CHINESE BUDDHISM(Mahayana)Infused with TaoistDeities

· Buddhism, Chinese Culture, Religion

CHINESE BUDDHISM(Mahayana)Infused with TaoistDeities

Many people do not realise the complexities of Buddhism, even if the original philosophy was very uncomplicated. Although Siddharta Gotama’s (Buddha) philosophies were atheistic (godless), Taoist shaman deities and rituals have clearly been infused into Chinese Buddhism(Mahayana.) Many people will have taken for granted all branches of Buddhism are like that of the Theravada branch but the dominance of the ancient Chinese shamanistic practices (Taoism) and beliefs on Theravada origins have had a greater indelible imprint on the Chinese Buddhist culture than most people have realised.


(NB: The author’s highlights and opinions are shown with Italics or Bold italics to differentiate from the rest. All quotations are acknowledged in the links.) 02.11.11

• Is Buddhism a Religion? No!

Technically Buddhism is a philosophy for “moral living.” It is a philosophy because philosophy ‘means love of wisdom’ and the Buddhist path can be summed up as:

(1) to lead a moral life, (it is a philosophy for leading a moral life.)

(2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and

(3) to develop wisdom and understanding. (through contemplation to learn to improve and achieve the highest standards of Morality so as to reach perfection – Nirvana.)

• Can Buddhism Make you a better Person?

Buddhism explains a purpose to life, it explains apparent injustice and inequality around the world, and it provides a code of practice or way of life that leads to (true) happiness (Spiritual contentment.) It does not involve the worship of a god, it involves introspection and self correction and self discipline to improve oneself.)

• Why is Buddhism Becoming Popular?

Buddhism is becoming popular in western countries for a number of reasons, The first good reason is Buddhism has answers to many of the problems in modern materialistic societies. It also includes (for those who are interested) a deep understanding of the human mind (and natural therapies) which prominent psychologists around the world are now discovering to be both very advanced and effective.

• Who Was the Buddha?

Siddharta Gotama was born into a royal family in Lumbini, now located in Nepal, India in 563 BC. At 29, he realised that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he explored the different teachings, religions and philosophies of the day, to find the key to human happiness. After six years of study and meditation, at the tender age of 35, he finally found ‘the middle path’ and was enlightened. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism — called the Dhamma, or Truth — until his death at the age of 80.

• Was the Buddha a God? No! He was a philosopher.

He was a man who taught a path to enlightenment from one’s own life’s experiences. (Gotama never claimed to be god. He never associated his philosophy with any god/gods and taught his method as “A Way of Life”  to find an “escape from human sufferings and misery.” He taught it as a philosophy of how to achieve enlightenment and contentment through self effort.

• Do Buddhists Worship Idols? Worshipping idols/gods was never advocated or stipulated by Siddharta Gotama.

Buddhists sometimes/almost always pay respect/fealty to images of the Buddha, (but) not in worship, nor to ask for favours(like any spiritual or material rewards or protection, as the Buddha image does not represent a god.) A statue of the Buddha with hands rested gently in its lap and a compassionate smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. Bowing to the statue is an expression of gratitude/fealty for his  teachings (wisdom,) not as obeisance to a god.

• Why are so Many Buddhist Countries Poor?

One of the Buddhist teachings is that wealth does not guarantee happiness and also wealth is impermanent. The people of every country suffer whether rich or poor, but those who understand Buddhist teachings can find true happiness. (Buddhism disdains the seeking of wealth giving preference to the begging bowl. Thus the incentive/drive for wealth creation is in conflict with Buddhist teachings.)

• Are There Different Types of Buddhism?

There are many different types of Buddhism, because the emphasis changes from country to country due to customs and culture. What does not vary (in the different branches of Buddhism) is the essence of the teching — the Dhamma or truth. And the Truth is to aim for a moral, ethical way of life.

• Are Other Religions Wrong?

Buddhism is also a belief system which is tolerant of all other beliefs or religions. Buddhism agrees with the moral teachings of other religions but Buddhism goes further by providing a long term purpose within our existence, through wisdom and true understanding. Real Buddhism is very tolerant and not concerned with labels like ‘Christian’, ‘Moslem’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Buddhist’; that is why there have never been any wars fought in the name of Buddhism. That is why Buddhists do not preach and try to convert, only explain if an explanation is sought. Technically, Buddhism is a philosophy of life and this ideology is not in conflict/competition with religions.

