Silk Road Buddhism
These figures of the Buddha Triad, along with many Buddhist paintings and sculptures, are located in the cave-temples near the town of Dunhuang in Gobi desert in north-west China. It is considered one of the most perfectly preserved of the world's great religious sanctuaries.
Dunhuang was founded by Wu-ti, the first emperor of the Han dynasty in 111 B.C. as one of the four garrison commanderies for the Han army in order to control the silk route. Through all these years, many foreign merchants and travellers leaving China along the silk road would pass through Dunhuang before they continue their journey to the west through East Turkestan, which is today's Xinjiang. Today, this city serves as a staging post for Buddhist monks, missionaries and pilgrims from China and Korea travelling west in search of images and scriptures.
These three figures of Buddha are made of clay stucco. The elegant and beautiful appearance of the three figures show a new style. imperial patronage of Buddhism in the Sui dynasty, emanating from metropolitan China. Each of them stands on a lotus pedestal with a double row of inverted and closely-overlapping petals. The Buddha at the center is accompanied by two Bodhisattvas. This combination symbolize the idea of salvation through Bodhisattvas. Any enlightened beings who have vowed to become Buddhas, have to postponed this event. They have to wait until all other sentient creatures have been saved.During the unstable period after the Han dynasty, China was cut off from India. The Chinese thought that the isolation would prevent them from seeking the truth of Buddhism. And many Buddhists realized that many of their sacred books had been mistranslated from the original Indian texts. This led to serious errors in Buddhist practice. Therefore, in the 6th century A.D., a pilgrim named Hsuan-tsang was sent from China. He traveled to India along the silk route in order to seek out the original Indian Buddhist holy books. Hsuan-tsang found a thousand monasteries lay deserted in ruins, overgrown with weeds. Many of them were destroyed the invasions of the Huns during the 5th century A.D. He wandered throughout India for nearly 16 years. He visited Buddhist holy places and found the religion thrived in the east of the country. He collected Indian holy books and took them back to China.The picture on the left is a wall hanging from Dunhuang depicting a Chinese pilgrim laden with manuscripts and sutras. It may well be a representation of Hsuan-tsang on his return to China.After he returned to China, the new emperor of the Tang dynasty, Tai-tsung, was so impressed with what he had done and offered him a post as the imperial adviser of the emperor. But Hsuan-tsang chose to complete his task, which was to make a faithful translation of the Buddhist holy books he had brought from India.The Ancient Gandhara is now that we know as northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. It was the center of the great Kusana Empire. Although the local India culture was widely spread in the Kusana Empire, Gandhara was influenced by Persian and Greek culture for several centuries. It is certain that Persian and Greek influences had already penetrated into the very heartland of India. As a result, there is no doubt that Gandhara had the greatest multi-culture influences from both East and West.With the predominant Buddhist religious influences in the local India, the cult of the stupa and its carved decorations, the anionic symbols of the Buddha and even the very idea of creating an anthropomorphic image of the Buddha can be found from the sculptures, building, painting and many other sources. The production of the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha seemed to coincide with the first attempts of Sakyamuni's life on earth. The earlier Indian art was concerned with a mythical conception of Buddha hood that was represented by symbols and scenes of Bodhisattva's previous lives.Buddha is known as stocky figure in either seated or standing gestures, and the position of the figure is always frontal. His hair is arranged in waves gathered together at the top of his head. There is a little spot, the urna, resides in between his eyes and brows. He often wears a moustache that was sometimes painted on his face and lost in the years. His ear lobes are big to distinguish his high status in the society. His body is covered in a monastic cloak that hangs in deep folds and covers his standing figure right above his feet. For Buddha in a seated position, his cross-legged figure was often covered under his cloak. His hands were represented in various gestures. Hands held in the gesture of blessing, abhaya, or together in front of the body in the gesture of teaching, dharmakra-pravartana, or together on the lap in the gesture of repose and meditation, dhyana, or touching the earth with the right hand to call the earth goddess to witness.Although all of these gestures of Buddha, his extended ear lobes and his urna in between his brows were parts of early Indian Buddhist traditions, the mound of hair may plausibly be compared with the hairstyle of Greek divinities. Moreover, the adoption of the style by the first sculptors of Buddha images in Gandhara has been one of the major arguments in support of the Greek style of the Buddha image. Some people believe with the influences of the Greek ideas of divinity. Sculptors in Gandhara preferred to follow a Greek tradition to illustrate the godly figure with a comely hairstyle rather than a bald-headed monk. This argument may be the truth, especially; the profile of the Buddha's figure is carved with sharp nose and refined proportions.
