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Silk Road transmission of Buddhism

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Via the [[Silk Road]] Buddhism was brought over land to China. The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism is most commonly thought to have started in the late 2nd or the 1st century CE.


The first documented translation efforts by Buddhist monks in China (all foreigners) were in the 2nd century CE, possibly as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin.


From the 4th century onward, with Faxian's pilgrimage to India (395–414), and later Xuanzang (629–644), Chinese pilgrims too started to travel by themselves to northern India, their source of Buddhism, in order to get improved access to original scriptures. The [[Silk Road]] transmission of Buddhism began to decline around the 7th century with the rise of Islam in Central Asia.


The transmission of Buddhism

First contacts

Buddhism was brought to China via the [[Silk Road]], the lucrative Chinese silk trade along it, which began during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).

The transmission of Buddhism to China via the Silk Road started in the 1st century CE with a semi-legendary account of an embassy sent to the West by the Chinese Emperor Ming (58–75 CE):

It may be assumed that travelers or pilgrims brought Buddhism along the Silk Roads, but whether this first occurred from the earliest period when those roads were open, ca. 100 BC, must remain open to question. The earliest direct references to Buddhism concern the 1st century AD, but they include hagiographical elements and are not necessarily reliable or accurate.

Extensive contacts however started in the 2nd century CE, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin, with the missionary efforts of a great number of Central Asian Buddhist monks to Chinese lands. The first missionaries and translators of Buddhists scriptures into Chinese were either wikipedia:Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian or Kuchean.

Central Asian missionaries

Peoples of the Silk Road. Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, China, 9th century

[[File:Dunhuang Central Asian Bodhisattva.jpeg|thumb|220px|right|Bodhisattva mural. Chinese work showing Central Asian influence. Mogao Caves, China.]]

Sogdian donors to the Buddha (fresco, with detail), Bezeklik, eastern Tarim Basin, China, 8th century

In the middle of the 2nd century, the Kushan empire under king Kaniṣka expanded into Central Asia and went as far as taking control of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand, in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. As a consequence, cultural exchanges greatly increased, and Central Asian Buddhist missionaries became active shortly after in the Chinese capital cities of Loyang and sometimes Nanjing, where they particularly distinguished themselves by their translation work. They promoted both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna scriptures. Thirty-seven of these early translators of Buddhist texts are known.

Early translations

The first documented translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese occurs in 148 CE with the arrival of the Parthian prince-turned-monk, An Shigao (Ch. 安世高). He worked to establish Buddhist temples in Loyang and organized the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, testifying to the beginning of a wave of Central Asian Buddhist proselytism that was to last several centuries. An Shigao translated Buddhist texts on basic doctrines, meditation and abhidharma. An Xuan (Ch. 安玄), a Parthian layman who worked alongside An Shigao, also translated an early Mahāyāna Buddhist text on the bodhisattva path.

Mahāyāna Buddhism was first widely propagated in China by the Kushan monk Lokakṣema (Ch. 支婁迦讖, active ca. 164–186 CE), who came from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhāra. Lokakṣema translated important Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, as well as rare, early Mahāyāna sūtras on topics such as samādhi and meditation on the buddha Akṣobhya. These translations from Lokakṣema continue to give insight into the early period of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Chinese pilgrims to India

From the 4th century onward, Chinese pilgrims also started to travel on the Silk Road to India, the origin of Buddhism, by themselves in order to get improved access to the original scriptures. According to Chinese sources, the first Chinese to be ordained was Zhu Zixing, after he went to Central Asia in 260 to seek out Buddhism.

It is only from the 4th century CE that Chinese Buddhist monks started to travel to India to discover Buddhism first-hand. Faxian's pilgrimage to India (395–414) is said to have been the first significant one. He left along the Silk Road, stayed six years in India, and then returned by the sea route. Xuan Zang (629–644) and Hyecho traveled from Korea to India.

The most famous of the Chinese pilgrims is Xuanzang (629–644), whose large and precise translation work defines a "new translation period", in contrast with older Central Asian works. He also left a detailed account of his travels in Central Asia and India. The legendary accounts of the holy priest Xuan Zang were described in a famous novel called Journey to the West, which envisaged trials of the journey with demons but with the help of various disciples.


