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A Brief Introduction To Buddhism

At about the same time as, or a little earlier than, Confucius, Buddhism was founded by Sakyamuni, who was originally a prince of a small state in North India, on the border of present-day Nepal. At that time, India was divided into many states with different traditions and languages.

After seeing other people's sufferings and sorrows, he left his father's palace and began roaming alone, leading a very hard life, and thinking about the causes of man's sorrows as well as how to free man from all his suffering. Finally, at age 35, he attained enlightenment. After that, he preached the truth he had found and gradually it was accepted by many people. He was regarded by his followers as the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.

Among Buddha’s main teachings were the Four Noble Truths: (1) that sorrow is the universal experience of mankind; (2) that the cause of sorrow is desire; (3) that the removal of sorrow can only come from the removal of desire; and (4) that desire can be systematically abandoned by following the Noble Eightfold Path (eight steps that should be taken).

Buddhism was first introduced into China during the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The advent of Buddhism in China was facilitated by the opening of the Western Regions, which made travel between China and India easier than before. In AD 67, two Indian monks came to Luoyang. Emperor Ming Di ordered the construction of the White Horse Temple and asked the two to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. They were followed by other monks from India and West Asia. At first, Buddhism was known only to members of the ruling class. It was not until the period of the Southern and Northern dynasties that it had spread to include the ordinary people as well.


Buddha is the one who is perfectly enlightened and has entered Nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many Buddhas in existence at the same time. Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, is just one of a long line of Buddhas, while the prophesized Buddha Maitreya is still to come.


Maitreya is also known as the Laughing Buddha. Buddhism predicts that when Sakyamuni's doctrines are about to be forgotten on earth, Maitreya will come as a Buddha and preach Buddhist doctrines. For this reason, the Maitreya Bodhisattva has been commonly respected in Chinese history. During China’s legacy, however, there have been various “fake” Maitreyas who have provoked divisions among the people. One example of this was Maitreyanism. The statue of the Laughing Monk in Chinese temples is not a statue of Maitreya, as is commonly believed. Tradition has it that during the Five Dynasties from 907 to 960 AD, a Buddhist monk named Qici appeared who always carried around a cloth bag. People called him Cloth-bag Monk and regarded him as the reincarnation of Maitreya. As such, the Laughing Monk statue was constructed for offering purposes. Some people believe that the tradition of giving offerings to the Cloth-bag Monk statue was possibly what gave rise to Maitreyanism, as Maitreyanism originated in the home town of the Cloth-bag Monk in Fenghua, Zhejiang Province. It can be assumed that the image of the Cloth-bag Monk has become popular because of Maitreyanism.

Buddhism has it that Maitreya or "The Coming One" stands as a symbol to remind everyone that there is the potential to be enlightened inside every human heart. This Buddha, on his way to Buddhahood, sends rays of love into the world of darkness.


Bodhisattva in Chinese is usually referred to by the abbreviated name of Pusa. A potential Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism—which was much favored in ancient China,—a Bodhisattva is one who has achieved perfect enlightenment and is entitled to enter directly into Nirvana, but renounces this in order to first bring salvation to all suffering mankind. Such figures appear alone, or in pairs in support of a Buddha. Unlike the Buddha, who is always a simple figure without adornment, the Bodhisattvas are crowned and loaded with jewels. The best-known figures are Avalokitesvara (the Goddess of Mercy or Guanyin Pusa), Manjusri (Bodhisattva of Wisdom or Wenshu Pusa), Samantabhadra (Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence or Puxian Pusa), Kistigarbha (Bodhisattva of Great Vows or Dizang Pusa), and Mahastamaprapta. Before his enlightenment, Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, is often referred to as "the Bodhisattva".

  • Wenshu (Bodhisattva of Wisdom or Manjusri)
    Wenshu or the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is regarded as one of the four well-known Bodhisattvas in Chinese Buddhism. It is said that Wutai Mountain in Shanxi Province is the place where he performs his Buddhist rites. He is the left attendant of Sakyamuni who is in charge of wisdom. He has five buns of hair on his head and a sword in his hand, symbolizing wisdom. He is often shown riding a lion, which represents wisdom, power, and vigor.


  • Puxian (Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence or Samantabhadra)
    The Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence is also regarded as one of the four well-known Bodhisattvas in Chinese Buddhism. Legend has it that Emei Mountain in Sichuan Province is the place where he performs the Buddhist rites to save the souls of the dead. Puxian is the right attendant of Sakyamuni. He stands side by side with Wenshu (Manjusri). He is often depicted riding a white elephant.


  • Dizang (Kistigarbha)
    Buddhism has it that after the death of Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism, and before the emergence of Maitreya, Dizang was the Bodhisattva that saved all the living creatures in Heaven and in Hell. Chinese Buddhism regards Dizang as one of the four well-known Bodhisattvas. Legend has it that Dizang gained enlightenment on Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui Province. Several decades later, he entered Nirvana. It is said that his dead body did not decompose and was instead entombed in a stupa.

Revised June 28, 2011