8. History of China’s Mahayana Buddhism


The Spread of Buddhism from Central Asia to China

As mentioned in the prior chapter, Buddhism spread eastward from India onto Southeast Asia’s mainland during Asoka’s reign in the 3rd century BCE. This form of Buddhism became known as Theravada. At the same time, Buddhism spread north from India over the Himalayas onto the Central Asian Steppes. From this location, Buddhist monks brought the religion to China. This form of Buddhism became known as Mahayana.

From China, Mahayana Buddhism spread southward into the east of Southeast Asia, where it exerted a significant impact, especially on both the mainland and island cultures. To better understand the differences between Southeast Asia's Theravada and China's Mahayana, let’s look at the spread of Buddhism to China in a little more detail.

The process is said to have begun with Lokaksema (circa 150 CE) and then continued by many others, including Kumarajiva (circa 400 CE). These men were all Buddhist monks that traveled from the Kushan Empire in Central Asia to China to translate Buddhist sutras into Chinese script. The Kushan Empire?

During the early centuries of the 1st millennium, the Kushan Empire was a cosmopolitan center, as well as a major spreading center for Buddhism. The enormous Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria and the Tarim Basin as well as Northern India. Before their rise to historical prominence, the Kushans were a nomadic Indo-Iranian culture, whose homeland was the Tarim Basin. After being brutally defeated by a more powerful Central Asian tribe, the Kushans moved west to conquer and rule Bactria and then Northern India. Kanishka, the Kushan’s greatest emperor, completed this expansion in about 150 CE.


As well as being great conquerors, the Kushan emperors were also patrons of Buddhism. To indicate their devotion, they built thousands of temples. To fund their empire and construction projects, the Kushan dynasty maintained a safe corridor of travel between India and China. The security offered by the Kushans encouraged trade along the Silk Road. As the middleman between the two great civilizations, the Empire became very prosperous. This secure passageway was also instrumental in the spread of Buddhism from India to China.

The great Kushan Emperor Kanishka was a key player in this process. Not only was he responsible for establishing a safe environment for travel, he also encouraged the spread of Buddhism. But Kanishka imparted his own unique brand to Buddhism.

As well as Northern India and Central Asia, his empire also included Bactria, a Greco-Buddhist kingdom in the west. Bactria was one of the fragments of the Seleucid Empire, which comprised the eastern half of Alexander the Great's enormous empire. The Bactria kingdom was the religious and economic bridge between the east and the west. As a Greek nation, it connected the Mediterranean culture with Indian culture. It was in Bactria that the Buddha began to be portrayed in Greek style - as a human sitting or meditating in flowing robes with curly hair. Prior to this point, the Buddha had been represented as a wheel or some other symbol, but not in human form. In other words, Bactria was a cultural melting pot.

While Greek art had a big effect upon Buddhist iconography, Buddhist/Hindu thought exerted a significant influence upon Greek philosophers. After traveling to India with Alexander the Great, Pyrrho (360-270 BCE) returned to Greece and founded a philosophical school. The adherents of the school came to be called Skeptics. They believed that nothing can be known for certain. This is because our senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires. Both of these concepts are clearly reminiscent of eastern thought.

Instead of squelching this cultural interaction between east and west, the Kushan king Kanishka embraced the tolerant synthesis whole-heartedly. As well as emphasizing Buddhism, he also honored Zoroastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities. Famous for his religious syncretism, Kanishka convened the Fourth Buddhist Council around 100 CE in Kashmir in order to formalize the Sarvastivadin canon.

Among other things, this Buddhist canon stressed the notion that everything exists, past, present and future. This viewpoint stood in opposition to the standard Buddhist notion that the world of phenomenon is unreal. This new branch of Buddhism also emphasized the human potential for becoming a Bodhisattva, a fully enlightened being. Again this perspective contrasted with traditional Buddhism, eventually called Theravada, which stated that only the Buddha reached enlightenment. Further, the Sarvastivadin canon proposed a new set of practices for the Buddhist monks, saying that the original practices of the Buddha had been lost over time. Of course, the Theravadin monks felt that their practices were faithful to Buddha’s original teachings and hadn’t been lost at all. In other words, this new Buddhist canon, which laid the foundations of Mahayana, deliberately set itself apart from the traditional Buddhism of Theravada.

Kanishka also had Mahayana Buddhist texts translated from the spoken vernacular into the high literary language of Sanskrit. The "Kanishka casket" is dated to the first year of Kanishka's reign in 127 CE. In contrast, the Theravada canon of Southeast Asia was deliberately written in Pali to set Buddhism apart from the elitism of Hinduism’s Sanskrit.

Following these events, Kanishka's new syncretic form of Buddhism expanded into China. The Kushan monk Lokaksema traveled to the Han Chinese court in 178 CE to spread the Buddhist message. Working there for ten years, he was the first to translate Mahayana texts into Chinese. Due to China's prestigious influence, this new version of Buddhism later spread into Korea and Japan and was itself at the origin of Zen.

Kumarajiva’s pivotal role in Chinese Buddhism

While Lokaksema was probably the first Kushan monk to translate Buddhist sutras into Chinese, his influence was limited to a small circle. This was also true of the next few centuries of Kushan monks that followed in his footsteps. It was due to Kumarajiva (343-413 CE) that Buddhism finally became a mainstream Chinese religion.

Let’s take a little time to examine his instructive biography.

