Besides trade, Buddhism played a major role in the creation of ties between India and China in ancient times. These religious ties were established in the First Millennium of the Common Era (CE or AD). But they weakened gradually, to the point of vanishing in the Second Millennium, when Buddhism disappeared in India, the land of its birth, and China developed its own brand of Buddhism through a process of “Sinification”.

The growth and decline of Buddhism in Sino-Indian relations are described in fascinating detail by Shyam Saran, a former Indian Foreign Secretary in his book: “How China sees India and the World” (Juggernaut Books New Delhi 2022).

Saran quotes John Keischnick (author of The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture) to say that in the First Century CE, Buddhism began influencing Chinese culture in terms of concepts, beliefs, practices, and patterns of behaviour. Buddhism-based Chinese culture included a new pantheon of deities, making offerings to idols and images, and rituals of consecration. Chinese culture also incorporated Indian Buddhist beliefs such as the incarnation, the law of ‘karma’ and meditation. China even adopted the gesture of pressing one’s palms together in veneration, Saran points out.

“During the first millennium, Chinese Buddhist monks and scholars acknowledged that the India of the time represented a superior culture and was an intellectual powerhouse, a teacher that China could learn from,” Saran says. And the Indian monks who came to China to preach wanted to make it a replica of their sacred land, he adds.

“The immense body of Chinese translations of the Buddhist scriptures brought a new vocabulary, new expressions and metaphors, which over time, became embedded in Chinese colloquial language, Chinese literature and conceptual thought,” Saran observes.

As in other countries which took to Buddhism, China also adopted the “relic culture”. Chinese rulers acquired items associated with the Buddha, “including ashes and bones from his funeral pyre” for their stupas. A diplomatic mission from a Tang ruler to King Harsha’s court in the 7 th.Century CE went back with a rubbing of the footprint of the Buddha engraved on stone.

But the physical connection began to wane in the 8 the. Century CE and accelerated in the 2 nd., millennium after 1000 CE. This was because, by that time, China itself had developed its own version of Buddhism which Saran calls a “Buddhism with Chinese characteristics” much like Xi Jinping’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

In fact, Saran asserts that in the Second millennium, China was emerging as an “alternative Buddhist universe with itself as its center.” China was radiating Buddhism to countries on its periphery like Korea, Japan and Vietnam.  “Buddhism helped China establish its centrality in East Asia,” Saran says.

As in India, China had sacred mountains. There were four sacred Buddhist mountains: Mount Emei in Sichuan; Mount Putuo in Zhejiang; Mount Jiuhua in Anhui; and Wutaishan in Shanxi.

Wutaishan for example was dedicated to Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Supreme Wisdom. This mountain even attracted pilgrims from India.

The “Sinicization” of Buddhism meant the development of Chinese schools of Buddhism such as: Tiantai (Celestial Platform); Huayan (Flower Garden); Qing tu (Pure Land); and Chan (better known as Zen in its Japanese version). According to Saran, these schools of thought followed the Indian Guru-Sishya Parampara, in which knowledge is imparted personally by the teacher to the pupil rather than through books or other formal means.  Interestingly, the original patriarchs of these Chinese Buddhist schools of thought were acknowledged as Indian, in some case the Buddha himself.

According to Saran, the “Tiantai” school revered the Lotus Sutra (Saddarma Pundarika Sutra) as constituting the highest teaching of the Buddha. The “Pure Land” doctrine was the cult of the Buddha “Amitabha” who lived in his “Western Paradise” of Sukhavati.  It was believed that the chanting of the name of Amitabha (A-mi-tu-fu in Chinese) ensured entry into Sukhavati, where there would be neither pain nor sorrow. The foundational texts of the “Pure Land” doctrine were the Amitayus-Vipasyana-Sutra (Discourse Concerning Meditation on Amitayus) and the Sukavati-Yyuha-Sutra (Description of the Western Paradise).

The Huayan school drew inspiration from the Madhyamika (or the Middle Way) teachings of Nagarjuna, the great Indian Buddhist philosopher of 2nd. Century AD, the Yogachara school of Buddhism was taught at Nalanda University in present-day Bihar in North India. The name Huayan is derived from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Garden Sutra).

As stated earlier, the Chan school is the same as the Japanese Zen school. It is derived from the Sanskrit word Dhyana or contemplation. Dyana is the “journey of the mind” (‘dhi’ being the mind, and ‘yana’ meaning movement). This is based on Patanjali’s Yoga Shastra (2 nd or first century CE) and adopted by Buddhism. Dyana was taken to China by the Buddhist monk Bodhidarma from Kanchipuram in present-day Tamil Nadu in the 6 th.Century CE. He was the son of a Tamil Pallava king. In China, Bodhidarma became the patriarch of the Chan school of thought, which is characterized by contemplation, stillness and becoming aware of the essence of things through meditation.

Dhyana is akin to Tao (The Way) founded by the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi.  Saran points out that the Chan school gave rise to the art of monochrome impressionistic painting as opposed to realistic or meticulous representation of objects. Chan or Zen, he points out, delves into one’s own mind to find the essence of things.

Saran asserts that “India gave to China the revolutionary idea of seeking truth from within oneself. It was an idea that germinated in India and wound its way to China and Japan, gathering local color, fragrance and sensibility.”

Then there is the cult of the Goddess Guanyin, a female incarnation of Avalokiteswara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Avalokiteswara is regarded as the earthly manifestation of the self-born and eternal Amitabha Buddha. Avalokiteswara’s female incarnation, Guanyin, is purely Chinese, Saran says. Guanyin means “one who hears and listens.” These cults became popular in China, and through China, in other parts of South East and East Asia.

“As India was witnessing the decline and eventual eclipse of the Buddhist faith in the new millennium,  China became its alternative centre with its own revered masters preaching new interpretations of the received scriptures and establishing sacred centres of pilgrimage. Whereas in an earlier age, pilgrims and scholars headed to India to seek the authentic faith, it is to China they were now travelling for the same purpose,” Saran says.

The diplomat-turned-historian regrets that India has not used its Buddhist heritage to spread its relevance to Buddhist Asia. Admittedly, independent India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru began well by celebrating the 2500 years of Buddhism as an international event in 1956. The celebrations enhanced India’s cultural, political and diplomatic profile.  But there was no follow-up. However, in recent years, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is a revival of interest in asserting India’s rightful place in international Buddhism. A lot is being done for Buddhist tourism in India. India is assiduously building its Buddhist links with Sri Lanka, for example

Saran notes that Communist China is consciously using its Buddhist past for diplomatic outreach. There is immense scope for Sino-Indian collaboration in Buddhist studies he points out.

“China has a rich store of Buddhist manuscripts, including in Sanskrit, unmatched anywhere in the world. Much of India’s history and culture lie embedded in these documentary collections and their study could be a most productive collaborative project between the two countries.”


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