The Newsletter 68 Summer 2014

The spread of Buddhism in Central Asia

Jonathan Silk

Nothing certain is known of the Buddha or his earliest communities. The reasons for this are numerous, beginning with the absence of writing in India until several centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime (setting aside the Indus Valley inscriptions, which may be writing, but if so, remain undeciphered). Whatever the Buddha may have preached, and whatever was said about him, therefore, was transmitted only orally for a long time.

The result is that we have a good idea of what certain communities believed about the Buddha, but we know nothing historical. In terms of his community, putatively originally nomadic, at some unspecified time it began to establish settled monastic institutions, but it was likewise hundreds of years before, what we assume to have been, the earliest monastic architecture in wood – long decayed into oblivion – gave way to edifices in stone. Therefore, even the earliest material remains of institutional Buddhism in India are forever lost to us. It is not until the time of the great emperor Aśoka in the early 3rd century BCE that we begin to obtain concrete information, much of which comes to us from the inscriptions the emperor had erected throughout the Indian subcontinent. These provide our first clues of the geographic spread of Buddhism, and indicate that already quite some time after the Buddha lived and taught in the North central Gangetic valley, his tradition had spread toward the Northwest, the area now known as Pakistan and Afghanistan, ancient Mathura and Gandhara. This region has also yielded our earliest written Buddhist manuscripts. While there is no question that Buddhist scriptures (sutras) were transmitted orally, originally and even after the innovation of writing, the states in which those oral texts existed were naturally entirely ephemeral. Even when we have texts, transmitted in Pali in Sri Lanka for instance, which may in origin have been older, these have been subject to generations of revision. The Gandhari Buddhist manuscripts, written on birch-bark, provide us with our oldest sources of Buddhist literature, and demonstrate the highly literate and sophisticated state of Buddhism in the Northwest of the subcontinent from around the first century BCE.

A relay race

Given the geography of Asia, the routes that Buddhism followed in its spread naturally followed the contours of the land, the paths already traced out since time immemorial by traders. These are commonly, although in some respects no doubt misleadingly, referred to as the Silk Routes. But of course, it was much more than silk that was traded. Moreover, refined silk is a Chinese product, and the implication that the trading routes invariably linked China with lands west is also misleading, for these routes were certainly, in terms of volume, much more interregional networks of short-distance trade. This has implications for the transmission of Buddhism too, since it is very much the exception rather than the rule that individuals would travel long distances. We should think rather of a relay race, with a baton being handed from one runner to another, each member of the team remaining within a relatively limited area.

Most of the attention paid to the spread of Buddhism across Central Asia concentrates on its progress north out of the Bamiyan valley, through mountain passes, then eastward, along either the northern or southern borders of the Taklamakan desert, through the oasis towns there, to the north through Kashgar, Kucha, and Turfan, to the south through Khotan, Niya, and Miran, joining in the now-famous Dunhuang oasis. However, Buddhism in fact also spread west, into Bactria, the Greek lands once conquered by Alexander, to places such as Termez along the Amu Darya (Oxus) river. We do not actually know quite how far Buddhism spread west, or why, when and where it stopped, and this remains an interesting topic for future research.

Multilingual literature of Buddhism

As Buddhism – its teachings, its scriptures, its practices, and ultimately even its monastic institutions – spread, one important issue was that of language. In what language would believers receive the Buddha’s word? There are two models: either scriptures were preserved in the ‘Church Language’, in the same fashion that Jews generally preserve the Bible in Hebrew no matter what language they speak, or the texts may be linguistically localized. In Buddhism’s trek across Central Asia, we find both of these models, and not infrequently, we find them together. That is, texts might be revered in Sanskrit, but as this medium remained foreign to Central Asian people, the texts were either translated, paraphrased or rewritten in a local language – often though with the preservation of a significant Sanskrit vocabulary, just as we do when we talk of the Buddha, his Dharma, of Zen and the like. This led to the production of a multilingual literature of Buddhism across Central Asia, in languages like Khotanese (Middle Iranian), Sogdian (another form of Iranian), Uigur (Turkish), Tangut (a Tibetan language, written in a variant of Chinese script), Tibetan, and of course, Chinese. The Chinese, as is well known, were relentless in their quest for Buddhist scriptures, and engaged, albeit entirely unsystematically, in the greatest translation project in world history, rendering huge numbers of often very arcane texts into an evolving form of written (‘classical’) Chinese.

At the same time, we must remember that Buddhism is far from only its scriptures, and in fact the most vivid and easily ‘accessible’ artefacts of Buddhism and its spread across Asia is found in the often remarkable physical objects produced: sculptures, wall-paintings, banners, and so on. The latter were often produced on silk, a product that the artists could only have obtained in China. But that does not mean necessarily that the objects themselves were produced even within the sphere of Chinese cultural, much less military and political, control. Rather, it is a tribute to the vitality of trade that such goods – luxury goods that they may have been – were widely available along these corridors.

The exhibition now on show at the Hermitage in Amsterdam highlights a variety of aspects of the presence of Buddhism along the so-called Silk Routes of Central Asia. Anyone with the slightest interest in this fascinating episode of human history is warmly invited to visit this stunning show.

Jonathan Silk is Professor of Buddhist Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies. (