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As India and China rattle sabres across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and other parts of the Himalayan border, what’s forgotten is the long history of exchange of ideas between the two nations. Between roughly the third and ninth centuries AD, the two cultural behemoths of Asia had developed an intense fascination for each other through Buddhism. It’s a hidden history of sorts but given that the contact continues to influence living traditions, it’s a history that’s hidden in plain sight.

In the 11th century AD, a disapproving court official of the Chinese Song dynasty called Sima Guang wrote in his treatise Comprehensive Mirror For Aiding Government: "Jaishen day of the ninth month: the festival of Heavenly Pacification—His Highness set up a mandala in the Triple Hall taking the palace women to act as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and the North Gate military elite to act as Vajrapanis and divine kings. He summoned the Grand Ministers to prostrate to and circumambulate them."

The official was referring to a tantric Buddhist rite of empowerment enacted by the T’ang emperor Suzong on his birthday in the year 761, under the guidance of his Indian chief minister and spiritual preceptor Vajrabodhi. The 11th century courtier, a traditional Confucianist, was aghast at the embrace of a "foreign" religion and its "barbarian" representative at the highest levels in T’ang China.

The eighth century was a time when Chinese imperial engagement with India and political tantric Buddhism reached its zenith, under the guidance of three famous Indian preceptors: Subhakarasimha of Odisha, Vajrabodhi of Kanchipuram and Amoghavajra.

Amoghavajra, who came from a mercantile family trading along the Silk Route, reportedly went to the T’ang capital of X’ian as a child with his uncle. There he became the disciple of Vajrabodhi and was ordained by him. Amoghavajra was also initiated into the teachings of the Yoga Tantras by Vajrabodhi. Along with his Chinese fellow disciple Yixing, Amoghavajra became the famous translator of such early tantric Sanskrit texts as Sarvatathagata Tattva Sangraha.

A T'ang-era, early 8th century AD gilt bronze sculpture of Buddha Vairochana, the presiding Buddha of tantric texts like Sarvatathagata Tattva Sangraha. (Photo: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
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A T'ang-era, early 8th century AD gilt bronze sculpture of Buddha Vairochana, the presiding Buddha of tantric texts like Sarvatathagata Tattva Sangraha. (Photo: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vajrabodhi, in turn, had arrived at X’ian a generation earlier, sailing along the maritime trading route around the Malay peninsula from Kanchipuram. Vajrabodhi was ordained as a monk and initiated into Mahayana and tantric Buddhism in Nalanda. The product of a cosmopolitan and internationalist milieu—the Pallavas maintained close trading and political contacts with South-East Asian kingdoms and the Lambakanna dynasty of Sri Lanka—Vajrabodhi travelled extensively in the “south seas" of the Malay peninsula.

Both Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra are credited with a revival of Mahayana Buddhism in the peninsula, as well as in Sri Lanka. The later Khmer and Javanese kingdoms that produced such magnificent Buddhist monuments as Chandi Mendut and Borobudur were profoundly influenced by their teachings.

From the third century, scores of Indian and Chinese monks travelled between the two cultural regions, trading in manuscripts and ideas. Even as Indian Buddhists travelled across land and maritime trading routes with Sanskrit Mahayana texts and new ideas to the Han and Sui dynasties, Chinese monks made the long overland pilgrimage to places associated with the Buddha. As he set sail for the long journey to Magadha ( present-day Bihar) from X’ian with some trepidation in the year 671, monk I’Tsing comforted himself by dreaming of the "Holy Land". "I would sometimes direct my thoughts far away to the Mrigadava (Deer Park in Sarnath); at other times I would repose in the hope of reaching the Kukkutapadagiri (the historical Buddhist hill in Gaya)," he wrote in his famous travelogue, A Record Of The Buddhist Religion As Practised In India And The Malay Archipelago.

