At the peak of the Tang Dynasty's vitality, Chinese Buddhism produced numerous spiritual masters.
An 8th century Chinese mural in Dunhuang describes an Emperor Wu of Han (156–87 BCE) worshiping the Golden Man statues; "golden men brought in 120 BC by a great Han general in his campaigns against the nomads". However, there is no such mention of Emperor Wu of Han worshiping the Buddha in Chinese historical literature.
The Hou Hanshu then records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 BCE, who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi had already started to disseminate the Buddhist faith in eastern Asia during the 1st century BCE (Baldev Kumar (1973), exact source needed).
This encounter is further described in a 6th-century account by Yang Xuanzhi:
These Chinese emissaries are said to have visited the country of the Yuezhi and to have brought back with them two missionaries, named Dharmaraksa and Kasyapa Matanga, together with sutras containing 600,000 Sanskrit words. The two missionaries wrote "The Sutra of forty-two sections spoken by the Buddha" to provide guidance on the ideas of Buddhism and the conduct of monks. It is the first Buddhist text in the Chinese language, although its authenticity is a matter of debate.
Their arrival in 67 CE marks Buddhism's official introduction in China. Historians generally agree that by the middle of the 1st century, the religion had penetrated to areas north of the Huai River. Emperor Ming's brother Liu Ying the Prince of Chu was the first high-profile believer of Buddhism, although there is some evidence that Emperor Ming himself might have been as well.
The first documented translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese occurs in 148 CE with the arrival of the Parthian missionary An Shih Kao in China, probably on the heels of the Kushan expansion into the Tarim Basin. An Shi Kao established Buddhist temples in Loyang and organized the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, testifying to the beginning of a wave of Central Asian Buddhist proselytism that was to last several centuries. Traces of Buddhist iconography can also be seen in works of art from this period.
Mahayana Buddhism was first propagated into China by Kushan Lokaksema (Ch: 支谶, Zhi Chen, full name 支樓迦讖 var. 支婁迦讖 Zhi Loujiachen, active ca. 164–186 CE), the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese.
Kang-nam Oh frames the mutual influential dialogue of Buddhism and Taoism within China and mentions Kumarajiva:
To thrive in China, Buddhism had to transform itself into a system that could exist within the Chinese way of life. Thus highly regarded Indian sutras that advocated filial piety became core texts in China. Buddhism was made compatible with ancestor worship and participation in China's hierarchical system. Works were written arguing that the salvation of an individual was a benefit to that individual's society and family and monks thus contributed to the greater good.
It is conjectured that the shocking collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 and the resulting period of social upheaval and political unrest known as the Three Kingdoms period may have helped the spread of Buddhism. Buddhism was a minor force, however, compared with Taoism which was directly associated with efforts to defy the emperor (cf. Yellow Turban Rebellion). The Taoist Zhang family self-governed the Hanzhong Commandry for nearly 20 years until invasion by the renowned Chinese warlord Cao Cao.
A reason for the lack of interest mostly stemmed from the ruling entity and gentry. All the rulers were Han Chinese and had simply never heard of or knew too little of the religion. The Nine-grade controller system, by which prominent individuals in each local administrative area were given the authority to rank local families and individuals in nine grades according to their potential for government service, further consolidated the importance of Confucianism. Taoism also remained a strong force among the population and philosophers.
It is instructive that Buddhism propagated faster in northern China than in the south. Social upheaval in northern China worked to break down cultural barriers between the elite ruling families and the general populace, in contrast to the south where elite clans and royal families firmly monopolized politics. Taoist and Confucian political ideology had long consolidated the political status of elite clans in the south. Support of another religion would have unknown and possibly adverse effects, for which these clans would not risk their privileges. Furthermore pro-Buddhist policy would not be backed by the bureaucracy, which had been staffed by members of the clans. Southern rulers were in weaker positions to strive for their legitimacy - some were even installed by the clans. It was not until the reign of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty that saw the official support of Buddhism. Rebellion of Hou Jing near the end of Emperor Wu's reign wreaked havoc on the political and social privileges of the elite clans, which indirectly assisted the spread of Buddhism. But Buddhism spread pretty well in the peasant populace, both in the north and the south.
