Buddhist Art and the Trade Routes
May 6, 2004 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Buddhist Art and the Trade Routes. [Flash, via plep.]
posted by homunculus (10 comments total)
One thing that impressed me was the extent and cosmopolitan character of the trade routes within Asia during the "Medieval" period. The first Christian missionary expeditions (the Syrian Nestorians) travelled along these routes in the early 7th and 8th centuries, eventually making their way via China and India to Japan, several centuries before the Jesuits arrived by sea. The Nestorians stayed for a couple hundred years in China, longer in India (when they arrived, the Portugeuese invaders wiped out the remaining descendents of the Nestorians as heretics). Christianity in China became translated as the Luminous Religion.

Nestorians were an ancient Eastern Roman Christian sect. Began to feel some heat when they were judged to be heretical so they tried expanding eastwards from the Roman Empire. Several historical developments and local tribal political shifts ensured highly developed trade routes for several generations.

One link with Buddhism is that the Nestorians coexisted reasonably well in China, even going so far as to develop some of their Christology in terms of the Chinese culture of the day, which led to some interesting theological developments and artwork. But eventually the Nestorians were undone because of their perceived similarity to Buddhism. The new Emperor Tang Wu Zong backed the Confucians and Daoists against the Buddhists. and like Henry 8th in England much later, used perceptions of their decadence to seize their lands and property. To the Emperor (and to many Chinese of the day), Christianity seemed like a weird offshoot of Buddhism so they suppressed the Nestorians as well. However, during its existence Nestorianism hybridized with Buddhism through the medium of a Shinto-funded emissary from Japan, Kukai, during the early 9th century to give birth to the syncretic Shingon Buddhism, still widely extant today, which posits a Messianic figure as a reedeemer of sins, the Maitreya/Miroku. Shingon Buddhism also fused ideas from Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, both of which along with Nestorian Christianity had active establishments within Xi'an.

One contribution of this influence of early Christianity on Asian art was the development of characteristic stones and steles fusing Chinese and Mediterranean Christianity in interesting ways. One such tablet from the great trade city of Xi'An bears an uncanny resemblance in its hybridism to similar contemporaneous stone crosses and monuments of Celtic Christianity:

The catchy well-titled A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Ta-Chin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom contains inscriptions in both Chinese and Syrian. It contains a stylized cross combined with serpents/dragons, calls God "Veritable Majesty" and references Genesis, the cross, and the baptism. It notably also uses many Judaic constructs, including the Jewish Sabbath, because of the Nestorian Church's close Middle Eastern affinities, as opposed to the more Westernized Roman and Orthodox Churches.

The inscription has an typically luxuriant Chinese literary take on an obvious Gnostic/John-influenced theology:
Behold the unchangeably true and invisible, who existed through all eternity without origin; the far-seeing perfect intelligence, whose mysterious existence is everlasting; operating on primordial substance he created the universe, being more excellent than all holy intelligences, inasmuch as he is the source of all that is honorable. This is our eternal true lord God, triune and mysterious in substance. He appointed the cross as the means for determining the four cardinal points, he moved the original spirit, and produced the two principles of nature; the somber void was changed, and heaven and earth were opened out; the sun and moon revolved, and day and night commenced; having perfected all inferior objects, he then made the first man; upon him he bestowed an excellent disposition, giving him in charge the government of all created beings; man, acting out the original principles of his nature, was pure and unostentatious; his unsullied and expansite mind was free from the least inordinate desire; until Satan introduced the seeds of falsehood, to deteriorate his purity of principle ... In the time of the accomplished Emperor Tai-tsung, the illustrious and magnificent founder of the dynasty, among the enlightened and holy men who arrived was the most-virtuous Olopun, from the country of Syria. Observing the azure clouds, he bore the true sacred books; beholding the direction of the winds, he braved difficulties and dangers. In the year of our Lord 635 he arrived at Chang-an; the Emperor sent his Prime Minister, Duke Fang Hiuen-ling; who, carrying the official staff to the west border, conducted his guest into the interior; the sacred books were translated in the imperial library, the sovereign investigated the subject in his private apartments; when becoming deeply impressed with the rectitude and truth of the religion, he gave special orders for its dissemination.
But they were capable of boiling it down to some less florid prose, coupled with the customary toadying...
The true Lord is without origin,
Profound, invisible, and unchangeable;
With power and capacity to perfect and transform,
He raised up the earth and established the heavens.

