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Buddhism: Buddhism in Central Asia


Central Asia is not a clearly defined term. In a narrower sense, it refers to the region previously known as Eastern or Chinese Turkestan, as the Tarim Basin, or as Sinkiang (Xinjiang), lying between the towns of Kashgar in the west and Dunhuang in the east. In a wider sense, it also refers to the former Soviet republics, now independent states, of Middle Asia, generally known as Western Turkestan, and to the whole Tibetan plateau in the south. Here it is meant to include Eastern Turkestan, i.e., the present Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China, and those parts of the Middle Asian republics where traces of Buddhism have been found.

During the period of its maximum spread, Buddhism became a major religious and cultural factor not only in India and in East and Southeast Asia, but also in Afghanistan and in large parts of Central Asia. In the northwest, it reached Merv in present-day Turkmenia, Termez at the southern border of Uzbekistan, and Qurġan-tübä in southern Tadjikistan. Although written sources and excavations attest to its presence even farther north, for instance in Samarkand, in Quvā near Fergana, and in Aq Bešim near Frunse, in these areas it did not gain the popularity it did south of the Amu Darya (Oxus). Following old trade routes, monks and merchants brought Buddhism from the northwest of the Indian subcontinent into Central Asia and farther east to China. In all those regions, it was the vigorous spread of Islam that finally replaced the various other religious movements, to the extent that Buddhism disappeared from western Central Asia before the turn of the millennium and was continually driven back in the east. From about the fifteenth century, followers of Buddhism were no longer found, and therefore a description of its history is now based on archaeological remains and on such historical sources as, for instance, the travel accounts of the Chinese Indian pilgrims Faxian (fifth century), Xuanzang (seventh century), Huizhao (eighth century), and others. These written sources are few, and it is mainly such impressive monuments as the two stone statues of the standing Buddha in Bāmiyān, formerly 174 and 115 feet (53 and 35 meters) high (but in 2001 destroyed by the Taliban), or large cave monasteries like Dunhuang with its overwhelming wealth of fascinating wall paintings, which bear witness to the former splendor and importance of Buddhism, as no traces of it are preserved in the present-day cultures of the area.

Although an ever-growing number of publications, mainly on the Buddhist art and literature of the region, continues to appear, the history of Buddhism in Central Asia remains fragmentary. One of the basic difficulties is that Central Asia never formed a political unity during the first millennium ce. A multitude of ethnic groups faced frequent changes of the ruling powers, and powerful neighbors like the Sassanids in the west, the Tibetans in the south, or the Chinese in the east continually sought to establish political and economical influence, often by force and military campaigns. Nomadic tribes from the northern steppes often invaded the area, sometimes causing considerable destruction, as in the case of the White Huns (Hephtalites) on their way through Afghanistan to India, but sometimes becoming sedentary and adopting the local cultures, as in the case of the Uighurs. Powerful empires like those of the Kushans, Tang-dynasty China, or imperial Tibet never succeeded in bringing the whole of Central Asia under their sway. Buddhism offered one of the few uniting elements of the area. However, Buddhism itself did not appear as a uniform phenomenon, but was spread in various forms and school traditions and thereby contributed to the diversity of the whole picture. The situation of the various cultures, especially in the oasis towns along the Silk Road, must have been very complex and is probably best characterized by the modern term "multicultural." Members of very different ethnic groups and cultures-Chinese, Indians, Sakas, Sogdians, Tibetans, Tocharians, Uighurs, to name only the most important ones-lived together and followed various different religious traditions, including Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, while the ethnic borders were never identical with linguistic, religious, or political borders.


Buddhism reached Central Asia from the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. Its spread into Afghanistan must have begun not later than the third century bce when the Indian dynasty of the Mauryas, and especially their most important ruler Aśoka (c. 268233 bce), succeeded in uniting major parts of India and advancing the northwestern border of their empire up to Kabul and Kandahār in Afghanistan. This extension is well documented by the famous stone inscriptions placed by Aśoka in various parts of the empire. Such inscriptions are preserved in northwest Pakistan (in Shābāzgahī and Mānsehrā) and in Afghanistan (in Kandahār, in Lampāka, and at the river Laghmān). The inscriptions suggest that Aśoka supported the various religious movements in his empire, but especially Buddhism, to which he appears to have been personally inclined. Since in Buddhist scripture he is depicted as one of the foremost supporters of the faith, it may be concluded that the development of Buddhism, from an ascetic movement mainly situated in northeast India to a universal religion, accelerated during his reign and that the political stability achieved by the Mauryas favored its spread, especially along the trade routes.

