SPREAD OF BUDDHISM AND BUDDHIST ART ON THE SILK ROAD

BUDDHISM ARRIVES IN CHINA

right Buddhism arrived in China toward the end of the Han dynasty, roughly during the first or second century A.D. Prior to this time, there had been no major form of Chinese thought that viewed life, the concrete world, and the human body in so pessimistic a way as Buddhism. One of the earliest Chinese Buddhist meditation texts, dating from the third century, instructs mediators to ponder the corrupt and painful nature of life in a human body: The ascetic engages in contemplation of himself and observes that all the noxious seepage of his internal body is impure. Hair, skin, skull and flesh; tears from the blinking of the eyes and spittle; veins, arteries, sinew and marrow; liver, lungs, intestines and stomach; feces, urine, mucus and blood: such a mass of filth when combined produces a man. It is as if a sack were filled with a leaky bag. (Quoted in Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan [New York: The Modern Library, 1969], p. 129.) [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

According to the Asia Society Museum: “Although Buddhism was known in China during the Han dynasty, it was only after fall of the Han that it began to gain widespread popularity. A continuous stream of Buddhist missionaries from India and Central Asia found eager converts at every level of society and powerful patrons among the new nomad rulers of North China. The practice of Buddhism proved a potent stimulant to trade, with a growing demand for precious objects from afar, including incense from Central Asia, jewels and precious metals, coral, pearls, and lapis lazuli, all destined to adorn Buddhist temples, images, and reliquaries. [Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org == ]

“The form of Buddhism that became dominant in China was Mahayana ("The Greater Vehicle"). Mahayana Buddhism emphasized the potential salvation of all living beings and the concept of compassion. The embodiment of this ideal of universal compassion was the bodhisattva, beings who have attained enlightenment but who defer their entry into nirvana to aid others. A popular Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, taught that making holy images was an act of the highest merit on the road to enlightenment. Mahayana converts became China's greatest art patrons, supporting the building of cave temples and pagodas, the carving of statues and stelae (stone tablets), and the translation and copying of Buddhist sutras.” ==

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ;

Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Early Spread of Buddhism on the Silk Road


Uighur princes

According to the Asia Society Museum: ““These new influences entered China by a vast network of overland routes, popularly known as the Silk Road, which linked China with western Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian subcontinent. The Silk Road was the first transcontinental highway of the ancient world. Along this network traveled adventurers, traders, emissaries, monks, and pilgrims, bringing luxury goods and new ideas and religions to the diverse communities it linked. [Source: “Monks and Merchants,” curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org == ]

“The four hundred years between the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – C.E. 220) and the establishment of the Tang dynasty (618–906) mark a watershed in the history of China. During this period, foreign invasion, transcontinental trade, and missionary zeal opened the region to an unprecedented wealth of foreign cultural influences. These influences were both secular and sacred, as nomads, merchants, emissaries, and missionaries flooded into China, bringing new customs, purveying exotic wares, and propagating new religious beliefs. Foremost among these was Buddhism, born in India, but which now took root in China. Its influence on China was profound and pervasive, offering a new spirituality to both the elite and the poor, fostering the establishment of innumerable temples, and inspiring the creation of new art forms.”

The Chinese “region of Gansu and Ningxia, caught between impassable mountains to the south and inhospitable dessert to the north, formed a corridor through which many of these foreign ideas and artifacts entered China and were transmitted to the metropolitan centers farther east. Monks and Merchants tells the story of the crucial role this region played in the transformation wrought on Chinese civilization by the Silk Road.

Monks and the Silk Road


Xuanzang

According to the Asia Society Museum: “Alongside the merchants and diplomatic envoys of the Silk Road traveled disciples of the Buddha, obeying his exhortation to spread his teachings. The political turmoil of the time offered Buddhist missionaries, many of Indian, Central Asian, or even of nomad stock, opportunities to convert local rulers. In exchange for the monks' services as magicians, fortune tellers, and political, military, and diplomatic advisers, Buddhism gained powerful patrons willing to support image making, cave temples, and translation centers. [Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org == ]

“In these centers, teams of non-Chinese and Chinese monks collaborated on the translation of Buddhist sutras (scriptures) in Indian and Central Asian languages into Chinese. Huge numbers of the population entered religious orders. The monastic ideal, indeed, became an important theme in Buddhist art. Figures of Ananda and Kasyapa in simple monastic dress, such as those shown here, often flanked the main images, as if a reminder of the vital role of monks in the spread of Buddhist teachings.” ==

