Like so many others, I am enjoying The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, but I am not just enjoying the game-play, I am subtly enjoying how certain Japanese cultural concepts shine through even in a medieval fantasy adventure. In a previous post, I talked about Japanese-religious influences in Breath of the Wild, and today, I wanted to revisit the subject for Tears of the Kingdom (hereafter TotK), since one aspect really stands out: the sky realm and the world below.
In early Indian Buddhism, the world was described in a complex cosmology involving devas (forerunners of the Hindu gods), and various hell realms not unlike Dante’s Inferno, plus many other states of rebirth such as hungry ghosts, asuras (titans) and so on. Many of these were inherent to Indian culture, but as Buddhism moved to other cultures, China and beyond, things gradually shifted in emphasis, or merged with native religious traditions. I don’t mean this in a sense of corruption, or loss of authenticity though. Just simply changing times, changing places.
In any case, but the time of medieval Japan, late 12th century and such, the cosmology from India had gradually streamlined in popular culture to essentially two realms of rebirth: Hell and the Pure Land. Other realms still existed on paper (i.e. religion tradition), but in the minds of most Japanese at the time, either you were destined to Hell or through the Buddha’s compassion you might be get fortunate to be reborn in the Pure Land.
As Pure Land Buddhism gained in popularity during the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries), you see an increase of artwork depicting Amida Buddha welcoming the deceased to paradise,1 sometimes juxtaposed with images of Hell.2 Years ago I attended a local art exhibit in Kamakura, Japan, next to Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu shrine which displayed a gallery of such art from local temples and it was fascinating to see such a stark world-view, much like medieval Christianity, yet also very different under the hood, theologically.
Anyhow, getting back to the Legend of Zelda: TotK, the kingdom of Hyrule has expanded to include a sky realm, and a dark world underground. This is imagery that’s pretty universal in many cultures, but the details reflect Japanese-religious traditions.
Let’s look at the sky world first.
The sky world has placid ponds with lotus blossoms, and frequently uses a gentle golden color.
Compare with this passage from the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀経, amida-kyō in Japanese):
The beautiful and rare birds also reflect another passage in the same sutra:
Compare the imagery above with this recent tweet from the Twitter feed from Toshidaiji Temple in Nara:
Thus, we can see that sky world in TotK reflects imagery associated with Buddhist imagery, especially the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. This may be entirely an artistic choice, but it’s interesting that it reflects Japanese-religious culture.
Now, let’s look at the world below:
The world below is a world of darkness and misery. There is little life here, primarily predatory life, or creatures toiling away mining Zonaite minerals, and the air is stifling with spores (or ash?) in the air.
The imagery here does not fit neatly into the elaborate Buddhist hells as described in the Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra. Instead, it more neatly fits a more Shinto (not Buddhist) depiction of the Land of Yomi, the Land of the Dead. Yomi, like the world below in TotK, is also accessible from the mundane world through various entrances, and similar to the Greek concept of Hades, it includes many shades and shadows of former lives.
But again, in popular religious tradition, the Buddhist concept of Hell, and the native Shinto concept of Yomi blend together. This was very common in pre-modern Japanese culture where the two religions blended in popular culture, and were virtually indistinguishable. In medieval Europe, Christianity blended with pagan and local folk traditions to the point where it was hard to see where one ended, and the other began.
And it’s fascinating to see the imagery applied to modern gaming as well.
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. All Zelda screenshots here are by me.
1 Called amida shōju raigōzu (阿弥陀聖衆来迎図) in Japanese.
Recently, I’ve been reading some old books of mine about the life of Honen, a 12th century Japanese-Buddhist monk who started the Pure Land movement in Japan which includes Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Honen had a pretty eclectic following: from nobility in the elite Fujiwara family, to prostitutes, ex-monks, etc.
In one famous dialogue, Honen is talking with a former robber named Amano Shiro (天野四郎), who had previously been a leader of a gang in Kawachi Province and had reputedly killed some people as well. In his old age, he became inspired by Honen’s teachings and became a devout follower named Kyo Amidabutsu (教阿弥陀仏). One night, while staying with Honen, Kyo Amidabutsu had woken up in the middle of the night to hear Honen reciting the nembutsu by himself. When Honen realized he was no longer alone, he quietly went to bed.