Apart from these inscriptions, very few traces of the presence and spread of Buddhism during that period remain. Well-known is the Dharmarājika stupa in the old town of Taxila, a large excavation in Pakistan; the stupa is dated to the time of the Mauryas. This situation changed around the beginning of the common era, when another great empire arose in the northwest and guaranteed an enduring period of peace and stability. In the first century ce, the dynasty of the Kushans united the northwest and established an empire that included Afghanistan and reached from Bactria into northern India and Eastern Turkestan. Trade routes became safe and allowed long-distance trade that facilitated the exchange and spread of both material and non-material cultural goods. Like Aśoka before him, Kanika the Great (first half of the second century ce), the most important ruler of the Kushan dynasty, is described as a devoted supporter of Buddhism in Buddhist sources. No external indications are preserved that could confirm the Buddhist picture of Kanika, as the inscriptions do for Aśoka, but he appears to have built stupas and a monastery near Kāpiśī (Begram). Although the Kushan rulers also supported other religions, the tradition connected with Kanika suggests that Buddhism flourished under the Kushans. Within the varied pantheon depicted on his coins, there is also the figure of a standing Buddha. As far as datable archaeological remains are preserved, only very few monasteries seem to go back to this period, which hints at the possibility that institutionalized Buddhism was less widespread than is often supposed.


As an extremely important innovation, the representation of the Buddha in human form was created during the reign of the Kushan dynasty. Previously, the Buddha had been represented in art only aniconically, for instance by a wheel to symbolize the first teaching. It is still a matter of debate whether the first Buddha figure was created in Mathurā in northern India or in Gandhara, a region in northern Pakistan, but many scholars now believe that the step from aniconic to iconic representation was taken in Gandhara. By fusing Greco-Roman forms with Indian contents, artists in Gandhara created a distinctive style that influenced Indian art and became the model for Buddhist art in Central and East Asia. It is well known that Apollo served as a model for the Buddha, as did Herakles for Vajrapāi, a non-human attendant of the Buddha, or Tyche/Fortuna for the goddess Hāritī. Greeks had been living in Bactria and Gandhara since the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great in the fourth century, and the influence of Hellenistic, and then Roman, culture continued until the first centuries ce.

Gandharan art attests to the importance of the cult of bodhisattvas, probably Siddhārtha (the Buddha before his enlightenment) and definitely Maitreya (the future Buddha), but despite an overwhelming richness of surviving sculptures, there are very few that can be indisputably connected with Mahāyāna Buddhism and its specific Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The Kushans

The Kushans adopted Bactrian, a Middle Iranian language, for their coins and for inscriptions, but they also used Gandhari, a Middle Indian language written in Kharohī script, for administrative purposes. Kushan influence extended well into Central Asia and administrative documents written in Gandhari and dating from the period between 200 and 320 have been found in the kingdom of Shan-shan (Kroraina), which stretched from the Niya River, a short distance east of Khotan as far as Lob Nor. At the same time, Gandhari was the language used by the Dharmaguptakas, a school of mainstream Buddhism. Translations of scriptures of this school into Chinese are known from the beginning of the fifth century, but until recently only one text was known in its Indian original, the famous manuscript of the Dharmapada, found more than a hundred years ago in Khotan and probably to be dated to the second or third century ce. Since the 1990s, however, a steadily growing number of Dharmaguptaka texts has been found in Afghanistan. They attest to the importance of this school in the Kushan Empire, and they support the thesis that the Dharmaguptakas were among the first to bring Buddhism to the south and east of Central Asia.

