The gods of northern Buddhism

their history, iconography and progressive evolution through the northern Buddhist countries

by Alice Getty | 1914 | 98,662 words

Indispensable reference for art historians, scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion. Wealth of detailed scholarly information on names, attributes, symbolism, pictorial representations of virtually every major and minor divinity in Mahayana pantheon, as worshipped in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. 185 black-and-white illustrat...

Part III - The Expansion Of Buddhism

The Southern Buddhism flourished in Ceylon, where the famous Buddhaghosha wrote in the fifth century some commentaries on the canon of the little vehicle. Then, spreading to Burma, it replaced there, about the sixth century and again in the fifteenth, the meagre remains of the mahayanist propaganda of the time of Asoka and Kanishka. The Mahayana, however, had a great triumph in other countries. In India itself the Mahayana and the Hmayana existed side by side for some long time, but both eventually were forced to give way, first by Brahmanism and then by the creed of Islam.

The fall of Buddhism began with the eighth century. By the thirteenth it was no longer a living force in Central India, but it continued at the foot of the Himalayas and in the east of the peninsula. In the fifteenth century it disappeared from Bengal, and it is to be met with to-day, disfigured under the form of Lamaism, only in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladak, and in some communities settled about its historic seats, such as Benares or Bodh'-Gaya. To-day attempts are being made to re-establish Buddhism in India. Unfortunate in its own country, the faith has succeeded better in less civilized districts or in those whose inhabitants were less enervated than the Hindus by religious musings and magical practices. From India primitive Buddhism and, subsequently, the Mahayana spread first to the neighbouring countries, to Eastern Bactria and Gandhara, which to-day are included in the Punjab, Kashmir, and Kafiristan.

Thence both forms of the creed penetrated into the lands of Khotan, Turfan, Kuchar, &c, in Chinese Turkestan. Flourishing there exceedingly from the second to the seventh century, mahayanist Buddhism persisted till the ninth, the age of the Mohammedan conquests. Numerous expeditions of recent times (those of Sir Aurel Stein, Grunwedel, von Le Coq, Pelliot, Klementz, Beresowski, Yamagushi, and others) have brought to light artistic and literary traces of the Buddhism of Turkestan. Such was the expansion of Buddhism in the regions to the north of India. As for its propagation towards the east, mahayanistic Hindu Buddhism penetrated into Burma, Siam, and Cambodia, where its presence is attested by numerous ruins (e.g. those of AngkorVat in Cambodia); but it proved unable to maintain itself there.

Later it was replaced by the hlnayanist form of the faith. Southwards the Mahayana spread to the Malay Archipelago. In the island of Java, where it was probably introduced in the fifth century and had reached its highest power towards the eighth (as is proved by the famous ruins of Boro-Budur, see later under Buddhist Art), it most likely lived on side by side with Brahmanism, but was destroyed by the Mohammedans. It was from Java that the Mahayana reached the island of Bali, where degenerate remains of it exist even to-day. There remain evidences of the existence of Buddhism in the east and south of Sumatra from the eighth to the twelfth centuries. [1]

The introduction of Buddhism into China dates from the first century A. D., although Chinese writers make vague mention of certain attempts, probably by scattered individuals, which would date back to the second century B. c. The positive and historical fact is that in a.d. 65 the Emperor Ming-Ti, of the Han dynasty, sent into Khotan a deputation of eighteen persons, who, accompanied by the Indian theologians Matanga and Gobharana, brought back in the year 67 a collection of Buddhist works. From among these some (notably 'the Sutra in forty-two paragraphs', a kind of selection, of thoughts made from the whole canon) were at once translated in the first Buddhist temple at Lo-yang (now Ho-nan-fu). Up to the fourth century the activity of the Buddhist missionaries in China (mostly foreigners) was limited to the translation of the sacred books; but from the reign of Yao-Shing (379-415) Buddhism was recognized as the state religion and the Chinese began to study it for themselves. Several pilgrims betook themselves to India and Ceylon to gain some idea of the faith in its own country.

