Buddhist Temples in China


“Let my teachings be your refuge.” -Buddha 


Insert map of China

For over two millennium, religion in China has impacted over one fifth of the worlds population. Considered one of the “Three doctrines”, Buddhism is intimately intertwined with Daoism and Confucianism and has become “an essential part of Chinese culture”(Malloy:157). Founded in India during the fifth century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha or Enlightened One, Buddhism seeks to end the wheel of life and death by overcoming suffering and attaining nirvana, or the extinction of sorrow. To do this, Buddhist acknowledge the “three marks of reality:” change (anitya), impermanence (anatman), and suffering (duhkha), and their prescription, the ” Four Noble Truths.” These four truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering (the eight fold path) are the central tenets of Buddhism that illuminate the way to nirvana. It is no wonder why, then, Buddhism  is considered the “Light of Asia.” 

 “Be your own lamp” -Buddha


Expansion of Buddhism.

During the first century B.C.E.,  missionaries, with the opening of Central Asia via the Silk Road, helped to spread Indian Buddhism into China. According to Laurence G. Thompson, “the transplantation of Buddhist thought to China is one of the greatest intercultural movements of history”(Thompson:101). Among the many schools of Indian Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism (right in red), the Greater Vehicle, established itself by offering greater accessibility to the laity, or general public, by means of the bodhisattva,  or “one who vows to help all sentient beings reach enlightenment and salvation”(Liu:218). In contrast, Theravada Buddhism (right in green), the Lesser Vehicle, holds that only those insightful enough, i.e. monks, can attain enlightenment. “Therefore,” Liu argues, “for the Mahayanists, reaching enlightenment is not the ultimate goal. Their goal is rather to be a great vehicle to carry as many people as possible to the other realm” (Liu:218).

“All the famous mountains under the sky are populated with monks.”       -Chinese proverb


Three Pagodas in Yunnan province China.

If Buddhists were to escape the wheel of life and death, “one obviously had to leave the world of the home and the society in which desire and attachment were motivating factors”(Thompson:106). Furthermore, Thompson suggests that we can find within Chinese culture “retreats located in the sheltered valleys, amidst soaring peaks” where nature serves as a refuge for religion(Thompson:107). These places, in anthropological terms, where religion and space meet, are often considered sacred. These sacred spaces serve as ritual sites and act as a “means of ordering a world, and placing oneself and others into that world”(Walsh:477). The best known example of sacred spaces in Chinese Buddhism is the Indian stupa, or pagoda. Brought to China with Buddhism, pagodas served as buildings that were used to house the “relics, sutras, and images of Buddha”(Yanxin et al:69). The “sinicization” of Indian Buddhist stupas saw the transformation of the pagodas shape and function whereby the pagoda increased in height and took on more practical purposes for scholars, for sightseeing and even military reconnaissance.

“Observe this carefully, constantly.” -Buddha


buddhism-878193_640 Yuang

Yungang Caves

The transformation of the stupa to the pagoda parallels another sacred space utilized by Buddhists: grottos. Known as caitya halls in India, Chinese grottos, or cave temples, serve a number of purposes that range from burial sites to places of worship. More importantly, cave temples capture the art, culture and history of Buddhism in China. Unlike pagodas, which were primarily made of wood and therefore not durable, cave temples were carved into mountain sides (pictured right: Yungang Caves in Datong, Shanxi) and still stand today. The video below, produced by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, makes vivid the history and function of Chinese cave temples. 



Giant Buddha of Leshan, Sichuan, China

To illustrate further, the Leshan Buddha in Sichuan built during the Tang dynasty 616-907 B.C.E. (pictured left) stands 232 feet high and 24 feet wide. The ears alone are 22 feet wide while each foot can accommodate over 100 people. “Leshan Buddha is the world’s largest Buddha image” and took over 90 years to complete (Yanxin et al:75). However, this picture (note the crowd of people), highlights how sacred spaces have been recast in modern China.

“Impermanent are all formations.” -Buddha 

Chinese Buddhist temples remain an important social, cultural, and historic center where centuries of tradition continue, yet these sacred spaces are slowly being redefined. In recognized religions, sacred spaces must now be “economically self-supporting” where they navigate politics, globalization, and modernity in China (Kang:229). In what Kang calls “religion for popular consumption,” cultural tourism refashions “tradition and ethnic culture for market consumption, in the form of museum displays, theme parks and tourism festivals,” that synthesizes Chinese culture and history for a new time (Kang:242). In conclusion, space can serve as nexus between the secular and the sacred, where we must learn to negotiate cultural lines and cultural tensions in our ever shrinking world.

-Daniel J. Jimenez


Cai, Yanxin, and Bingjie Lu. 2006. Chinese architecture. Di 1 ban. ed. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

Featured image (banner) provided by J. Patrick Fischer CCA-3.0: Yu Fo Temple laying Jade Buddha

Kang, Xiaofei. 2009. Two Temples, Three Religions, and a Tourist Attraction: Contesting Sacred Space On China’s Ethnic Frontier. Modern China 35 (3): 227-255.

Liu, JeeLoo. 2006. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Molloy, Michael. 2011. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.

Novak, Philip. 1994. The World’s Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 2002. Chinese architecture. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Thompson, Laurence G. 1996. Chinese Religion: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Walsh, Michael J. 2007. Efficacious surroundings: Temple space and Buddhist well-being. Journal of Religion and Health 46 (4): 471-9.



Skip to toolbar