A few days later, Kyo Amidabutsu went to talk to Honen. He had no family to care for him in his old age, and so he would be leaving soon to stay with a friend in a remote province in the east. Before he would leave though, he had some questions for Honen.
The dialogue, as recorded here and here, is pretty long, but Honen carefully explains what the nembutsu is all about, he patiently answers Kyo Amidabutsu’s questions. For example, Honen explains the significance of the nembutsu:
Here, Honen is trying to counter some of the other Buddhist schoosl at the time, which tended to emphasize a more esoteric meaning, something that would require considerable time and effort for a monk to discover through practice, esoteric initiations, and meditation. It’s likely that Kyo Amidabutsu, as an elderly commoner in the 12th century, would have had a minimal education, and probably would’ve found all that intimidating, assuming that he could even take tonsure and become a monk.
I really like the fact that Honen is not hitting Kyo Amidabutsu over the head with a bunch of doctrinal explanations about the Four Noble Truths, Karma, Rebirth, etc either. Instead, he’s providing a simple, straightforward explanation with no hidden, mystical or esoteric meanings.
Next, Kyo Amidabutsu asks a series of questions about when is it to recite the nembutsu, whether to setup an altar, wear clerical robes, etc. Honen’s reply is similarly straightforward:
This sense of sincerity is the key, as Honen teaches. For Kyo Amidabutsu’s sake, he uses an example of a thief who means to rob a house:
In my limited experiences talking with people who are curious about Buddhism here in 21st Century America, I often notice that they are curious, but don’t know where to begin, and find it a bit intimidating. Buddhism is hard to explain, and yet most of that information isn’t necessary upfront either if it provides no concrete value. If people want to know, they can (and will) ask. Instead of hitting people over the head with a bunch of esoteric, mystical or complicated psychological explanations, it’s probably better to just KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Buddhism isn’t meant to intellectual playground for the well-educated, it’s meant to help people from all walks of life. Everyone should feel free to begin the Buddhist path just as they are, and go at their own pace.
Honen was sensitive to Kyo Amidabutsu’s situation and provided a straightforward, simple practice for Kyo Amidabutsu that provides both a sense of spiritual comfort, but also something very flexible and adaptable to his circumstances. Kyo Amidabutsu is old, has no kin, is probably broke, and has no where to live. He probably doesn’t even know when he might eat next, or where he might sleep next. So, it has to be something that can be adapted to his existing lifestyle, and straightforward (not esoteric) enough that it is easy to understand yet provides a sense of refuge in a chaotic world. It may be looked down upon by more “elite” Buddhists, but for Kyo Amidabutsu, it’s just right.
Indeed, in founding the Jodo Shu sect, Honen reportedly once said:
For this reason, I come back again and again to Jodo Shu Buddhism over the years because even when I quibble about specific details, it’s accessibility, and simple message is pretty hard to beat within the Buddhist world. It meets the needs of all walks of life, and does not hit people over the head with philosophical details, yet it also provides plenty of flexibility to grow and learn as well. I feel this is an exemplary example of Buddhist metta if nothing else.
The 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk Shandao (pinyin: Shàndǎo, 善導, 613-681) is probably the single most influential monk in the entire Pure Land Buddhist tradition. Both Japanese and Chinese traditions claim him as a patriarch of their respective lineages. Shandao taught an interpretation of the Pure Land that was much less ambiguous and more accessible than earlier masters and popularized some practices that are now universally found, such as the verbal form of the nembutsu, and the dedication of merit hymn. He also penned the Parable of the White Path and Two Rivers.
Another teaching of Shandao’s that’s often cited in later sources, especially in Jodo Shu-sect Buddhism is the Three Minds and Four Modes of Practice (三心四修) or sanjin shishu.