Deeply spiritual though such pilgrimages were, they were also part of international diplomacy. While Vajrabodhi was sent by the Pallavas to the T’ang dynasty, a little over 80 years earlier, Hsüan-tsang had travelled across Central Asia to India without the sanction of the T’ang court. In fact, he persuaded king Harshavardhana of Kannauj’s Pushyabhuti dynasty to send an emissary to the T’angs to establish diplomatic relations. And despite the physical distance, the T’ang dynasty kept a strikingly accurate record of Indian politics. Scholar Ronald M. Davidson, in his book Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History Of The Tantric Movement, writes, “...the T’ang dynasty’s imperial annals, Chiu T’ang shu, noted that the period 617-27 was one of profound disturbances in India, with ceaseless bloodshed." This was in reference to the multi-pronged conflict in South Asia at the time, between the Pushyabhutis of Kannauj, the Gaudas of Bengal, the Varmanas of Kamarupa, the Chalukyas of Vatapi, the Pallavas of Kanchi and their many vassal kingdoms.

In fact, it is from this medieval political theory of “samanta (vassal) feudalism", as Davidson has termed it, that much of the imagery of early tantric Buddhism arose. The Buddha as the chakravartin or emperor, holding the vajra, as a sceptre, sitting in the middle of a concentric mandala of Bodhisattvas, directional deities, yakshas and other lesser divinities, reflected the political setup of India, a complex system of regional suzerains with their vassals, attacking each other in a never-ending conflict of attrition. The political situation in central, western and South-East Asia was much the same.

New dynasties across South and South-East Asia, while indulging in political adventurism, would adopt a state religion like Shaivism, Vaishnavism or Buddhism in an attempt to derive legitimacy. Buddhist monks and Brahminical priests would, in turn, try to gain royal patronage and political influence.

An 11th-12th century AD painting of the wrathful Buddhist guardian deity Achala, trampling on Ganesha. Probably from eastern India. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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An 11th-12th century AD painting of the wrathful Buddhist guardian deity Achala, trampling on Ganesha. Probably from eastern India. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no surprise then that both Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra would guide the T’ang dynasty over almost a century—spiritually, politically, and when necessary, militarily. Tales of Amoghavajra’s mastery of spells arose in his own lifetime. Reeling from a major rebellion, while under attack from the military might of Tibet under king Trisong Detsen and Arab forces in Central Asia, the T’ang dynasty just about survived in the mid-eighth century. This survival was aided in part by Amoghavajra performing magical rites using the mantra of Achala, a violent guardian deity of certain early Buddhist tantras. It is believed that this rendered opposing armies immobile and killed military commanders. In the year 767, a rebellious chieftain of the T’ang emperor Daizong was reportedly magically decapitated by Amoghavajra.

Esoteric Buddhist monks were the flavour of emperor Daizong. According to a Song dynasty-era history, “Whenever the Tibetans invaded, (Daizong) would certainly command the monks to recite the Scripture for Humane Kings in order to resist and capture the invader." When he died, Amoghavajra, who is called Bukong in China, was cremated with great veneration and honour, and his place in Chinese history persists to this day. The Manjushri pavilion (Jinge Si or Golden Monastery) at the world heritage Buddhist site of Wutai Shan is the most prominent Chinese monument dedicated in his memory.

Meanwhile, Indian kings, like Subhakaradeva I of the Buddhist Bhaumakara dynasty of Odisha, continued to send embassies to the T’ang in the form of new Indian Buddhist texts and expert monks. However, China would see a backlash against Indian Buddhist influences, with violent suppressions in the ninth and 10th centuries, in favour of more "indigenous" religions like Daoism and Confucianism. Although Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra’s Buddhism continues to survive and flourish in mainstream Chinese culture to the present day, as well as in Japan (as Shingon Buddhism), the high-water mark of T’ang Chinese fascination with India was never to be repeated. Indian Buddhist texts and art styles would continue to influence Chinese rulers like the Mongols, the Mings and the Manchus throughout the medieval era but it was now transmitted by Tibetan lamas as Tibetan Buddhism. Because, by the 14th century, Buddhism would lose out to the Brahminical religions politically in India, and disappear completely from the beloved Holy Land of I’Tsing.

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