Middleway Press
Buddhism, The First Millennium

The Flower of Chinese Buddhism
Author:  Daisaku Ikeda
Translator:  Burton Watson

ISBN:  978-0-9779245-4-7

About the Book
About the Author
Reviews
Table of Contents
Chapter from the Book

Award-Winning Finalist in the
Religion: Buddhism category of the “2011 International Book Awards”

2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards
Winner - Religious Non-Fiction

2009 ForeWord Magazine's Book of The Year Awards
Finalist - Religion Category

2009 ForeWord Magazine's Book of The Year Awards
Finalist - History Category

ABOUT THE BOOK

The Flower of Chinese Buddhism begins with the introduction of Buddhism into China by traders and monks traveling along the Silk Route through Central Asia. After discussing the early translations of the Buddhist scriptures the author examines the career and achievements of the great Kumarajiva, famed for his philosophical treatises that form the core of East Asian Buddhist literature--among them the Lotus Sutra. During this period of great scholarly activity the mass teachings were organized and ordered. Special emphasis is given to faith in the Lotus Sutra and the inception of the T'ien-t'ai school followed by the major works of T'ien-t'ai masters such Hui-su, Chih-i, and Chanjan affording the uninitiated reader a useful and accessible introduction to the school of Buddhism that was to become so influential in Japan and the inspiration for the teachings of the 13th century Buddhist monk Nichiren. The book closes with the persecution of the T'ang dynasty and the failure of the Buddhist establishment to meet this final challenge. The author explores the reason for this, illuminates the role of Buddhism in Chinese society, and by extension, in human society in general.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daisaku Ikeda is the author and co-author of more than sixty books on a wide range of topics including the history of Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, dialogues with world leaders, poetry, novels and books for children.  He is the founding president and leader of the Soka Gakkai International, one of the largest lay Buddhist organizations in the world today with members in more than 190 countries and territories.  He is the recipient of the United Nations Peace Award, the Rosa Parks Humanitarian Award and the International Tolerance Award of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Burton Watson is a widely known and respected translator of Chinese and Japanese literature.  A former professor at Columbia, Stanford and Kyoto Universities, his translations include The Lotus Sutra, The Vimalakirti Sutra, Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, Mo Tzu:  Basic Writings, RyokanZen Monk-Poet of Japan and Saigyo:  Poems of a Mountain Home among others.  He received the PEN Translation Prize in 1981.

REVIEWS

“It is not always easy for a Western mind to understand the true meaning and grasp the subtleties and nuances of Buddhist thinking…I discovered that Mr. Ikeda was opening up new vistas of the totality of things which enriched my outlook.”
Aurelio Peccei, Club of Rome co-founder

“A clear and accurate introduction to developments in Buddhism after the death of its founder…Highly recommended for inclusion in academic collections as an articulate, modern statement of the Mahayanist viewpoint.”
Choice

“This book provides a general overview of the first thousand years of one of the world’s largest and most influential religions…and clearly defines the original ideas underlying Buddhism.”
Los Angeles Time

"Part of the Soka Gakkai History of Buddhism series, The Flower of Chinese Buddhism chronicles the history of how Buddhism came to Chine, brought by traders and monks via the silk road, and how distinct Chinese schools of Buddhist thought came to be established (including the Tiantai school, which would later have a profound impact in Japan).  Chapters further follow how Buddhism declined in China after brutal persecution during the tenth century, the deeds of notable Chinese Buddhist leaders of history, and the role of Buddhism in Chinese society. An excellent, carefully researched chronicle, The Flower of Chinese Buddhism is a must-have for Buddhist studies shelves. Also highly recommended are the other volumes in the series, "The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography" (9780977924523, $14.95) and "Buddhism: The First Millennium" (9780977924530, $14.95)."
—Midwest Book Review

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

 

Editor’s Note

ix

 

Preface to the English Edition

xi

 

Translator’s Note

xiii

1.

