Story of the White Horse Temple built in 67 CE, Lou yang, Henan Province, China..........................by Ramdas Iyer
01.12.2007 - 22.12.2007
An interest in 2007 for traveling the silk route and beyond spurred me into taking a trip to Louyang, which lies 300 miles east of its terminal point of Xian. In the year 64 of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), Emperor Mingdi, whose capital was Lou Yang, wanted to send a delegation of his men to study Buddhism in India. Taoism at that time was a higher–level religion in China and was pursued mostly by the upper class. There was a growing need for a more spiritual culture than one built on nature and ghost-worshipping. Mingdi forthwith selected emissaries, in all totaling 18 people, to go towards the west to India in search of the religion based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
One has to remember that Hindustan (India was a British creation) then extended from present day Burma in the East till the Uzbek border with Afghanistan in the West. The absence of Islam until 850 CE and the lack of influence of the Levant religions helped Hinduism and Buddhism flourish within this broad sub-continent and parts of Central Asia.
One of the interesting historic features of North India has been its cultural intercourse with several Middle Eastern regions and many tribes of the Central Asian Steppes. By discussing initially the geo-politics of the region, I wish to show the natural process by which Buddhism could propagate to China. I believe this will also be a useful primer to understand early Indian History. Many are already aware of the gradual Aryan migration of nomadic people between 2000-1500 BC into India from Central Asia, through the Khyber Pass and then onto the Gangetic plains. This group of people introduced the pre Hindu “Vedic” cultures in India around 1500BC ( date of the Rig Veda)into India which already had a rich indigenous culture as can be seen existing in current day Tamilnadu ,Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and other parts of South and Central India.
These Aryan interlopers were members of a broader group of Indo- European Steppe nomads (Lithuania-Ukraine area) who splintered with a rival group that led to the foundation of Persia. The similarity of the Aryan Indians and Aryan Persians has been established by scholars through the common language used to recite the Rig Veda by the Indian Brahmins and the Zend Avesta by the Persian Zoarastrians.
As recently as 2010, when India was being pressured by USA to stop importing oil from Iran , the Indian Prime minister before acquiescing to the embargo lamented in public about betraying a historic trust and partnership between India and Iran that was laid on 4000 years of common heritage including the flowering of Islamic Persian culture in modern India. Historians and the informed community always suffer during wars and political crises which sometimes destroys ancient cultural bridges.
When Alexander the Great subjugated Persia in 330 BC his eyes lay upon Hindustan, a land described by Herodotus the father of historic studies. After Alexander’s premature death, the lands between Persepolis and the Indus rivers were ruled by Greek Satrapies. The Greek General Selucus Nikator ruled over the area of current day Pakistan and parts of Punjab...As the Greek-Bactrian (Bactria is current day Uzbekistan) domination waned around 100 BC, the area of northwestern India consisting of Pakistan and the Punjab were run over by the Scythians. The Scythians were an Indo-Iranian horse people who migrated from Central Asia to the European Steppe north of the Black Sea around 700 B.C.
The Scythians preceded the Huns, Turks and Mongols by many centuries. The Scythians did not have a written language it is believed that they spoke an Indo-European language similar to Persian. The Scythians inspired such terror among the Greeks that they are credited with inspiring the myth of Centaur. Indo-Scythians or Sakas(in Sanskrit)is a term used to refer to Scythians who migrated into parts northern South Asia ;Sogdiana( Tajikistan), Bactria(Uzbekistan), Arachosia (Pashtu Afghanistan), Gandhara,(Pakistan) Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and Bihar. from the middle of the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. They ruled from Kabul and Taxila, practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoarastrinism and Ancient Greek religions. They were also known as the Indo-Greeks by many historians.
Around this period, the normally naked Buddha image of central India slowly changed and were now donned in robes similar to that of the Greeks. This Hellenistic evolution of the Buddha’s robes also ended up in the Europeanization of his face (see Photograph). It may be one of the reasons why Jesus allegedly of Ethiopian Jewry was depicted as a Caucasian as is normally done by the rulers of that time.
