From India to China: The Spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. History of Buddhism 
  3. Conclusion

Introduction

The silk road spread religions, philosophies, education, goods, and people. The people who embarked for a journey on the silk road were monks from India. India, during the iron age, between the fourth and sixth centuries, began urbanization and in this process, the influence of Buddhism grew. It was not until the great emperor Ashoka that Buddhism started to spread more quickly. Emperor Ashoka supported Buddhism and converted himself to along with his decedents and they sought to build statues and monuments throughout central and southeast Asia towards Sri Lanka. In Central Asia, it was their efforts that ultimately brought Buddhism to the Chinese while the southern effort brought Buddhism to the coastal lands of Southeast Asia. Emperor Ashoka sent out emissaries attended by Buddhist missionaries to many lands’ west of India as well. Their influence reached Hellenistic countries in Central and Western Asia and even reached countries in the Mediterranean. Though Ashoka helped start the dissemination of Buddhism, it was not until the Kushans before Buddhism experienced a more rapid growth. The Kushans controlled trade in the countries of India, China, Parthia and in parts of the Roman empire. At the time, Alexander the great was in process of his Asian conquest regions he controlled adopted Hellenistic ideas and art and it was under the Kushans, who again controlled trade with these regions, and led to Gandhara, a settlement for Buddhism, flourished and helped to create the Graeco-Buddhist art form. The art form was a large part of Mahayana Buddhism. This led to artworks of Bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

History of Buddhism 

Buddhism also reached Bactria around the 1st century, where archeological evidence suggests that there was a Buddhist settlement at today’s Airtam, circa eight-teen kilometers northwest of the city Termez in southernmost Uzbekistan. At its location in the intersection of roads that lead towards Persia, India, Tarim basin, as well as China, an art style devolved a fusion of Iranian, Indian, Gandharan and local style into an independent style of its own. This style of Buddhist art traveled eastward and was quickly adopted at Kizil, Xinjiang and finally Dunhuang. Buddhism was at its peak of its power in the eighth and ninth centuries in Afghanistan before it fell to the Arabs. For the kingdoms in the Tarim region Buddhism was significantly accepted and as a result much of Indian culture was adopted even making Sanskrit the religious language. As the spread of Buddhism continued the Chinese influence increased in the sixth century. Art in the area started mixing Chinese elements with the previous Indo-Persian style. Nomadic Tribes on the steppe also converted to Buddhism and this often led them to becoming less fierce soldiers and eventually the tribe being absorbed into the non-nomadic settlements around. Although Mahayana Buddhism became less dominant in Southern Asia, Mahayana Buddhism eventually grew to be the dominant influence on Buddhist culture in Central and Eastern Asia and had also adopted cultural practices from Taoism.

The origin of Mahayana Buddhism is unknown and is thought to have developed over time through a collection of different regions and the philosopher Nagarjuna is occasionally said to be the founder of the Mahayana, along with other early figures such as Asanga and Vasubandhu. In reality there is no single founder of the tradition. The name Mahayana Buddhism means “Greater vehicle”. The movement is defined by its impressive and imposing origin of the universe, complex spiritual ritualism, paradoxical metaphysics, and universal morals. Mahayana Buddhism is divided into two systems of thought, the Madhyamika and the Yogacara. The Madhyamikas are known more for the emphasis they laid most on the middle view. The middle path stands for the non-acceptance of the two views concerning existence and nonexistence, eternity and non-eternity and self and no-self. In conclusion, this part of Mahayana Buddhism advocates neither the idea of reality nor that of the unreality of the world. It only sees it as its relativity. It is, however, that the Middle Path advocated at Sarnath by the Buddha had a more ethical meaning, while the Madhyamikas is a metaphysical concept. On the other hand, the Yogacara school placed emphasis on yoga, or meditation, as its most successful means for the attainment of enlightenment or the highest truth. The ten stages of spiritual progress have to be passed before Bodhi can be reached. It was one of the first big branches to emerge after the early schools of Buddhism started to fade away. Now, only Theravada is the closest to the original school of Buddhism. In the beginning, Mahayana Buddhism was influenced by other Buddhist schools of belief in India. As it propagated in and outside India, it captivated and adopted aspects of native religious traditions, such as Taoism, Confucianism, Bon, and various forms of Hinduism. Many Mahayana schools taught the importance of the laity. These actions come partly from an appreciation of the fact that real rejection is not complete but depends on a simultaneous engagement in and nonattachment to the world. Mahayana, as the main branch which spread into parts of Southeast Asia, most, if not all East Asia, as well as Japan. In Southeast Asia, more closely Sri Lanka the idea of the bodhisattva and this was such a large impact that King Sirisangabo the ruler around A.D. 251-253 was such a strong believer that he abandoned his throne for the sake of not giving orders to kill people when his relative, Prince Gotabhaya a rebel force to take control of the throne. The bodhisattva also led to the creation of many bodhisattva statues around different parts of the island the most famous being Kushtaraja in Weligama. It is even said the Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana, or the diamond school, has a large portion of its traditions from Mahayana, so it is repeatedly classified as apart from the greater vehicle.