Among the most famous must be cited the monks Fa-Hien, who travelled from 399 to 413, and Yuan-Chuang or Hiuen-T'sang, whose journey is dated between 629 and 645. Others, as, for instance, the layman SungYlin (in 518-521), visixed more especially the land of Gandhara, and others. We owe to them valuable information on India, and the state of Buddhism in general, from the fifth to the seventh centuries. On the other hand, there were during this period several embassies from India and Ceylon to the Emperor of China. The envoys of the Hindu princes congratulated the ruler of China on the success won by the New Law in 'the Middle Kingdom'. One of the great Hindu priests, Bodhidharma, succeeded (in 526) in converting to Buddhism the Emperor Wu-Ti of the Lyang dynasty, which then reigned in Southern China. For a time the Emperor became a monk, and Bodhidharma was made head of all the Buddhist monastics in China, and took up his residence in a famous convent near the present Kiu-Kiang on the Yang-Tze. In spite of these triumphs the Buddhists had to sustain a struggle against their enemies, the faithful of the Taoist creed and the disciples of Confucius. To a certain degree they were able to amalgamate with the former, but the latter aroused against them persecutions which were particularly bitter at the beginning of the eighth century and down to the tenth.

Thousands of convents were destroyed by violence, and hundreds of thousands of monks compelled to return to secular life. Since that date, the doctrine of Mahayana, slightly modified by borrowings from Taoism, has endured till the present time. Its followers, divided into ten sects, live peaceably in their convents, often quite close to Taoist monastics or Buddhist-Lamaites (see later). The latter, however, are not very numerous in China.

From China Buddhism passed into Korea. It was brought by a Chinese monk named Sun-Do, who carried 372 sacred images and books with him. The new faith grew very rapidly and attained its apogee from the tenth to the fourteenth century. In 1447 a Buddhist monk invented the present Korean alphabet called Un-mwn which is derived from the Sanskrit (M. Courant). At the end of the fourteenth century, with the fall of the dynasty which had protected it, Buddhism began to decline in Korea, and to-day only a few degraded remains of it are to be discovered there.

From Korea the spark of the Buddhistic faith passed to Japan, where the starting-point of the Buddhist propaganda was the introduction of an image of Buddha into the court of the Emperor by a monk sent by the king of Hyakusai, one of the states into which Korea was at this time (552) divided. At the end of the sixth century (c. 588) the new religion found a firm footing in the country despite the opposition of the Shintoists, who, after a vigorous struggle, ended by fusing themselves with the Buddhists, as the Taoists have done in China. An excellent example of this fusion is to be found in the sect of the Byobu, which was founded in the ninth century and is a veritable mixture of both creeds. At this period the centre of Japanese Buddhism was at the court of the Emperor. Certain princes, Shotoku Daishi (canonized in 621), for instance, even distinguished themselves as ardent propagandists of the new faith. As in Korea, Buddhism caused the invention of a national system of writing, the Kana (KataJcana and Hiragana), and introduced into the country the fine arts, the taste for letters, and the like.

Several of the sacred books in Sanskrit were brought thither, and there have since been discovered in Japan portions of the Buddhist canons in that tongue which elsewhere are unknown. It is a curious fact, however, that until quite lately the Buddhistic works in Chinese or Sanskrit have never been translated into Japanese (Chamberlain). At the time of its introduction into Japan, Sino-Korean Buddhism already comprised several divisions, which in the Land of the Rising Sun developed into six sects, the chief being: Tendai; Shingon (TrueWord); Jodo (Pure-Land) and Zen. To these must be added six others, of local origin, of which the most important are: the Byobu already mentioned; the Shin (true), called also Monto or IkJco; and the Nichiren or Hokke. Of these sects the last, founded in 1222, is considered the most fanatical. The Shin (a 'protestant' sect, so to speak) allows the marriage of priests; the sect of the Jodo introduces the idea of 'the western paradise'; that of the Zen shows artistic and literary tendencies. The establishment of Chinese Confucianism in the seventeenth century, and then, to some extent, the first steps taken to introduce Christianity, dealt Buddhism a blow.

The more cultivated minds became disinclined for it, and the revolution of 1867-8 brought about its almost complete downfall by declaring Shintoism the state religion. A series of measures taken by the government from 1871 to 1874 left Buddhism wholly disestablished and disendowed. Lately there has been a revival of Buddhistic studies in Japan, but it is rather towards scientific and evolutionary ideas or theosophical speculations that the neo-Buddhists turn their attention.

From China Buddhism penetrated into Annum, where it was considerably modified by the introduction of indigenous animistic elements and magical practices. This mutilated Buddhism numbers, however, only a few devotees. There is no ecclesiastical organization nor clergy. The â–  bonzes ', living apart or in small bodies in the convents, are also sorcerers, faith-healers and the like.

