Faiths were the spiritual products that were exchanged between different cultures on the Silk Road and followed the footprints of the Silk Road travelers to various areas of the Eurasia Continent. Though the spread of a faith was the collective effort of all categories of travelers, monks played their indispensable role.

Buddhism, with profound impact on Chinese culture, was China’s major import in this regard. It probably arrived in central China around the 1st century CE from Central Asia. In 68 CE, Emperor Mingdi of Eastern Han Dynasty had a dream where a vision of a golden figure appeared to him. The ministers told him it was probably the Buddha, the god of the West, that he had seen. The revelation prompted the Emperor to send a delegation to seek Buddhism. Three years later, the delegation returned from India with an image of Gautama Buddha, the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters and two eminent monks: Kāśyapamātanga and Dharmaratna. The next year, the emperor ordered the construction of White Horse Temple west of the capital Luoyang, to remember the white horse that carried back the sutras. Kāśyapamātanga and Dharmaratna were the first Buddhist monks that arrived in central China, and are credited for having initiated the spread of Buddhism in China. According to historical records, Kāśyapamātanga translated the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters.

The earliest Buddhist monks were viewed by the Chinese as mere distinguished guests from India, and the White Horse Temple a research institute for Buddhism, with limited influence. However, the corrupt reign of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave rise to the massive, statewide peasant uprising of the Yellow Turbans (黄巾起义 huangjin qiyi), and since then, China stepped into a long period of disunity – the tumultuous four hundred years until the rise of the Tang Empire. Buddhist religion found its hotbed in such a general historical context, and saw rapid and wide spread in China in the couple of centuries to come. More Indian monks traveled via the Silk Road to central China regions. The first Chinese native monks appeared in 250 CE, when Indian monk Tankokyara set up an ordination platform at White Horse Temple and converted a group of Chinese by a tonsure ceremony.

Buddhism was born in India, and the bulk of its classics were written in Sanskrit. Translation, then, became an arduous and challenging project for the early monks. Kumārajīva (344~413 CE), a monk with wide acclaim for his missionary work in Central Asia, was “invited” (through a war of conquest against Kucha) by the Chinese Emperor to Chang’an, where he was to distinguish himself in the history of Chinese Buddhism by his translation of a number of important sutras, among which are the Diamond Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa, etc. Kumarajiva revolutionized Chinese Buddhism, making available the Chinese versions of the main Mahayana classics. His translation overcame the previous "ge-yi" (格意, concept-matching) system of translation through use of Daoist and Confucian terms. His translation style was distinctive, possessing a flowing smoothness that reflects his prioritization on conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering. Three sects of Buddhism are believed to have been based on Kumārajīva’s translations: Madhyamika, Tiantai, and Satyasiddhi.

Other influential translators were Paramártha (499~569 CE), Xuanzang (602~664 CE), and Yijing (635~713 CE), who are, collectively along with Kumārajīva, hailed as the four greatest translators of Chinese Buddhism.

The Indian monk best known to the Chinese public is Bodhidharma. He sailed to China via the Maritime Silk Road during the reign of Emperor Wudi of Southern Liang Dynasty (502~557 CE). His influence on Chinese Buddhism can never be overstated, for he initiated the Chan sect Buddhism which was most comfortably absorbed into Chinese indigenous culture by intellectuals of the succeeding centuries. The Shaolin Temple, where Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating, is the source temple of Chinese Chan sect Buddhism, and is almost a household word in China.

While foreign monks trod the Silk Road to spread Buddhism to inland China, the Chinese monks sought truth actively by pilgrimage journeys to India, too. Xuanzang, the abovementioned translator with equal fame to Kumārajīva, is another household name to the Chinese public. The Tang Dynasty monk departed from the Tang capital Chang’an in 629 and crossed the Tarim basin via the northern route of the Oasis Silk Road, Turpan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over Hindu Kush to India. He returned in 625 with large bundles of Buddhist sutras which he had collected in India and would spend the remainder of his life translating. A description of the lands on his travel route was composed by him at the request of Emperor Taizong, which is still of great value to historical, archeological studies even today. Xuanzang’s travel stories were fictionalized into fantastic folk legends by later generations, the best known being Journey to the West.

Xuanzang was not the first Chinese monk seeking truth from India. Over two centuries before him, Fa Hien (334~422 CE), another Chinese Buddhist monk traveled to India in 405, where he stayed for around ten years, seeking complete copies of Vinayapitaka and compiling information regarding Buddhism and the life of its founder, and then went to Ceylon where he copied many sacred texts. Record of the Buddhistic Kingdoms is the book of his travel, filled with accounts of early Buddhism, and the geography and history of numerous countries along the Silk Roads at the turn of the 5th century CE. Fa Hien made it to India through the southern routes of the Oasis Silk Road, and returned to China by the sea. Therefore, his work is also the first complete record of the overland & maritime communication lines between China and India, of great value to the studies of South Asian geographical & navigation history.

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