Trans Himalayan Buddhism: Re-Connecting Spaces, Sharing Concerns

Trans Himalayan Buddhism: Re-Connecting Spaces, Sharing Concerns

by Suchandana Chatterjee (Editor)


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Trans Himalayan Buddhism: Re-Connecting Spaces, Sharing Concerns by Suchandana Chatterjee

Trans-Himalayan Buddhism is not simply a cultural spectacle across spaces north and south, east and west of the Himalayas. It is also a subject of interactive behaviour among Buddhist communities who have been dispersed over the Kunlun mountains or the Kashgar markets that have been the meeting points of pilgrims, traders, merchants, envoys, military men, artists and scholar travelers. The northern reach of Buddhism is incomprehensible without reflections on shared histories and common concerns which the book tries to focus on.

The ambit of Buddhist studies reflects not only the spiritual and philosophical domain of Buddhism but also a symbiotic relationship between the monastic establishment and protectors of cultural tradition-a trend that one sees in the context of Buddhist revivalist projects in Mongolia and Buryatia. The presence of a Buddhist order in the political realm has revived intellectual debates about the relationship between spiritual and temporal authority. The interface between South Asian and South East Buddhism on the one hand and Central Asian Buddhism on the other is also delicately balanced in Buddhist cultural discourse. The relevance of Buddhism in a globalized world has also given a new direction to the realm of Buddhist studies.

This book takes into account the competing discourses of preservation and revival of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayan sector. It not only deals with the cultural ethos that Buddhism represents in this region but also the diverse Buddhist traditions that are strongly entrenched despite colonial intervention. Juxtaposed to the aesthetic variant is the extremely sensitive response of the Buddhist communities in India and Asiatic Russia centred round the issue of displacement. It is this issue of duality of common traditions and fractured identities that has been dealt with in the present volume.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789381904480
Publisher: Sun Links Ltd
Publication date: 01/15/2013
Pages: 132
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.44(d)

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Trans-Himalayan Buddhism

Reconnecting Spaces, Sharing Concerns

By Suchandana Chatterjee

KW Publishers Pvt Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-93-81904-48-0


Construction of Buddhist Civilisation Incentral Asia: A Preliminary Review

Jeta Sankrityayana

Heritage, Culture and Civilisation

The spread of Buddhism across the span of Asia — commencing nearly two and a half millennia ago — is a fascinating but seldom-recounted story. From its origin in an obscure corner of the ancient Kosala-Videha region — the ancient Buddha-Bhumi near where the Gandak river descends from the Himalayan foothills into the Indian plains — Buddhism took shape during the lifetime of Gautama Buddha. It was a reform movement against the instruments of social and political division, and exploitation around which the nascent empires of that age had begun to condense. Presenting much more than a mere religion, Buddhism offered a logical and ethical way of improving the human condition, rescuing the multitude from domination by the select few. The improvement of merit and the rise to spiritual perfection were something to which each being could aspire, regardless of class, race or birth.

In that early age, when kingdoms and nation-states were being constructed along the warmer southern reaches of Asia, the great nations of nomadic people were on the move elsewhere within the upper Asian rangelands. As each departing group was displaced by each group of new entrants, and the remnants of departed cultures intertwined into the ideologies and faiths of new culture, language and ethno-origins across Eurasia took on a complex shape. With many early movements involving violent conflicts and lightning raids, their costs were high — both in terms of the loss of cultural artefacts and human lives. With time, as the emphasis shifted from territorial conquest to consolidation of territories, the historical events merged into the broader construction of culture and civilisation in Eurasia in the longue duree.

The history of this long period has roots in the cultures that met and mixed across Eurasia. These were known to historiographers in the past by appellations indicative of the nations and empires under which they were shaped. Thus, Eurasia was a crossroads along which Hellenic, Christian, and Judaic civilisations met the Huns, and the Scythian, Persian, and Indian civilisations encountered the civilisation of China. To the numismatist and the cultural scholar, the borrowings of each from the other are easily evident, despite the sparse state of actual historical records. To professional historiographers presently engaged with writing national political histories, this element is lost because of the consequent inability to look at civilisations past national contexts. Yet, with the evaporation of hegemonic national identities and the emergence of new Eurasian nations in recent years, the challenge of ideological and cultural reconstruction has arisen across the region. Once again, the way of bridging the cultural needs of the region on the road ahead involves the evolution of a common understanding of this shared heritage.