The idea is that through devotion toward Amida (Amitabha) Buddha, and aspiration to be reborn on the Pure Land path, one’s mind and life style will eventually give rise to the Three Minds and your practice will align with the Four Modes of Practice.
The Three Minds are:
至誠心 (shijōshin): An utterly sincere mind
深心 (jinshin): A deeply, believing mind
回向発願心 (ekō-hotsuganshin): The mind that dedicates one’s merit and good works toward rebirth in the Pure Land.
The Four Modes of Practice are (page 68):
恭敬修 (kugyōshu): reverence toward Amida Buddha and his two bodhisattvas:
I like to think that this is a natural outflow of devotion through Buddhist practices such as reciting sutras, reciting the nembutsu, and dedicating good merits toward rebirth in the Pure Land, etc. It’s not something you contrive or measure your progress with. It just happens over time.
This post is mostly meant to be a reference post, but also I think it’s an example of how Buddhist practice over long term has positive benefits. No need to be elaborate or immerse yourself in difficult practices. Slow and steady wins the race.
Recently, I took some personal time to delve deep into Pure Land Buddhist teachings, re-reading some old books, but also some new ones. In particular, I was very impressed by Charles B Jones’s latest book, an excellent survey of the entire Pure Land tradition in Mahayana Buddhism.
If you’re not familiar with Pure Land Buddhism, this is a broad, broad tradition in East Asia, focused on a single Buddha named Amitabha, not the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni). There are way more devotees of the Pure Land path in many Buddhist countries versus, say, Zen practitioners. It is said that Amitabha, according to the Buddhist canon (a.k.a. the sutras), made a great series of vows to provide a refuge for all beings if they with to be reborn there. In this refuge, one will unfailingly become an enlightened being, by virtue of being so close to a living Buddha.
This might seem weird at first glance, since Shakyamuni Buddha started the whole religion in the first place, right? It’s a long story of how we got to something like Four Noble Truths to something like an ethereal paradise where people can go simply by reciting his name.
Charles B Jones’s book actually does walk through how this tradition evolved from an advanced meditative practice in India to the forms we see today, so that alone is worth reading the book. However, there’s another side to this issue that Jones’s book also covers: sectarian bias.
Way back in 2005, shortly after I had my girlfriend now wife, we made our first trip to Japan to visit her extended family. The culture shock hit hard: I hardly knew the language, the customs and food weren’t what I expected, and the Buddhist religion that I was so interested in made no sense to me. I remember seeing Amitabha Buddha at Chion-in temple in Kyoto, and while it was very beautiful, it felt like weird superstition to me. This wasn’t mentioned in any of my books about Buddhism! Someone in Japan even asked me what I thought about it all, and I made some stupid, arrogant comment about superstition, etc.
But it was still nagging me when I got home later, and that’s when I discovered the Jodo Shu homepage in English. I slowly started to unravel things, and eventually became a devoted follower (still am in many ways), but at the time, this was very niche Buddhist teachings outside of some Western organizations like the Buddhist Churches of America (also a wonderful org, highly recommend).
Since then, there have been a lot of books published in the last 20 years about Pure Land Buddhism, but they are almost always sectarian, and obfuscate the variety of practices in favor of one single approach. I learned Pure Land Buddhism through Jodo Shu/Jodo Shinshu sectarian sources, including one overtly nationalist book by D T Suzuki (don’t get me started on that guy…), and it colored my understanding for a long time.
For all the increased information on Pure Land Buddhism in the West, it’s still based on very biased, sectarian sources, namely Japanese sects such as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and as a long-time follower of these traditions, they really helped me a lot when I was first getting on my feet.
However, long time readers may note that I’ve danced aroundotheraspects of Pure Land Buddhism, but until recently I had no idea how broad the tradition was, and the many ways people have tackled the theological questions behind it.
Through Jones’s book, I realized that the tradition is huge, and varied in its approach. It’s not just a “Japanese Buddhism versus Chinese Buddhism” comparison either. Many thinkers over the centuries in many countries and eras have grappled with these questions:
What is the nature of Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land? Is it mind-only? Does it literally exist X yojanas to the West? Or is it right here?