In Tibet and later in Mongolia the doctrine of the Mahayana developed into a new religion — Lamaism — of which we shall give a short account. The introduction of Buddhism into Tibet dates from the year 632, when the King Srongtsan-sgam-po (Sroft-btsan sgam-po), influenced by his two wives, one a Chinese princess, the other from Nepal, but both ardent Buddhists, ordered from India images, sacred books, and (most important of all) theologians. These last invented the Tibetan alphabet (derived from the Sanskrit), undertook the translation of the canonical writings, and applied themselves to a very active propaganda of the new Law. In the eighth century, the King Ti-sron De-tsan summoned to his court Hindu theologians whose names have remained famous, for instance Santa-Rak6ita (venerated to-day as AcaryaBodhisattva) and Padmasambhava (in Tibetan Guru Rin-po-c'e, 'Precious Teacher'), a native of Udyana, now Dardistan in the north-west of Kashmir.

The latter, a keen disciple of the school of Yogacarya, came to Tibet in 747, and succeeded in firmly implanting his doctrine, owing, it is true, to a compromise with the native religion of Bon-pa, whose demons he admitted to his pantheon. Two years later he laid the first stone of Tibet's first Buddhist monastery, that of Sam-yas (Bsam-yas). To him is due the introduction into the mahayanist doctrine of the division of men into two categories, Nan-pa ('insiders' or Buddhists) and Ci-pa ('outsiders' or non-Buddhists), as well as many other modifications which transformed the 'Mahayana' into the Church or sect known under the name of Bnih-ma-pa which adores Samantabhadra as the supreme divinity. Under the King Ral-pa-can (c. 899) was finished the translation of the sacred books, which were brought together into two collections, forming to this day the foundation of the Lamaist religion — the Kanjur (Ekah-hgyur) and the Tanjur (Bstan-hgyur) [see later]. But a terrible reaction was produced by the accession to the throne of the brother of Ral-pa-can, by name Langdarma (Glahdharma).

This monarch, the Julian the Apostate of Buddhism, won over by those who practised the religion of Bon-pa, inaugurated an era of persecution, burned monasteries, and slew or banished thousands of monks. The banished monks retired to the mountains in the east of the country, but avenged themselves at the end of three years by bringing about Langdarma's death. After this, the Buddhists again dared to raise their heads and the propaganda was recommenced. A century later the country was covered with convents and full of monks. The arrival of the great Hindu priest Atlsa in 1040 marked an epoch in the history of Tibetan Buddhism — the conclusion of the Nga-dar, or period of primitive Buddhism, and the beginning of the C'yirdar, or period of Lamaism. Atlsa founded the sect of Ka-dam-pa, less ascetic and more ritualistic than that of Rnin-morpa, and this sect became later (in 1417) the chief 'church' of the Lamaist creed, under the name of Ge-lug-pa (dge-lugs-pa, the 'sect of the righteous', or of 'the yellow caps'). The founder of the sect, the real reformer of Lamaism, was the famous Tson-k'a-pa (1356-1418), born in the country where stands to-day the convent of Kum-bum (Kham province in the north-east of Tibet). He had made it his chief object to re-establish discipline in the convents, where it was so slack that several monks were either married or openly kept mistresses. Moreover, he also introduced new dogmas of which the most important is the recognition of 'living Buddhas' or reborn lamas (Qubilghan in Mongolian), i.e. priests and monks in whose very flesh and bones are incarnated the famous saints and even the different deities.

This dogma gave an enormous power to the Lamaist clergy and found its expression towards the end of the fifteenth century in the creation of a GrandLama, and later in 1640 of a sole temporal and spiritual chief of all Tibet, bearing the title of the Dalai-Lama. Indeed the fifth Grand-Lama (the incarnation of Avalokitesvara), called Nag-wan Lo-zang (Nag-dbah blo-bzan), was honoured by the Mongol prince Gushi Khan with the title of King of Tibet, and was confirmed in this dignity by the Emperor of China in 1650. The institution of the Dalai-lama has lasted in Tibet up to the present time in spite of the wanderings undergone by the present bearer of the title after the Anglo-Tibetan war. Tsoh-k'a-pa founded the monastery of Galdan or Gah-dan, which became the centre for the reformed Buddhists (Ge-luk-pa) who assumed the yellow cap (Sha-ser in Tibetan), while the orthodox (Rnih-ma-pa) adhered to the red cap (in Tibetan SJia-mar). The former spread all over Tibet, among the Mongols, and in China (where they exist side by side with the mahayanist Buddhism); the latter are numerous in Nepal, in Sikkim, in Bhutan, and on the frontiers of China and Tibet.