(Judy Bonavia, 1990. The Silk Road: retracing the ancient trade route. Hong Kong: Passport Books) Buddhism and Islam are the most significant religion in China and along the Silk Road. Other religions such as Christianity and Manichaen don't have as much influences as Buddhism and Islam. Partly, due to the lack of artifacts of Christianity, it is difficult for archeologists to trace related works of Christianity along the Silk Road. In this section of "Religion", there will be discussions of various religions in the Silk Road. To help people perceive more clearly about each religion, the discussions are accompanied by images.The first religion to be discussed is Buddhism. The origin of this primary religion of the Silk Road is actually from northern India. The founder is called Siddhartha Gautama, who later known as the Buddha, or "Enlightened One". His teaching is based on Four Noble Truths, "that life is suffering; that there is a cause of that suffering, namely desire; that there is a way to end suffering; and that the way is by following an Eightfold Path of right opinion, right though, right speech, right activity, right livelihood, right effort, right attention, and right concentration" (Foltz, 37). Buddha's ultimate goal is to escape from the vicious cycle of life and death and enter Nirvana, a transcendent state of freedom from desire and consciousness.The followers who are eligible to enter Nirvana are called the bodhisattvas. Out of Compassion, bodhisattvas have chosen not to go to Nirvana, but to stay at the mortal world until all beings have received their spiritual wisdom of becoming the enlighten ones (Cohen, Buddhism 17). An example of a bodhisattvas can be found in "The Painting on Silk of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin". This vibrant colored illustration captures the image of the holy and compassionate Kuan-yin. To show her importance, Kuan-yin is taller than the monk and the maid. Notice the appearance of Buddha on Kuan-yin's hairpiece, the sitting Buddha is dressed plainly in a monk's robe. On the other hand, Kuan-yin and other bodhisattvas are usually standing and adorned with precious jewels. The jewel in between the brows is called the Urna. It symbolizes as the third eye or superhuman insight. The long earlobes are "a mark of the nobles of ancient India whose earlobes were stretched by the heavy earrings that they wore" (Cohen, Buddhism 42)."The Eight Buddhist Emblems" are derived from the eight propitious symbols on the Master's foot. The Wheel of the Law symbolizes the influences of the teachings on error and superstition. The Conch shell symbolizes loyalty and a sign of prosperous voyage. The Umbrella signifies the emblem of the spleen, while the Canopy represents the lungs of the divinity. The next symbol is the Lotus. It is an emblem of redemption, similar to the symbolism in the Christian Cross. The Jar is the symbol for the container of sacred relics or sometimes as the stomach of the Buddha (Burkhardt, 144). Another symbol is the Fish. Though, both Christianity and Buddhism have fish as their religious emblem; they use it for different purposes. The Christians use ICQUS (Greek word for fish), as the acronymn for Jesus, Christ, God, Son (of God), and Savior ("What Does ICQUS Mean?"). Conversely, the Chinese take the pronunciation of "fish" to resemble the sound of the word abundance. The last symbol of all, is the Endless Knot; it is a sign for longevity.. (Burkhardt, 144, 145)."Silk Damask Shoes with Cloud Pattern Toe", Tang Dynasty. Unearthed in 1966 at Tufan, Sinkiang. The dyed patterns on these shoes are intricately designed. One of the eight Buddhist emblems is appearing in these shoes. The pattern on the shoes is the emblem of Canopy. The pattern is probably produced by a wax-resist dyeing method called batik (New Archaeological Finds in China, 59).As early as 260 CE, many Chinese monks took the route to India where they can trace back the source of their beliefs. Also, they visited historical sites associated with the Buddha and brought back manuscripts and relics back to their homes. One of the pilgrims is Fa-hsien. He traveled westward from his homeland, Ch'ang-an, to Zara Shahr. Then, southward to the Swat Vally and to the final destination, India. His incredible journey inspired Hsüan-tsang, a young Chinese Buddhist, to become another Chinese pilgrim (Foltz, 55).At the age of twelve, Hsüan-tsang attended his brother's