During the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., Merchants played a large role in the spread of religion, in particular Buddhism. Merchants found the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism to be an appealing alternative to previous religions. As a result, Merchants supported Buddhist Monasteries along the Silk Roads and in return the Buddhists gave the Merchants somewhere to stay as they traveled from city to city. As a result, Merchants spread Buddhism to foreign encounters as they travelled. Merchants also helped to establish diaspora within the communities they encountered and overtime their cultures became based on Buddhism. Because of this, these communities became centers of literacy and culture with well organized marketplaces, lodging, and storage. The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism essentially ended around the 7th century with the rise of Islam in Central Asia.


Buddhism in Central Asia began to decline in the 7th century following the incursion of the Muslim Caliphate. The vigorous Chinese culture progressively absorbed Buddhist teachings until a strongly Chinese particularism developed.

Central Asian Buddhist monks from the Tarim Basin and East Asian Buddhist monks appear to have maintained strong exchanges until around the 10th century, as shown by frescoes from the Tarim Basin.

Artistic influences

"Heroic gesture of the Bodhisattva", 6th–7th century terracotta, Tumshuq (Xinjiang)

Central Asian missionary efforts along the Silk Road were accompanied by a flux of artistic influences, visible in the development of Serindian art from the 2nd to the 11th century CE in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang.

Serindian art often derives from the Greco-Buddhist art of the Gandhāra district of what is now Pakistan, combining Indian, Greek and Roman influences.

Highly sinicized forms of this syncretism can also be found on the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin, such as in Dunhuang.

Silk Road artistic influences can be found as far as Japan to this day, in architectural motifs or representations of Japanese gods (see Greco-Buddhist art).

Buddhism in the Book of Later Han

The (5th century) Book of the Later Han, compiled by Fan Ye (398-446 CE), documented early Chinese Buddhism. This history records that around 65 CE, Buddhism was practiced in the courts of both Emperor Ming of Han (r. 58-75 CE) at Luoyang (modern Henan) and, his half-brother, King Ying (r. 41-70 CE) of Chu at Pengcheng (modern Jiangsu).

The Book of Han has given rise to discussions on the maritime or overland transmission of Buddhism, and the origins of Buddhism in India or China.

The Book of Han

First, the Book of the Later Han biography of Liu Ying, the King of Chu, gives the oldest reference to Buddhism in Chinese historical literature. It says Ying was both deeply interested in Huang-Lao 黄老 (from Yellow Emperor and Laozi) Daoism and "observed fasting and performed sacrifices to the Buddha." Huang-Lao or Huanglaozi 黄老子 is the deification of Laozi, and was associated with fangshi "technician; magician; alchemist" methods and xian "transcendent; immortal" techniques. "To Liu Ying and the Chinese devotees at his court the "Buddhist" ceremonies of fasting and sacrifices were probably no more than a variation of existing Daoist practices; this peculiar mixture of Buddhist and Daoist elements remains characteristic of Han Buddhism as a whole."

In 65 CE, Emperor Ming decreed that anyone suspected of capital crimes would be given an opportunity for redemption, and King Ying sent thirty rolls of silk. The biography quotes Ming's edict praising his younger brother:

The king of Chu recites the subtle words of Huanglao, and respectfully performs the gentle sacrifices to the Buddha. After three months of purification and fasting, he has made a solemn covenant (or: a vow 誓) with the spirits. What dislike or suspicion (from Our part) could there be, that he must repent (of his sins)? Let (the silk which he sent for) redemption be sent back, in order thereby to contribute to the lavish entertainment of the upāsakas (yipusai 伊蒲塞) and śramaṇa (sangmen 桑門).

In 70 CE, King Ying was implicated in rebellion and sentenced to death, but Ming instead exiled him and his courtiers south to Danyang (Anhui), where Ying committed suicide in 71 CE. The Buddhist community at Pencheng survived, and around 193 CE, the warlord Zhai Rong built a huge Buddhist temple, "which could contain more than three thousand people, who all studied and read Buddhist scriptures."