• Is Buddhism Scientific? (Can an ethical/moral philosophy be Scientific?)

Science is knowledge which can be made into a system, which depends upon seeing and testing facts and stating general natural laws. The core of Buddhism fit into this definition, because the Four Noble truths (see below) can be tested and proven by anyone in fact the Buddha himself asked his followers to test the teaching rather than accept his word as true. Buddhism depends more on understanding than faith.

• What did the Buddha Teach?

The Buddha taught many things, but the basic concepts in Buddhism can be summed up by the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

• What is the First Noble Truth?

The First truth is that life is full of suffering(especially in ancient primitive India) i.e., life includes pain, getting old, disease, and ultimately death. We also endure psychological suffering like loneliness frustration, fear, embarrassment, disappointment and anger. This is an irrefutable fact that cannot be denied. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because pessimism is expecting things to be bad, instead, Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.

• What is the Second Noble Truth?

The Second truth is that suffering is caused by craving and aversion. We will suffer if we expect other people to conform to our expectation, if we want others to like us, if we do not get something we want,etc. In other words, getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness. A lifetime of wanting and craving and especially the craving to continue to exist, creates a powerful energy which causes the individual to be born. So craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.

• What is the Third Noble Truth?

The Third truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness can be attained;T that true happiness and contentment are possible. If we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free. We then have more time and energy to help others. This is Nirvana.

• What is the Fourth Noble Truth?

The Fourth Truth is that the Noble 8-Fold Path is the path which leads to the end of suffering.

• What is the Noble 8-Fold Path?

In summary, the Noble 8-Fold Path is

(1) In summary, the Noble 8-fold Oath is being moral (2) (through what we say, (3) do and (4)our livelihood,) (5)focussing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and (6) actions, and (7)developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and (8) by developing compassion for others.

• What are the 5 Precepts?

The moral code within Buddhism are the 5 Precepts, of which the main five are:

(1) Not to take the life of ANYTHING LIVING,

(2) Not to take anything not Freely Given,

(3) To abstain from Sexual Misconduct and Sensual Overindulgence.(

(4) To refrain from untrue Speech, and

(5) To Avoid Intoxication, that is, losing mindfulness.

• What is Karma?

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life. Karma underlines the importance of all individuals being responsible for their past and present actions. How can we test the karmic effect of our actions? The answer is summed up by looking at (1) the intention behind the action, (2) effects of the action on oneself, and (3) the effects on others.

• What is Wisdom?

Buddhism teaches that wisdom should be developed with compassion. At one extreme, you could be a goodhearted fool and at the other extreme, you could attain knowledge without any emotion. Buddhism uses the middle path to develop both. The highest wisdom is seeing that in reality, all phenomena are incomplete, impermanent and do no constitute a fixed entity. True wisdom is not simply believing what we are told but instead experiencing and understanding truth and reality. Wisdom requires an open, objective, unbigoted mind. The Buddhist path requires courage, patience, flexibility and intelligence.

• What is Compassion?

Compassion includes qualities of sharing, readiness to give comfort, sympathy, concern, caring.  In Buddhism, we can really understand others, when we can really understand ourselves, through wisdom.

• How do I Become a Buddhist?

Buddhist teachings can be understood and tested by anyone. Buddhism teaches that the solutions to our problems are within ourselves not outside. The Buddha asked all his followers not to take his word as true, but rather to test the teachings for themselves. ln this way, each person decides for themselves and takes responsibility for their own actions and understanding. This makes Buddhism less of a fixed package of beliefs which is to be accepted in its entirety, and more of a teaching which each person learns and uses in their own way.


The above passages, describes the philosophy of Siddharta Gotama in a nutshell. It describes a way of life that life that leads to a moral and spiritual purity until perfection and tranquillity in life is found, i.e., finding Nirvana.. It is from personal meditation and perseverance and does not involve any god/gods or subservience to any ethereal or spiritual powers. Thus no god is involved. It is a philosophy of moral and ethical way of life.


Buddhism was most likely introduced to China through the two natural land routes into China from Buddhist regions during the Han Empire (206 BC-220 AD.) One route was through Xinjiang and is called the Silk Road and the other went through Yunnan and is called the Chama Road. This introduction of Buddhism into China was long after the establishment of shamanistic Taoism.


