Silk Road transmission of Buddhism

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File:Buddhist Expansion.svg
Buddhist adoption in Asia, Mahayana Buddhism first entered China through Silk Road.

Template:Buddhism and China

File:Central Asian Buddhist Monks.jpeg
Blue-eyed Central Asian monk teaching East-Asian monk. A fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, dated to the 9th century; although Albert von Le Coq (1913) assumed the blue-eyed, red-haired monk was a Tocharian,[1] modern scholarship has identified similar Caucasian figures of the same cave temple (No. 9) as ethnic Sogdians,[2] an Eastern Iranian people who inhabited Turfan as an ethnic minority community during the phases of Tang Chinese (7th-8th century) and Uyghur rule (9th-13th century).[3]

Buddhism entered China via the Silk Road, beginning in the 1st or 2nd century CE.[4][5] The first documented translation efforts by Buddhist monks in China (all foreigners) were in the 2nd century CE under the influence of the expansion of the Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin under Kanishka.[6][7] These contacts brought Gandharan Buddhist culture into territories adjacent to China proper.

Direct contact between Central Asian and Chinese Buddhism continued throughout the 3rd to 7th century, well into the Tang period. From the 4th century onward, with Faxian's pilgrimage to India (395–414), and later Xuanzang (629–644), Chinese pilgrims started to travel by themselves to northern India, their source of Buddhism, in order to get improved access to original scriptures. Much of the land route connecting northern India (mainly Gandhara) with China at that time was ruled by the Kushan Empire, and later the Hephthalite Empire.

The Indian form of Buddhist tantra (Vajrayana) reached China in the 7th century. Tibetan Buddhism was likewise established as a branch of Vajrayana, in the 8th century. But from about this time, the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism began to decline with the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana, resulting in the Uyghur Khaganate by the 740s.[8]

By this time, Indian Buddhism itself was in decline, due to the resurgence of Hinduism on one hand and due to the Muslim expansion on the other, while Tang-era Chinese Buddhism was repressed in the 9th century, but not before in its turn giving rise to Korean and Japanese traditions.

The transmission of Buddhism

File:Tarimbecken 3. Jahrhundert.png
Kingdoms in the Tarim Basin during the 3rd century, connecting the territory of China with that of the Kushan Empire: Kashgar, Kucha, Khotan, Karasahr, Shanshan, Turfan.

First contacts

Buddhism was brought to China via the Silk Road. Buddhist monks travelled with merchant caravans on the Silk Road, to preach their new religion. The lucrative Chinese silk trade along this trade route began during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) with the establishment by Alexander the Great of a system of Hellenistic kingdoms (323 BC - 63 BC) and trade networks extending from the Mediterranean to modern Afghanistan and Tajikistan on the borders of China. The powerful Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms (250 BC-125 BC) in Afghanistan and the later Indo-Greek Kingdoms (180 BC - 10 CE) practiced Greco-Buddhism and formed the first stop on the Silk Road, after China, for nearly 300 years. See Dayuan (Ta-yuan; Template:Zh; literarily "Great Ionians").

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):


Extensive contacts however started in the 2nd century CE, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Greco-Buddhist 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 Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian or Kuchean.[9]

Central Asian missionaries

Peoples of the Silk Road. Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, China, 9th century
File:Dunhuang Central Asian Bodhisattva.jpeg
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 from its capital at Purushapura (modern Peshawar), India expanded into Central Asia and went beyond the regions 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.

  • An Shigao, a Parthian prince who made the first known translations of Hīnayāna Buddhist texts into Chinese (148–170)
  • Lokakṣema, a Kushan and the first to translate Mahāyāna scriptures into Chinese (167–186)
  • An Xuan, a Parthian merchant who became a monk in China in 181
  • Zhi Yao (c. 185), a Kushan monk in the second generation of translators after Lokakṣema.
  • Kang Meng-hsiang (194–207), the first translator from Kangju
  • Zhi Qian (220–252), a Kushan monk whose grandfather had settled in China during 168–190
  • Zhi Yueh (c.230), a Kushan monk who worked at Nanjing
  • Kang Senghui (247–280), born in Jiaozhi (or Chiao-chih) close to modern Hanoi in what was then the extreme south of the Chinese empire, and a son of a Sogdian merchant[10]
  • Tan-ti (c.254), a Parthian monk
  • Po Yen (c.259), a Kuchean prince
  • Dharmarakṣa (265–313), a Kushan whose family had lived for generations at Dunhuang
  • An Fachiin (281–306), a monk of Parthian origins
  • Po Srimitra (317–322), a Kuchean prince
  • Kumārajīva (c. 401), a Kuchean monk and one of the most important translators
  • Fotudeng (4th century), a Central Asian monk who became a counselor to the Chinese court
  • Bodhidharma (440–528), the founder of the Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism, and the legendary originator of the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolin kung fu. According to the earliest reference to him, by Yang Xuanzhi, he was a monk of Central Asian origin whom Yang Xuanshi met around 520 at Loyang.[11] Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is referred to as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" (碧眼胡:Bìyǎn hú) in Chinese Chan texts.[12]
  • Five monks from Gandhāra who traveled in 485 CE to the country of Fusang ("the country of the extreme east" beyond the sea, probably Japan), where they introduced Buddhism.Template:Refn
  • Jñānagupta (561–592), a monk and translator from Gandhāra
  • Śikṣānanda (652–710 CE), a monk and translator from Udyāna, Gandhāra
  • Prajñā (c. 810), a monk and translator from Kabul who educated the Japanese Kūkai in Sanskrit texts

Early translations

File:Eastern Han ingot imprints with barbarous Greek inscriptions.jpg
Eastern Han inscriptions on lead ingot, using barbarous Greek alphabet in the style of the Kushans, excavated in Shaanxi, China, 1st-2nd century CE.[13]

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.Template:Cn

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. Xuanzang (629–644) and Hyecho traveled from Korea to India.[14]

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 Xuanzang were described in the famous novel 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 traveled.[15] 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.[16] 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 in the course of the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana. A turning point was the Battle of Talas of 751. This development also resulted in the extinction of the local Tocharian Buddhist culture in the Tarim Basin during the 8th century.

