Buddhism on the Silk Road

Buddhism on the Silk Road
2017-01-04 | author : giser

category : ISSUES

The Silk Road not only connected East Asia with Central Asia and then to the Western world. It also, via branch roads, opened up communication among China, India and Persia , and later on via northern routes trade and cultural contacts with Russia. As we have seen, Buddhist culture had a key role to play in unifying Tibet, and in providing a key cultural influence on Mongolia. Buddhism ultimately came from northern India, but 'Central Asia was the earliest and, on the whole, the principal source of Chinese Buddhism' .

However, it seems likely that Khotan in Central Asia was one of the key transmitters of Buddhism into both Tibet and China . By the second half of the third century monks and scholars such as Chu-she-hing and Moksala were busy compiling Buddhist texts, translating them into Chinese, and sending them on into China . Khotan for a time was a centre of Buddhist learning: -

Khotan figures prominently in ancient records and was known to the Chinese writers as Yu-tien, colonised in the time of Asoka with the blind prince Kunala being set up as a ruler of this newly founded kingdom. The Gomati vihara here - the premier Buddhist establishment - was noted for its learned savants who also wrote canonical texts, thus contributing to the development of Buddhist literature .

Such centres also became key staging posts in the transmission of ideas from India into China, with the idea of the itinerant monk bring back Buddhist texts becoming one of the standard types in Chinese literature: -

The first Chinese pilgrim to actually reach India and return with a knowledge of Buddhism was Fa Xi'an (337-422), a monk who travelled the southern route in 399, through Dunhuang and Khotan and over the Himalayas to India. He studied Buddhism under various Indian masters in Benares, Gandhara and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and went as far as Sumatra and Java in Indonesia; altogether he visited over 30 countries, returning to China in 414 via the sea route. The Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang (600-664), is perhaps the most well-known of all Chinese travellers on the Silk Road, and one of the four great translators of Buddhist texts. His lasting fame is primarily due to the humorous 16th-century novel, Pilgrimage to the West (also known as Monkey), a fictional account of his pilgrimage that includes and odd assortment of the characters who accompany the monk on his journey, along with their various escapades.

The Chinese pilgrim found Buddhism in Khotan in a very flourishing condition and describes the glories of its monastic establishments in some detail. The monks numbered several thousands, most of them being students of Mahayana. There were hospitable arrangements in the Sangharamas for the reception of travelling monks, and he notices the custom of erecting small stupas in front of each dwelling family. The Gotami monastery, the residence of the pilgrim and his companions, alone contained 3000 monks of the Mahayana school. He also refers to Buddhist celebrations with the taking out of images in the fourteen great monasteries, more than thirty cubits high. .

Other cities in Central Asia were also involved in the transmission and adoption of various forms of Buddhism, including centres such as Kashgar, Osh, Kucha, Yarkand, Balkh and Bamiyan . Other exponents such as Kumarajiva were important in introducing key Buddhist texts into the Tarim Basin, and over fifty of translations became important classical texts in China . Chinese control of Khotan lapsed around 791, and around 1000 A.D. Muslim rule took over the city .

Within China itself, the Silk Road itself continued eastward from the three branching paths near Tarim Basin, leading to one of the most important artistic centres for Buddhism in the world. The Grottoes of Dunhuang, which have hundreds of paintings on religious and secular themes, are internationally famous. From here the main trade route continued eastwards to Chang'an (modern Xi'an).

Although Buddhism was largely pushed out by the arrival of Islam in Central Asia, with small pockets existing Russia and Siberia, we know of the vigorous spread of Buddhism in the region due to the large number of literary texts, monuments and art works that testify to the saturation of the eastern end of the Silk Road with Buddhist influences. This influences also spread into current-day Afghanistan, after being influenced by patterns of Indian and Greek artistic styles (Gandhara art). One of the major centres for Buddhist statuary and paintings is found in central Afghanistan at Bamiyan: -

The typical example of this culture is represented by Bamiyan, situated in the valley between the Hindukush and the Kohi-Baba ranges. It occupied in its heyday an important position on the trade route from Bactria to Taxila. The two immense statues of Buddha represented as Lokottara, the Lord of the World, cut in the rock at the eastern and western approaches of the town dominate the Buddhist complex in the region. The cliff between them covering about a kilometre in circuit is honeycombed with a conglomeration of caves, chapels, assembly halls and cells for the Buddhist monks. Some of these grottoes are connected by galleries within along the front of the precipice for circumambulation. The fifty-three metre Buddha, like the smaller colossus, has provided access to its summit through a system of stairways . . .

As we have seen, in March 2001, an extremist form of Islam as developed under the Taliban has led to the intentional destruction of these Buddhist statues and much other representational art in Afghanistan, in spite of world wide protests, including efforts by Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and the OIC to stop this 'cultural terrorism' (Moore & Constable 2001; Menon 2001). The United Nations General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, delegations from Japan, and protests from the Russian Foreign Ministry and Russian Buddhist groups have had little effect in stopping this destruction. (3) In fact, this has been part of a much larger problem of neglect, destruction and illegal sales of artefacts out of war-torn Afghanistan for more than two decades .

The Silk Road was never fully destroyed but came under specific pressures. The route around the south of the Tarim Basin was eventually partially lost due to shifting rivers that led to the abandonment of centres such as Miran, Endere, Niya and areas around Khotan . Likewise, once Islam displaced Buddhism in the region, this would change the orientation and art of the region. Economic forces would also weaken the long-distance trade along the route as the Ottoman Turks took control of the western end of the route and as Portuguese and then the Spanish began extending ocean trade routes between Europe and Asia. After World War II, of course, the region was largely divided under the fracture lines created by the Cold War, with armed borders restricting trade and influence along both east-west and north-south axes. Today, however, it is possible that new initiatives will begin to re-integrate these regions again. Integration along these 'new Silk-Roads' is crucial for the future of Eurasia.

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