The Chinese Buddhist Schools


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The Chinese possess a history of over five thousand years. An important component, which had yielded fruitful results on Chinese culture, is Indian Buddhism. One will realise this enormous influence when reading the cultural History of China. If one tries to talk about Chinese culture without touching on Buddhism, one will be in the position of a blind man as told in the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

Buddhism had been established some twenty-five centuries ago. It had been transmitted to China during the Ch'in and Han Dynasties some five hundred years after the Parinirvana of Sakyamuni Buddha. Buddhism in China had risen and fallen according to the law of constant changes during the past two thousand years. Nevertheless it had been well established in China. In the past it had not been greatly affected by the upheavals and chaos of political changes. For me the Chinese have been open-minded in their nature and have been capable of absorbing foreign culture. That is why Buddhism, when introduced into the well-cultured land of China, has flourished abundantly and developed fruitfully.

The golden age of Chinese Buddhism was from the age of the Three Kingdoms to the T'ang Dynasty. During this period the various Schools in Buddhism evolved their irreproachable and infallible theories based on the doctrine of Sakyamuni Buddha.

Historically speaking the rise and fall of the various schools had been closely connected to the evolution of cultural thoughts and current events in China. For the past fifty years, the social system of China had been changed from Absolute Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy, Republicanism and then to Socialism.

A student of Chinese Culture therefore cannot neglect Buddhism otherwise his progress will be handicapped as a wheel without an axis. It is the duty of a lover of Chinese culture to shoulder the responsibility of fostering the study of Buddhism so that the culture will again radiate its splendid light.

It is encouraging to see at this chaotic moment of multiple ideologies that Buddhism still flourishes in various countries. Now I would like to introduce briefly the ten schools of Chinese Buddhism as follows:

The Ten Schools of Chinese Buddhism:

1. Reality School or Kosa School or Abhidharma School.
2. Satysiddhi School or Cheng-se School.
3. Three Sastra School or San-lun School.
4. The Lotus School or T'ien-t'ai School (absorb the Nirvana school).
5. The Garland School or Hua-yen School or Avatamsaka School.
(absorb the Dasab-humika School and the Samparigraha-sastra school).
6. Intuitive School or Ch'an School or Dhyana School.
7. Discipline School or Lu School or Vinaya School.
8. Esoteric School or Chen-yien School or Mantra School.
9. Dharmalaksana School or Ch'u-en School or Fa-siang School.
10. Pure-land School or Sukhavati School or Ching-t'u School.


The principles of all the above schools are based on the partial doctrine of Sakyamuni Buddha. In the beginning there were no such things as schools in Buddhism. The disciples of Buddha, however, took up what had been most beneficial and most practicable for them. Thus ten schools have evolved. Buddhism in China may also be divided into thirteen schools, but the other three have been absorb within the ten.


1. Kosa School: The foundation text is the Abhidharma-kosa-sastra by Vasubandhu. The Sastra was translated and introduced to China from India by Shuan-chuang. His disciples Yu-kuang and Fa-pau who wrote these and other commentaries on the Sastra propagated this school. The Sastra classifies all phenomena of the cosmos under seventy-five categories. A student o this school learns the way of liberating oneself from the passions and attains subsequent annihilation of suffering. He bases his learning on the Four Noble Truths, viz, 1. Suffering. 2. Cause of suffering. 3. Cessation of Suffering. 4. The Noble Eightfold Path. This school teaches Theravadin Buddhism. It was popular in China during the T'ang Dynasty only. Modern Chinese scholars of this school are the late Ven. Fa-fang and Mr. Chang-si-shen.


2. Satysiddhi School: Based upon the Satyasiddhi Sastra by Harivarman (4th century A.D.) translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva (5th century). This School flourished during the six-Dynasty and T'ang Dynasty (5th & 6th century). It teaches one to look upon the cosmos in realms: the worldly realm and the supreme realm. A student is to meditate on the unreality of self and the unreality of things in order to enter Nirvana.


3. Three Sastra School: Based its tenets on the Madhyamika Sastra, Dvadasanikaya Sastra by Nagarjuna and the Sata Sastra by Aryadeva. These three Sastras were translated by Kurnarajiva (5th century). It teaches one to dispose of the Eight Misleading Ideas (birth, death, end, permanence, identity, difference, coming, and going) and establish correct thinking. One will discover the truth between the relative sense and the absolute sense, for the truth lies between them. Rev. Yin-sun propagates this school, and has published a modern commentary on the Madhyamika.


4. The Lotus School: It is also called the T'ien-t'ai school. This name is attributed to the Tien-tai Mountain in Che-chiang Province. The school was founded by Chih-che during the Sui Dynasty (6th century). The chief text is the Lotus Sutra (the Law-flower Sutra). Others are the Commentary on the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, etc. This school divides each of the ten realms of existence (hells, ghosts, animals, asuras, men, devas, sravakas, pratyeka-buddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas) into ten divisions and each division has ten qualities making a total of one thousand qualities. These qualities are further multiplied by three (past, present, and future) making a total of three thousand qualities. This school teaches one to visualise these three thousand qualities in an instant. The hundred divisions of realms and the thousand qualities form the sphere of visualisation. It teaches one to rest the physical body in three aspects and to gain a clear insight into truth from three views. Chih-che also divided the gospel of Buddha into five periods and the doctrine into eight kinds. The late Ven. T'isien and Shing-ch'e propagate this school.