FROM INDIA TO CHINA

1

 

Buddhism as a World Religion

1

 

The Introduction of Buddhism to China

3

 

Possible Earlier Contact with Buddhism

7

 

The Situation in Central Asia

11

2. 

EARLY CHINESE TRANSLATIONS OF BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES

15

 

Seeking Knowledge of Buddhism

15

 

Monk-Translators from Central Asia

18

 

A Priceless Cultural Legacy

23

3. 

KUMARAJIVA AND HIS TRANSLATION ACTIVITIES

29

 

The Unparalleled Monk-Translator

29

 

Kumarajiva’s Parentage

30

 

The Period of Youthful Study

33

 

The Road to Chang’an

39

 

The Nature of Kumarajiva’s Translations

43

 

The Translation of the Lotus Sutra

45

4. 

EFFORTS TO SYSTEMATIZE THE TEACHINGS

53

 

Transitions in the History of Chinese Buddhism

53

 

The Activities of Kumarajiva’s Disciples

57

5. 

TRAVELERS IN SEARCH OF THE LAW

65

 

Pilgrimages of Chinese Monks to India

65

 

Faxian’s Account of His Travels and Its Importance

68

 

Over Endless Mountains and Rivers

72

 

Visiting the Sacred Sites of Buddhism

78

6.

HUISI AND THE VENERATION OF THE LOTUS SUTRA

83

 

The Beginnings of the Tiantai School

83

 

Huisi and His Understanding of the Lotus Sutra

84

 

The Lotus Meditation

87

 

Coming Face too Face with the Buddha

91

 

Huisi and the Concept of the Latter Day of the Law

94

vi

THE FLOWER OF CHINESE BUDDHISM

 

7.

TIANTAI ZHIYI AND HIS THREE MAJOR WRITINGS

99

 

Master Interpreter of the Lotus Sutra

99

 

Encounter with Huisi

102

 

The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra

106

 

The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra

111

 

Great concentration and insight

114

8.

XUANZANG AND HIS JOURNEY TO INDIA

119

 

Tang Culture and Xuanzang’s Place in it

119

 

Background and Motives for the Journey to India

120

 

To the Crossroads of Civilization

123

 

The Beginning of the Sectarian Period

129

9.

TANG BUDDHISM AND THE ACHIEVEMENT OF MIAOLE ZHANRAN

135

 

Buddhism in the Reign of Emperor Xuanzong

135

 

Doctrinal Profundity and the Problem of Propagation

140

 

Zhanran’s Achievements and Their Importance

143

10.

THE BUDDHIST PERSECUTIONS

151

 

The Suppression of Buddhism in Wartime

151

 

The Background of the Buddhist Persecutions

155

 

The Characteristics of Chinese Buddhism

162

 

Glossary

167

 

Appendix: Romanization Table

175

 

Index

181

CHAPTER FROM THE BOOK

The Flower of Chinese Buddhism
Chapter One:

“From India to China”

In The Living Buddha, I discussed the life of Shakyamuni, the founder of the Buddhist religion, and in the sequel, Buddhism, the First Millennium, I outlined the history of that religion as it developed in India during the first thousand years following Shakyamuni’s death.  In this, the third volume in the Soka Gakkai History of Buddhism series, I would like to describe the process by which this remarkable religion expanded beyond the borders of India, the country of its birth, spread across Central Asia, and entered China, where it underwent new developments that permitted its transmission to Korea and Japan.

As I have already pointed out in the preceding volumes, the Buddhism of Shakyamuni was destined not simply to remain a religion of the Indian people alone.  Rather, it possessed characteristics of universal appeal that permitted it to transcend national and racial boundaries and present itself as a religion for all humankind.  I would like here to focus on the process by which it spread beyond the country of its origin and was received in China, a country with a wholly different cultural background, and see just how that process functioned.

Indian Buddhism falls into two major categories.  One is Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes referred to as Northern Buddhism because it spread to the countries to the north and east of India.  The other is Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism, sometimes called southern Buddhism, as it spread to the countries south and east of India such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia.  Southern Buddhism was also known to some extent in the Greek and Roman worlds to the west of India.  Here I propose to concentrate attention on the northern type, or Mahayana Buddhism.