Divided in nature, he entered the world,
To save and to help without bounds;
The sun arose, and darkness was dispelled,
All bearing witness to his true original.
When the pure, bright Illustrious Religion
Was introduced to our Tang Dynasty,
The Scriptures were translated, and churches built,
And the vessel set in motion for the living and the dead;
Every kind of blessing was then obtained,
And all the kingdoms enjoyed a state of peace.
When Kien-chung succeeded to the throne,
He began the cultivation of intelligent virtue;
His military vigilance extended to the four seas,
And his accomplished purity influenced all lands.

His light penetrated the secrecies of men,
And to him the diversities of objects were seen as in a mirror;
He shed a vivifying infiuence through the whole realm of nature,
And all outer nations took him for example.

The true doctrine, how expansive!
Its responses are minute;
How difficult to name it!
To elucidate the three in one.
posted by meehawl at 3:43 PM on May 6, 2004

Wow, thanks for all that, meehawl!
posted by homunculus at 4:32 PM on May 6, 2004

"Through contact with Christian missionaries, many Buddhists were attracted to Christianity. To counteract this, Buddhism was forced to invent a redeemer and to prophesy the second coming of Buddha under this Japanese title, "Meitreya"."

Does 'Maitreya' make no appearance in the Theravadan scriptures, as the Buddha to come?
posted by Blue Stone at 4:49 PM on May 6, 2004

Wow, talk about the best of the internet! Homunculous & Meehawl, this is fantastic. I would write more, but I'm going back to this site. Absolutely amazing.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:14 PM on May 6, 2004

Does 'Maitreya' make no appearance in the Theravadan scriptures, as the Buddha to come?

Of course, the idea of the bodhisattvas in Hinduism predates Siddhartha Gautama, as the concept of the self-realized or mysitcally appointed messiah god-man figure is a common theme in Indo-European cultures. There has doubtless been much cross-fertilization over the ages. How else to explain the undoubted similarities between Osiris, Mithra, and Jesus? It's interesting to note that Guatama Buddha himself has been absorbed at various times into the Christian theology as a saint, most notably as Josaphat.

Of course, what varies more is the degree to which cultures emphasize or de-emphasize the messianic angles of their theology in accordance with local expectations and historical receptivity.

In 9th century Xi'An, Buddhism was competing for converts with Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, all of which emphasised a dualistic struggle and a redeemer. It comes then as no surprise that the expression of local Buddhist theology leaned heavily on the Theravadan writings and impetus. And that Kobo-Daishi should have absorbed such definite messianic theories from his time spent in Xi'An.
posted by meehawl at 6:21 PM on May 6, 2004

Of course, the idea of the bodhisattvas in Hinduism predates Siddhartha Gautama,

This is a surprise to me. I thought that the Theraveda held to the ideal of the arahant rather than the bodhisattva, and that Maitreya and the other deific bodhisattvas were distinctively Mahayana figures.

a common theme in Indo-European cultures.

Here's another thread about common Indo-European themes.
posted by homunculus at 8:23 PM on May 6, 2004

Maitreya and the other deific bodhisattvas were distinctively Mahayana figures

You are probably more correct - I am being too loose with my Sanskrit terms...
posted by meehawl at 9:02 PM on May 6, 2004

Thanks for all that info, meehawl. :)
posted by plep at 1:59 AM on May 7, 2004

Wow, so much great information! Thanks homunculus and meehawl.
posted by lobakgo at 10:26 AM on May 7, 2004

Belated thanks! This is excellent.
posted by carter at 8:33 AM on May 9, 2004

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