The Buddhist Way of Life and its Philosophical Journey

Starting with the Buddha's first address to his first five ordained disciples at the Issipattana deer-park at Sarnath, the message of the Dhamma was carried not only by the Buddha directly, but also by his wandering disciples. While the span of the Buddha's own wanderings through the modern territories of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh is chronicled in records of his 3-month monsoon recesses (Pali. vassa) in the Pali canon and biographical sources like the Buddha-charita, the teachings of the Buddha had been carried much further afield through the wanderings of Buddhist monks. Thus, for efficient functioning, the early monastic order evolved into a superstructure of decentralised and autonomous monasteries (Pali. viharas), established wherever donor patronage had been secured. Moreover, as an ethical way of life rather than a religion founded on canonical scriptures, early Buddhist civilisation needed no central authority other than the monastic order (sangha). Besides the mass of lay- followers, the Buddhists also comprised more committed adherents (bhikkus) who formally entered the order. The established tradition that allowed a lay-member to enter the discipline of the monasteries for short periods as a novice (Pali. samanera) led to rapid expansion of the sangha at these seats, while also giving the novices and their families the freedom to return to family life, when the need arose. For those better cut-outs for the rules of monastic discipline (Pali. vinaya), a more arduous life of learning Buddhist practice followed during which each ordained monk spent years mastering the tenets of the Dhamma. This allowed them to venture out on their own, carrying Buddhism into new places and to new people, and setting up new monasteries wherever they attracted a substantial number of new adherents.

While this method of preceptorial teaching allowed the swift propagation of the Dhamma during the Buddha's own lifetime, the need for accurate reproduction and transmission of Buddhist teachings was acknowledged by the Buddha in a discourse included in the Anguttara-nikaya, the Fourth division of the Sutta-pitaka. As a non-scriptural faith, Buddhism made a logical appeal to the intellect and human compassion. As its sphere rapidly widened, the need for commentaries and interpretations grew commensurately, so that the Buddhist precepts could be explained in their essence to followers who were less and less familiar with the founding principles.

The preaching of the Dhamma during the Buddha's lifetime coincided with the rise of Magadha to political ascendancy in north India under Bimbisara and Ajatashatru, whose reigns are documented by both the Jain and Buddhist records. The northern territories of Kosala and Videha from where Buddhism had originated now slipped into Magadhan control, and six monsoon-recesses of the Buddha to the Magadhan capital at Rajgir (Rajgriha) are recorded over the space of 18 years, of which the first occured the year after the first sermon had been preached at Issipattana. Buddhist records identify Bimbisara as an adherent of Buddhism, while Ajatashatru is credited with the building of a Magadhan fortress at the site of Pataliputra (Patna) across the Ganga where most of the Magadhan conquests lay, and also the raising of the Great Stupa (reliquary mound) at Rajgir that enshrined the ash-relics from the Buddha's cremation.

As remarked above, the mode of transmission adopted for the propagation of Buddhist teachings gave critical importance to the proper understanding of the fundamental precepts and the binding Buddhist philosophy. Further difficulties were posed by the Buddha's outright rejection of concepts regarded as fundamental by more traditional faiths, such as the doctrine of the self or ego, and the eternal soul. In an age when the first disciples of Buddhism were being drawn from among Upanishadic scholars and the laity, the potential for ideological confusion was obviously very high. As long as the Master Teacher was alive, such philosophical confusions could be sorted out under reference to him. Thus, in the Majjhima-nikaya, the Buddha upbraids the bhikku Sati Kewatputta for misinterpreting the Buddhist doctrine of non-self (anatta in pali) during his own discourses. Unlike the Upanishadic concept of a constant, immutable and indestructible self, Buddhist consciousness is based on the principle of impermanence and the doctrine of (discrete continuance) paticca-samuppada. Each moment of observation exists momentarily, and then, is annihilated at the very moment another observation is made. In such circumstances, there can be no constant observer, no permanent self. The apparent perpetuation of the self occurs because of the perpetuation of desires, which in themselves become the cause of dukkha (suffering). The cessation of suffering lies in the liberation of consciousness from the prison of an immutable self.