The Silk Road transmission between Eastern and Indian Buddhism thus came to an end in the 8th century, on one hand because Islam in Central Asia repressed Buddhism along the Silk Road itself, but also because Buddhism in both India and China were in decline by that time.

From the 9th century onward, therefore, the various schools of Buddhism which survived began to evolve independently of one another. The vigorous Chinese culture progressively absorbed Buddhist teachings until a strongly Chinese particularism developed.Template:Clarify In the eastern Tarim Basin, Central Asian Buddhism survived into the later medieval period as the religion of the Uyghur Kara-Khoja Kingdom (see also Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves), and Buddhism became one of the religions in the Mongol Empire and the Chagatai Khanate, and via the Oirats eventually the religion of the Kalmyks, who settled at the Caspian in the 17th century. Otherwise, Central Asian Buddhism survived mostly in Tibet and in Mongolia.

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 Afghanistan and Pakistan, combining Indian and Greek 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."[17] 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."[18]

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:


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."[19]

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:


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:[20]


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:[21]



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:


The (668 CE) Fayuan Zhulin Buddhist encyclopedia elaborates this legend with Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great sending Shilifang to China.[22] 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.[23] Others disagree, "As far as we can gather from the inscriptions he [Ashoka] was ignorant of the very existence of China."[24]

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)."[25] Since Han histories do not mention Emperor Ai having contacts with the Yuezhi, scholars disagree whether this tradition "deserves serious consideration",[26] or can be "reliable material for historical research".[27]

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,[28] 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.[29] For example, the (late 3rd to early 5th-century) Mouzi Lihuolun says,[30]


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."[31] 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."[32] The golden statue was later moved to the Yunyang 雲陽 Temple, near the royal summer palace Ganquan 甘泉 (modern Xianyang, Shaanxi).[33]

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)."[34]Template:Refn

See also



  1. von Le Coq, Albert. (1913). Chotscho: Facsimile-Wiedergaben der Wichtigeren Funde der Ersten Königlich Preussischen Expedition nach Turfan in Ost-Turkistan. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer (Ernst Vohsen), im Auftrage der Gernalverwaltung der Königlichen Museen aus Mitteln des Baessler-Institutes, Tafel 19. (Accessed 3 September 2016).
  2. Gasparini, Mariachiara. "A Mathematic Expression of Art: Sino-Iranian and Uighur Textile Interactions and the Turfan Textile Collection in Berlin," in Rudolf G. Wagner and Monica Juneja (eds), Transcultural Studies, Ruprecht-Karls Universität Heidelberg, No 1 (2014), pp 134-163. Template:ISSN. See also endnote #32. (Accessed 3 September 2016.)
  3. Hansen, Valerie (2012), The Silk Road: A New History, Oxford University Press, p. 98, Template:ISBN.
  4. Zürcher (1972), pp. 22–27.
  5. Hill (2009), p. 30, for the Chinese text from the Hou Hanshu, and p. 31 for a translation of it.
  6. Zürcher (1972), p. 23.
  7. Samad, Rafi-us, The Grandeur of Gandhara. The Ancient Buddhist Civilization of the Swat, Peshawar, Kabul and Indus Valleys, p. 234
  8. Template:Cite book
  9. Foltz, "Religions of the Silk Road", pp. 37–58
  10. Template:Cite book
  11. Broughton, Jeffrey L. (1999), The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, Berkeley: University of California Press, Template:ISBN. pp. 54-55.
  12. Soothill, William Edward; Hodous, Lewis (1995), A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, London: RoutledgeCurzon
  13. Joe Cribb, 1974, "Chinese lead ingots with barbarous Greek inscriptions in Coin Hoards" pp.76-8 [1]
  14. Ancient Silk Road Travellers
  15. Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 43-44.
  16. Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 48.
  17. Zürcher (1972), p. 26.
  18. Zürcher (1972), p. 27. Compare Maspero (1981), p. 405.
  19. Zürcher (1972), p. 28.
  20. Zürcher (1972), p. 26.
  21. Zürcher (1990), p. 159.
  22. Saunders (1923), p. 158.
  23. Draper (1995).
  24. Williams (2005), p. 57.
  25. Tr. by Zürcher (2007), p. 24.
  26. Draft translation of the Weilüe by John E. Hill (2004) The Peoples of the West.
  27. Zürcher (2007), p. 25.
  28. Demieville (1986), p. 824.
  29. Zürcher (2007), p. 22.
  30. Zürcher (2007), p. 14.
  31. Tr. Dubs (1937), 4-5.
  32. Dubs (1937), 4-5.
  33. Dubs (1937), 5-6.
  34. Zürcher (2007), p. 21.


Further reading

External links

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