Similarly, is Amitabha Buddha the embodiment of the Dharma or a literal Buddha who excels at reaching out to people?
What is the point of striving for rebirth into the Pure Land? Is it to awaken one’s mind here and now, or is it to reach a refuge in which one can progress along the Buddhist path more easily?
How does one do it? Do they rely on Amitabha Buddha’s compassion (e.g. other power) or does one strive to be reborn there? Is it a “meet in the middle” situation?
What is the nianfo/nembutsu (念佛/念仏), and is the nianfo/nembutsu sufficient on its own to accomplish rebirth in the Pure Land, or are other practices required?
Charles B Jones covers all the ways people have interpreted these questions, in India, in China and in Japan and the variety of responses and interpretations is surprising.
For example, if we only consider the questions of whether the Pure Land and Amitabha arises from one’s own mind, a Zen-style interpretation, or a more literal savior to that exists elsewhere reaching out to others, we get a spectrum of interpretations. However even if you have two different teachers both advocate for a literal interpretation of Amitabha Buddha, they will differ on whether reciting the nianfo/nembutsu alone is enough, or what practices one should do to strive there.
Even when two teachers agree on a set of practices leading to rebirth in the Pure Land, they might differ on how much of it is due to one’s own efforts versus Amitabha’s compassion and power of his vows.
Thus, what you get is a really complicated, three-dimensional matrix of views.
For example, the Chinese Buddhist teacher, Yunqi Zhuhong (雲棲袾, 1535–1615),1 advocated a very sophisticated approach that tried to reconcile both the mind-only or “principle” interpretation of Amitabha Buddha with the more literal or “phenomenal” one often used by lay people. In his mind, both were essentially correct, and it was perfectly fine to approach from either mentality, so long as one kept up the essential practices: reciting the nianfo (nembutsu in Japanese), reciting sutras, devotional acts, etc. It confirms what I suspected for a long time: that there is more to Pure Land Buddhism than just the nembutsu.
I never even knew about Yunqi Zhuhong until a few weeks ago (I pretty much rewrote the entire Wikipedia article linked above using more sources), and this shows how sectarian views, even when benign, obscure aspects of the tradition and make it hard to understand Pure Land Buddhism at large. One can easily apply this to other Buddhist traditions such as Zen, or Theravada, etc.
Another challenge in Buddhism has always been accessibility, and Charles B Jones shows how the Jodo Shu and especially Jodo Shinshu sects in Japan really excelled at outreach to common people instead of the aristocratic Buddhist followers who focused on esoteric Buddhist practices.2 However, in order to make Buddhism very accessible to large segments of the population, it’s clear they also took some liberties in how they interpret some of the issue above, and these are issues that they have to continuously defend, theologically, to this day.
Anyhow, there’s no clear answer here on who’s right or not. Jones’s book does a great job showing all the different approaches, arguments, and the virtues and challenges of each one, and thus the reader is welcome to decide for themselves. It’s so rare to find such a balanced and thorough overview of the entire tradition. For my part, I haven’t fully decided for myself what the right approach is (hence all the book reading lately), but it really helped give me a broader picture, and plenty of food for thought.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 Pronounced as “yoon-chee joo-hong”
2 Another interesting contrast that Jones’s book shows between Chinese Buddhist history versus Japanese: Japanese Buddhist history starts with the Imperial Court patronage and over generations gradually filtered down to the general population, thus it required patronage, sects, etc. Chinese Buddhism by contrast “percolated” up from small communities, often influenced by foreign merchant communities, and thus never had to organize sects, schools and such; Buddhist communities just sprang up organically.
I stumbled upon this great quotation by Oscar Wilde and somehow it reminded of a much, much older poem but a Japanese-Buddhist monk named Hōnen (法然, 1133 – 1212). The poem is titled “Moonlight” which I covered here.
What Oscar Wilde says here is very profound.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Parable of Burning House from the Lotus Sutra famously describes a similar state of affairs, and in that parable the Buddha is calling people to escape the flames to safety. Like the Moonlight poem, the Buddha calls all of us and leads us to refuge if we listen. You can also see this in the Parable of the Two Rivers.