There are several reasons for this decision.  First of all, Japan is heir to the Mahayana tradition, and since I am writing from the standpoint of a Japanese Buddhist believer, I would like to throw light on the nature stand Mahayana Buddhism, we must observe the manner in which it was transmitted from India to China and the changes that it underwent in China before being further transmitted to Japan.  In addition, I believe that by nothing the way in which this religion moved from India, the country of its origin, and spread throughout countries of quite different cultural backgrounds such as China and Japan, we can perceive some of the characteristics that qualify Buddhism as a world religion.

When it was transmitted from India to other countries with very different languages and cultures, the religion of Shakyamuni naturally did not remain unchanged.  Though the philosophical core of the religion stayed the same, various adaptations in matters of custom and procedure, along with significant shifts of doctrinal emphasis, took place as Buddhism was introduced to new environments so tat in time China, for example, developed its own distinctive form of Buddhism, and the same process was repeated later in Japan.

In this respect, Mahayana Buddhism may be said to differ from the Theravada Buddhism of the southern tradition.  Theravada Buddhism, as it developed in India and Southeast Asia, is generally perceived by its adherents as essentially an extension of the original Buddhism of India.  But Mahayana Buddhism, because of the numerous elements introduced into it in the lands to the north and east to which it spread, came to differ so much from Indian Buddhism that it may almost be said to constitute a whole new religion.

My concern here, however, will be not so much with these later elements that were introduced into Mahayana Buddhism as with the fundamental elements that underlie Buddhism of all types—the universals of the religion, as it were.  Shortly after Shakyamuni attained enlightenment sitting under the papal called the bodhi tree in Buddhagaya, he determined not to keep his enlightenment to himself but to share it with others.  Already, in that moment of decision, Buddhism may be said to have started on its path of development as a world religion.

Because this religion addressed itself to the problems of birth, aging, sickness, and death—problems that face every living person—it is in my opinion by no means destined to remain a religion of the East Asian and Southeast Asian peoples alone.  Today, we see Buddhism spreading to the continents of Australia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America, and I am confident that this process will continue.  The purpose of the present volume is to examine how Buddhism spread to China, and in that way come to understand something about the way it spreads from place to place, adapting itself to the needs of new cultures while at the same time preserving the living core of its basic teachings, that vital spark that enables it to go on living and growing more than twenty-five centuries after its initial founding.

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THE INTRODUCTION OF BUDDHISM TO CHINA

In the past, the commonly accepted account of the introduction of Buddhism to China placed that event in the tenth year of the Yongping era of the reign of Emperor Ming of the Later Han dynasty (25-220 CE), a date that corresponds to 6 CE by the Western calendar.  Though there are different theories concerning the dates of Shakyamuni’s birth and death, if we assume that he died around 486 BCE, the religion he founded was introduced to China about five hundred years after his passing.

According to one account, Emperor Ming dreamed of a golden man of unusual height flying in the air in front of his palace.  Questioning his ministers as to the meaning of the dream, he was told that the golden man was the Buddha.  He thereupon dispatched envoys to the regions west of China to seek knowledge of the Buddhist religion.  The account goes on to state that the envoys dispatched by Emperor Ming eventually reached the land of people the Chinese referred to as the Yuezhi in northern India, where they encountered two Buddhist monks referred to in the account as Jiashe Moteng and Zhu Falan.  From them, the envoys obtained Buddhist images and sutras running to six hundred thousand words, which they loaded on a white horse.  Then, with the Buddhist monks accompanying them, they returned to the Han capital at Luoyang and settled down in a government office outside the western gate, in buildings that in time came to be known as the White Horse Temple.  The Buddhist images are symbolic of the Buddha, the sutras of the Law, or dharma, and the two monks of the Order, and thus, according to this account, the three treasures of Buddhism—the Buddha; the dharma, or Law; and the sangha, or Buddhist Order—were officially introduced to China.

