Gautama Buddha lived about 500 years BC. He was born a prince in present-day Nepal but found that material wealth wasn’t making him happy. He left the palace and became a wandering ascetic studying with various teachers. After spending a night meditating under a tree, he found enlightenment and spent the next 45 years travelling round northern India, teaching. His followers gathered together after his death and standardised his teachings and started to spread them throughout India.

His basic teachings are known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Truths are:-

  • There is suffering
  • Suffering is caused by craving things you don’t have
  • The end of suffering (nirvana) is possible
  • The way to nirvana is by following the Noble Eightfold Path which is a plan of self-discipline: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

He believed that there was a continuous cycle of death and reincarnation and that each person’s position and happiness in life was determined by how they behaved in previous lives. If you lived a good life, you might be reborn as an important and wealthy person. If you spent a life doing evil, you might be reborn as a poor or sick person.

Buddhism reached China along the Silk Road in the 1st century AD brought by two Indian monks who were invited by the Han emperor to start a monastery. The teachings didn’t have much effect to start with because of the prevalence of Confucianism and the feeling that it was just a foreign corruption of Daoism, but its philosophical analysis appealed to the intellectuals of the Han Dynasty. During Emperor Wu’s reign Bodhidharma is said to have brought Zen Buddhism to China. Zen was a reaction against ‘intellectual’ Buddhism, stating that meditation under a teacher was the correct way to reach nirvana.

In the chaotic period following the end of the Han Dynasty, Buddhism spread throughout China. The northern areas didn’t practice Confucianism and encouraged the Buddhists so eventually it became the state religion. People in the southern region were dissatisfied with traditional Confucianism and so they, too, took an interest in Buddhism. Many devout Buddhists made pilgrimages to India to seek enlightenment from the original texts of Buddha. Local Chinese gods were absorbed into it which gave Chinese Buddhism a unique flavour or the Chinese Pantheon as it came to be called.

When the country was reunited in the Sui Dynasty, the two traditions of Buddhism were reunited as well although various sects were formed. At the start of the Tang Dynasty it became the state religion but later the Buddhists were severely persecuted and their monasteries destroyed.

Buddhism in China never fully recovered.