In the Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism, this moment of listening to the Buddha is called shinjin (信心, “true entrusting”). I like to think of it as a “come to Jesus Amida” moment: we become starkly aware of our plight, we recall Amida Buddha’s promise to rescue all beings, and respond with the nembutsu.
All of us are in the gutter in some sense or another, but we don’t have to be. As the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism states: there is a way out.
In my limited spare time, I often follow the amazing Youtube series: Extra History, which covers a lot of unspoken, or lesser-known aspects of world history in the form of short mini-series. One mini-series covers the history of Indonesia through the maritime empire of Majapahit. The last video covers the conversion of Indonesian culture from Hinduism/Buddhism to Islam:
One of the points raised was that Islam was a much more portable religion since it only required books (namely the holy Qur’an), and Arabic religious-cultural practices. In contrast, Buddhism has typically required elaborate monasteries and temples. This is not always the case however, as Buddhism arrived in China as a merchant’s religion as well, and gradually “percolated up” through Chinese society (quoting Charles B Jones in this excellent book, which I’ll cover in another post soon) but it suffered greatly when Buddhism was persecuted around 845, destroying many of the great monastic centers of learning that had sprung up over the centuries.
Setting aside the virtues of one religion versus another (which is definitely not my point here), it shows how religion is healthiest when it is portable, flexible, and adds value to the society at large, rather than stifling it. I would term this “heavy religion” versus “lightweight religion”.
One can easily look at any religion and finds examples where religious institutions meshed with politics, or became bloated with doctrine, dogma and philosophy after an initial period of innovation. One can easily find examples where religion catered to the well-educated elite, and became aloof to the problems of people on the ground.
This is the problem I think that faces Buddhism in the West.
Buddhism began as an ascetics religion, since this was very commonplace at the time in India (5th c. BCE), hence it prioritized the monastic community, and the monastic community has in turn provided an important element of stability and continuity across the ages. But also, that was a particular time, place and culture. Even when Buddhism circulated in Chinese culture, they ran into cultural clashes with the native Confucian literati that found the monk’s begging for alms, and living celibate in monasteries (instead of fulfilling filial duties to parents) grating and disgraceful. This forced Chinese Buddhist communities to adapt and disregard some practices from India while defending against Confucian criticism.
Similarly, the import of Asian Buddhism to the West has hit plenty of culture clashes, too many to list here. Some of this comes in the form of shady teachers, who abuse the teacher-disciple relationship, monastic communities that demand excessive alms and funding, or cults that can’t “make it” back home, but find fertile ground in the West preying upon naïve people. Finally, speaking from personal experience, many Buddhist converts in the West can behave elitist, even when well-intentioned, thus conflating bad stereotypes about “liberal, elitist culture”.
People have tried to solve this culture clash in a number of ways, either reinventing Buddhism to fit a “hip, new Western society” (groan…), or double-down on traditional Buddhist culture, either becoming insular or making well-meaning, but flawed attempts to translate traditional culture to a different culture. Or, they’re just shady guru cults.
None of these approaches are wrong, by the way (except the cults), but it underscores challenges for religions in crossing one culture to another.
But put yourself in the shoes of a working-class person in small town in rural America, with a demanding, minimum-wage job trying to support their kids. Expecting such a person to master the subtleties of Tibetan culture, or to learn Sanskrit mantras, or to find a reliable Zen meditation teacher is asking a lot. Some people make it work, most simply can’t.
It’s not their fault either; these Buddhist practices are all luxuries that the vast majority of society can’t realistically invest time in. Most people spend most of their time just making ends meet. It was true in medieval Asian society as much as it is today. While people in Silicon Valley can afford comfy desk jobs and trips to the next door coffee shop in between meetings, the people working in that coffee shop have to work annoying day jobs serving their coffee, and take a long commute home with 2-3 buses. And don’t forget the unseen people cleaning up the tech office overnight, scrubbing toilets, etc.