Second, Fan Ye's Book of Later Han quotes a "current" (5th-century) tradition that Emperor Ming prophetically dreamed about a "golden man" Buddha. While "The Kingdom of Tianzhu" section (above) recorded his famous dream, the "Annals of Emperor Ming" history did not. Apocryphal texts give divergent accounts about the imperial envoys sent to India, their return with two Buddhist monks, Sanskrit sutras (including Sutra of Forty-two Chapters) carried by white horses, and establishing the White Horse Temple.

Maritime or overland transmission

Since the Book of Later Han present two accounts of how Buddhism entered Han China, generations of scholars have debated whether monks first arrived via the maritime or overland routes of the [[Silk Road]].

The maritime route hypothesis, favored by Liang Qichao and Paul Pelliot, proposed that Buddhism was originally introduced in southern China, the Yangtze River and Huai River region, where King Ying of Chu was worshipping Laozi and Buddha c. 65 CE. The overland route hypothesis, favored by Tang Yongtong, proposed that Buddhism disseminated eastward through Yuezhi and was originally practiced in western China, at the Han capital Luoyang where Emperor Ming established the White Horse Temple c. 68 CE.

The historian Rong Xinjiang reexamined the overland and maritime hypotheses through a multi-disciplinary review of recent discoveries and research, including the Gandhāran Buddhist Texts, and concluded:

The view that Buddhism was transmitted to China by the sea route comparatively lacks convincing and supporting materials, and some arguments are not sufficiently rigorous [...] the most plausible theory is that Buddhism started from the Greater Yuezhi of northwest India (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) and took the land roads to reach Han China. After entering into China, Buddhism blended with early Daoism and Chinese traditional esoteric arts and its iconography received blind worship.

Origins of Buddhism

Fan Ye's Commentary noted that neither of the Former Han histories – the (109-91 BCE) Records or the Grand Historian (which records Zhang Qian visiting Central Asia) and (111 CE) Book of Han (compiled by Ban Yong) – described Buddhism originating in India:

Zhang Qian noted only that: 'this country is hot and humid. The people ride elephants into battle.' Although Ban Yong explained that they revere the Buddha, and neither kill nor fight, he has recording nothing about the excellent texts, virtuous Law, and meritorious teachings and guidance. As for myself, here is what I have heard: This kingdom is even more flourishing than China. The seasons are in harmony. Saintly beings descend and congregate there. Great Worthies arise there. Strange and extraordinary marvels occur such that human reason is suspended. By examining and exposing the emotions, one can reach beyond the highest heavens.

In the Book of Later Han, "The Kingdom of Tianzhu" (天竺, Northwest India) section of "The Chronicle of the Western Regions" summarizes the origins of Buddhism in China. After noting Tianzhu envoys coming by sea through Rinan (日南, Central Vietnam) and presenting tribute to Emperor He of Han (r. 89-105 CE) and Emperor Huan of Han (r. 147-167 CE), it summarizes the first "hard evidence" about Prince Ying and "official" story about Emperor Ming:

"There is a current tradition that Emperor Ming dreamed that he saw a tall golden man the top of whose head was glowing. He questioned his group of advisors and one of them said: "In the West there is a god called Buddha. His body is sixteen chi high (3.7 metres or 12 feet), and is the colour of true gold." The Emperor, to discover the true doctrine, sent an envoy to Tianzhu (Northwestern India) to inquire about the Buddha's doctrine, after which paintings and statues [of the Buddha) appeared in the Middle Kingdom."

"Then Ying, the king of Chu [a dependent kingdom which he ruled 41-71 CE], began to believe in this Practice, following which quite a few people in the Middle Kingdom began following this Path. Later on, Emperor Huan [147-167 CE] devoted himself to sacred things and often made sacrifices to the Buddha and Laozi. People gradually began to accept (Buddhism) and, later, they became numerous."

Buddhism in apocryphal traditions

Mogao Caves 8th-century mural depicting the pseudohistorical legend of Emperor Wu of Han worshipping "golden man" Buddha statues.