5. Vatamsaka School: Founded by Tu-shun in the T'ang Dynasty (7th century). The foundation work is the Garland Sutra. This school was expanded by Chih-yien, Fa-chang, Ch'en-kuan, Chung-mi and other patriarchs. It treats Buddhism in five schools (Theravada, Proto-mahayana, Mahayana, the Intuitive, and the Perfect). These five are differentiated into ten schools of thoughts. It presents ten Metaphysical propositions and six characteristics of things for meditation. To meditate on the fundamental nature of the universe is the door to enlightenment. The theory is profound. It is said that one will not appreciate the richness in Buddhism until one has studied the Garland Sutra. The late Ven. Yue-shia founded the Hua-yen College in Shanghai. The Ven. Ying-ch'ih, Win-chow, Chi-shong are the modern expounders of this school.


6. The Intuitive School: Bodhidharma in the Liang Dynasty established it in China (6th century). This school does not rely on the use of letters. It points directly to the mind and sees into one's own nature. This special transmission outside the scripture was succeeded by Hui-k'o, Shen-ch'an, Tao-sin, Hong-jen, and Hui-neng, the 6th Patriarch. After the 6th Patriarch this school expanded into five and later seven schools. It has been very popular over a thousand years and causes most temples in China to acquire the name of Ch'an Temples. Ven. Shu-yun, the one hundred and twenty years old monk who passed away in 1959, could stay in meditation for ten to twenty days at one stretch. The Ven. Lai-kuo of Kau-wen Temple in Yang-chou, Chiang-su Province has attained identical level of achievement.

7. The Discipline School: Based on the monastic rules laid down by the Buddha. The rules have five divisions. Theravada and Mahayana have separate sets of monastic rules. These rules are the basic moral code of the Buddha. Tao-shuan promoted the Four-division Vinaya and founded this school in the T'ang Dynasty. He wrote several treatises and volumes of commentaries on the Vinaya. The essence of this school is to do good and cease to do evil. One must follow strictly the code of ethics so as to free oneself from the ocean of misery and prepare oneself for Buddhahood. After Master Ling-chi of Sung Dynasty and Master Yuan-chau of Yuan Dynasty, this school was dormant in China for nearly seven hundred years until the revival of this school by the late Master Hong-it.


8. Esoteric School: Based on the Vairocana Sutra, the Diamond Apex Sutra and Susiddhi Sutra. This school was introduced to China during the T'ang Dynasty by Subhakarasirnha, Vajramati and Amogha. The fundamental concepts are the six elements (earth, water, fire, air, space, and cognition) and four magic circles (pagoda, jewel, lotus and sword) which symbolise the power of the Buddhas and the Bodhisauvas. One is to attain self-realisation by the three mystic things of body (its posture and signs), mouth (its voice), and mind (meditation). (The mystic body is associated with earth, water and fire; the words from the mouth with wind space; the mind with cognition). It maintains that there are two aspects of the cosmos: the phenomenal or material and the absolute or spiritual. After the T'ang Dynasty, it was debased in China proper. It passed to Tibet and is known as the Tibetan Esoteric School. It also passed to Japan as the Shingon School. The ceremonies and services of this school are very complicated. One can hardly learn about it without a teacher.


9. Dharmalaksana School: The foundation works are the Sandhi-nirmocana SutraAbhidharma Sutra, Yogacaryabhumi Sastra, and the Vijnaptimatrasiddhi Sastra. This school aims at studying the nature in relation to the phenomenal expression of the cosmic existence. It was advocated by Maitreya and succeeded by Asang, Vasubandhu, Dharmaplala Silabhadre in India. Shuan-chuang studied this school from Silabhadre at Nalanda Monastery. On his return to China, he translated many sutras and sastras in the Ch'e-en Temple built by the T'ang Emperor. There were several thousand people including government officials engaged in translating the Buddhist Scriptures into Chinese and thus Shuan-chuang was helped to established this school in China. Wuei-chi, Hui-chau, and Chih-chou succeeded him. It maintains that the three planes of existence are merely the manifestation of the conscious mind and that all phenomena are the reflection of the sub-conscious mind. This mind-evolution teaching is a profound philosophy and it is radical in the modern Buddhistic thoughts among the Chinese. In order to grasp the gist, one has to spend a considerable amount of time in solid research. The late Ven. Me-an, Tau-kie, Yuen-ying and Hui-ch'uang, Yan-wen-san of Fu-chien Province especially the Ven. Vai-she were the modern exponents of this school. There are many notable successors such as the Ven. Ch'ang-sing, Ou-ysngu of Nanking and Han-ching-ching of Peking.


10. The Pure-land School: Based on the Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra, the Great Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra, the Small Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra. This school was established by Hui-yuan of the Chin Dynasty (4th century). He set up the Lotus Society at Chiang-si Province. There were one hundred twenty-three distinguished members including the notable poets Vau-yen-ming and Liu-wei-min. This organisation greatly incited the zeal of studying Buddhism among the Chinese. San-tau and Kuang-ming of T'ang Dynasty undertook to popularise this school and were succeeded in spreading it to almost every household. It teaches one to set the mind solely on Amitabha, to recite the holy name and to recite the holy name repeatedly, and one may gain salvation to the Pure-land of Amitabha. The method employed is simple thus it is suited to everyone who has faith in Amitabha, and who resolves to be reborn in the Pureland. The late Ven. Yin-kuang greatly promoted this school. He persuaded people to do good at the same time so as merits may be brought to the Pure-land, the ideal final resort.

The various schools may be further classified into Mahayana and Theravada; esoteric teachings and open teachings, and the easy way as contrasted to the hard way of salvation. The Kosa and Satysiddhi schools belong to Theravada whereas the other eight belong to the Mahayana. The Mantra School belongs to the esoteric teachings whereas the other nine are open teachings. The Pure-land School is the easy way of salvation as compared to the other nine schools, which are the hard way. This is just a general view of classification on the Buddhist Schools in China.

Venerable Kong Ghee



Wednesday June 15, 2022
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