The point is is that all of these people are important to society, and if religious teachings aren’t relevant, useful, and meaningful to all of them, it will never spread beyond niche communities.
This is the problem that Buddhism faces, I think. I don’t have a good solution for this either. In Asia, similar problems have been dealt through lay-oriented Buddhist communities, both modern and medieval, gradually developed over decades or even generations, where monastic institutions are minimal or non-existent, and practices are straightforward and portable, yet steeped in deeper meaning in line with mainstream Mahayana Buddhism. Such communities have yet to fully take root in the West, and until they do, Buddhism will remain a tiny niche in the West and doomed to wither on the vine.
Recently, I was reminded of this old sutra from the Pali Canon, the Gotami Sutta (AN 8.53):
“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.'”
I’ve always liked this simple, straightforward benchmark of the Dharma. It reminds me of a quote by a Zen master many centuries later (quoted here originally):
This old man [himself] has spent more than thirty years in the rinka [monasteries], sitting in Zen meditation, quietly withering away my desires, without expectations for the morrow. When hunger comes, I eat. When the time comes, I sleep….The present does not persist. The past and future do not exist
Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan by William M. Bodiford
One of the advantages of old age is perspective, and (ideally) not getting hung up on the ups and downs of life as much compared to our youth when everything is fresh and raw. Being able to approach life through equanimity and goodwill, not being tossed about by the Eight Winds is a great gift for oneself and others.
Of course, many older people are in fact the opposite: childish, petty, and irrational too. The older one gets, the more social filters break down and their true nature reveals itself. Similarly, I still have plenty of petty and mean days myself, but looking back, I do feel the Buddha-Dharma has helped smooth at least the roughest edges over time.
That’s why, as the Buddha and the Zen teacher both show, training in the Buddha-Dharma is so useful. Setting good habits and healthy perspectives sooner than later will gradually pay off over time, like a good investment.
The more you invest, and the sooner you invest, the better.
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. I do have certain reservations about Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s rather conservative approach toward women’s ordination in Buddhism, but that’s not to deny his positive contributions as a translator. I’d call it a “professional disagreement”, except of course I am just a layperson and not a bhikkhu. 😅
P.P.S. Unlike the last twoposts, this is a new one, not a re-post. 😎
I recently finished two related books this week: the Xuan-zang book I wrote about before and a new book by Richard Foltz about the religions of the Silk Road. The latter book was fairly short, but it was well-written and I finished it in about 4 days. I highly recommend it.
One of the reasons why I enjoyed these books so much is that they helped explain an important question about Buddhist history: how the hell did Buddhism go from India to China?
Anyone who’s studied a little history about Buddhism knows it travelled the Silk Road from India to China, where it flourished and influenced other East Asian countries (Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc). But this glosses over a lot. So these two books helped explain what exactly happened, and historical research was actually kind of surprising.
Different kingdoms and people “ruled” the Silk Road at different points of time, but many of them had a common “Iranian” origin. This is not the same as the modern country of Iran, but rather a common ancestry, which included such people as the Persians, the Sogdians, the Parthians and the Indo-Aryans such as Siddhartha Gautama. They had a common ancestry, spoke related Iranian-languages, and had common religious traditions that helped influence the new religions they encountered.1
What Is the Silk Road?
The Silk Road was actually a network of trade routes that connected China with India, Persia and beyond Persia to the Near East. There were multiple routes, not a single road, and it was not common for a single merchant to travel the entire length. Instead, merchants would often use a “relay system” to bring goods to a major city along the road and trade there. The same goods might be carried by another merchant elsewhere, and so on.
For example, between Indian and China for example, there were three major roads, two passing through Central Asia: the “north” road which was longer but somewhat safer and passed north of the Taklamakan Desert, and the shorter “southern” road which was quicker but was riskier due to mountains, flooding rivers and the Desert. Xuan-zang, in his famous journey, took the northern route from China to India, and was relatively safe, but on his return, he took the southern route and nearly drowned twice, lost his elephant and many important items he brought back from India. Meanwhile, in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, mummies have been found wrapped in Chinese sill.