After the passing away (Pali. Mahaparinibbana) of the Buddha, recourse to the Master for settling such doctrinal confusions could no longer be made. Hence, to sort out existing disputes, the First Council (Pali. Sangeeti) of the Buddhist Sangha was convened at Saptaparni Cave in Rajgir, which categorised the Buddha's original precepts into two codexes — the Sutta-pitaka (casket of doctrinal discourses), and Vinaya-pitaka (literal,rules of modesty, or casket of monastic rules). Together, these two codexes gave the early Buddhist teachings their first canonical form, to be committed to memory by each successive generation of monks, as the Dhamma continued its outward spread. Following the tradition of Vedic scripture, the initial transmission was in oral form, and it took several centuries more for the Pali canon to be transcribed into written form.

The spread of Buddhism across the widening Magadhan realm occurred concurrently after Ajatashatru had considerably increased its expanse by annexing the erstwhile republican clan territories (janas) in the regions on the north bank of the Ganga stretching up to the Himalayan foothills, which included the Buddha's own homeland of Shakya. Magadha, thus, acquired mastery over Buddha-bhumi, from whence it also made incursions into the north and west into Kuru-Panchala, and southwards into the Vindhyas. Although Magadha became the strongest empire that India had seen till that time, the destruction of the autonomous janapadas (republican-states) set into motion a chain of subjugation, seizure and enslavement, and caused great distress among the people. At this point in time, the pacific methods adopted by Buddhism during its spread blunted the sword of conquest, replacing it by conquest of the heart and mind. Thus, through all these areas to which it now spread, Buddhism removed the distinction between the victors and the vanquished, making both groups aspirants to the same ideal of moral and ethical perfection under a fair political dispensation. There is, therefore, little need for conjecture about whether the spread of Buddhism through India took place through the principles of peace and mass acceptance.

However, the shifts of temporal and philosophical foci in the ever-widening Buddhist world over the next six centuries are also recorded in the history of the subsequent Buddhist Councils. Thus, a hundred years after the Buddha's passing, the Second Council had to be convened at Vajji (Vaishali) over points of dispute over the interpretation of monastic rules between the Vajji monks and the other elders of the sangha. It was the perception of the elders that the Vajji monks had become lax in the observance of vinaya, and had openly been soliciting donations of gold and silver, threatening the pure motives in the Buddhist sangha. On the other hand, the monks owing allegiance to Vaishali assembled there in much larger numbers in a Great Council (Mahasangeeti), and reaffirmed their own practices as the true interpretation of monastic doctrine. This precipitated the first schism within the original Buddhist sangha, between the orthodox Sthaviras (Elders) who had ruled against the violation of the strict monastic vinaya by the Vajji monks, and the Mahasanghikas (the majority or Greater Order). Over the course of time in Buddhist India, eighteen separate philosophical schools of Buddhist thought came to be established at different locations and points of time. The principal divisions between them occurred with reference to the applications of monastic vinaya, and differences in their philosophical interpretation of the sutta discourses.

