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The Classical Period of Chinese Buddhism

By Frank Simons

Chinese people began to look for ideas in Buddhism to solve problems in their lives. Kings found Buddhism an attractive religion because it gave them a set of values not particularly associated with any specific group, having broad appeal to their subjects. Intellectuals found the relationship between Buddhism and Taoism offered a model to escape the sufferings of life while responding to the traditional concerns and interests of Chinese life.

Video Presentation
Buddhism. Part 20, “The Classical Period of Chinese Buddhism”
Thu, Apr 28, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

During the T’ang Dynasty (618–907), Buddhism was fully and triumphantly established throughout China. Its canons were revered, its spiritual truths unquestioned. It marked and influenced the lives of the humble and the great and affected every community, large and small. This lecture will attempt to convey the richness and complexity of T’ang Dynasty Buddhism by focusing on three areas of Buddhist life: 1) The schools of Chinese Buddhism philosophy, 2) devotion to the celestial bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Kuan-yin) and the celestial Buddha Amitabha, and 3) Buddhist influence on Chinese literature and the arts.

The T’ien-t’ai School, founded by Chih-i, developed a system of classification, associating different teachings with different audiences and different periods in the Buddha’s life. Its approach to emptiness was expressed in “the perfect harmony of the three levels of truth: All phenomena are empty, all phenomena exist dependently, and all phenomena are both empty and dependent.”

The Hua-yen School founded by Fa-tsang came from a corpus of sutras known as Avatamsaka, which conveyed a positive image of emptiness as the mutual interpenetration of all phenomena. The doctrine of this school pictures the cosmos as “all in one and one in all.”

The Ch’an School gave a distinctive Chinese interpretation to the practice of meditation, giving rise to the Zen School in Japan. The Ch’an School is traced to the legendary Indian saint Bodhidharma (460–534). It began to take on a Chinese character in the hands of Hung-jen (601—674), and particularly in the hands of his disciples, Shen-hsiu (605–706) and Hui-neng (638–713).


The Ching-t’u (Pure Land) School was popular not only among the common people but also among the elite. For peasants and villagers, the promise of salvation in Amitabha’s land held out hope for a future life. For the elite it offered a type of contemplation very different from the austere practice of Ch’an.

Buddhist values had broad influence on Chinese literature and the arts.

The course of 24 lectures is presented by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, professor of religion and director of the Core Curriculum at Boston University. He holds graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard. An expert on Buddhism, comparative religion, and Asian faiths, Eckel has written insightful books on Buddhist philosophy, including Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video. Presentations of the center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


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