Another school of mainstream Buddhism apparently flourishing in the Kushan Empire was that of the Sarvāstivādins. Originally, they also must have used a Middle Indian language, but they adopted Sanskrit for their commentaries and their poetical literature and then gradually sanskritized their canonical literature. They spread mainly along the northern route of the Silk Road, and the cave monasteries in the oases of Kučā, Karašahr and Turfan became strongholds of the Sarvāstivāda. It is difficult, if not impossible, to date this process. An Shigao, the first known translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese active around 140 ce, apparently used Sarvāstivāda versions, but he came from Parthia in the west of Central Asia. A large amount of manuscript fragments has been found in the monasteries along the northern route, and the oldest of them date to the second century ce, but these are palm-leaf manuscripts imported from India. The oldest Sanskrit manuscripts actually written in Central Asia probably date to the fifth century; they are written on paper, a material introduced from China, but not used in India and Afghanistan at that time.

Forms of Buddhism

The spread and distribution of various forms of Buddhism in Central Asia has to be reconstructed from the manuscript finds and the reports of the Chinese pilgrims to India. The evidence suggests a clear divide between Buddhism on the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road. Between Kashgar at the western end of the Tarim Basin and Anxi at its eastern end the Silk Road divided into two routes, which followed the mountain ranges from oasis to oasis and skirted the terrible Takla Makan desert. The northern route followed the Tianshan and connected the oases of Tumšuq, Kučā, Karašahr, Turfan, and Hami, while the southern route led along the Kunlun to Khotan and then on to Niya, Mirān, and Dunhuang. Most of the monks in the monasteries on the northern route followed mainstream Buddhism in the form of the Sarvāstivāda school. The overwhelming majority of Sanskrit manuscripts found there belongs to the canonical and postcanonical literature of the Sarvāstivādins. The work represented by the largest number of manuscripts is the Udānavarga, a very popular collection of verses allegedly spoken by the Buddha. Next comes the Prātimokasūtra, the confession formulary of the Buddhist monks. The number and order of its rules are school-specific, and the frequency of this text serves as one of the main arguments for determining the school affiliation of the monasteries along the northern route. Fragments of the corresponding text for the Buddhist nuns point to the possible existence of nunneries, but the fragments are very few and none of the spots where they were found have been proven to be convents for nuns. Besides works from the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya (the collection of rules of the Buddhist order), a few from that of the Mūlasarvāstivādins have also been found, and altogether three texts from the canon of the Dharmaguptakas. Interestingly enough, the latter are no longer written in Gandhari, but in Sanskrit, apparently under the influence of the Sarvāstivādins. A certain number of fragments of Mahāyānasūtras has come to light, but they belong to no more than thirty manuscripts, most of which have been found in the oases of Šorčuq and Toyoq farther east.

Khotan, on the contrary, must have been an a leading center of Mahāyāna Buddhism, since nearly all of the Sanskrit texts found there belong to sūtras of the "Great Vehicle." The precise date of Buddhism's initial establishment in Khotan is unknown. According to Chinese sources, there was a Buddhist community in Khotan by the second century ce. Zhu Shixing, who studied Prajñāpāramitā literature in the Chinese city of Luoyang in the third century, went west in search of the Pañcaviśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, which he found in Khotan. Mokala, who translated this work into Chinese in 291, was a Khotanese, and another Khotanese, Gītamitra, took a copy of the same text with him to the Chinese capital Chang'an in 296. Thus, Khotan was already a well-established center of Mahāyāna studies in the third century. None of the manuscripts found in Khotan, however, belongs to this early period. Most of them date from the seventh to the tenth centuries, and they contain either Sanskrit texts or translations from Sanskrit into Khotanese, an Iranian language. Common are manuscripts of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, the Suvarabhāsottamasūtra, the Saghāasūtra, and the ubiqitous Saddharmapuarīkasūtra, which, amazingly, was never translated into Khotanese. One of the most famous manuscripts from Central Asia is the so-called Kashgar manuscript of the Saddharma-puarīkasūtra. Originally, it comprised 459 leaves, 447 of which are preserved in full or in fragments and are now distributed over the collections in St. Petersburg, London, Berlin, Dalian (China), and New Haven, a not-at-all uncharacteristic example of the fate of many manuscript finds, especially those from Khotan and from Dunhuang.


