Buddhism Comes to China

The Beginnings of Buddhism
Around 500 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, founded a religion in India called Buddhism. Buddhism revolves around the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. The Buddha preaches that if these doctrines are followed, Buddhists will reach a state of enlightenment called nirvana, and thus freed from the worries of the physical world.

Siddhartha was the son of a king of a north India kingdom. He lived a luxurious life and was destined to become a powerful king. But at age 29, Siddartha encountered a sick man, an old man and a dead man. These encounters forced the young prince to reevaluate his pampered life. He came to realize that wealth and luxury did not grant him happiness. Determined to come to a deeper understanding of life, Siddartha left the palace, leaving behind his father, his wife and his child. He traveled for six years, studying under many different yogi's (yoga masters) and spiritual teachers. He tried many forms of meditation and yoga, including severe regimes of fasting during which he nearly died. Finally, Siddartha found the Middle Path and achieved enlightenment.

The enlightened Siddartha, known as the Buddha, taught followers his Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path to help others achieve enlightenment as he had. People from all across India adopted the practice of Buddhism. By 300 BCE, Buddhism was a major religion in India. Under the reign King Asoka Maurya (272 – 232 BCE), Buddhist missionaries set out to bring Buddhist teachings to people in every corner of Asia.

Spread of Buddhism into China
Although the exact date Buddhism reached China from India is unclear, it was obviously a factor as early as the first century CE. Buddhism was spread along the Silk Road and other trade routes and had reached China by the time of the Later Han Dynasty.

One account of Buddhism's entry into China describes Han Emperor Ming's dream during the first century CE. It is said that Buddha appeared to the emperor in a dream and that the very next day he ordered some his officials to travel west in an attempt to find what had caused his vision. The officials west traveled along the Silk Road and eventually came upon two Buddhist monks with two white horses. The monks carried with them a picture of Buddha and their horses were loaded with holy Buddhist scriptures. The Chinese officials invited the monks to return with them to China's capital, Chang'an, to introduce Buddhism to the emperor.

Upon there return to Chang'an, the emperor identified the picture of Buddha as the figure he had seen in his dream. The emperor asked the two monks to translate their texts into Chinese. The emperor built a temple for the two monks to stay in while they translated their texts. The temple that became known as the White Horse Temple in honor of the two white horses that had carried Buddhist scriptures all the way from China. While no one knows whether or not this myth is an accurate description, there is historical fact which shows Buddhism being practiced in China by the middle of the second century CE.

Even though the Later Han Dynasty disintegrated in the last half of the second century CE, the interest in Buddhism throughout China continued. Various figures and monks continued to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese and thus began the widespread popularity of Buddhism in China which continues today.