Arrivals of several prestigious monks in the early 5th century also contributed to the propagation of the religion and were welcomed by rulers of the Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Dynasties. Fo Tu Cheng was entrusted by the tyrant Shi Hu of Later Chao. Kumarajiva was invited by Lü Guang, the founder of Later Liang, and later by Yao Xing, second ruler of Later Qin. Biographies of these monks, among others, were the subject of the Memoirs of Eminent Monks.
The direct experiential impact of contact with practicing monks should not be underestimated. Confucianism had no equivalent to holy men – the archetypical best and brightest was a wise government minister, not a saint. Taoist priests were more immediate, but given to relativism. It is notable that when another "foreign " religion, Nestorianism, sought to extol the virtues of one of its main benefactors they claimed he was so moral that "...even among the most pure and self-denying of the Buddhists, such excellence was never heard of;" (cf. Nestorian Stele). Through the actions and example of monks, Buddhists successfully laid claim to the high moral ground in society.
In this way Buddhism grew to become a major religion in China. By the beginning of the 6th century, Buddhism had grown in popularity to rival Taoism. We know they were successful because the monks were soon accused of falling into extravagance and their lands and properties confiscated by Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou dynasty and Wuzong of the Tang Dynasty.
During the early Tang dynasty the monk Xuanzang journeyed to Nalanda in India and other important sites to bring back scriptures. He sought to expand influence of Mahayana over Theravada, though the Yogacara school he preferred differs significantly from the later Chinese Mahayana schools that developed such as Pure Land (see Journey to the West).
The Kaiyuan's Three Great Enlightened Masters, Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra, established Esoteric Buddhism in China from AD 716 to 720 during the reign of emperor Tang Xuanzong (or Hsuan-Tsung).
They came to Daxing Shansi, Great Propagating Goodness Temple, which was the predecessor of Temple of the Great Enlightener MahaVairocana. Daxing Shansi was established in the ancient capital Chang'an, today's Xi'an, and became one of the four great centers of scripture translation supported by the imperial court. They had translated many Buddhist scriptures, sutra and tantra, from Sanskrit to Chinese. They had also assimilated the prevailing teachings of China, Taoism and Confucianism, with Buddhism, and had further evolved the practice of The Esoteric School.
The popularization of Buddhism in this period is evident in the many scripture-filled caves and structures surviving from this period. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu province, the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi are the most renowned examples from the Northern, Sui and Tang Dynasties. The Leshan Giant Buddha, carved out of a hillside in the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty and looking down on the confluence of three rivers, is still the largest stone Buddha statue in the world.
They brought to the Chinese a mysterious, dynamic, and magical teaching, which included mantra formulae and rituals to protect a person or an empire, to affect a person’s fate after death, and, particularly popular, to bring rain in times of drought. It is not surprising, then, that all three masters were well received by the emperor Tang Xuanzong, and their teachings were quickly taken up at the Tang court and among the elite. Mantrayana altars were installed in temples in the capital, and by the time of emperor Tang Taizong (Tai-Tsung, r. 762-779) its influence among the upper classes outstripped that of Taoism. Relations between Amoghavajra and Taizong were especially good. In life the emperor favored Amoghavajra with titles and gifts, and when the master died in 774, he honored his memory with a stupa, or funeral monument.
Subhakarasimha (637-735), an eminent Indian Tantric master, arrived in the capital Chang’an in 716 and translated the Vairocanabhi-Sambodhi-Tantra, better known as the MahaVairocana-Sutra, or Great Sun Buddha Scripture. Four years later another master, Vajrabodhi (670-741), and his pupil Amoghavajra (705-775), arrived, and proceeded to translate other scriptures, thus establishing a second, though not rival, Mantrayana (Chen-Yen, or Zhen-Yan) lineage.