Following the Indo-Scythians, the Kushans set up their Empire around 30 CEand ruled for over 300 years. It was formed in the early 1st century AD under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria around the Oxus River and later based near Kabul, Afghanistan. The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley and rose to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthian( Greek-Persians). It reached their peak under the Buddhist emperor Kanishka (127–151), whose realm stretched from Turfan in Xinjiang province of China in the Tarim Basin( see photograph) to Pataliputra (Patna) on the Gangetic Plain.
I am proud to say that my travels have taken me to the far corners of this great Buddhist empire including a visit to Kanishka’s stupa (see photograph) built in 125 AD in Termiz,Uzbekistan, 40 Km from Mazar-i-sharif in Afghanistan, lovingly restored by UNESCO.
The Kushans were one of five branches of confederation of Indo-European nomadic Yuezhi people who had migrated from the Tarim Basin and settled in ancient Bactria ( see photo of Yeuzi man). During the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, the Kushans expanded across the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, which began about 127 AD. Around this time he sent his armies north of the Karakoram Mountains. They captured territories as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkhandh in the Tarim Basin of modern-day Xinjiang, China. A direct road from Gandhara to China was opened which remained under Kushan control for more than 100 years. The security offered by the Kushans encouraged travel across the Khunjerab Pass ( see Photograph) and facilitated the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.
Coming back to the original storyof the Chinese emperor Mingdi sending emissaries to Gandhara; after travelling through several countries bordering India such as Getse and Yuchi (the Saka Tartars), and Bactrian Greece they reached Afghanistan (Gandhara country) and eventually met two Buddhist monks named Kasyapa Matanga Pandita (a Hindu Brahmin from Central India) and Bharana Gobhakarana Pandita,( also known as She Matang and Zhu Falang in Chinese, respectively). They accepted the invitation of the emissaries to go to China.
They then proceeded to China on two white horses accompanied by the emissaries. They carried with them a few sacred texts of Sutras - the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters- statues of Buddha, portraits and some sacred relics. They reached Lou Yang where they were put up in a temple. The King met them in 67 CE, with due reverence and was pleased with the presents the monks had brought for him. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honor and named it the White Horse Temple ( see photograph) as an appreciation of the two white horses that had carried the two monks and the sutras. It is for this reason that the temple is honored as the ‘Cradle of Buddhism in China’. The temple boasts great antique architecture which has remained intact for over 1,900 years. (See Photograph)
The monks resided at the new temple and here they translated the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. The notable of these was the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters which was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese language and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Gobharana translated the ‘Dasa Bhumi’ or the ‘Ten stages of Perfection’
Like in any other historic research, the sutras have also been attributed to another Indian monk Dharmaraksa in 419, but the arrival of the first two monks with the sutras are not in dispute.
The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma (Founder of Chan or Zen Buddhism), another monk from Kerala, India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries. (Await a future blog on Zen Buddhism and Boddhidharma)
It is for also this reason that the temple is honored as the ‘Founder’s Home’ and the ‘Cradle of Buddhism in China’...
The main temple buildings, a large complex, were reconstructed during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties covering an area extending to about 13 hectares.
The renowned monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) of the Tang Dynasty (see my photograph of a visit to his temple erected in Xian during the Tang Dynasty) spent 16 years on a long pilgrimage to India (630–635 AD) to the land of the Buddha, his cherished desire. He started on his pilgrimage from this temple. On his return from India, Xuanzhang remaine==d the abbot of the White Horse Temple till his death.
I reached Louyang after a 26 hour rail journey across the Gobi desert and after making a train change at Xian. Louyang sits in a very culturally steeped area. It was the eastern capital of the Tang Dynasty and was then considered the second largest city in the world after Xian(Changan) its capital. There is so much to see here including the World Heritage Longman Grottos, a collection of over a thousand Buddha carved on a rock face by cave dwelling monks.
The White Horse temple sits in an old square (see picture) and if one does not understand the significance of the events that led to the construction of this landmark, it will just be another Chinese temple. Thankfully I was prepared for this visit. My trip in 2008 to observe the spread of Buddhism from the Khunjerab Pass ( connecting China to Islamabad, Pakistan) near Kashgar in Xinjiang province all the way to Louyang, a journey of 3500 km through the Tarim basin was indeed a home coming.