His father, Kumarayana, was a Buddhist monk, who traveled to Kusha, where he became the royal priest. He married the king’s sister, Jivaka. Kumarajiva’s name was a combination of both his father’s and mother’s names. This is appropriate as his mother had a huge influence on her son’s life.

When he was but 7 years of age, his mother joined a Buddhist nunnery. Under his parent’s guidance, Kumarajiva had already been studying Buddhist texts and committing them to memory. At the age of 9, he was taken to Kashmir to become better educated by the Buddhist monks there. On his return home 3 years later, an arhat predicted that his life would introduce many to Buddhism.

Because of his growing reputation, the Kushan king invited Kumarajiva to his court to teach his daughter. His fame eventually reached the Chinese emperor of the Former Qin dynasty in northern China. Evidently impressed, the emperor initiated efforts to get Kumarajiva to come to Chang’an, his capitol city in north central China. To accomplish this feat, he sent his general to conquer Kucha and obtain Kumarajiva. His general instead set up his own state, captured Kumarajiva and held him as a hostage. Imprisoned for many years in his 40s, Kumarajiva learned to speak, read and write the Chinese language.

Yao Xing became emperor of the Later Qin dynasty of northern China. A self-proclaimed Buddhist, he made repeated requests to the western warlords to free Kumarajiva and send him east. When his pleas were ignored, the emperor finally sent the imperial troops. After many battles, the warlords were defeated and Kumarajiva was finally transported east to Chang’an in 401 CE. He spent the remainder of his life translating Buddhist sutras into Chinese ideograms, as well as training translators.

Due to Kumarajiva’s prestige and Chinese translations combined with Yao Xing’s imperial patronage, it is said that 90% of the population of China became Buddhist at this time. As Encyclopedia Britannica reports, “it was largely owing to his efforts and influence that Buddhist religious and philosophical ideas were disseminated in China.”


Kumarajiva: Meaning over Literal Translations

Why did Kumarajiva’s translations of certain key sutras, such as the Lotus, the Diamond, and the Amitabha Sutras, exert such an influence on East Asian thought during his lifetime as well as over the centuries? For instance, Nichiren based his reform movement in 13th century Japan upon Kumarajiva’s translation of the Lotus Sutra. It is said that his translation style possesses a smoothness that conveys meaning rather than being a literal rendering. Perhaps because of his years of imprisonment where he learned Chinese, he was able to employ Confucian and Taoist terms that resonated with the Chinese soul, rather than sticking with strictly Indian conceptualizations.

Buddhist scholars have attacked Kumarajiva’s translations for excessive simplification and lacking precision. However his translations have remained popular, even though more precise translations were executed over the centuries. For instance, Kumarajiva’s version of the Diamond Sutra is still the most popular and quoted one, even though more ‘accurate’ modern renditions exist.

Scholarly attempts have also been made to justify Kumarajiva’s style. For instance, some point out that he was working with earlier texts or that modern translation techniques were unavailable. However, we feel that Kumarajiva’s personal wisdom enabled him to choose words that communicated essence, rather than accuracy. He was aiming for personal transformation rather than literal precision. In this sense, his translations were a merger of his own deep understanding combined with the wisdom contained in the original Buddhist texts. As such, the transformative power of his texts lie more in his wisdom than they do in his prodigious scholarly abilities.

In this light, Kumarajiva’s sutras initiated Buddhism in China, which eventually spread to the rest of Eastern Asia. Modern Buddhist commentators still speak with great reverence about Kumarajiva’s translations, saying that it was he that transmitted the profound truth behind Buddhism and that this profound truth converted the Chinese and Eastern Asia to Mahayana.

Except for its scope, this phenomenon is not unusual. For instance, Yoga, Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism have spread to Western civilization via a cultural filter. The pattern follows a similar course. The Eastern experience is translated into a Western context. This translation converts the original into something new, a form that is more palatable to the Western consciousness. There are many examples: Hesse’s Siddhartha, Joseph Campbell’s works, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the Inner Game of Tennis. Even though Iyengar, an Indian yogi, was instrumental in bringing yoga to the United States, it has become something else due to the cultural translation.

While influential, these popularizations of Eastern thought are frequently, if not always, criticized by scholars for corrupting the ‘real’ religion as practiced in Asia. However, these are not corruptions as much as cultural transformations. In similar fashion, a culture translates the philosophy of a religion’s founder to make it more palatable to the culture as a whole. The teaching of Jesus became Christianity with its many Protestant and Catholic manifestations. The teachings of Siddhartha became Buddhism with its many Theravada and Mahayana manifestations. Further both Buddhism and Christianity merged with local beliefs in each region to become even more individualized. Indeed the ability to merge and adapt to local indigenous customs was one reason that the two religions became global.

Similarly, one reason that Buddhism became so popular in China was due to Kumarajiva’s spectacular ability to translate Indian Buddhism into a Chinese cultural context. In other words, Kumarajiva’s enlightened take on Buddhism became Chinese Buddhism.

Ultimately Central Asia and Northern India, which had been spreading centers for Buddhism, especially Mahayana, converted to Islam. China became the new spreading center for Mahayana. As such China’s unique take on Buddhism became Mahayana.

From China, Mahayana spread in all directions: west to Tibet, east to Japan, north to Korea, and south to Southeast Asia. While Mahayana exerted a significant influence upon the cultures of eastern Southeast Asia, the cultures of the western mainland continued to practice Theravada. What is the difference between the two Buddhist traditions? Read the next chapter to find out.


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