monastery. He studied a variety of teachings of different Buddhists schools. From his observations of the manuscripts, he found many errors and inconsistencies in the Chinese translations. He had the burden to bring back the original Sanskrit version of certain texts. One of the texts he wanted to obtain is Asanga's Treatise on the Stages of Yoga Practice (55).By traveling the Buddhism religion path in the reverse direction, Hsüan-tsang took the route from the subcontinent China to the northwestern Indian. During his stay in India, he visited many Buddhist sites and collected manuscripts from different locations. Also, he found the opportunities to debate with scholars in India. After thirteen years of pilgrimage, he brought back 657 Sanskrit manuscripts to China (55-56).The manuscripts brought back to China by Hsüan-tsang were probably in the same form as the "Bundles of Manuscripts". These bundles of sacred texts were excavated by a British explorer, Sir Aurel Stein from the secret chamber at Tun-huang. The many pages of manuscripts found from the chamber were "compressed over the centuries into hard, fragile little packets by the crushing weight of the manuscripts" (Hopkirk, 167). Stein brought many of his discoveries back to England and later his many findings were examine by the laboratories of the British Museum."The Diamond Sutra" (dated 868) is the world's earliest printed book. As Gascoigne, the author of The Dynasties and Treasures of China describes, " The text is printed from six large blocks, each of them two and a half feet long by almost a foot broad. The scroll is a worthy and complete ancestor of all subsequent books, for it contains not only s superb woodcut as a frontis-piece . . ." (150). This image depicts a special ceremony of Buddha meditating the holy words to the monks and bodhisattvas. British Excavator, Sir Aurel Stein, found a copy of the Diamond Sura from Tun-huang. Stein also found many other manuscripts from the secret chamber in Tun-huang. The sacred texts were hidden purposefully because of the threat of barbarian invasion. As Stein and his assistants examined and unfolded the countless pages, they discovered that there were "manuscripts in Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, Runic-Turki and Uighur, as well as in unknown languages . . ." (Hopkirk, 167).(six) "Lay merchants making offerings to Buddha." is a wall painting from Bezeklik. Their long noses, big eyes, and clothing suggest that they are traders from a far. In this painting, the sincerity of the two traders are suggested by their kneeling postures and their offering hands. Their eyes are with reverence to the Buddha. Behind them are two bodhisattvas; also, they have great respect to the Buddha..." (Hopkirk, 167).:"Lay merchants making offerings to Buddha." is a wall painting from Bezeklik. Their long noses, big eyes, and clothing suggest that they are traders from a far. In this painting, the sincerity of the two traders are suggested by their kneeling postures and their offering hands. Their eyes are with reverence to the Buddha. Behind them are two bodhisattvas; also, they have great respect to the Buddha.Beside Buddhism, Islam is another religion that dominated many parts of China. The founder of Islam is Prophet Muhammad who lived in Mecca. He liked to meditate on the mountain. During his retreats, he heard the voice of God calling out to him. He was afraid that the voice was from his own sanity, but with his wife's (Khadija) advice, he gained the courage to receive the messages from God (Foltz, 89).The fundamental teaching of Islam is that through the commitment of the people to God's way, they will become Muslim. Muslim is a term for people with submission to God's will and find peace by following God's way. There is only one God in Islam who is Allah. The five important steps of Islam is faith, prayer, fasting, sharing, and pilgrimage. To be a Muslim, one needs to have the faith in God and his word, the Qur'an. Also, one needs to acknowledge that Muhammad as the greatest example of human relationship to God. Secondly, prayer is another form of submission. which is required five times a day. Fasting is another step which is required for one month per year. Another aspect of Islam is sharing. One needs to donate money to the poor. The last step is pilgrimage; which is the journey to Mecca for the unity of the Muslim community (Koller, 93-94)."Musician" is a portrait painted my