Alongside of these two principal 'churches' exist some twelve Lamaist sects, but their importance is insignificant in comparison with that of 'the red caps' and 'the yellow'. Several among them are attached by origin to the orthodox 'reds'. Such is the sect of Sakya-pa, with its subordinate bodies, whose faithful adore principally the Bodhisattva Manjusri. Others, e. g. the Orgyen-pa, are descended from the Nin-ma-pa before the reformation. Finally, a certain number sprang from the sect founded in the twelfth century by Mar-pa and spread afterwards by the poetmonk Mi-la ras-pa (the cotton-clad) (1038-1122). The faithful of the Kargya-pa revere above all others Adi-Buddha. In essentials there is not any great difference of doctrine between all these sects of Lamaists. To-day they are distinguished only by their recognition or repudiation of certain saints, their veneration of certain divinities, the character of their practices, and the number of miracles wrought by their magicians.

At the time of the conquest of Tibet by the Mongols, a monk of the country, Saskya-Pandita, was summoned to Mongolia by the Khan Godan, or Qutan, the second son of Chinghis-khan. He arrived in 1246 in order to propagate Lamaism, and made the first attempt to invent a script for the Mongolian language, drawing his inspiration from the Uigur alphabet. He failed, however, in his experiment, and his nephew, the monk Matidhvaja ('the standard of wisdom'), better known under the name of P'ags-pa ('the famous', 'the saint') [in Mongol, qutuqtu], invented 'the square script' (durbeljin usuk in Mongol.) which was derived from the Tibetan alphabet. This, despite its phonetic value, had only a small success. It was replaced by the present Mongol script, which is only a modified form of the Uigur script proposed several years before by Saskya-Pandita. It was perfected by the Lama Cojqu ojer (in Mongolian, Chos-kyi-hod-zer in Tibetan) in the reign of Kuluk-khan (1308-11).

P'ags-pa converted to Buddhism the famous Khubilai-khan (Qubilai-qaghan) (126091), who became one of its most ardent propagators. But, notwithstanding the protection of the emperors, Buddhism did not make any great progress in either China or Mongolia, and even suffered a temporary eclipse after the fall of the Mongolian dynasty of the Yuen (1368). In Mongolia the people returned to their beloved Shamanist beliefs, and the monks fell very far away from the rules of the discipline. Buddhism was, so to speak, re-introduced in Mongolia two centuries later, in 1577, under the form of the sect of Ge-luk-pa {see above), by the saint {Qutuqtu) Sodnam-jamju (Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho), who, having been proclaimed Dalai-Lama by Altan-khan, chief of the Tumet Mongols and king of Tibet, came to Mongolia, where he laid down the rules for monastics, did away with the sacrifice of animals at funerals, and performed such services for Buddhism, that by the Mongols he is considered their first national saint.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century the Mongol princes had as much influence with the Dalai-Lamas as had the emperors of China, and from 1602 we find one of the descendants of Altan holding the throne of the Grand-Lama under the name of Dalai-Erden. He it was who in 1 604 settled the qutuqtu Maydari in the convent of Urga on the banks of the river Tola The successors of this personage, who are held to be qubilghan (reincarnations) of one of the pupils of Sakya-muni, are among the most powerful members of the Lamaist clergy. It was the last of these incarnations, the Bogdo-Gegen ('shining excellence') or Je-btsun dam-pa ('holy chief), who lately (in 1912) proclaimed himself at Urga king of an independent Mongolia.

Towards 1625 Lamaism was introduced among the Kalmuks by Boibeghusbaghatur, chief of the Khoshot (qosot) tribe. Later it spread among the other princes, nobles, and landholders. Finally, towards the end of the eighteenth century all the Kalmuk race, or Olot, from Lake Kuku-Nor to the banks of the Volga and the Don, • had become Buddhist. As to the third branch of 'the Mongols, the Buriats, they were not affected by Buddhism before the middle of the eighteenth century, and a part of them remains Shamanist even at the present time.

Footnotes and references:


Verbeek, OudhedenvanJava,S' Grnvenhng,1891 — Groeneveldt, Notes on the Malay Archipelago; in Verhandelingen van het Bataviaaseh Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenscha2>pen, Batavia, t. 39,1877.

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