Despite secular Chinese histories dating the introduction of Buddhism in the 1st century, some apocryphal Buddhist texts and traditions claim earlier dates in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) or Former Han Dynasty (208 BCE-9 CE).

Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE)

One apocryphal story, first appearing in the (597 CE) Lidai sanbao ji 歷代三寶紀, concerns a group of Buddhist priests who supposedly arrived in 217 BCE at the capital of Qin Shi Huang in Xianyang (near Xi'an). The monks, led by the shramana Shilifang 室李防, presented sutras to the First Emperor, who had them put in jail:

But at night the prison was broken open by a Golden Man, sixteen feet high, who released them. Moved by this miracle, the emperor bowed his head to the ground and excused himself.

The (668 CE) Fayuan Zhulin Buddhist encyclopedia elaborates this legend with Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great sending Shilifang to China. With the exception of Liang Qichao, most modern sinologists dismiss this Shilifang story. Some western historians believe Emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to China, citing the (ca. 265) 13th Rock Edict that records missions to Greece, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Han Dynasty

There is a Chinese tradition that in 2 BCE, a Yuezhi envoy to the court of Emperor Ai of Han transmitted one or more Buddhist sutras to a Chinese scholar. The earliest version derives from the lost (mid-3rd century) Weilüe, quoted in Pei Songzhi's commentary to the (429 CE) Records of Three Kingdoms: "the student at the imperial academy Jing Lu 景盧 received from Yicun 伊存, the envoy of the king of the Great Yuezhi oral instruction in (a) Buddhist sutra(s)." Since Han histories do not mention Emperor Ai having contacts with the Yuezhi, scholars disagree whether this tradition "deserves serious consideration",

The dream of Emperor Ming

Many apocryphal sources recount the "pious legend" of Emperor Ming dreaming about Buddha, sending envoys to Yuezhi (on a date variously given as 60, 61, 64 or 68 CE), and their return (3 or 11 years later) with sacred texts and the first Buddhist missionaries, Kāśyapa Mātanga (Shemoteng 攝摩騰 or Jiashemoteng 迦葉摩騰) and Dharmaratna (Zhu Falan 竺法蘭). They translated the "Sutra in Forty-two Sections" into Chinese, traditionally dated 67 CE but probably later than 100, the emperor built the White Horse Temple (Baimasi 白馬寺) in their honor, and Chinese Buddhism began. All accounts of Emperor Ming's dream and Yuezhi embassy derive from the anonymous (middle 3rd-century) introduction to the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters. For example, the (late 3rd to early 5th-century) Mouzi Lihuolun says,

"In olden days emperor Ming saw in a dream a god whose body had the brilliance of the sun and who flew before his palace; and he rejoiced exceedingly at this. The next day he asked his officials: "What god is this?" the scholar Fu Yi said: "Your subject has heard it said that in India there is somebody who has attained the Tao and who is called Buddha; he flies in the air, his body had the brilliance of the sun; this must be that god."

Academics disagree over the historicity of Emperor Ming's dream; Tang Yongtong sees a possible nucleus of fact behind the tradition, and Henri Maspero rejects it as propagandistic fiction.

Emperor Wu and The Golden Man

Exemplifying how traditional accounts of Chinese Buddhism sometimes combined history and legend, the Book of Han records that in 121 BCE, Emperor Wu of Han sent general Huo Qubing to attack the Xiongnu. Huo defeated the people of prince Xiutu 休屠 (in modern day Gansu) and "captured a golden (or gilded) man used by the King of Hsiu-t'u to worship Heaven." Xiutu's son was taken prisoner, but eventually became a favorite retainer of Emperor Wu and was granted the name Jin Midi, with his surname Jin 金 "gold" supposedly referring to the "golden man." The golden statue was later moved to the Yunyang 雲陽 Temple, near the royal summer palace Ganquan 甘泉 (modern Xianyang, Shaanxi).

The (c. 6th century) A New Account of the Tales of the World claims this golden man was more than ten feet high, and Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE) sacrificed to it in the Ganquan 甘泉 palace, which "is how Buddhism gradually spread into (China)."


Wikipedia:Silk Road transmission of Buddhism

[[Category:Silk Road]]