Emphasising the intellectual tradition within Buddhism, the Buddha had discoursed to his bhikkus in the Majjhima-nikaya that the Dhamma he taught was merely a boat to get them across, and not something immutable to be held on to. The propagation of the Dhamma, thus, required true understanding of its inner principles, and the ability to expound on them in newer commentarial discourses. In course of time, there came to be a considerable accretion in the commentarial literature, each interpretation being viewed as acceptable or unacceptable depending on the tenets of the philosophical school which expounded it. Instead of being added to the Sutta-pitaka, which represented the casket of original discourses given by the Buddha in his lifetime, the philosophical discourses given by later exponents were compiled into the Abhidhamma-pitaka, which is variously translatable as the 'casket of the inner or esoteric Dhamma', or the 'casket of the highest Dhamma'. The full Buddhist canon or Tipitaka expounded by each school, thus, came to describe these three caskets of discourses, monastic rules, and esoteric commentaries, with the Abhidhamma literature growing with philosophical beliefs of each Buddhist school. The use of the descriptive term 'casket' to identify the three canons acquired a literal connotation when Buddhist teachings began to be transcribed as texts, and the oblong manuscripts that represented each group of teachings literally had to be stored and carried around in casks or baskets.

The differences between the thought-lineages transmitted by each Buddhist school arose because of (1) geographical separation, and (2) of doctrinal schisms. The orthodox teachings of Sthaviravada stemmed from the belief that there was only one Buddha, namely Siddhartha Gautama or the historical Buddha. The later schools developing out of this standpoint came to be classified pejoratively as the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) by their opponents. Against this, the Mahasanghika (later the Mahayana or Greater Vehicle) teachings eventually developed the theory of trikaya (literally, the three bodies) — the rupakaya or nirmankaya (the physical body of the Buddha), the sambhogakaya (the spiritual or blissful body of the Buddha in an enlightened and all-perceiving state), and the dharmakaya (the transcendent body of the Buddha, that is, the nature of the Buddha, existing beyond physical and spiritual forms). The Lokottaravada school of Mahayana developed around the concept of a 'transcendental' Buddha surpassing the physical body of Gautama who had lived as the historical Buddha. The Vibhajjavada school described the historical Buddha as the prime teacher of 'rational analysis', and therefore, separate from other philosophical traditions that emphasised the sublime. The Mahisasaka school postulated the Buddha as being separate from and as superior to the Buddhist sangha. While the Sautrantika school, for instance, only recognised the authenticity of the sutra discourses enlisted by Sarvastivada or the northwestern school, and rejected its abhidharma teachings as false, the Mulasarvastivada School affirmed its faith in the original canon of Sarvastivada. Although not every school developed its own monastic rules of vinaya, many offshoot schools preferring to adhere to the vinaya of predecessor schools while acknowledging the doctrinal differences. As a result, the vinaya of the Dharmaguptika school was inherited after its eclipse by the Mahayana, while the vinaya of Mulasarvastivada was inherited by Tibetan Tantric Buddhism or the Vajrayana. Often, these transfers were dictated by the proximity of Buddhist monasteries belonging to broadly allied but philosophically opposed schools, from where qualified monks with adequate learning could be drawn for the early initiations. Nor was the periodicity and location of each school distinct and unchanging. Thus, schools that grown to philosophical prominence in one set of historical circumstances, declined and faded away with the passing away of rulers and empires, while Buddhist monasteries that had been adherents of one school gradually shifted allegiance to other philosophical lineages that became ascendant. While this polycentric tradition has continued into Mahayana where it exists today, the orthodox lineage of the elders or Sthaviras is maintained through Buddhist South Asia and Southeast Asia where the adherence is to the Pali Tripitaka.


Excerpted from Trans-Himalayan Buddhism by Suchandana Chatterjee. Copyright © 2013 Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. Excerpted by permission of KW Publishers Pvt Ltd.
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Table of Contents


1. Construction of Buddhist Civilisation in Central Asia: A Preliminary Review Jeta Sankrityayana,
2. Buddhist Traditions of the Himalayas and Central Asia Benoy K. Behl,
3. Buddhist Milieu in Termez: Links in Architecture and Archaeology Ranjana Mishra,
4. The Integration of Buddhism in Mongolia: the Echo of Seasonal Moods Andrea Loseries,
5. Heritage, Development, and Concerns of Mongolia's Monasteries Krisztina Teleki,
6. Medical Institution Building in India: Following the Tibetan Case Somraj Basu,
7. Tibetan Culture in Exile: Preservation and Reform Dagmar Bernstorff,

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