Anyhow, the constant trade back and forth also brought other people who were not in business. Monks, priests and people seeking their fortune would sometimes travel with merchant caravans. Cities and kingdoms on the Road often welcomed such people because they helped connect them with important cultures like Persia, India and China, and would help improve their prestige. With greater prestige and culture, the kingdom might prosper over rivals.
Why Did Buddhism Spread Along the Silk Road?
The original reason was probably trade. Rulers along the Silk Road would patronize traveling monks by building monasteries and establishing new Buddhist communities. This would help generate donations for the local economy, and enhance the culture and prestige of the city helping the economy further. For example, at the city of Balkh (now Afghanistan), Xuan-zang found 100 monasteries and a 3000 monks there in the 7th Century.
In reality, the local population probably didn’t convert to Buddhism en masse, but instead if may have blended with existing religious traditions. Also, as Buddhism declined, later religions such as Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam spread the same way. It was a recurring pattern: whoever controlled the trade influenced the religious tendencies of the region.
What Kind of Buddhism Did They Spread
The three main schools of Buddhism, out of the original 18, that spread along the Silk Road were:
Mahasangikas – Who tended to downplay the importance of the enlightened arhats, and emphasize intuition. They helped build the famous giant statues at Bamiyan, now destroyed.
Dharmaguptakas – Who elevated the importance of the Buddha, such that only he was worthy of offerings, and not the monks. They were the most important school early on, but gradually declined. The Agama Sutta in the Chinese Canon (equivalent to the Pali Canon in Theravada) is partly from Dharmaguptaka sources, as well as the Chinese monastic code of discipline.
Sarvastivadins – Who believed that past, present and future all existed simultaneously and were thus considered heretical according to the 3rd Council of Buddhism. Otherwise they were similar to other schools. Much of the Agama Sutta above derives from Sarvastivadin sources as well.
Finally of course was Mahayana Buddhism, which is what we see now in East Asian Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism was not a distinct school at this time, but had members from each of the various Indian schools, interacted closely with them, and was thus influenced by them. Mahayana Buddhism and its “bodhisattva practices” was a kind of extra-curricular activity monks and nuns could participate in, on top of their usual monastic discipline.
Research shows that much of imagery and sutras used in Mahayana Buddhism may have been composed outside of India in Central Asia. Iranian culture already had a diverse pool of beliefs and imagery, including but not limited to Zoroastrianism, and this may have helped shape what we now know as East Asian Buddhism. More on that in another post.
Who Spread Buddhism?
There were four major peoples that help spread Buddhism along the Silk Road, three of whom were ethnically Iranian:
The Bactrians, who blended Indian Buddhism with Greek culture.
The Kushans, who learned form Bactrians and spread it further.
The Sogdians, master traders and translators
The Parthians, the last and most powerful group who brought many texts and translators to China.
Buddhism began to spread from India to the Greco-Iranian kingdom of Bactria first. It was close to Kashmir, which was a major center of Buddhist learning, and the Bactrian kings were tolerant of all religious traditions. The people and language were a mix of Greek setters, Indian and Bactrian (Iranian), while the Bactrian language used Greek letters. As an example of diversity and tolerance, King Menandros patronized Buddhism, though he was not a follower. He is preserved in a Buddhist text called the Questions of King Menander.
But the Bactrian kingdom didn’t last long, and was soon conquered by an Iranian people called the Sakas, then the Kushans. The Kushans are possibly a mixed-ethnic group (Iranian and Tocharian) who revived the Greco-Bactrian culture and helped spread Buddhism further than before. It was under the Kushan Empire that Buddhist statues, which resembled Greek statues in some ways, began to appear. This is the “Gandhara-style” of Buddhist art, named after a famous region of the Kushan Empire.
King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire, was considered a great patron of Buddhism, though he wasn’t a follower (he patronized Greek gods and Hindu deities as well). He organized a new Buddhist council in Kashmir to rewrite old Buddhist texts from obscure local “Prakrit” dialects into more standard Sanskrit, for example. Kanishka also helped build monasteries and communities throughout his empire. He is often called the “Second King Ashoka” for this reason.