Indian languages, and from the fifth century onwards, only Sanskrit, remained the "church language" (Nattier, 1990) in Central Asia, and the percentage of Indian texts among the literature is absolutely remarkable. In the western part, in Bactria, Sogdiana, and Afghanistan, no translations into any of the vernaculars have been found so far. Two Buddhist texts in Bactrian, which came to light among the finds from Afghanistan in the 1990s, are possibly not translated, but may have been originally composed in Bactrian. The Sogdians played a very important role in the transmission of Buddhism to the east, since from the third century onwards they took over the long-distance trade and built up a network of trade posts from Samarkand far into China. But when they finally started to translate Buddhist scriptures into their own language, they did so not from Sanskrit originals, but from Chinese. In Eastern Turkestan, however, the situation was different: Sanskrit texts are found side by side with translations into the vernaculars, and they remained in use until the end of Buddhism in the area. Texts in Tocharian, the easternmost Indo-European language, which have been found mostly in Kučā, Karašahr, and Turfan, belong to the literature of the Sarvāstivādins and suggest that it was mainly the Tocharians who continued to use the original Sanskrit texts of that school. Many bilinguals and Sanskrit manuscripts with Tocharian glosses confirm this supposition. To a certain extent, this also holds true for the literature of the Uighurs. After the fall of their empire in the Orkhon Basin further northeast, parts of this Turkish tribe had settled from 840 onwards in the oases of Kučā, Karašāhr, and Turfan, but also in Hami and in the Gansu corridor. In Xočo in the oasis of Turfan, a Uighur kingdom was established, which existed from approximately 850 to 1250. The Uighurs also used Sanskrit, but from the eighth or ninth century onwards they translated a growing number of texts, mostly of Mahāyāna affiliation, from Chinese into Uighur.

Indigenous developments

Very different from the development in China, and later in Tibet, it appears that none of the Central Asian forms of Buddhism succeeded in establishing an important indigenous literary tradition based on the received canonical literature. There are very few independent works in the vernaculars; a famous example is a work in Khotanese, provisionally called the "Book of Zambasta" after the person who commissioned it, a voluminous verse-summary of Buddhism, which probably dates from the seventh century. Remarkably enough, its author complains that "The Khotanese do not value the [Buddhist] Law at all in Khotanese. They understand it badly in Indian. In Khotanese it does not seem to them to be the Law. For the Chinese the Law is in Chinese. To the Khotanese that seems to be the law whose meaning they do not understand at all" (Emmerick, 1968, p. 343ff.). This clinging to Sanskrit as the authoritative medium of religious literature may have been one of the reasons for the comparatively small number of indigenous works in the vernaculars.

One of the most important works from the northern route is the Maitreyasamitināaka, the "dramatical description of the meeting with [the future Buddha] Maitreya" in twenty-seven chapters. Although the text pretends to be of Indian origin, it was probably composed in Karašāhr in Tocharian and then translated into Uighur under the title Maitrisimit. It attests to the important position of the cult of Maitreya in Central Asian Buddhism. This cult was practiced equally by followers of mainstream and of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and significantly a whole chapter of the "Book of Zambasta" is devoted to Maitreya. As in the case of Amitābha, the most popular meditation Buddha in Central Asia, an Iranian origin or at least influence has been much discussed. Although both figures display certain elements that are also found with Iranian gods, these elements can just as easily be explained with reference to the Indian background.

One of the most important sites in the region is the monastery Qianfo-dong ("caves of the thousand Buddhas") near Dunhuang. The Indo-Scythian Dharmaraka, one of the great translators of Buddhist texts into Chinese, was born there around 230 ce, and one of his Chinese disciples founded a large monastery there. The caves are famous for their excellently preserved wall paintings, but one of them contained another surprise for the European scholars who came there in the first decade of the twentieth century. The local attendant led them to a previously walled-off chamber, which concealed a sensational collection of manuscripts. They had been hidden probably before 1035 when Dunhuang was conquered by the Tanguts, since no Tangut texts are found there. The chamber contained forty to fifty thousand manuscripts, most of them Chinese and Tibetan, the latter dating to the eighth and ninth centuries when the Tibetan empire occupied most of Eastern Turkestan. Besides the Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts, the library included texts in Uighur, Sanskrit, Tocharian, Khotanese, and Sogdian (in the last two cases most of what survives in these languages was found at Dunhuang).