Lunda Hoyle Gill, an American artist. The artwork is showing an example of a modern Muslim. This piece is painted in Tajik. Among the fifty-five minorities in China, Tajik along with other groups, such as Uygurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tartars, and Uzbecks, belong to the Xinjiang nationalities and they all have strong Islamic traditions (Gill, 32).Gill also created many other paintings in China. With the interest of the minorities of China, Gill, went to China for a research painting project in the 1980's. She created a book called Portraits of China with over 50 paintings of the faces of young and old, and along with "Musician" on page 114.This painting is also called "Musician", but it is painted in Uygur. In the majestic mountain range, the musician is playing the Ravap, an instrument common in Uygur and Tajiks of Xinjiang. Also, notice the hat and his clothing are reflecting the Muslim tradition.There are three major factors which generated the Islamization of the Central Asia. The places include Tajik, Uygur, and many other parts of the Silk Road. The three factors are discussed by Foltz, the author of Religions of the Silk Road. The first factor has to do with politics. As Foltz noted:"One of the most commonly cited incentives to religio-cultural conversion is the pursuit of patronage. Anyone directly dependent on the government for his livelihood might sense advantages in joining the cultural group of his patrons and accepting the norms and values of that ruling group." (96)The second factor is of economic reason. To make easy of the business transaction between local Muslims businessman and foreign traders, many foreigners had become Muslim. This way also would offer more favorable conditions to the traders by the Muslim officials (96). The third factor is assimilation. The children and future generations of a Muslim will also be nurtured with the same principles of Islam. Also, in a mixed marriage, the Islamic law requires that the children to be raised as Muslims (97).Christianity has lesser influence in the Silk Road than Buddhism and Islam. Partly due to a low interest in western culture, Chinese didn't pay a lot of attention to Christianity. Additionally, it is politically insignificant to the central Asia.
Christianity is originated from Israel. The belief is under the doctrine of the scripture called the Holy Bible. The God is the creator of all things. He is the Trinity divine: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The angels, sheep, fish, and the cross are important symbols of Christianity. The cross is the most important symbol of all because it served as a reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The image of the "Cross" is an example found from China. It is one of the rare findings of Christianity artworks in central Asia. The image is a rubbing from a monument in Xian. A Western symbol and an Eastern symbol are put together in this image. The cross and the lotus are combined together to make this a cross-cultural design..
"Manichean Electi" demonstrates another religion in the scene of Silk Road. This image is from a ninth century manuscript. The men in the image are the follower of Mani. They dress in their religious white robes and they pay respect to Mani, the originator of Manichean. Mani's teaching is based on "dualistic view of the universe, in which "good" is equated with spirit and "evil"with matter" (Foltz, 75).Mani was raised in a religious environment with Christian and Jewish ideas. He received revelations from god at the age of twelve and twenty-four in his country, Iran. He decided to take the path to Kushan, India for a preaching mission. In Kushan, where Buddhism had played a significant role; also, Buddhism had become part of the formation of Manichean. With the same way as the Buddhist community, the Manichaean group was divided into monks and lay followers (Foltz, 71-72).The Manichaean texts were translated into various languages by a group of Sogdians. Sogdians in the Silk Road were successful merchants with strong linguistic skills. They had translated the Manichaean texts into Syriac, Middle Persian, Turkish, and Chinese. One of the texts, The Sutra of the Two Principles had become an influential Manichaean work in China. An acknowledgment gives to the Iranian Manichaean missionary, Mihr-Ormazd, who journeyed to China in the seventh century for the spreading of Manichaean's ideas (Foltz, 78).