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The Tang Dynasty - Buddhism and Confucianism
Daily Life
Silk Road
Buddhism and Confucianism
Works Cited
Buddhism and Confucianism

by Kenneth Chen

Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Beliefs

Picture of Buddha
Picture of Buddha16
Buddhism was founded in India in the 6th and 5th century B.C. by Sidhartha Gautama, or more commonly known as the Buddha.17 He was born on 563 BC, heir to the throne of a tiny kingdom. He always had a desire to meditate and to pray, but his father wanted him to join the military. However, at the age of 29, he realized how empty his life was, and gave up his military life. He set off on a quest for peace and enlightment, practicing yoga.18

One day, when he was sitting under a tree meditating, he found the enlightment that he had been looking for. Once he found out about this religious truth, he began to preach, gathering disciples, and organizing them into communities of monks. He spent the rest of his life preaching.17

The beliefs of Buddhism have a very different explanation of what happens after death than other religions do. They state that no living thing retains its soul permanently, so when people die, they become a different being, based on their karma, or the acts that they have done. Good karma results in reincarnation in the form of a higher being, such as a human, or even a god. Bad karma results in reincarnation of lower beings, such as animals, ghosts, or even a demon of hell. Karma also affects a person's health, beauty, intelligence, health, etc. The ultimate goal of all Buddhists is to achieve nirvana, or the enlightened state where there is no suffering or greed, hate, and ignorance. Anyone can achieve nirvana, but it is only a realistic goal for monks and saints. Some lay people try to gain good karma first, gradually, climbing to nirvana status.19

The basic doctrine of Buddhism includes the Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is suffering.
2. Desire causes suffering.
3. To get rid of suffering, one must get rid of desire.
4. To get rid of desire, one must follow the eight-fold path.

The eight-fold path consists of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.20

Introduction to Confucianism and Confucian Beliefs

Picture of Confucius
Picture of Confucius21

Kung Fu-tzu, or more commonly known as Confucius, founded Confucianism. He was born in 551 BC, and at first was a common man, but he started a career as a teacher after both his parents died, traveling around and preaching. He soon became famous this way. Since he lived in a time of corruptness and greed, he believed that the only remedy was to have the rulers lead a life of moral and righteousness. Thus, their states would become happier and prosperous, and there would be less crime and hate. However, he had no way to test his theories until the age of 50, when he became magistrate, and then the minister of crime. His administration was so powerful that he left office in 496 BC because crime was almost eliminated.22

Confucianism's beliefs included the six classic books, the Yi Jing (Changes), Shi Jing (Odes), Shu Jing (History), Yue Jing (Music), Li (Rites), and Chun Qiu (Springs and Autumns). Since the book of music dissapeared, the five remaining books were renamed “The Five Classics”.23 He also believed that good social order and a strong government need five basic relationships to thrive. These five relationships were: 1. Ruler and subject 2. Father and son 3. Husband and wife 4. Elder brother and younger brother 5. Friend and friend.24

Confucianism states that the ruler of any country should be kind and honorable, while the citizens should be respectful and obedient in return. He stated that it is best to have a harmonious relationship between the ruler and the ruled. He also stated that if a person fulfills the four virtues, righteousness, propriety, integrity, and filial piety, they will become a Chü-tzu, or a perfect gentleman. In general, his philosophies told people to be fair, just, honorable, and respecting, instead of teaching them about life and death, making Confucianism a philosophy, not a true religion.22

The most famous book made by Confucius' students was the “Analects”, which has been described as the most influential book ever writen in East Asia. The “Analects” is composed of Confucius' words of wisdom. One of Confucius' famous quotes was:

“Do to no one what you would not wish others to do to you.”25

Their Impact on the Tang Dynasty

Picture of emperor
Picture of emperor.26 Click here for a larger image (36 kb)

The oldest Chinese evidence of the Buddhism was in Han Dynasty, during the rule of Emperor Mingdi (ruled 57-75 AD).27 Buddhism was introduced into China by immigrants from Persia, Central Asia and India via the Silk Road. However, during that time, Buddhism was considered to be an insignificant foreign cult. As time passed, though, it became more popular as it drew attention from the native Chinese.22

The collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD started a three century period of political instability, where Buddhism became a religion of salvation.27 Buddhism flourished during this time, and, by the end of this period, it had entered the lives of all the people in Chinese society. During this period of time, monks had high government positions.28