Other branches like Zen Buddhism, Free Land Buddhism, and many others came from this branch, but its tenets are important too. The actual analysis on early Buddhism is further complicated because most reconstructions had been influenced by the agendas of modern sectarian movements and that the scriptures valued the most by later groups were not necessarily the texts that best represent the movement in its creation period. The first source of scriptures for Mahayana Buddhism were the Sutras. The Sutras were compiled four centuries after the Buddha’s death but were the records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha. The Mahayana name was mentioned first in the Lotus Sutra. The natural law of all existence was no longer regarded as a doctrinal element but as a medicine that would heal all worldly suffering. When Mahayana Buddhists started worshipping the image of Buddha in India, it influenced Hindu people to worship their different gods, but they found performing their spiritual rituals tedious which is why some Hindus started praying through meditation and some Hindus even converted to Buddhists. This sect of Buddhism created a huge culture change in Buddhism because it created a place for the normal person.

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Mahayana Buddhism placed new emphasis on the importance of those householders and lay practitioners that did not renounce life to become nuns or monks. There is also evidence to show that there was excessive privileges and arrogance of monks. This was hated by householders and lay people especially in japan. The clergy members would look down on those practiced outside of the normal temple, most like those of the clergy in the Christian faith. It put these people at the same level as those clergy members that devote their lives to the Buddha. The idea of the caste system that controlled India and plagued those with cruelty and inequalities was hated by Gautama buddha. He asked his followers and anyone around him to respect and care for others regardless of their caste, gender, or social status.

Lay followers work for the liberation of all beings, making compassion and insight its central doctrines. This change created the belief that those normal persons can become enlightened and become bodhisattva, unlike previously when only those who became monks and nuns could achieve this enlightenment. Even though this previous conflict with the clergy and the progress to enlightenment being the responsibility of the individual person, the monks provided an example for both morality and ethics for the laity. As well as guidance and teaching for people.

The main schools of Buddhism practiced today are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Shingon, and Tendai. In the Mahayana Buddhist belief they teach that awakening consist of understanding the true nature of the world unlike their other counterparts that emphasize the absence of self. No self is extended to all parts instead of just in the person and that since no person has a self there is not a real difference between themselves and others. Therefore their liberation is the same as the liberation of others. The Mahayana metaphysics is of monistic character. Everything that exists in the world is of one reality and the nature of this reality is beyond description. The spread of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent growth, the idea that nothing has a presence and that the existence of each thing depends on the existence of other things, is referred to as emptiness. Bodhisattvas seek to understand this reality through wisdom and to carry it out through compassion.

Normally in Buddhism, Buddhist seek the end of the world transmigration and cycle of rebirth, but in Mahayana Buddhism the emphasis is less on nirvana and more on knowledge and wisdom. The mastery of these will lead to awakening and thus nirvana and thus overcoming the three evils, greed, hatred and delusion. The universal access to awakening along with the idea that the universe has no beginning in time and is filled with an unfathomable count of beings and an infinite number of worlds, leads to the conclusion that there are not only an infinite number of bodhisattvas in the universe but also an infinite number of buddhas with each being residing in his own realm. In contrast to various Mahayana doctrinal changes, some aspects of the Mahayana tradition especially in its earlier Indian forms, are distinctly conservative, especially with respect to monastic ethics. The lotus, a symbol of purity and the eight-spoke wheel the symbol of the Buddha's teachings, dharma are universal symbols in the Mahayana Buddhist faith. Other familiar symbols are a variety of hand gestures mudras, seated and standing postures, the book, a symbol of dharma and wisdom and the sword, a symbol of insight and wisdom.

Today, buddhism in the 21st century CE is estimated that 488 million or approximately nine to ten percent of the world population people practice Buddhism and approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries that practice Buddhism today are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism however, due to the Chinese occupation and repression, has been adopted by international practitioners, most those who live west in a variety of different countries. Mahatma Gandhi himself adopted the path of Ashima during his struggle for independence.

Conclusion

In conclusion Mahayana Buddhism created a way for the ordinary person who did not want to renounce everything in the world, to follow the path towards enlightenment and eventually end their cycle of rebirth and suffering. It as well brought people better understanding morally and ethically. Mahayana Buddhism helped created lasting cultural effects on the regions it now occupies today and has even reach the western world and is being adopted by a growing number of people.  

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