The Buddhism of Khotan
The ancestors of the Khotanese people were Persian or Indic immigrants from the west and Chinese immigrants from the east, who settled in a fertile strip of land along a river which flowed north from the Kunlun mountains. Khotan was conquered by China in 73 CE, but as the Han dynasty became weaker over the following century, Chinese influence waned, and the influence of the Kushana empire from the west became much stronger. Khotan became a centre for trade, with jade its most valuable product. During the seventh century Chinese and Tibetan armies fought over Khotan, both holding it for some time. During the time of Tibetan ascendency in Central Asia, the eighth and ninth centuries, Khotan was usually under Tibetan rule.
- Ancient Khotan was a collection of settlements surrounding the city of Khotan (see detailed map). Buddhist monasteries and temples associated with Khotan also existed further afield. Khotan remained Buddhist until, around the year 1000, it was taken by the Karakhanid Turks of Kashgar and Buddhism was replaced by Islam.
- Inscriptions in the Kharosthi script indicate that Buddhism first arrived in Khotan from the west, over the Pamirs, helped by the flourishing of trade along the Silk Road and the growing power of the Kushana empire in the second and third centuries CE. The Buddhism of this period would have been Shravakayana. However, all of the surviving Khotanese Buddhist literature dates from a later period, from the seventh to tenth centuries CE. These manuscripts, written in the Brahmi script, contain both Sanskrit texts and translations into the local language of Khotan. This body of literature is Mahayana, and reached Khotan through a different route, via Gilgit in Northern India.
Khotan was on the route between North-west India and China, which was also the primary route for the Tibetans when they made their incursions into Central Asia. This position ensured Khotan's importance in the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from India to China and Tibet. Khotanese texts also were found in the library cave in Dunhuang, indicating links between Khotanese Buddhists and the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist communities further east.
- The accounts of the two most famous Chinese pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang, who passed through Khotan in the 4th and the 7th centuries CE respectively, confirm that Khotan was a Mahayana Buddhist country during this period. Both travellers were impressed by the commitment of the Khotanese rulers and their people to Buddhism. Faxian wrote: 'The country is prosperous and the people are numerous; without exception they have faith in the Dharma and they entertain one another with religious music. The community of monks numbers several tens of thousands and they belong mostly to the Mahayana.'
- Khotanese Mahayana Buddhism strongly resembled that of India. The Prajnaparamita sutras, and Cittamatra ("mind-only") philosophy were both important. An original Mahayana treatise, The Book of Zambasta, written in the Khotanese language, still exists. It deals with a range of Mahayana topics. The Prajnaparamita, the Vimalakirtinirdesha and the Sukhavativyuha were among the sutras translated into Khotanese. Vajrayana Buddhism also existed in Khotan, although not in the fully developed form which became popular in Tibet.