I had recently taken up meditation and what an ideal environment was the White horse temple. I closed my eyes at the feet of the statue of Kashyapa Matanga, located in front of his burial mound; a practice in china in those times. The feeling of peace, serenity and inner warmth was indescribable.
With globalization and inexpensive airfares, the whole world is one the move, unintentionally trampling the great sites of the world. While most tourists visit spectacular locations, it is historic locations like the White Horse temple that seems to excite me. One can still find such venues that helps elevate the purpose of a traveler than that of a tourist.
In its quiet surroundings one can see the great burial mound of the two white horses that brought these Sutras. The beautiful statues of these horses are used as photo props by the local Chinese perhaps not comprehending the greatness of their own kings who saw the spiritual impact the arrival of the sutras had on their land.
I also spent another 20 minutes meditating near the mound of the Great master Gobhakarana Pandita. As an ethnic Indian, a descendent of Kaundnya Rishi, one of the great Indo-Aryan sages, these moments carried profound historic and spiritual weight for me.
In 1966 began the most destructive “Cultural Revolution” in China. Regarded as objects of “feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism,” the Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, Buddha statues, historical and scenic sites, calligraphy, paintings, and antiques became the main targets for destruction by the Red Guards.
Here are some notes from a party functionary’s diary
“There was a White Horse Temple production brigade near the temple. The Party branch secretary led peasants to smash the temple in the name of ‘revolution.’ The more than 1,000-year-old clay statues of the Eighteen Arhats built in the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 916–1125) were destroyed.“The Beiye scripture that an eminent Indian monk brought to China 2,000 years ago was burned. A rare treasure, the Jade Horse, was smashed to pieces.”
In 1973, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia visited the temple. Cambodia was a communist ally of China and Prince Sihanouk was exiled to a palatial residence in Beijing. He was permitted to visit various parts of the country on a tour for propaganda purposes, to show to the outside world that all was normal within China. As an ardent Buddhist, Sihanouk expressed a wish to Premier Zhou Enlai to visit the White Horse Temple. This put the administration into a frenzy, since many parts of the Temple had been damaged during the Cultural Revolution in China and items were missing. Post haste, 2900 artifacts, which were in other palaces and museums within China, such as the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility on the western side of the Forbidden City and statues in the Arhat Hall (Luohan Tang) of the Temple of Azure Clouds (Biyun Si) in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills (Xiang Shan) were secretly shifted to the temple, and the White Horse Temple was fully restored. Interestingly, the shift of artifacts to this temple from other places was decreed as permanent by Premier Zhou Enlai, and not a loan, when the authorities of the palace and Azure temple wanted the artifacts to be returned to them.
The symbolic importance of the temple to the ancient cultural relations between China and India was demonstrated when the Prime Minister of India P.V. Narasimha Rao visited the temple in 1993. A decade later, in 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also visited the shrine.
To enhance the Buddhist cultural links between India and China, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on 11 April 2005 under which it was agreed that India would build an Indian Style Buddhist temple to the west side of the White Horse Temple .Under this agreement, India was to provide the architectural design, material for construction, the Buddha statue, landscaping and technical advice of architects and experts during construction. Chinese authorities were to allot land area of 28000 sq.ft for building the temple.
Following the MOU signed by India and China in 2005, a Buddhist shrine that is a close replica of Sanchi Stupa has been completed in 2008 within the precincts of the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China that was also inspired by Buddhist saints from India in the 1st century AD. The architectural features of the new temple have closely recreated the Stupa at Sanchi. An image of Buddha has also been transported from India and deified in the new temple, which conforms to the Indian Buddhist tradition. The temple has been built over a land area donated by the Chinese Government. The shrine is a two-storied structure with circular walls on both floors. The circular walls inside the temple have been embellished with murals of scenes from the Jataka tales and the life of Buddha. The Buddha statue made in the pattern of the 5th century image of Buddha at Sarnath has been deified in the central congressional hall of the temple. The President of India, Pratibha Patil, inaugurated this temple on 27 May 2010.
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Hail O Kashyapa Matanga, hail O Gobhakarana Pandita!