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Durable Link to this BlogThursday, December 02, 2004

Dhyan and Zen: Indian Conversions in Far East

These days religious conversions are of much public debate in India, and it is very interesting to note that at one time, Indians converted entire nations! The conversions were based on compassion, peace, love and non-violence. The conversions were voluntary. Religious conquest of China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia (Sumatra, Java), Myanmar, Thailand and nearby Sri Lanka by Buddhism speaks of endless efforts of missionaries, scholars, princes and kings of India in spreading Buddha’s message, thousands of years ago. Today Buddhism in original form might have disappeared from India, but it had and did take deep root in all the countries mentioned above.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, many Buddhist monks and scholars reached these far off lands. Scholars from China and Korea came to India to study Buddhism. Outstanding among them were Fa Hien (4th century), Huen Tsang (7th c.) and Itsing (8th c.). They provide invaluable information of life and educational system then available in India. There were big universities where monk students from far and wide came. Huge donations of land and materials were provided by the rulers for their organization and maintenance, where food and lodging were provided free.

It is from Chinese records that we learn that some Indian outstanding scholars left for China on their spiritual and teaching journey. Bodhidharma was the most remarkable. He was probably a Pallava prince who became a monk. He lived in the 6th century. He is much venerated in China and Japan for his introduction of Dhyan or meditation on methodical grounds. It is called Chan in China and Zen in Japan.

Towards end of 7th century, one Bodhiruchi, from the court of Chalukyan king Vinayaditya reached China. He was honored by the Chinese king for his translation of Ratnakuta, a Mahayana classic. The manuscript of this religious classic was carried to China by the great traveler monk Huen Tsang. But the latter died before translating it. Bodhiruchi completed the job efficiently.

The movement of scholars, saints, ambassadors and merchants from India and China, Japan and Korea was brisk. It was through land and sea, bespeaking of incessant cultural links. Indian rulers built Viharas or Buddhist sanctuaries, where free boarding and lodging facilities were available enroute. Itsing mentions one such Vihara built by the Badami Chalukyan king in Kapisha in Northern Afghanistan. Another bigger one was built by Vallabhi king in Sourashtra. Itsing regretted that rulers from his own country did nothing for pilgrims visiting India. This information is contained in Itsing's epilogue to his work on fifty-one monks (Chinese and Korean) who visited India. Only the epilogue is translated and not the whole work.

Chinese expertise on documentation is well known. Their fourteen dynasties are well recorded. Prominent place is given to India in these records due to Buddhism.

Besides religion, there were commercial links. Large numbers of ancient Chinese coins are discovered in Tanjore and Nalgonda districts, establishing South Indian links.

Chinese and Japanese academies of social sciences have planned volumes of history of Buddhism in their respective countries, perhaps establishing religious and cultural links with India. If these were available in English translation in full, very interesting vignettes of journey of Dhyan and Buddhism to lands of Chan and Zen would be available.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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