Spread of Buddhism and Center of Buddhist Script Translation

2017-04-28 10:55:52 , Source : The Government Website of Shaanxi Province

Gilt Bronze Buddha of the Northern Wei State

Throughout the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties (220AD~589AD), Guanzhong Plain witnessed a great promotion of Buddhism under the reign of the leaders of the ethnic minorities. Located on the artery road connecting China and the regions in the west, Guanzhong Plain was the pathway or destination for all the Chinese monks traveling west to study Buddhism or foreign monks seeking to preach Buddhism in China. As a result, Buddhist activities flourished in this area, bringing the theoretical study of Buddhism to the highest level in China. A number of Buddhist theorists and organizers, represented by Dao’an, were religiously active in Chang’an during that period. They boosted the integration of Buddhism into the Chinese culture and shaped Chang’an into a universally recognized centre of Buddhist culture, surpassing the Yiluo Area (the basins of Yi and Luo River) and Dunhuang.

Dao’an, born in today’s Hebei Province, began to study Buddhism at the age of twelve under the mentorship of a senior monk from the Western Regions, and later became well-known for engaging in Buddhist activities in various places. In 380AD, he went to Chang’an at the invitation of Fu Jian (the third Emperor of the Former Qin, a state of the sixteen kingdoms in China) and stayed there for the rest of his life. During those years, he sent for many famous monks from the Middle East with the support of Fu Jian to translate a great deal of Buddhist scriptures with him. He was the first person in Chinese history to advocate the theories and basic guidelines for the translation of Buddhist scriptures in a systematic way, bringing Chang’an on the track towards the first large translation center in China. Moreover, he established a religious network by taking many monks as his disciples. Some of them were presiding temple affairs in Chang’an, some engaged in translation work; and some were sent to other places in China to preach Buddhism. The monks were all deployed by Dao’an. There was a popular saying at that time: “Monks from Chang’an can be found all over China.” It is a vivid description about the spread of Buddhism from Chang’an City.

In 399AD, a prominent monk named Fa Xian, also an outstanding traveler and translator, made a groundbreaking journey to the West to enlarge his knowledge about Buddhism. And Chang’an was the very starting point of his journey.

In 401AD, two years after Fa Xian finished his journey to the Western Regions, Kumārajīva arrived in the Later Qin State after traveling and lecturing for years, and settled down in Caotang Temple near Chang’an City. Kumārajīva was a highly-esteemed monk from the West and was renowned as one of the four greatest translators of Buddhist scriptures in the Chinese history. He had a Tenjiku (today’s India) origin, but was actually born in Qiuci (today’s Kuqa County of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China). At the age of 7, Kumārajīva began his lifelong learning of Buddhism under the influence of his parents. And after more than twenty years of study, he was honored as “the master of Tripitaka” for his thorough understanding of Sūtra Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and Abhidharma Pitaka. Two wars were started between the Former Qin State and Later Qin State for winning over Kumārajīva. During his stay in Chang’an City, Kumārajīva continued to give lectures, and meanwhile set up China’s first government-run translation institute in Caotang Temple where he and his 3,000 disciples translated and proofread 427 scrolls, 97 sets of Sanskrit classics. For the first time, the Chinese version of classics about Prajñā of Indian Mahāyāna was completed in Chinese, which had a significant impact on the development of Buddhism in China.

Kumārajīva himself translated 63 scrolls, 6 sets of the texts. This action established him as one of the greatest four translators in ancient China together with Sengzhao, a learned monk who was also Kumārajīva’s disciple in Chang’an City, as well as Xuanzang and Yi Jing of the Tang Dynasty. It is ensured to say that Kumārajīva is the trailblazer for the localization of Buddhism in China. Thanks to his efforts, the obscure Buddhist texts are presented in Chinese language that is easy for Chinese to understand and it embodies the traditional Chinese culture and ideology. So Buddhist scriptures become popular in China while more and more Chinese begin studying the scriptures. Besides, the translated texts are well preserved in China. Many original scriptures that contain valuable information about India and other countries in South Asia in ancient time have been lost in India or in countries of South Asia. Therefore, Buddhist scriptures in Chinese version are equally important for both the Chinese and foreign experts as well as scholars who study the history of South Asia. The Caotang Temple, set up by Kumārajīva, is the oldest one in Guanzhong Plain where relics from Kumārajīva, are kept.

After Fa Xian and Kumārajīva, there was a great exchange of famous monks between China and the West along the Silk Road. Shi Zhimeng, a native from Lintong County of Shaanxi Province, made an arduous journey from Chang’an City all the way to India. He went past Kashmir and Nepal, then returned to his hometown successfully. Buddhabhadra, a monk from Kapilavastu (today’s southern Nepal), traveled to Chang’an City and translated many Buddhist scriptures at the same time as Kumārajīva. Sengzhao, an important historical figure in Buddhist history, laid a theoretical foundation for China’s Mahāyāna with his religious and philosophical works.

Zhu Daosheng, the oldest among Kumārajīva’s four successful disciples, brought about a theory on Nivana which complemented the works by Sengzhao. Together they perfected Mahāyāna and exerted a profound influence on the development of Buddhism in China.