This story, which appears in slightly different form in a number of early Chinese works, has been subjected to vigorous attack.  Scholars have pointed out numerous anachronisms and inconsistencies in it and have concluded that it is purely legendary in nature and cannot be accepted as historical fact.  I am not as interested, however, in discovering just when the Buddhist religion was formally introduced to the Chinese ruler and his court—be it Emperor Ming or some other sovereign—as in learning when its teachings first reached the masses of people in China and brought to them a message of salvation from the pains of sickness, aging, and death.

Because of the enormous prestige of the imperial institution in China and the role played by the government in fostering the writing of history and the keeping of official records, the written accounts preserved from early China tend to focus principally on the lives and actions of the emperor and the ruling class and to take little notice of the lot of the common people.  Therefore, we must be content with what information can be gleaned from such records, while surmising what we can about the manner in which the teachings of Buddhism spread among the Chinese populace as a whole.

In this connection, there is evidence to indicate that Prince Ying of Chu, a younger half-brother of Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty, paid honor to the Buddhist religion.  According to his biography in The History of the Later Han, in his youth he was fond of wandering knights and adventurers and entertained a number of guests and visitors at his residence.  It is probable that among the latter were monks or merchants from foreign countries who brought him news of the Buddhist religion.  In his later years, he displayed a great fondness for the study of the Taoist doctrine of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi and “made offerings and paid honor to Fotuo,” this latter term being a Chinese phonetic transcription of the word Buddha.

In the eighth year of the Yongping era (65 CE), Emperor Ming issued an edict permitting persons who had been accused of crimes calling for the death penalty to ransom themselves by payment of a certain number of rolls of silk to the government.  Prince Ying of Chu, apparently suffering from an uneasy conscience because of something he had done, submitted thirty roles of silk to the throne claiming that he had committed numerous faults and evil deeds in the past.  The emperor, however, issued a statement saying that there was no need for such a payment and praising his younger brother for, among other things, “honoring the benevolent altars of the Buddha and fasting and purifying himself for a period of three months.”  He accordingly returned the ransom, instructing that it be used to prepare sumptuous feasts for the Buddhist laity and monks in the region.

This brief episode, recorded in the prince’s biography in the official history of the dynasty, The History of the Later Han, not only tells us that a younger brother of the emperor paid homage to Buddhist images, but that there were Buddhist monks and lay believers residing in his territory, all of this before the year 67 CE, when the legend of Emperor Ming and the golden man says that Buddhism was first introduced to China.  The region of Chu, the fief assigned to Prince Ying, was situated southeast of Luoyang, with its capital at Pengcheng, Prince Ying was enfeoffed as nominal ruler of the region in 52 CE, having previously lived in the capital, Luoyang.  It is quite possible that he had already learned about Buddhism while he was in Luoyang and had begun his worship of Buddhist images at that time.  If not, then we must suppose that Buddhism, after entering China from the west, had already spread as far as the region of Chu, where the prince became acquainted with it after going there in 52 CE.

Another important point to note in this account of Prince Ying is the fact that the emperor, in his proclamation concerning the matter, the giving of alms and support to followers of Buddhism.  If the document is to be believed, then already in the time of Emperor Ming, the ruling house of China accorded open sanction to the practices of Buddhism.

In Chapter 108 of The History of the Later Han, “The Account of the Western Regions,” the section on India relates the story of Emperor Ming’s dream of the golden man and states:  “The emperor thereupon dispatched envoys to India to inquire about the Way of the Buddha, and in time [Buddhist] images were painted in China.  Prince Ying of Chu was the first to place his belief in its teachings, and thereafter in China there were many persons who honored its doctrines.”  This passage, too, seems to confirm the assumption that the Buddhist faith first took root in China in the time of Emperor Ming.