A Caucasian tribe, the Yuezhi who lived in Xinjiang were forced south towards India by the Xiongnu tribes. The Yuezhi conquered the Hellenized kingdoms that formed South Central Asia and a “Greek-Indian-Yuezhi culture” developed. The Han rulers in 130 BC wanted to trade and so sent Zhang Qian to the Yuezhi (Tocharians.) The Yuezhi were already converted to Buddhism and helped to introduce Buddhism to the Han traders and also to the Han capital.

Buddhist monks or preachers probably arrived in China in the 3rd Century BC because there is evidence that the Qin Emperor had ordered the destruction of the Buddhist religion in around 213 BC. The first Buddhist scriptures appeared during the Han Dynasty(206 BC-220 AD.) It is told that a Han Emperor in 68 AD, sent one of his ambassadors, Cai Yin, to learn about Buddha in Central Asia. Cai Yin brought back Buddhist scriptures and two Buddhist monks to help explain the mysteries of Buddhism to the Emperor. By this time, the  Yuezhi had already evolved a religion in which “Buddha was one of a pantheon of many deities,” and the Mahayana Buddhism sect was begun in this way. The Yuezhi had a large empire including a part of Xinjiang. Unlike other Buddhist sects, the Yuezhis carved Buddha statues all over Central Asia, including Xinjiang. Thus Mahayana sect Buddhism that was introduced into China was different from the Theravada or Tibetan Buddhist branches.

The organised rituals and hierarchical Buddhist structure appealed to the people  more than the more disorganised and haphazard system in the Taoist hierarchy. Buddhism became popular in China as it was refreshing, with positive philosophies and sufficient Taoist deities and rituals were already infused into the temples that it was not alien to what they were accustomed to.  Many Buddhist Temples and grottoes were built to honour Buddha all over and so access was easily available. The Bingling Grottoes near Lanzhou in Gansu Province has a large ancient Buddhist Temple Complex with an array of Statues and frescoes dating form about 420 AD through to the Ming Dynasty. It is interesting to note that the earliest statues have typical Indian hand gestures and poses. But the Bezeklik Grottoes near Turpan show Caucasian, Indian and Mongolian features together. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD,) Buddhism was extremely popular and a powerful force. However, by the end of the Tang Dynasty, 845 AD, the Tang Emperors turned against Buddhist and destroyed thousands of monasteries and tens of thousands of Temples. (See Appendix 1 & 2 below)


The other land route from India to China was through the Chama Road that traders had used for centuries, linking China with Tibet and South East Asia. At the time of the Tang Dynasty in the north, there existed a powerful empire known as the Nanzhao Empire (738-902 AD) in Yunnan with its capital in Dali. The Nanzhao rulers too were influenced by the foreign traders who also constructed large Buddhist temples abound Dali and on the Shibaoshan Mountain which were centres of Buddhist teachings and meditation. Unlike the Tang Dynasty, the  Nanzhao and Dali Kingdom supported the Buddhist followers thus they were protected, Buddhism spread in southern China. There exists the monumental famous Buddhist pagodas known as “The Three Pagodas” still standing proudly today from the Nanzhao period. [2]


Mahayana Buddhist Branch is the form of Buddhism practised in China. It originally developed in the Kushan Empire where the Chinese have referred to as Yuezhi. The Mahayana sect Buddhist rituals that have evolved and followed by millions of Chinese had infused many Taoist deities and Taoist rituals into the Mahayana Buddhist rituals and worship. This is of course unique as Buddha is not only considered as a human philosopher as was his own wishes, but is also considered a god to whom the Chinese Buddhists would pray to for help and salvation, as was the custom with Taoist gods. So Chinese Buddhists would pray, without discrimination to Buddha as a god, on the same basis as they would pray to the pantheon of the Taoist gods they had adopted. These Mahayana Buddhists would also pay homage to their ancestors believing that their ancestor’s spirits were in a position to watch over and protect them (many modern Christians also believe this.) Chinese Buddhists would also burn paper money to replenish the wealth of their departed ancestors just like the Taoists. Chinese Buddhists have infused and entwined many Taoist Shamanistic beliefs and rituals into their worship. Hence it is often difficult to draw a clear line between the two religions.

