Home Feature On the Trail of Buddha – A Journey to the East

On the Trail of Buddha – A Journey to the East


By Deepankar Aron

It was an old, dilapidated structure, destroyed with such vigour that it was difficult to make out what it was until two octogenarian Japanese women stopped in front of it with folded hands, facing what seemed to be the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. If it was surprising that they should travel thousands of miles, at their age, as pilgrims to this nondescript corner of China called Karakhoja, it was even more surprising to discover that while one was a Buddhist priest, the other was a worshipper of Lord Krishna.

This story of the two unlikely Japanese pilgrims, to which I was a first-hand witness, epitomises the richness, depth, and breadth of the spiritual, philosophical, cultural and art-architectural linkages that bind India to East Asia.

Grottoes, Frescoes & Gigantic Buddha Statues

With the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road, the best of Buddhist artepitomised in Ajanta and Ellora also started moving eastwards from India  to places likeMagao Caves in Dunhuang famous for the most beautiful frescoes in China to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang famous for the most magnificent statues of Buddha to  the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi famous for the most beautiful statuary.

The highest stone-cut Buddha statue in the world today is the 8th centuryrock-cut gigantic Dafo of Leshan in Sichuan, standing tall at close to 233 ft (71 m), after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The Daibutsu or the Giant Buddha (11.4 m high) of Kamakura in Japan is another fine open-air bronze statue of Buddha – thanks to the powerful shoguns of Japan, who wanted to outdo the 16 m high Buddha  of Nara built by the Japanese kings in the 8th century.

The Wandering Monks  

Fa-Hien (Faxian) and Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang), the great Chinese travellers, came to India seeking spiritual knowledge in the 4th and 7th centuries. In fact, thousands of monks travelled between India, China, Korea and Japan.

About 2000 years ago, on invitation of the then emperor, two Indian monks – Dharmaratna and Kasyapa Matanga were escorted by Chinese envoys to Luoyang, the then capital, where they set up in AD 68 the first recorded Buddhist temple of China called Baima Sior, the White Horse Temple. The famous monastery of Shaolin was set up by the Indian monk, Batuo (Chinese name), around AD 498. Another Indian monk called Bodhidharma or Damo made it iconic in AD 525. He is believed to have brought the South Indian martial arts of kalaripayattu into China, which blossomed as kung fu or wushu, later.  He also introduced ‘Dhyan’ Buddhism which became Chan in China and Zen in Japan.

Likewise, on return from China in the 7th century, the Korean monk Uisang established the famous Korean temple, Beomeosa, while Jajang, another Korean, founded the largest Buddhist temple complex in Korea called Tongdosa.

The journey of Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (AD 628 to 645) has become legendary with its retelling in fictional form in the great Chinese classic – called ‘A Journey to the West’. On the other hand, it has also played an instrumental role in the discovery of precise location of many important archaeological sites in India such as the Nalanda University.

The Holy Mountains

Much like in India, throughout East Asia, it was a pleasant surprise to see the holy temples invariably located atop mystical and beautiful mountains, be it the numerous Buddhist temples atop Mount Emei, Sichuan or at Wutai Shanin Shanxi in China or at Koyasan in Japan. At Haeinsa, Korea, famous for having preserved the Tripitaka Koreana, I discovered that Gayasan, the hills that surround it, owe their name to Bodh Gaya in India, where Buddha attained enlightenment under the famous Bodhi tree.

Thus, to find the same Gods and Goddesses in much of East Asia, with the devotees doing the same dandwat, with the same mantras being recited cannot but generate the ethereal feeling of ‘Oneness’, aptly known as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in India.

Indeed, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously said – “भारत ने दुनिया को युद्ध नहीं बुद्ध दिया!” or, in the context of recent conflicts in the world, he famously again said – ‘This is not an era of war’, a statement much appreciated by the G-7 countries in their recent summit at Hiroshima.

The Buddhist Dharma continues to be perhaps even more relevant today than it was when it started. Unless there is peace within, there cannot be peace outside. Conflict inside has to dissolve for conflict outside to cease.  Excessive individualism has to give way to collective thought. Realising our interconnectedness or our ‘Dependent Origination’, compassion shall be automatically born to achieve the objective of shared prosperity for the whole world.

No wonder then that the theme of G20 given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is: “One Earth, One Family and One Future!”