Given that The History of the Later Han was written by Fan Ye (398-445), who lived some three or four hundred years after the events that he described, it is not surprising that it should show the influence of popular legends.  And yet, even though they are perhaps not entirely reliable as history, such legends seem to indicate that Emperor Ming showed considerable appreciation for the teachings of Buddhism, and it is probably no accident that the introduction of Buddhism has traditionally come to be associated with the name of that ruler.

Moreover, if, as the biography of Prince Ying indicates, there was already in the first century a member of the imperial family who placed faith in the Buddhist teachings, then it is only natural to suppose that the new religion had by this time won a certain number of converts among the populace as a whole.  A knowledge of Buddhism was probably brought to China by merchants and travelers who journeyed to China over the Silk Road, the trade route linking China with Central Asia and the countries to the west.  If this supposition is correct, then a knowledge of Buddhism must have reached the western portions of China first and from there spread to Luoyang and regions such as Chu to the east.

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POSSIBLE EARLIER CONTACT WITH BUDDHISM

In addition to the accounts described above, there have been various legends or speculations that would push the date for the introduction of Buddhism to China back to an earlier period. The third century BCE Indian monarch King Ashoka, the third ruler of the Maurya dynasty, was an enthusiastic supporter of Buddhism and sent missionaries to the surrounding countries to spread its teachings. His reign corresponds roughly to that of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, the head of a feudal state who succeeded in uniting all China under his rule and in 221 BCE declared himself to be first emperor of the Qin dynasty, which lasted from 255 to 206 BCE. Under these powerful and dynamic monarchs, both India and China expanded their borders and reached out toward each other. It is not surprising, therefore, that Chinese Buddhists in later ages should have speculated that missionaries from Kin Ashoka’s court reached China and introduced the he erected eighty-four thousand stupas to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. The Ming Fo Lun, a work by the Chinese scholar and painter Zong Bing (375-443), states that some of these stupas were discovered in the Shandong and Shansi regions of China and, when opened, were found to contain Buddhist relics.

According to another Chinese work, the Lidai Sanbao Ji by Fei Changfang, completed in 597, a party of foreign Buddhist monks reached China in the time of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, but the emperor had them thrown into prison. It also asserts that a monk known as Shi Lifang and a number of other worthy persons brought Buddhist sutras to China in the time of the first emperor. The emperor refused to listen to their teachings and eventually placed them in confinement, but they were freed by a miraculous being who appeared at night and broke open the prison walls. Because of the late date of the works in which these assertions appear and the supernatural elements mingled in them, it is difficult, however, to regard them as anything more than pious legends.

Other sources date the introduction of Buddhism to China to the time of another powerful Chinese ruler, Emperor Wu of the Former Han dynasty (206 BCE-25 CE), who reigned from 140 to 87 BCE. Emperor Wu dispatched an envoy named Zhang Qian to the regions west of China to learn what he could about the peoples living there. Zhang Qian returned to China in 126 BCE with eyewitness accounts of a number of states in Central Asia and reports of lands farther afield, such as India, Parthia, and the Roman Empire. The “Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism” in The History of the Wei by Wei Shou, compiled shortly after 520 CE, goes so far as to state that, as a result of Zhang Qian’s mission, “The teachings of the Buddha were for the first time heard off.” We may note, however, that the earlier accounts of Zhang Qian’s mission in The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (around 145-90 BCE) or the History of the Former Han by Ban Gu (32-92 CE) make no mention of Buddhist teachings.

Shortly after the time of Zhang Qian’s mission, in 121 BCE, Emperor Wu sent one of his most trusted generals, Huo Qubing, on an expedition against the Xiongnu, a nomadic people who lived in the desert regions north of China and from time to time plundered the Chinese border area. In the course of capturing or killing various Xiongnu leaders, Huo Qubing came into possession of a “golden man” that one of the Xiongnu leaders was said to have used in worshiping Heaven. This much of the story is recorded in the earlier and more reliable histories such as those mentioned above. The “Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism,” however, goes on to state Emperor Wu, regarding the image as that of a great deity, installed it in the Palace of Sweet Springs, where he burned incense before it and worshipped it. “This, then says the “Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism,” “was the modest beginning of the influx of the Way of the Buddha.” (1)

In view of the fact that a “golden man” figures in the famous legend of Emperor Ming’s dream, it is understandable that Chinese Buddhists should have supposed that this earlier golden man of the Xiongnu leader likewise had some connection with Buddhism. Modern scholars, however, after examining the evidence, have concluded that the image captured from the Xiongnu could not have been Buddhist in nature.