Buddha reached Enlightenment by meditation and fasting. He was an extremely lean and gaunt man in real life as the Indian Buddha images have depicted him. In India, Ceylon, and Thailand, Buddha image is depicted as being very lean man meditating under a tree. In Mahayana Buddhism in Central Asia and in Buddha’s carved along the Silk Road before the end of the Tang Dynasty, he is depicted as being well padded strong and healthy.. In China, the “Happy Buddha” is commonly depicted to represent Happiness and Luck. He is portrayed as being fat and laughing or smiling character. The main goal of life in China is said to “be happy.” The “Happy Buddha” has been the common popular Buddha sculpture in China for hundreds of years. [2]

Theravada Buddhism

The Buddha’s (Siddharta Gotama’s) teachings and Theravada Buddhism are essentially atheistic (godless), although neither deny the existence of beings that might be called “Buddhas”  those who have achieved Nirvana – (Personal Tranquility of Mind.) BUDDHA’S are not gods nor have they achieved sainthood.

Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahayana Buddhism, however, the universe is populated with celestial Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s who are worshipped along with Taoist deities,  gods and goddesses. The historical Buddha is honoured in this same way, but most other Buddhist deities were adapted from the cultures Buddhism has encountered in its evolution— from the pantheon of Hinduism to the indigenous religions of Tibet, China and Thailand.

Among the most popular Buddhist deities are Kuan Yin, the Medicine Buddha, the Laughing Buddha and the Green and White Taras. These and other fascinating figures are explored in this section. The list below lists some of the deities included in the Buddhist deities:


Gautama Buddha (Shakyamuni)
Laughing Buddha/Future Buddha (Maitreya)
Medicine Buddha/Healing Buddha
Five Dhyani Buddhas
Dipamkara (Kasyapa) Buddha


Five Bodhisattvas of Compassion
Kuan Yin


16 Sravakas (Tibetan)
18 Lohans (Chinese)

Tibetan Wrathful Deities

Palden Lhamo
Tshangs pa

Chinese Buddhist Deities

Jade Maiden
Golden Youth
Kuan-Ti (Sangharama)
Wei-To (Skanda)
Four Guardian Kings (Si-Ta-Tien-Wang)

Appendix 3 below, will give a pictorial illustration of some of the deities included into the Buddhist pantheon of deities. [4]


Appendix (1) Images of Indian Buddha

Thai Buddha-note stature

Indian Buddha with Indian Features
Indian Buddha with Dravidian Features

Appendix (2) Images of Chinese Buddha

Chinese Buddha in Jade, not oriental features
Laughing Chinese Buddha – A Chinese image

Appendix (3) Chinese Buddhist Deities

Popular Deities of Chinese Buddhism [4]

click on image to enlarge
AMITABHA: Buddha of Boundless Light of the Western Paradise
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YAO SHIH FWO: Bhaisajyaguru or the Healing Buddha
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
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LUNG-NU: Jade Maiden
KUAN SHIH YIN P’USA: Avalokiteshvara
HOAN SHEN-TSAI: Golden Youth
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
WEN-SHU-SHIH LI P’USA: Manjushri Bodhisattva
PU HSIEN P’USA: Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
TI-TSANG WANG P’USA: Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva
Mi-LO FWO: Maitreya Buddha
The Protectors
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
KUAN TI: (Sangharama) Protector of Buddhism
WEI-TO: (Skanda) Protector of the Dharma
Si-Ta-Tien-Wang or the Four Great Kings of the Devas
Four Guardian Kings of the four directions represent the protection of the Buddhas and the Patriarchs
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
click on image to enlarge
MO-LI CHING: Guardian of East

MO-LI HAI: Guardian of West

MO-LI SHOU: Guardian of North

MO-LI HUNG: Guardian of South

Click to view
The 18 LOHANS or Arhats (Arahants)
The Eighteen Lohans
The Lohans’ Place in Buddhism Lohans are well-known for their great wisdom, courage and supernatural power. Due to their abilities to ward off the evil, Lohans have became guardian angels of the Chinese Buddhist temple and there in the main hall standing guard are the ever-present, indomitable-looking 18 Lohan figures, sometimes accompanied by 500 or more lesser Lohans.


[1] What is Buddhism:

[2] Chinese Buddhism:

[3] Buddhist Deities:

[4] Pantheon of Chinese Buddhist Deities:

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