In Vinaya-pitaka, II, the Buddha says: “Go, Monks, preach, the Noble Doctrine... let not two of you go in the same direction.” Jason Neelis of the University of Washington wrote: "Great caravan leader" (mahasarthavaha) is a popular epithet of the Buddha in Pali and Sanskrit literature. This epithet refers to the Buddha's role as a teacher, protector and leader of his followers during the journey from the worldly realm of the cycle of continuous rebirth to the "other shore" of enlightenment and cessation of the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddhist teacher Nagasena explains to King Menander of Bactria that the Buddha "is like a caravan owner to men in that he brings them beyond the sandy desert of rebirths."1 Xinru Liu observes that "Abundant experience with long-distance trade provided the inspiration for these images of the Buddha as a guide for travelers and merchants." [Source: Jason Neelis, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]

Buddhism and Trade

Jason Neelis of the University of Washington wrote: “The close relationship between Buddhism and trade is largely due to the reliance of the Buddhist monastic community on donations from lay supporters. Ideally, Buddhist monks and nuns were required to reject all worldly possessions and thus to depend on the lay community to supply all of their necessities, including food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. In practice, donations to Buddhist monasteries extended to a wide range of materials that were necessary to maintain resident communities of monks and nuns. Significant economic surpluses were needed to sustain large-scale Buddhist institutions, where, in return for donations, monks and nuns were available to give religious instruction. [Source: Jason Neelis, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]


Kizil Caves donors

“In return for their material donations to Buddhist monasteries, donors received religious merit (punya), which was often shared with relatives, teachers, political supporters, and "all beings" (sarvasattva). Donations establishing the presence of the Buddha at particular places in the form of stupas, relics, images, and texts generated special merit, since such sacred gifts provided opportunities for more devotees to worship the Buddha's body or teachings. Wealthy merchants and powerful rulers were particularly encouraged to be very generous in return for practical benefits, such as refuge and protection from real and perceived dangers while traveling, and status or legitimacy by acting as patrons of religious institutions. Epigraphic records of donations to Buddhist stupas and monasteries in India attest to the importance of commercial and political patronage of Buddhist institutions. *\

“The earliest donors and some of the most important patrons of the Buddha and his followers were caravan merchants and wealthy bankers. Buddhist literature contains many epithets, stories, examples, and rules related to long-distance trade. In one of the most important episodes, two merchants named Trapusa and Bhallika approached the Buddha in the seventh week after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and offered rice cakes and honey. After offering these gifts, Trapusa and Bhallika became the first lay disciples and received relics of the Buddha's hair and nails, which the Buddha instructed them to enshrine in stupas in their home countries. This event establishes a pattern for the prominent role played by merchants in the patronage and transmission of Buddhism. Anathapindika, a wealthy businessman, became a lay disciple after meeting the Buddha during a business journey to Rajagriha, and subsequently invited the Buddha and his followers to spend the rainy season in a monastery, which he donated at great expense. As the foremost early donor to the Buddhist community, Anathapindika is idealized for giving away everything he had. Based on the model of extreme generosity of Anathapindika, commercial patrons were encouraged to donate liberally to the Buddhist community in order to sustain the further expansion of monastic networks. *\

“In Ancient India and Ancient China, Xinru Liu also proposes that Buddhist demand for the "seven jewels" (saptaratna) stimulated long-distance trade between northwestern South Asia, Central Asia and China.3 The seven jewels consisted of luxury commodities that were high in value but low in volume, such as gold, silver, crystal, lapis lazuli, carnelian, coral, and pearls. While such materials are intrinsically valuable and suitable for long-distance trade, ritual values associated with the establishment of Buddhism may have augmented their economic worth. Since Buddhist devotees sought these items as suitable donations, the nexus between long-distance trade and Buddhist monastic networks was strengthened. As the commodities forming the seven jewels became standardized and their religious value increased, Liu argues that "Buddhist values created and sustained the demand for certain commodities traded between India and China during the first to the fifth centuries AD."4 The processes of expanding lucrative long-distance trade networks and the long-distance transmission of Buddhism were mutually reinforced. *\