All of this, of course, does not disprove the possibility that knowledge of Buddhism had reached China in the time of the first emperor of the Qin or of Emperor Wu of the Han; it merely shows that no reliable notice of that fact is to be found in the Chinese written records of the period. But there are several reasons why I believe that, even if Buddhist monks had actually reached China before the first century or reports of the Buddhist religion had been transmitted to the Chinese, it is unlikely that Buddhism could have attracted much attention or spread very widely in China at that time.

The first emperor of the Qin dynasty is well known as an enthusiastic supporter of the school of philosophy known as Legalism, which urged the creation of a strong bureaucratic state and the governing of the people through a detailed and stringent system of laws and penalties. In a attempt to enforce allegiance to Legalist doctrines, the first emperor in 213 BCE carried out his infamous “burning of the books,” ordering the suppression of other systems of thought such as Confucianism and the destruction of their writings. In such a totalitarian atmosphere, it is unlikely that a foreign religion such as Buddhism, had it been introduced to China, would have been given a fair or sympathetic reception. It is interesting to note that, even in the Buddhist anecdotes concerning the first emperor of the Qin dynasty that have been mentioned above, the emperor figures as a persecutor of the newly introduced religion rather than a supporter.

Though there was somewhat greater freedom of thought during the Han dynasty, we should note that Emperor Wu took steps to make Confucianism the official creed of the state and to encourage the study and practice of its doctrines. In later centuries, Confucianism was to prove one of the most powerful and persistent opponents of Buddhism in China, and therefore we cannot help but surmise that a period of strong Confucian influence such as that of Emperor Wu would hardly have been a propitious time for the introduction and promulgation of Buddhist teachings.

Moreover, the period represented by the reigns of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty and the early Han rulers such as Emperor Wu was one of territorial expansion and great cultural pride and self-confidence. At such a time, the nationalistic tendency to view native ideas and institutions as superior to those of other countries would naturally have been at its strongest. This is another reason why it seems unlikely that Buddhism could have made much progress in China at this time even if it had been introduced.

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THE SITUATION IN CENTRAL ASIA

We do not know for certain just when or how Buddhism entered China. It is possible that it was transmitted directly from India by persons journeying to China by sea. But it appears much more likely that, as the legend of Emperor Ming’s dream suggests, it was introduced from the countries of Central Asia by Chinese envoys or foreign missionaries traveling over the Silk Road.

By the time in question, Buddhism had already spread from India to the states of Central Asia, perhaps, as the accounts suggest, through the efforts of missionaries sent by King Ashoka. There the Indian religion underwent certain changes before being passed on to China. These states hence acted as intermediaries in transmitting the religion from its country of origin to China and the other lands of East Asia. We see evidence of that in the fact that a number of important Buddhist terms seem to have derived not directly from Sanskrit words but from terms used in the languages of the Central Asian states. In addition, the Chinese terms for the links in the twelve-linked chain of causation, which constitutes one of the basic philosophical principles of Buddhism, appear to have been translated from a Tocharian language of Central Asia.

We know that as a result of cultural contacts between China and Central Asia, brought about by the opening of the Silk Road, a number of new plants and foods were introduced to China. The Chinese indicated the foreign origin of such imports by attaching the term hu or “barbarian,” to the name, as in huma, “barbarian hemp,” the Chinese term for sesame; hukua, “barbarian melon,” or cucumber; and hudao, “barbarian peach,” or walnut. If new foods of this type were being disseminated by merchants and travelers passing over the Silk Road, it is easy to imagine that items of nonmaterial culture as well,
such as Buddhism, were also finding their way into China by the same route.