Vajrabodhi (671-732), an Indian Buddhist master, and a graduate of the Nālandā Monastery, received complete empowerment and transmission from Nagabodhi, who in turn received from Nagarjuna. He was born of a South Indian Brahmin family, and his father was a priest for the royal house. Vajrabodhi probably converted to Buddhism at the age of sixteen, although some accounts place him at Nālandā at the age of ten.
He studied all varieties of Buddhism and was said to have studied for a time under the famous Buddhist logician Dharmakīrti. Under Santijnana, Vajrabodhi studied Vajrayāna teachings and was duly initiated into yoga. Leaving India, Vajrabodhi traveled to Sri Lanka and Srivijaya (present-day Sumatra), where he apparently was taught a Vajrayāna tradition distinct from that taught at Nālandā. From Srivijaya he sailed to China via the escort of thirty-five Persian merchant-vessels and by AD 720 was ensconced in the Jian’fu Temple at the Chinese capital, Chang'an (present-day Xi’an). Accompanying him was his soon-to-be-famous disciple, Amoghavajra.
When Vajrabodhi arrived in Chang'an, Subhakarasimha had already been there for four years. Subhakarasimha was eighty some years old. Vajrabodhi was about thirty something, and Amoghavajra a teenager. Subhakarasimha and Vajrabodhi met and debated. Afterward, they bowed to each other as each other's teacher.
Like Subhakarasimha, who preceded him by four years, Vajrabodhi spent most of his time in ritual activity, in translating texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, and in the production of Esoteric art. Particularly important was his partial translation of the Sarva-Tathāgata-Tattva-Samgraha between the years 723 and 724. This Yoga Tantra, along with the Mahāvairocana Sutra translated by Subhakarasimha the same year, provides the foundation of the Chen-Yen school in China and the Shingon and Esoteric branch of the Tendai schools in Japan.
Like Subhakarasinha, Vajrabodhi had ties to high court circles and enjoyed the patronage of imperial princesses. He also taught Korean monk Hyecho, who went on to travel India. Vajrabodhi died in 732 and was buried south of the Longmen Grottoes. He was posthumously awarded the title Guoshi, 'National Master'.
Amoghavajra (705-774), a Singhalese, was the most famous Yogacharya of his time. He was a prolific translator who became one of the most politically powerful Buddhist monks in Chinese history, acknowledged as one of the eight patriarchs of the doctrine in Shingon lineage.
Born in Samarkand of an Indian father and Sogdian mother, he went to China at age 10 after his father's death. In 719, he was ordained into the Sangha by Vajrabodhi and became his disciple. He also became Subhakarasimha’s disciple a few years later. Both Subhakarasimha, the holder of the Garbhadhatu Womb Realm teachings, and Vajrabodhi, the holder of the Vajradhatu Thunderbolt Realm teachings transmitted the Dharma Lineage to Amoghavajra, who began the Not-Two Dharma Teachings of Garbhadhatu and Vajradhatu. The Tang emperor granted Dharma instruments to Amoghavajra to setup the first Abhiseka-Bodhi-Mandala at Daxing Shansi, thus began the Chinese Esoteric School.
After Vajrabodhi's death in 732, and at his wish, Amoghavajra went on a pilgrimage in search of esoteric or tantric writings, visiting Ceylon, Southeast Asia and India. During this voyage, he apparently met Nagabodhi, master of Vajrabodhi, and studied the Tattvasamgraha system at length. He returned to China in 746 with some five hundred volumes, and baptized the Emperor Tang Xuanzong. He was especially noted for rainmaking and stilling storms. In 749 he received permission to return home, but was stopped by imperial orders when in the south of China.