Buddhist Art and Trade Routes

According to the Asia Society Museum: “Trade routes, both maritime and overland, were the primary means by which Buddhist thought and imagery were conveyed from India, the birthplace of Buddhism, to other Asian countries. These ancient connecting routes provided an avenue for the religious, cultural, and artistic influences of Buddhism to reach the distant corners of the continent and beyond. [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org |~|]

20080321-silkroad hofstra u3366.gif

“Buddhist images are remarkably recognizable, regardless of their country or period of origin. They are usually made according to descriptions found in Indian texts intended to help the practitioner mentally invoke the form of the deity. These texts provide the artist with the basic schema of the image, detailing what an image should look like, from the posture, gesture, and color of the deity, to the attributes (objects he or she holds that symbolize specific powers or knowledge). Further similarities stem from the tendency of artists working elsewhere to emulate Indian models. Coming from the homeland of Shakyamuni Buddha and his teachings, such models held religious authority. The most prominent differences of period or culture of origin are usually seen in the images' details of costume, hairstyle, jewelry, body type, and facial characteristics. However, as is evidenced by the array of styles, artists working outside India did not simply copy Indian models-they created their own distinctive works. The artistic result of a religion that spread thousands of miles across a multiethnic landscape is a corpus of images based on a similar set of beliefs but marked by regional personalities. |~|

“The far-flung regions of Asia have been linked by trade routes for millennia. Buddhism spanned the Indian and Chinese cultural realms of Asia by moving along these trade routes—across deserts, mountains, and oceans. Contributing to this dispersion was the fact that Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, did not view commercial activity negatively, and many Indian merchants became Buddhists. By the first century C.E., trading ships and caravans from India were transporting Buddhist missionaries along with their primary cargos of goods such as textiles, ivory, sandalwood, and spices. Itinerant monks and teachers traveled from India to promote the religion, or to India to seek instruction from a learned master. Later, numerous pilgrims made the perilous voyage to India as well. Material Buddhist culture, in the form of manuscripts, images, and other portable icons, also traveled along the trade routes, carried abroad by those who needed religious objects for protection, veneration, or for proselytizing purposes. Travelers were often forced to spend extended periods of time in a port or an oasis, waiting until the following season's weather permitted a journey on to the next stop or back home. In the case of long-distance maritime traders, these stops could easily last three to five months. Cultural influences, religious ideas, and arts were readily exchanged in market towns, and new ideas were then disseminated to other regions of Asia.

“Although established networks have linked Asia since prehistory, archeological and written evidence extends back only to the first centuries of the common era. Recent finds include shards of pottery belonging to a Vietnamese tradition dating from about 750 – 200 B.C. in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia; shards of Indo-Roman pottery from the first century C.E. on the north coast of Java; an Indian ivory comb dating from the first to third century C.E. in central Thailand; and Indian beads and "Indianizing" coins from the first to fifth century C.E. in central Burma. It should also be pointed out that although commerce was one of the most important activities performed along these routes, the concomitant spread of religions demonstrates that other types of transactions were also important. Studies by anthropologists have shown that ritual, religious, and social considerations often overshadowed material motives in the exchange of goods.

Buddhist Cave Art in China


Buddha from Kizil caves

According to the Asia Society Museum: “The practice of excavating clusters of rooms or niches into the sides of cliffs and mountains to create cave temples originated in India and spread with Buddhism via Central Asia to China. Within China, Gansu is home to more Buddhist caves than any other region of Chinaóa testimony to its importance in the history of early Chinese Buddhism. “Dedication of Cave 4, Maijishan,” by the poet Yu Xin (513–581) reads: ‘It is as if one were to mount a carriage and pierce the mountain, carving out great niches, bestriding the peak, an infinite medley of stars overhead and all the land spinning around far below.’ [Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org == ]

“Buddhist cave sites were often chosen for their scenic beauty, sometimes by passing monks who had seen Buddhist visions at a particular spot or were entranced by the spiritual aura of the sites. Cave temples were the focus of worship and meditation, not only for the communities of monks who resided there, but also for visiting pilgrims and traders. Indeed, cave temples were often located along the trade routes and were used by merchants as banks or warehouses. ==

“Buddhist images were arranged in the caves according to a strict iconographic program. At some sites the images were carved directly from the rock within the cave, but at many Buddhist cave sites in Gansu, the stone of the cliffs is too friable for carving. Instead, most images in the caves were crafted from mixture of clay and straw built up around armatures of wood or metal. A finishing layer of fine clay was applied in which the details were modeled. Both images and walls were brilliantly painted, but in many cases, the pigments have not survived. ==

