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Buddhism was founded in India in the sixth century B.C.E. and gradually moved to China after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 C.E. For several centuries Buddhism influenced China greatly. During that time to 570 C.E., China experienced an era of political instability and disunity, afterwards which the imperial structure was restored. During the 1st century C.E. the spread of Buddhism from India to China was met with mixed results, in which many Chinese people accepted Buddhism and advocated its principles such as the philosophy and promise of afterlife over the Confucian ideals that were previously instituted, but the truth was that Chinese masses turned to Buddhism for its promises of eternal enlightenment during times of struggle and invasion and the principles of Buddhism were changed to conform to Chinese culture; however a lot of people rejected the concept of Buddhism because it was a foreign influence, as well as a belief that lowered the status of upper class people; and they were usually the ones against Buddhism. Nonetheless, masses of people still converted to Buddhism because it allowed them to break out of the rigid hierarchy that Confucianism imposed, which is why it was common among the lower classes.
The period of time following the collapse of the Han dynasty was known as the Era of Division, during which China suffered frequent invasions from Central Asia. Document 1, “The Four Noble Truths” and Document 2, written by Zhi Dun, illustrate the reasons for the initial compatibility of Buddhism with the time period. In Document 1; Buddha put emphasis on the steps to stop all suffering. During much of the time period, many people had struggled and suffered because many lives were lost as the nation of China had unstable political leaders. Dun speaks about how the acceptance of the Buddhist salvation is placing control in the hands of the Chinese. During troubling times such as the time period after the Han’s fall, people wanted to believe that they had a promise of release from the material world. Buddha aimed his sermon towards large audiences, which in this time period, were the peasants or lower classes; so it could have a mass appeal. Document 2 was a political statement that stated that Buddhism’s only purpose was to provide a sense of sanctuary to the lower class people who were afraid. Since Zhi Dun was a Chinese scholar, which was a class held high in Chinese society, his opinions on Buddhism did not reflect the conceptions of the masses of people who accepted Buddhist principles.
As time went on, external influences towards the Chinese significantly decreased but the conflict between Confucianism and Buddhism rose. Document 3, “The Disposition of Error,” and Document 5, the “Zong Mi Essay,” exemplify attempts to allow both beliefs to coincide peacefully. Document 3 was written by an upper-class scholar, and addressed some areas of conflict between the two, such as Buddha not being mentioned in Confucian writings because they don’t contain everything, and how it doesn’t make them biased for doing so, as well as the sacrifice Buddhists make for a better life later on. Document 5 has equal views on both belief systems, because it explains how both were good for their times and had everything the people needed during their respective time periods, and that both Confucius and Buddha are both perfect sages. These documents were also written during different time periods; Document 3 towards the end of a period of political disunity, and Document 5 during the beginning of the Tang. Both documents explain how Chinese people want to assimilate Buddhism into their lives without threatening Confucian ideals. Nevertheless, Document 3 was written by an upper-classman, meaning that the objections expressed about the compatibility of Confucianism and Buddhism might not have been the same perception to the lower classes. Document 5 was written during the Tang, and it partly inferred lawfulness from these Buddhist beliefs. The purpose of the document may not have been what the ideas of the Chinese population were, but rather, what the government wanted them to be. As China transitioned from a period of disunity to a stable government, Buddhism’s influence declined, as people felt that they were safe now.
Other documents depicted the spread of Buddhism as a foreign invasion of the superior China. Han Yu’s memorial (Document 4) and the Emperor’s edict in Document 6 both blame Buddhism for tainting the people of China. Document 4 addresses growing feelings of nationalism in China; which resulted in a growing stand for Confucianism, since it was a belief system founded in China. Document 6, on the other hand, revealed not a strengthening of the state, but a weakening. The beginning of the decline of Tang was all blamed on the spread of Buddhism by the imperial court. It expresses bigoted views that the elimination of Buddhism will purify Chinese society. Document 4 was clearly biased because the author was both a Confucian scholar and a court official, and he may have been influenced by a personal aspiration to stay at the top of the social hierarchy, like he was in Confucianism. The emperor in Document 6 also seems to blame his troubles on Buddhism. The emperor has never worked a day in his life, so there was no possible way that he understood the reasoning for lower class workers to turn to Buddhism. He could only guess from the state of the economy, since Buddhist monks didn’t work and temples weren’t taxed, which critically harmed the government’s income. Buddhism’s influence declined considerably provided that Confucianism was gaining a stronger foothold inside of Chinese society because of their pride and nationalism.
No matter the views from the upper class, Buddhism was able to spread vastly throughout China, as spoken about in Documents 2 and 6. In Document 2, Dun speaks about how people in China will serve the Buddha because of its alluring pleasures. In Document 6, Emperor Wu speaks about how Buddhism has spread like a “luxuriant vine,” but has poisoned their nation. Both show that no matter its official views, it was able to spread among the lower classes and common people, and one of the reasons was that Buddhism didn’t lock people in a rigid social hierarchy as Confucianism did, so the lower class people generally hoped for something like this to free themselves from that hierarchy. Both documents, being of upper class author origins, though, cannot be relied on to vouch for the state of the lower classes at the time. Though Chinese upper class people rejected Buddhism, it spread considerably far because of the desires of the common people to end their struggle.
In total, Buddhism was a powerful force in both politics and everyday life. It was a tool of the ruling class to appease the people in times of hardship; such as the political disunity in between dynasties. However, when the times changed, it was also blamed for much of their trouble, and for edging out the much more strict doctrine of Confucianism. Most of the documents presented indicated a spread nonetheless of Buddhism among the people. Additional documents to further evaluate the responses to Buddhism include a possible source of a lower class, such as a merchant, or a point of view from a convert to Buddhism, since most views seem to be from Confucian scholars who speak from observation and not from experience. Much of China’s population is made up of these lower classes, so a document from the point of view of a lower-classman would give a broader view on the way most of China regards Buddhism instead of the few higher class people whose opinions could be biased.
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