Although the Tibetan texts from Dunhuang are of singular importance for the early history of Tibet, the Tibetan occupation made little mark on Central Asian Buddhism. Only the Uighurs translated Buddhist texts from Tibetan into their own language, but when they started to do so it was after the turn of the millennium and at a time when Tibet had long lost all political influence in Central Asia. This was very different with Chinese Buddhism. During the first centuries ce, it was mainly monks from Central Asia who brought the new religion to China and who became instrumental in acquainting the Chinese with Buddhism by translating the texts. Without such outstanding figures like the famous Kumārajīva, Buddhism would probably never have made a lasting impact on Chinese culture. As a son of an Indian father and a local princess, Kumārajīva was born in Kučā and brought to Chang'an at the beginning of the fifth century. With him, a new translation technique was developed, which finally succeeded in presenting Buddhism in a literary form acceptable to Chinese taste. From the time of the Tang dynasty, however, the relationship was partly reversed. Buddhist literature was no longer imported from Central Asia; instead, Chinese translations of what were originally Indian texts were now translated into Khotanese, Sogdian, and Uighur.

In the western part of Central Asia, Buddhism had practically disappeared by the end of the first millennium. Around 950, it came to an end in Khotan when the rulers decided to embrace Islam. Only on the northern route of the Silk Road did Buddhism survive for a few more centuries, although it must already have been in decline at that time. Around the end of the fifteenth century, at the latest, it finally disappeared from the Turfan oasis when the ruler of Xočo withdrew his support of the local monks.


To date, a comprehensive history of Buddhism in Central Asia remains a desideratum. Despite its promising title, Boris A. Litvinsky, Die Geschichte des Buddhismus in Ostturkestan (Wiesbaden, 1999), is utterly disappointing. A survey of the history of Eastern Turkestan is given in Luciano Petech's "The Silk Road, Turfan and Tun-huang in the First Millennium a.d." in Turfan and Tun-huang, The Texts: Encounter of Civilizations on the Silk Route, edited by Alfredo Cadonna, pp. 113 (Florence, 1992). A very good historical study of the early phase is still offered by John Brough, "Comments on Third-Century Shan-shan and the History of Buddhism," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 28 (1965): 582-612 (= Collected Papers. Edited by Minoru Hara, J.C. Wright. London, 1996: 276307). The history of the Tibetan influence is treated in Christopher I. Beckwith's The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages. Princeton, 1987.

Buddhism among single ethnic groups is treated in Hans-Joachim Klimkeit's "Buddhism in Turkish Central Asia," Numen 37 (1990): 5369; and Georges-Jean Pinault's "Aspects du bouddhisme pratiqué au nord du désert du Taklamakan, d'après les documents tokhariens," Bouddhisme et cultures locales, edited by Fumimasa Fukui and Gérard Fussman, pp. 85113. Paris, 1994. Jan Nattier's "Church Language and Vernacular Language in Central Asian Buddhism," Numen 37 (1990): 195219, is a judicious study on the complex linguistic situation of Buddhist literature. Useful surveys of this literature in the various languages are Johan Elverskog, Uygur Buddhist Literature. Turnhout, 1997; Ronald E. Emmerick, A Guide to the Literature of Khotan. 2d rev. ed. Tokyo, 1992; Klaus T. Schmidt, "Zur Erforschung der tocharischen Literatur. Stand und Aufgaben," Tocharisch. Akten der Fachtagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, edited by Bernfried Schlerath, pp. 239283. Berlin, 1994; and David A. Utz, A Survey of Buddhist Sogdian Studies. Tokyo, 1978. The most detailed general survey is still provided by Lore Sander, "Buddhist Literature in Central Asia," Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, edited by G. P. Malalasekera, vol. 4, pp. 5275. Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1979. This article, however, contains many inaccuracies of detail and must be used with caution. There are a vast number of either very general or very detailed studies of Buddhist art in Central Asia, but no comprehensive account. This gap is only partly filled by Marianne Yaldiz, Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte Chinesisch-Zentralasiens (Xinjiang). Leiden, 1987. See also R. E. Emmerick's The Book of Zambasta (London, 1968), pp. 343ff.

Jens-Uwe Hartmann (2005)

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