“In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of compassion is manifested in the image of the bodhisattva, or "enlightened being." The Sanskrit word "bodhisattva" denotes a human being who has attained enlightenment but has elected not to enter Nirvana, choosing instead to remain in the world to ensure the ultimate salvation of all sentient beings. Compassion is much more than sympathy and extends even to giving one's own life to save another. A bodhisattva actively helps others, sharing intuitive wisdom, understanding, and strength with all those who are seeking enlightenment. A Bodhisattva vow in Mahayana scriptures goes: ‘My happiness is incomplete as long as there is a single unhappy being in the world.’ ==

“Aspects of Buddhahood are embodied in the most important bodhisattvas such as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (compassion), the Bodhisattva Manjusri (wisdom), and Maitreya (the future Buddha). Although they are enlightened beings, bodhisattvas appear very different from Buddha. Buddhas are portrayed wearing plain monastic robes to denote their disavowal of earthly ties. Bodhisattvas are depicted as very human, with graceful bodies, full hips, and long hair; they wear crowns, skirts, scarves, and jewelry, and often hold lotus flowers, religious implements, or other symbolic objects.

Buddhist Vestiges along the Silk Road


head of Buddha in Khotan

According to the Shanghai Museum: “Hotan Prefecture in southern Xinjiang was known as "Khotan", an ancient Buddhist kingdom joining China and the West. In its eastern section between Kunlun Mountains at south and Taklamakan Desert at north locates Qira County, which contains 7 townships and 1 town, with an area of about 32,000 square kilometers. Damago Township is located in the south-eastern Qira County, with an area of about 420 square kilometers. [Source: Shanghai Museum shanghaimuseum.net /+\ ]

Between 2002 and 2010, Buddhist ruins were uncovered during the excavations held by the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at Topulukdong, Damago, Qira, including No. 1 Site of a stupa, No. 2 Site of a Buddhist sanctuary, and No. 3 Site of a monastic dwelling. Judging from the layout of the ruins, the archaeologists believed the three sites were components of a single temple complex dating 7-9th centuries. Among all the Buddhist sites discovered in the region, Topulukdong site lies the most south. The previously excavated Buddhist sites in the area are all located in its north along the Damago river system./+\

“Topulukdong Buddhist temple ruins endowed us with numerous murals. Though unfortunately remained as fragments, the murals shed lights on the Khotanese Buddhist paintings of around 8th century. The exhibition particularly focuses on the murals from Topulukdong and its nearby Buddhist sites. As an important media once drew Khotan residents into the religious world, the murals now welcomes visitors to experience the art of the long lost kingdom.” /+\

Mogao Caves


Outside Mogao Caves

Mogao Grottoes (17 miles south of Dunhuang) — also known as Thousand Buddha Caves — is a massive group of caves filled with Buddhist statues and imagery that were first used in the A.D. 4th century. Carved into a cliff on the eastern side of Singing Sand Mountain and stretching for more than a mile, the grottoes are one of the largest treasure house of grotto art in China and the world.

All together there are 750 caves (492 with art work) on five levels, 45,000 square meters of murals, more than 2000 painted clay figures and five wooden structures. The grottoes contain Buddha statues and lovely paintings of paradise, asparas (angels) and the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The oldest cave dates back to the 4th century. The largest cave is 130 feet high. It houses a 100-foot-tall Buddha statue installed during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Many caves are so small they can only can accommodate a few people at a time. The smallest cave is only a foot high.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Within the caves, the monochrome lifelessness of the desert gave way to an exuberance of color and movement. Thousands of Buddhas in every hue radiated across the grotto walls, their robes glinting with imported gold. Apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians floated across the ceilings in gauzy blue gowns of lapis lazuli, almost too delicate to have been painted by human hands. Alongside the airy depictions of nirvana were earthier details familiar to any Silk Road traveler: Central Asian merchants with long noses and floppy hats, wizened Indian monks in white robes, Chinese peasants working the land. In the oldest dated cave, from A.D. 538, are depictions of bandits bandits that had been captured, blinded, and ultimately converted to Buddhism."Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010 ]

“Carved out between the fourth and 14th centuries, the grottoes, with their paper-thin skin of painted brilliance, have survived the ravages of war and pillage, nature and neglect. Half buried in sand for centuries, this isolated sliver of conglomerate rock is now recognized as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. The caves, however, are more than a monument to faith. Their murals, sculptures, and scrolls also offer an unparalleled glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty corridor between East and West.