In 750, he left the court to join the military governorship of Geshu Han, for whom he conducted large-scale tantric initiations at field headquarters. In 754, he translated the first portion of the Tattvasamgraha, the central text of Esoteric Buddhism, which became one of his most significant accomplishments. He regarded its teachings as the most effective method for attaining enlightenment yet devised, and incorporated its basic schema in a number of writings.
In 756, under emperor Suzong, Amoghavajra was recalled to the capital. He was captured in general An Lushan's rebellion but in 757 was freed by loyalist forces, whereupon he performed rites to purify the capital and consolidate the security of the Tang state. Two years later, he initiated the emperor Suzong as a cakravartin.
In 765, Amoghavajra used his new rendition of the Scripture for Humane Kings in an elaborate ritual to counter the advance of a 200,000-strong army of Tibetans and Uyghurs, which was poised to invade Chang’an. Its leader, Pugu Huaien, dropped dead in camp and his forces dispersed.
The opulent Jin’ge Temple on Mt. Wutai was completed in 767, a pet project of Amoghavajra's, and one of his many efforts to promote the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī as the protector of China. Amoghavajra continued to perform rites to avert disaster at the request of the emperor Tang Taizong. His time until 771 was spent translating and editing tantric books in 120 volumes, and the Yogachara rose to its peak of prosperity.
He died greatly honored at 70 years of age, in 774, the twelfth year of Taizong, the third emperor under whom he had served. On his death, three days of mourning were officially declared, and he posthumously received various exalted titles. He was given the title of the Thesaurus of Wisdom, Amogha Tripikata and the posthumous rank and title of a Minister of State. The Chinese monks Huilang, Huiguo and Huilin were among his most prominent successors. Seventy-seven texts were translated by Amoghavajra according to his own account, though many more, including original compositions, are ascribed to him in the Chinese canons.
Making duplications of Buddhist texts was considered to bring meritorious karma. Printing from individually carved wooden blocks and from clay or metal movable type proved much more efficient and eventually eclipsed hand copying. The Diamond Sutra of 868 CE, a Buddhist scripture discovered in 1907 inside the Mogao Caves, is the first dated example of block printing.
Huiguo was the most well-known disciple of Amoghavajra. Both Amoghavajra and Huiguo were emperors' guru, in other words, they were National Masters. Huiguo's main residence was the Qinglong Temple.
Emperor Tang Wuzong, fearful of the popularity and the magical abilities of the practice, banned the teaching.
There were several components that lead to opposition of Buddhism. One factor is the foreign origins of Buddhism, unlike Taoism and Confucianism. Han Yu wrote, "Buddha was a man of the barbarians who did not speak the language of China and wore clothes of a different fashion. His sayings did not concern the ways of our ancient kings, nor did his manner of dress conform to their laws. He understood neither the duties that bind sovereign and subject, nor the affections of father and son."
Other components included the Buddhists' withdrawal from society, since the Chinese believed that Chinese people should be involved with family life. Wealth and power of the Buddhist temples and monasteries also annoyed many critics.
As mentioned earlier, persecution came during the reign of Emperor Wuzong in the Tang Dynasty. Wuzong was said to hate the sight of Buddhist monks. In 845, he ordered the destruction of 4,600 Buddhist monasteries and 40,000 temples. Another 250,000 Buddhist monks and nuns had to give up their Buddhist lives. Wuzong cited that Buddhism was an alien religion, which is the reason he also persecuted the Christians in China. Ancient Chinese Buddhism never fully recovered from the persecution.
Today the most popular form of Buddhism in both mainland China and Taiwan is a mix of the Pure Land and Chán schools. The central scripture of Pure Land Buddhism, Amitabha Sutra was first brought to China by An Shigao, circa 147, however the school did not become popular until later. Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is the most important sutra for Chán and this is the only scripture written by ethnic Chinese which is named Sutra. Theravada Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism exist mainly among ethnic minorities in the southwest and north, respectively.