But the group that helped spread Buddhism the most wasn’t the Kushans, it was the Sogdians. The Sogdians were a small Iranian people who lived around modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and were master translators and traders.
Their location along the Silk Road meant that they interacted with many different cultures, and thus they were able to carry ideas and goods to other major cultures easily. After Buddhism, the Sogdians helped spread other religions such as Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism as well as Islam. The Sogdians frequently translated texts from one language to another: for example Prakrit to Bactrian, Aramaic to Turkish, Parthian to Chinese, etc. Ironically the Sogdians did not translate much Buddhist texts into their own language until much later (mainly from Chinese) and this may help explain why Buddhism didn’t take root in Sogdian culture. There were definitely examples of devout Sogdian monks and communities but not wide-scale devotion.
Finally, the last major group to bring Buddhism to China were the Parthians. The Parthians were another major Iranian group that eventually conquered the Kushans and establaished the Parthian Empire. it was during this time that Buddhism probably spread the furthest into Central Asia. For example in the famous city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan), researchers have found extensive Buddhist texts from the 1st-5th centuries and Buddhist communities in Shash (modern Tashkent) show that Buddhism had spread northwest of India before it turned east toward China.
The Parthians also contributed many famous translators into Chinese.2 The most famous was An Shigao (安世高) who translated a lot of basic Buddhists texts along with his student An Xuan (安玄). The surname ān (安) was frequently used for Parthians at the time. Some of these texts are still used in the East-Asian (and Western) Buddhist canon.
Why Did Buddhism Decline on the Silk Road?
As mentioned earlier, whoever controlled the trade of the Silk Road influenced religion there. After Buddhism was established, newer religions such as Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism gradually dominated. The Persian merchants patronized both religions, as well as the state religion of Zoroastrianism and soon the Silk Road became very religiously diverse.
The final religion to appear was Islam. By the time that Islam reached Central Asia, Arab traders dominated the trade, and local kings and merchants found it advantageous to convert in order to build closer ties. In the countryside and the remote steppes, people tended to follow Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism for much longer, but in the cities, Islam and Arab culture were the new rising star and people tended to convert. Buddhism was already declining in India, so there wasn’t much incentive to maintain cultural ties with the Buddhist world. People simply lost interest.
Foltz’s book shows how the history of “Islamic conquest” at this time was often greatly exaggerated too. Writings at the time depicting local kings and warlords conquering other lands in the name of Islam were often a cover to simply expand control of trade, not religion. Research shows that the “convert or die” policies of these kings were often unsuccessful and limited in scope. What actually persuaded Central Asian people to convert to Islam were oftentimes charismatic Sufi preachers who helped fulfill the role of “shaman” that previous religions had done generations earlier. To this day, Islam in Central Asia is often syncretic and blends elements of earlier religions with canonical Islam. Meanwhile, the Nestorian Church ironically survived in the heart of the Islamic world in the form of the Syriac Church in northern Iraq and other places.
Between the change in economy, decline of Buddhism in India and role Sufi preachers played in spreading the new dynamic faith, Buddhism naturally declined and faded entirely as did Nestorianism and Manichaeism.
The Iranian peoples of Central Asia were critical to bringing Buddhism out of India to Central Asia, China and now the modern world. We wouldn’t have things like Zen and Pure Land Buddhism if it weren’t for the Sogdians, Kushans and Parthians among others. Ironically many of these cultures no longer exist, yet their legacy lives on in many others.
The books mentioned at the beginning of this post were a lot of fun to read and I can’t recommend them enough for those interested in Buddhist history.
P.S. another blog repost, but with many fixed and updated links.
1 Even the modern Islamic Republic of Iran is just the latest in a very long series of dynasties and rulers that stretches back to the earliest civilizations of Man. See for example the Safavid Dynasty and Achaemenid Dynasty.
2 Other famous translators were not Parthian though: Lokaksema was Kushan while Kumarajiva had ancestry from both Kashmir and Kucha, another major Buddhist center at the time.
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