In Tang Dynasty, (618-907 AD) China was reunified. This was probably the peak of Buddhism. Monasteries in the Tang Dynasty gained tremendous wealth from donations of land, grain and precious metals. They were also exempt from paying taxes, and soon became tax shelters for landowners. Landowners “donated” their land to monasteries, but the property remained in their control.28

The rise of Buddhism stirred interest in all people, including emperors. During the Tang Dynasty, Xuanzang (602-664 AD), a monk, went on a pilgrimage to India to find out more about Buddhist scripture. The trip took 16 years, and when he came back to China, he brought back a lot of books on Buddhism and spent the rest of his life translating the 75 Buddhist Sutras. Emperor Gaozong later honored him for his journey. He later wrote the book “Record of the Western Realms,” a book on Xuanzang's account of his journey. That book would later be retold in the popular novel Xiyou Ji (Journey to the West), which was published in 1596.29

Buddhism gained great power during the time of Empress Wu (628-705 AD), the wife of the 2nd and 3rd emperors in the Tang Dynasty. She gained power when the 3rd emperor died, becoming the only empress in all of Chinese history. Since the aristocracy before her favored Daoism over Buddhism, she encouraged the growth and spread of Buddhism to weaken her opponents. The more Buddhists there were, the less Daoists there were, and the weaker the aristocracy would be. Buddhism grew and spread tremendously during this time period.30

Buddhism greatly declined at the close of the Tang Dynasty. At this point, monasteries had already acquired large, tax-exempt estates with glorious temples that could house thousands. In 845 AD, the emperor, encouraged by angry Confucian officials, ordered the destruction of tens of thousands of Buddhist temples, and the return to lay life for more than 260,500 monks and nuns. Although this persecution was short-lived, many Chinese Buddhist schools would be lost forever, and Buddhism would never regain it's past power and influence.28

Even though Buddhism existed long before the Tang Dynasty, it tremendously impacted the Tang Dynasty. It arose in China when the Han Dynasty fell, in a time of chaos. This way, it could easily rise to power as a religion of salvation. Many people looked towards Buddhism for solutions to all of their problems. The popularity of Buddhism made rulers curious about the religion itself. Various emperors however, did various things. Some sent people to India to find more about it, some promoted it for personal gain, and some tried to destroy it, but most supported it. Buddhism encouraged rulers to be kind and understanding to others, and to do good deeds.

Confucianism had already existed before the Tang Dynasty, and before Buddhism. It was used in many previous dynasties as a guide to ruling. For example, in the Han Dynasty, government officials were chosen based on whoever scored the highest on an exam about the theory of Confucianism. Therefore, the most highest ranking officials were scholars who had mastered Confucianism best. The Tang government also made the ruling officials follow the ideas of Confucianism to rule the people.31

Confucianism enforced loyalty, order and respect, and was based on the principle of “ren”, or compassion and kindness. Love for one's ancestor was necessary. This idea is based on the Chinese tradition that associates old age with wisdom. The system of belief had many virtues that fit an ideally kind and gentle world, where each family has its place beneath the ruler, each individual has his or her place in the family, and no force was required.32

Confucianism affected Chinese society greatly. Most Chinese officials knew Confucianism and followed it. The emperor was regarded as the Son of God, while the district magistrate, or the emperor's representative, was treated as the father of the people. Theoretically, the relationship between the emperor and the magistrate was two sided—the subjects could ignore the emperor if he did not take good care of his subjects. In reality, however, the system was heavily biased toward the authorities.33

Confucianism lost much influence in Tang Dynasty while Buddhism rose to power. Even though Confucianism continued to be the official philosophy in the Tang Dynasty, many people believed in Buddhist concepts, and not Confucianism concepts. One thing that was heavily supported was the Buddhist idea of karma, which brought comfort to many people that suffered greatly in those troubled times. Confucianism had said that unexplainable events were the work of Heaven and/or Fate, but Buddhism indicated that suffering was due to a person's bad behavior in their previous life. Buddhism also taught that good behavior would be rewarded by good fortune in a person's next life. Buddhism was unique in that it treated all human beings equally. Confucianism had a small revival among scholars in the Tang Dynasty, but only in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) did Confucianism regain its power.34

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