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BUDDHISM AND ITS SPREAD ALONG THE SILK ROAD

“There one sees a structure of an elevation prodigious in height; it is supported by gigantic pillars and covered with paintings of all the birds created by God. In the interior are two immense idols carved in the rock and rising from the foot of the mountains to the summit... One cannot see anything comparable to these statues in the whole world.”

–Yakut describing Bamiyan in his geographical dictionary in 1218

Besides silk, paper and other goods, the Silk Road carried another commodity which was equally significant in world history. Along with trade and migration, the world’s oldest international highway was the vehicle which spread Buddhism through Central Asia. The transmission was launched from northwestern India to modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan), China, Korea and Japan. Buddhism not only affected the lives and cultures on those regions but also left us with a world of wonders in arts and literature.

The Buddhism that first became popular in China during the Han dynasty was deeply colored with magical practices, making it compatible with popular Chinese Taoism (a combination of folk beliefs and practices and philosophy). Instead of the doctrine of no-self, early Chinese Buddhist taught the indestructibility of the soul. Nirvana became a kind of immorality. They also taught the theory of karma, the values of charity and compassion, and the need to suppress passions. Until the end of the Han dynasty there was a virtual symbiosis between Taoism and Buddhism and a common propagation of the means for attaining immortality through various ascetic practices. It was widely believed that Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, had been reborn in India as Buddha. Many Chinese emperors worshiped Lao-tzu and the Buddha on the same alter. The first transplantations of Buddhist sutras into Chinese – namely those dealing with such topics as breath control and mystical concentration – utilized a Taoist vocabulary to make Buddhist faith intelligible to the Chinese.