrated mainly on Ch'an (Son). Korean Buddhism enjoyed its golden age during the Silla (668-935) and Koryo (935-1392) periods.

From the 13th century Korea followed the Chinese model by growing neo-Confucianism. During present history Korean Son was revitalised as a unified Chogye order.


The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) was a period of crisis. Power was taken from the class of the imperial aristocracy by the warrior class (Samurai) and a military governorship (Shôgunate) was 1185 established at Kamakura, well away from the capital Kyôto. Consequently the spiritual schools of Tendai and Shingon were replaced by the more earthly Zen school. The devotional cults brought Buddhism within reach of the ordinary man. Two major Pure Land schools developed: Jôdo-shû (Pure Land School) and Jôdo Shinshû (True Pure Land School).

The founder of the Shin sub-school was Hônen Shônin (1132-1212) who advocated an "easy path" with assistance of Amida coupled with the recitation of Nembutsu (Amida recital). This practice was strengthened by his successor Shinran Shônin (1173-1262), the founder of Jôdo Shinshû. A highly controversial figure was Nichiren Shônin (1222-82) who preached, based on the Lotus Sûtra, that Enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni could be evoked here and now.

Arguable more important than the development of popular devotional forms of Buddhism was the rise of Zen with an emphasis on self-power to the realisation of Enlightenment. It was favoured by the Samurai class for practical reasons and to face death with equanimity. Zen also influenced the Japanese arts like the tea ceremony (cha-no yu).

The two major surviving branches of the Chinese Ch'an (Lin-chi-Rinzai: transmitted by Eisai (1141-1215)(he reportedly introduced tea from China to Japan) and Ts'ao-tung-Sôtô: transmitted by Dôgen (1200-1253)) were introduced during the Kamakura period.

During the Ashikaga (or Muromachi) Period (1336-1573) until the establishment of the Tokugawa Shôgunate, Buddhism in Japan experienced a decline. A slide into "long narcosis" (Suzuki) now began that was to broadly last into the 19th century. Of the various Buddhist schools the Rinzai Zen School fared best during the 14th and 15th centuries.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods (1573-1868) Buddhism went down, although Japan became re-united, especially under the Tokugawa Shôgunate which ruled Japan from Edo (modern Tokyo) for more than two centuries, with complete closure to the outside world. Neo-Cofucianism became the official creed in Japan. Hakuin Zenji (1685-1768) reformed the Rinzai Zen and laid the foundation for the future development of the Zen-School to the modern time. Since 1868, with the coming of the Meiji restoration, Shintô as detachment of Buddhism became a state cult.


Although the Mongols came in contact with Chinese Buddhism as early as the 4th century, Mongolian Buddhism really came into being through contacts with the Tibetan Buddhism and no truly local development took place. The Mongol Yüan dynasty brought Lamaism to China. The chief monastery in Outer Mongolia is Gandenthekchenling in Ulan Bator, seat of the Khambo Lama. In the past various Mongol tulkus appeared, among them the Hutuktu tulku or "Grand Lama of Urga" (Ulan Bator).


The Mongols brought Buddhism to Russia into three pockets (Buryatia: near Lake Baikal: 40 miles from the capital Ulan Ude there is a large monastery, the Ivolginsky, furthermore in Chita and secondly among the Kalmuks and thirdly in Tuva, east of the Altai mountains, with half a million Buddhists in all these regions.

Himalayan Region

Buddhism developed in Ladakh together with Spiti and Zanskar enclaves (Gelug-Pa and Drug-Pa Kargyu schools), in Sikkim (Tibetans from Kham brought the Karma-Pa, the Karma Kargyu school which subjugated the gentle Lepcha animists) as well as in Aruna Pradesh, in Nepal (mix of Buddhism and Hinduism: with four schools of philosophy: Svabhâvika, Ashvarika, Karmika and Yatrika: in the Hindu-environment Sangha forsook the monastic Vinaya and became a caste on their own, although many fleeing Buddhists from India during the Islam invasion brought their traditions)(with the Buddhist Sherpa enclave in the Rolwaling and Khumbu as well as also in Dolpo and Mustang) and Bhutan (Drug-Pa Kargyu School: Deb Râjas).


Based on the Buddhist Handbook, John Snelling.