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Saturday, August 16, 2008

The spread of Buddhism in China

The spread of Buddhism in China

------Daily News

A traveller falls into a river and calls for help. A huge stag with a fur of nine colours saves the drowning man. The queen of a nearby kingdom dreams about the stag and longs for its fur. She prompts the king to post a reward for anyone who can locate the deer. The traveller had promised the stag not to tell anyone about it, but on hearing about the reward, he goes to the palace and breaks his promise.

When the king attempts to shoot the stag, the deer’s body emits a dazzling light that shields it from the arrows. The stag tells the king how it saved the traveller. The king is moved and sets it free. Due to their greed, the traveller and the queen both die.

The Buddha

This Buddhist fable is depicted in one of the caves of the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, one of the most famous Buddhist sites in Northwest China’s Gansu province. In Cave No 257, this story is painted in nine sections.

The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes and a number of other grottoes played an important role in the spread of Buddhism in China, and storytelling became one of the strongest tools.

Buddhism spread East to China 2,000 years ago, bringing philosophy, literature, music, dance, sculpture, painting, architecture and other art from ancient India. It met strong resistance and many rulers tried to drive it out by killing monks, burning temples and scriptures but it managed to survive.

In 64 AD, the Buddhist masters Kasyapa-matanga and Gobharana from the western regions - today’s northwest China and Central Asia - were pioneers in introducing Buddhism to Central China.

Emperor Mingdi (reigned 28-75 AD) of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) invited the two masters to translate the Buddhist scriptures at Baima (White Horse) Temple in the capital city of Luoyang, in Henan province.

Master Fa Xian of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420AD) was the first Chinese who reached Lumbini in today’s Nepal, the place where Sakyamuni the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism was born in 624 BC. He brought back a large number of scriptures and his travelogue A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms provided precious information about Buddhism and the history of the area he visited.

Xuan Zang of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was the most important figure to seek Buddhist teachings in ancient India. From 629-645 AD, he covered 50,000 km and brought back 657 Buddhist scriptures. It is his story that inspired the classic novel Journey to the West.

In China, Buddhism blossomed into Han Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Pali Buddhism. In Han Buddhism, monks and nuns must keep celibate, wear robes, shave their heads and abstain from meat.

Buddhism entered Tibet from India in the 7th century and spread among the minority and ethnic groups in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Pali Buddhism is popular among the Dai, Blang, Achang, De’ang and Va minority ethnic groups who live in southern and southwestern Yunnan province. As Buddhism spread into China, pious believers dug grottoes out of mountains and filled them with huge statues, niches and murals. There are five most prominent grottoes in China.

Maijishan is another famous Buddhist grotto just south of Tianshui, the hometown of Fuxi, one of the legendary founders of China. From 384 AD to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), ancient artists built scaffolds along the cliffs and chiselled hundreds of caves out of the 142-m tall mountain.

There are 194 caves with 7,200 sculptures and 1,300 sq m of murals. The clay sculptures here display Chinese features, which are quite different from the diversified foreign styles in Dunhuang.

Legends say when the highest cave was completed, the Buddha arrived here to preach Buddhism and his attendants threw flower petals onto the pilgrims below. If a petal fell on someone, it meant he or she did not truly believe in Buddhism but to everyone’s joy, all the petals scattered upwards toward the sky.

It is 290 km by highway from Lanzhou, provincial capital of Gansu, to Tianshui. Built 13 km to the south of Luoyang, Henan province, these grottoes contain more than 100,000 statues in 1,300 caves, dating from 494 AD to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

More lifelike than the Yungang Grottoes, most were created in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 AD), who was a fervent Buddhist.

Folk legends say that the 17-m tall Vairocana Buddha statue at Fengxian Temple was modeled on the empress herself. Located in the city of Datong in North China’s Shanxi province, the Yungang Grottoes are the largest and most famous in the country.

Among its 45 caves, the Tan Yao Five Caves are the most eye-catching. One of them features a 17-m high giant Buddha statue ringed by smaller statues and niches. It is said that Emperor Wencheng of the Northern Wei Dynasty was riding his horse when he met a learned monk named Tan Yao.

The emperor and the empress honoured him as their mentor and asked him to preside over the construction of five grand caves in the Wuzhou Hills. Datong is easy to reach by air, rail and highway from all major cities in north China.

These were created as Buddhism thrived between the 3rd and 8th centuries and were the first major grottoes created as Buddhism spread to China.

The Kizil Grottoes’ 235 caves are 60 km southeast of Baicheng county, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

China Daily

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