OBJECTIVES OF THE UNIT:  To help students grasp the magnitude of impact of Buddhism by showing that Buddhism provided not just a new set of ideas, but also new forms of religious practice, new types of places to worship, and a large body of images of divinities.

TEACHING STRATEGIES:  To get the most out of this unit, students will need to have been introduced to Buddhist doctrine and the ways Buddhism changed as it traveled from India to China.  This unit calls for close comparison of images.  If students have difficulty seeing the distinctions between different statues, they could be asked to describe in detail everything they observe, forcing them to look more closely. 

To make this material more challenging, students could be asked whether they find the material on images, temples, or practices more interesting, then try to unpack what their answer indicates about their attitudes. Why do many Americans respond very positively to Buddhism as a set of ideas and practices?  Did anyone in the class find himself or herself more attracted to the art than the practices? 

WHEN TO TEACH: In a full survey of Chinese history, Buddhism is generally taught when the medieval period is covered.  However, a course limited to more modern China could still use this unit since Buddhism remained an important part of Chinese culture into modern times.  In a topically-organized course, Confucianism should be introduced before considering Buddhism.  This unit would also be appropriate for use in teaching world religions.



It is widely believed that Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han period (206 BC-220 AD). After its introduction, Mahayana Buddhism, the most prominent branch of Buddhism in China, played an important role in shaping Chinese civilization. Chinese civilization, as well, exerted a profound impact on the way Buddhism was transformed in China.

The influence of Buddhism grew to such an extent that vast amounts of financial and human resources were expended on the creation and establishment of impressive works of art and elaborate temples. This growing interest in Buddhism helped to inspire new ways of depicting deities, new types of architectural spaces in which to worship them, and new ritual motions and actions. In this section, we will look at Six Dynasties and Tang Chinese Buddhist images, view some early and late Buddhist temples, then take a glimpse at contemporary Buddhist practice.

Think about the following questions as you view this unit:

How were Buddhist images, temples, and practices adapted to Chinese circumstances? Keep in mind both chronological order and geographical variation wherever possible.

What connections do you see between Buddhist doctrines and the physical trappings of Buddhism in China?

Do you see anything in these images that would have contributed to the spread of Buddhism in China?