The spread and development of Buddhism in Chang’an City had a comprehensive impact on the development of the culture and art in Guanzhong Plain. The exchanges and integration between different cultures and arts can be easily traced from the large amount of Buddhist relics discovered in this area. For example, the statues of Buddha made in the later period of the Northern Wei Dynasty demonstrate quite a different artistic style from those made in the Northern Zhou Dynasty, though with only a few decades in between. The statues made in the Northern Wei Dynasty have long faces, curly hair, deep-set eyes and high noses; while the one made in the Northern Zhou Dynasty have square faces, large ears and are dressed decently. The distinctive features of the people from the South Asia, Central Asia and China are obviously different. This phenomenon tells us that Buddhism was already localized in China at that time. For the need of promoting Buddhism as well as making stone tablets and statues, the art of sculpture and calligraphy was greatly developed in this period of time. Various types of calligraphy like Weishu (a type of script resembling the features of both clerical and regular script), Kaishu (regular script) and Caoshu (cursive script) grew into maturity. Many stone-carving works from the Northern Dynasty are currently preserved on the Yaowang Mountain of Yaoxian County and in the Xi’an Beilin Museum. These art works are not only Buddhist heritages, but also classics of Weishu as well as masterpieces of sculpture.

Birthplace of the Sanlun School of Buddhism, Caotang Temple in Huxian County—The oldest remaining temple in Guanzhong Area, Shaanxi Province

The most famous tablets with enshrined statues are on the Yaowang Mountain. They were made from the Northern Wei Dynasty to the Sui and Tang dynasties, including the tablet with enshrined statues on the four sides. The tablet is called Wei Wenlang Tablet which was sculpted in the Northern Wei Dynasty (424AD). And the other tablet with inscriptions is called Yao Boduo Tablet carved in 496AD. The former one is a four-sided tablet with a careful design, elegant sculptures and forceful strokes. It is priceless because it’s 36 years earlier than the statues in the Five Tanyao Caves in Yungang Grottos, Shanxi Province which is known for “unparalleled magnificent and exceptional carvings”; 64 years earlier than the statues in the Longmen Grottos in Luoyang City. It is special because it was made before the extinguishment of Buddhism started by Emperor Taiwu. It was carved in the early Northern Wei Dynasty, but it includes the culture of both Buddhism and Daoism. It is the earliest of its kind and serves as an example of how Buddhism and Daoism were integrated into Chinese history. Yao Boduo Tablet is a four-sided tablet that shows Daoist wisdom with sculpture in simple and bold style as well as exquisite calligraphy. The text contains over 1,200 characters and serves as the earliest Daoist heritage with an explicit record of the year and name. It has the most Chinese characters and is rich in content, which makes it of great academic value for the study of the early development of Daoism in China. Other famous ones include Tablet of Qiu Chensheng made in 595AD; Tablet of Jiang Alu from the Northern Zhou Dynasty (559AD); and The tablet of Zhang Heren from the Sui Dynasty (595AD) etc. All of them provide valuable information for the study of the development of Buddhism and Daoism, the history of the ethnic minorities in northern part of China, and the ancient calligraphy, fine arts, dancing and so on. Another influential piece is Tablet of Master Zhang Sengmiao from the Northern Zhou Dynasty. It records in detail about the five generations of a Zhang family—a powerful family in Yizhou (a place in Guangxi Province) with characters in neat formation and strong yet elegant strokes, standing out as a real masterpiece.

Beibei is a general term for all the stone-carving works from the Northern Dynasty, among which the works from the Northern Wei and the Western Wei dynasties are the finest; hence they are also called Weibei. The subject matter falls into two main categories: inscriptions on the Buddhist tablets and the epitaphs. The characters on Weibei are strong, simple and natural in lines. And all the existing characters on Weibei are carved in regular script. After being standardized, the characters in regular script created in the Northern Wei and the Western Wei dynasties have become one of the most frequently used typefaces of Chinese characters.

The Shimen Cliff Inscription in Gudao Valley, Baohe River of southern Shaanxi Province is among the famous calligraphy works from the same period and can also be classified as Beibei. There are over 100 pieces of them carved on the cliff, among which Thirteen Masterpieces on Shimen Cliff is the best known. Some experts describe them as “craftily laid out on the rolling surface of the cliff”, “the calligraphy displays such a free spirit that when it gets lofty; the space between strokes can be wide enough for horses to pass; when it gets intensive, the space is so narrow that even air cannot go through. The characters are like fairies dancing in the air and beautiful birds flying in the wind” or “marvelous works in calligraphy” in Kang Youwei’s words. They are truly the essence of Beibei.

Two Chinese characters “gun xue”, as one of “Thirteen Masterpieces on Shimen Cliff”

In Shaanxi area, the sculptures from this period of time are quite small in quantity, but they still take up a large percentage in national collection. Moreover, many of them are first-class art pieces. A good example is the Daxia Stone Horse (Daxia is the name of a minority state which was established in 407AD in with Tongwan City as its capital) which was carved in 424AD and originally kept in Zhajia Village on the northern outskirt of Xi’an. It is large in size with a powerful and sophisticated shape. Although it carries the artistic style formed in the Han Dynasty which perfectly integrates the skills of round carving, bass relief and linear sculpturing, it intends to express the Huns’ pride for their victory. And therefore, it is also made to meet the aesthetic tastes of the Huns. It is considered as a symbol for the spiritual and cultural exchanges between the Huns and the Han People. Tongwan City, the only capital city of the Huns preserved in China, has a symbolic meaning for the communication, integration and infiltration between the pastureland culture and central Chinese culture. After 1,600 years of destruction caused by human beings and natural erosion, some parts of the original capital city are still there and discernible. It is indeed a miracle in the world.

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