The historian Sima Qian, in his “Account of Dayuan” (in The Records of the Grand Historian), described the visits of Zhang Qian and others to such Central Asian states as Ferghana, Bactria, and region of the Great Yuezhi people. Ban Gu, in his “Account of the Western Regions” (in The History of the Former Han), which deals with the same area, describes not only the Silk Road leading west to the land of the Great Yuezhi and Parthia but a second road that branched off and led to the regions of Kashmir and Arachosia. These latter two were areas of northeastern India in which Buddhism was by then well established and flourishing. If a road connected these regions with China, it is not difficult to imagine that merchants or Buddhist believers traveling over that road could have brought word of Buddhism to the people of China.

We have already made several references to the Great Yuezhi people of Central Asia. In this connection, one more important notice concerning Buddhism to be found in early Chinese sources remains to be mentioned, that in the work known as A Brief Account of the Wei, which was compiled by Yu Huan from 239 to 265. The Brief Account of the Wei is no longer extant as a separate work, but fortunately it is quoted extensively in the commentary that Pei Songzhi wrote on The Record of the Three Kingdoms. At the end of chapter 30 of the “Wei Annals” section of Three Kingdoms, there is an extended excerpt from the “Account of the Western Barbarians’ of the Brief Account of the Wei, which, in a passage on the state of Lumbini in Nepal, describes the birth of the Buddha and gives the names of his father and mother. It then goes on to state: “In the past, in the reign of Emperor Ai of the Han, the first year of the Yuan Shou era (2 BCE), the Erudite Disciple Jinglu received the oral transmission of the Buddhist scriptures from Yicun, an envoy of the king of the Great Yuezhi.”

Because of the accurate and fairly detailed knowledge of Buddhism that Yu Huan displays in this passage, the account has been highly regarded by scholars and constitutes one of the most valuable early pieces of information on the introduction of Buddhism to China. True, it does not tell us where the act of oral transmission, the usual way of spreading the teachings at this time, took place or what consequences came of it, but it does give us a definite date for the transaction.

The Yuezhi were a nomadic people who, when first heard of, lived in the region just west of China. Later they were defeated by the Xiongnu, another nomadic people, and driven much farther to the west. There they conquered the region of Bactria and set up their own kingdom. Around the beginning of the first century, they greatly expanded the territory under their control, moving into the area of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan and establishing the Kushana dynasty. They also brought under their control the area of Gandhara, which had previously been ruled by Greek kings, and established their capital at a site corresponding to present-day Peshawar.

The Yuezhi people, or Kushanas, as they are known in Indian history, had by this time become followers of Buddhism and, as we have seen above, played a role in transmitting knowledge of the religion to China. The most famous of the Kushana rulers was the third king, Kanishka, who probably lived during the first half of the second century. A fervent patron of Buddhism, he called together the Forth Buddhist Council to put the sacred texts in order and carried out other steps to encourage the spread of the religion. It was at this time that Greek artistic influences from the preceding period combined with Buddhist themes to produce the realistic depictions of the Buddha and his followers that are characteristic of Gandharan art. It may also be noted that the coins of the Kushana dynasty frequently bore images of the Buddha.

Zoroastrianism once dominated Bactria, the region where the Yuezhi people formerly resided. But excavations carried out there around 1960 have unearthed a number of inscriptions dealing with King Ashoka and have made clear that, as early as the third century BCE, it was part of the Buddhist world. It is likely, therefore, that the Yuezhi people converted to Buddhism during their stay in that area, and this conversion laid the foundation for the flourishing Buddhism of the Kushana dynasty. Along with the reign of King Ashoka, the Kushana dynasty represents one of the peaks of Buddhist influence and cultural activity in Indian history.

 

NOTE

  1. Wei Shou, “Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism,” Leon Hurvitz, tr., in Tun-kang, the Buddhist Cave-Temples of the Fifth Century A.D. in North China, vol. 16, Kyoto University, 1956.

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