A total of 243 caves have been excavated by archaeologists, who have unearthed monk's living quarters, meditation cells, burial chambers, silver coins, wooden printing blocker written in the Uighar and copies Psalms of written in the Syriac language, herbal pharmacopoeias, calendars, medical treatises, folk songs, real estate deals, Taoist tracts, Buddhist sutras, historical records and documents written in dead languages such as Tangut, Tokharian, Runic and Turkic.

Cave Art in the Kizil Grottoes


Kizil Caves, Cave of the Musicians

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: “The Kizil Grottoes run along the Cliffs on the northern shore of the Muzalt River, 67 kilometers west of the city of Kucha (in Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang Province). Because written records or dated inscriptions have not been found providing hints as to when the grottoes were begun, there is no standard theory on this point. A wide range of theories exist from those positing the earliest activity to have started in the third century, to those suggesting the fifth century. However, researchers generally agree that the caves were probably abandoned sometime around the beginning of the eighth century, after Tang influence reached the area.” The site was and studied by a German Team, which also stripped the caves of some of their best painting and took them back to Germany. [Source: Silk Road in Rare Books ||||]

The Kizil caves are located in the present districts of Kuche and Baicheng, located in what was once the ancient kingdom of Kucha (Qiuci). The Kingdom of Kucha was one of the great Buddhist kingdoms located along the Silk Road’s Northern Route and was known for its many temples and monks. The fourth century manuscript, Chu Sanzang Jiji (Collected Records from the Tripitaka), records that there were “over ten thousand monks in Kucha,” “countless extravagantly decorated temples,” and “palaces adorned with images of the standing Buddha, just like those seen in temples.” Furthermore, the manuscript records that there were three nunneries in Kucha in which were present the daughters of kings and nobles. The document describes the city as one of the great Buddhist centers of Central Asia. ||||

“While little also is known about when the various murals were painted, the German team proposed categorizing the art into at least two stylistic phases, and this system remains in place to this day. The murals belonging to the first phase are characterized by the use of reddish pigments. In addition, the lines in the paintings are drawn carefully, and gradation shades are blended in order to give a three-dimensional appearance to the paintings. In contrast, murals belonging to the second phase use abundant bluish pigments, which include the use of lapis lazuli. In addition, second phase painting shows large differentiations in pigment shades to give a three dimensional appearance to figures. As will be discussed below, many works in the Kizil Grottoes belong to phase 2.” ||||

History of Kizil Grottoes


Buddha in a Dragon Boat

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: It is not clear when Buddhism arrived in Kucha, but from what one can tell from the Chinese records, it seems that already by the end of third century to the beginning of fourth century, many monks hailing from the Kucha area were in China engaged in the translation of the Buddhist scriptures. The most famous translator of them all, the monk Kumarajiva made his entrance into history around this time. It is not known exactly when he was born or when he died, but his major accomplishments are concentrated in the period between the first half of the fourth century and the first half of the fifth century. [Source: Silk Road in Rare Books ||||]

Kumarajiva, was the son of a Kuchean princess and an Indian father from a noble family. At a young age, he and his mother together became Buddhist adherents (his mother joining a nummery and Kumarajiva entering the priesthood). Still at a very young age, he moved to Kashmir (then part of the Gandharan Kingdom) to study Theravad Buddhism. In Kashmir, however, he came into contact with Mahayana teaching, and upon returning to Kucha, he dedicated himself to the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Growing in fame as a teacher, his fame reached beyond borders of Kucha borders, and it was said that his name was known throughout all of Central Asia. In Volume Two of the Kao-seng Chuan (Biography of Eminent Monks) it is recorded that, “the western nations all knelt at Kumarajiva’s sacred wisdom. During the annual lecture, the kings all lowered themselves before his seat, and let him step on their backs as he ascended the steps. Thus was the extent to which he was admired.” Later, due to strong requests from the Chinese who heard of his fame, he would participate in the translation of sutras in the Chinese capital of Chang’an. ||||

“Chinese translations of sutras did exist in China before Kumarajiva. However, these translations were achieved by simply utilizing the already-existing native Daoist Lao-Zhuang philosophy. Soon the Chinese began to realize the shortcomings of studying Buddhist scriptures in this manner, and therefore began a demand for translations done by foreign monks with a deeper understanding of Buddhist vocabulary and the teachings as contained in the original-language texts. Thus, Kumarajiva was the perfect candidate; for not only had he acquired Sanskrit during his studies in India, but was also thoroughly familiar with Mahayana Buddhism. ||||

Whilst instructing his students, who are said to have exceeded three thousand, Kumarajiva continued to translate important Mahayana scriptures into Chinese, including the Smaller Sukhâvatîvyûha sutra, the Pañcavi?satisahasrika Prajñaparamita sutra, the Vimalakirti sutra, and the Mahaprajñaparamitasastra. His translation of the Lotus sutra in particular was thought to surpass other past translations. Due in part to Kumarajiva’s superb translations, Mahayana Buddhism was to spread throughout Eastern Asia, and soon was propagated as far east as Japan. The fact that Kumarajiva’s translations continue to be used in present day Japan shows the enormity of his achievement in the full-scale transmission of Mahayana Buddhism to the East. Not only Chinese Buddhism, but other Buddhist nations which were part of this great spread of Mahayana teachings along the Silk Road (including the great Buddhist Kingdom of Kucha), from West to East as far as Japan came to benefit from the great accomplishments of Buddhist culture.” ||||

Architecture and Layout of the Art in Kizil Grottoes

According to Silk Road in Rare Books: “There are three main architectural styles: namely, the central pillar caves, rectangular caves, and monastic caves. However, the most unique architectural features are seen in the central pillar caves, which consist of three areas: the main room, the central pillar, and the corridors. The composition of the murals drawn on the walls are mostly consistent throughout. [Source: Silk Road in Rare Books ||||]

“The architecture of the central pillar caves follows an iconographic programme, functioning as the stage for the carrying out of a Buddhist pilgrimage. Entering the cave, the pilgrim would first contemplate the past lives of the Buddha as he or she passes along murals depicting scenes from these past lives shown on the walls in the main room. As part of this, the worshipper would stop to worship the main figure of Sakyamuni placed in a niche within the main central pillar. The pilgrim would next circumambulate the corridor moving in a clockwise fashion, thereby worshipping the Sakyamuni statue. Along the back walls of the corridor, the pilgrim would view scenes depicting Sakyamuni’s nirvana and there contemplate his or her own existence in a Buddha-less world. Upon exiting the corridor, the worshipper would view Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) painted on the wall above the entrance to the main room. ||||

“Murals on various themes are displayed on the side walls of the main room. These include paintings on the theme of the Jâtaka Tales, which are stories about the life of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni; paintings on the theme of the Illustrated Biographies of His Life, which depict the episodes from his life; and paintings on the theme of the Preaching Scenes, which depict various stories about the Sakyamuni’s preaching after Enlightenment. In a style characteristic to the Kizil grottoes, the vault ceilings of the main room are divided into diamond blocks, decorated with paintings done on these same themes (such as the Jâtaka Tales and the Preaching Scenes). ||||

“Typically, the central pillars of the front walls contain a large nich which originally accommodated a seated figure. Surrounding the figure was a background of mountain scenery composed of built-up stucco materials. Most of the three-dimensional figures have been lost, but there are a few remains of standing figures on the front wall. However, these are mere remains and their original appearance remains a mystery. On the left, right, and the back of the central pillars are corridors with low ceilings, and there along the walls are depicted images of donors, monks and stupas. ||||

“On the back walls of the corridors behind the central pillars, we find either painted images(13) or stucco figures on the theme of Nirvana. This Kasyapa image(14), which is particularly striking for the expressiveness of the figure as well as for its leaf patterns, is painted on this wall. The painting was originally part of the nirvana scene depicted on the back wall of the back corridor. These images represent Mahakasyapa, the disciple who arrived late at the scene of Buddha’s nirvana, and thus failed to be there at the moment of his death. Finally, we find the Maitreya preaching in the Tu?ita Heaven depicted in the half circle above the entrance of the main room.” ||||

Image Sources: 1st Buddhist monk, Silk Road Foundation; Wikimedia Commons; Mogao Caves: Dunhuang Research Academy, March 23, 2014 public.dha.ac.cn ^*^

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016


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