[high tang]

Topic: Buddhism
On Tuesday night, Jenny and I went to the first part of a two-lecture series on the Metropolitan Museum’s special exhibition on the art of the Han and Tang dynasties in China. James C.Y. Watt, the Brooke Russell Astor Chairman of Asian Art at the museum, described the Chinese culture of that time (200 to 750 A.D.) as a cosmopolitan blend of northern nomadic “barbarian,” indigenous Chinese, and Bactrian influences. (Bactria was the Greek province in what is today Afghanistan; it was created by Alexander the Great.) Showing different works of art, he demonstrated how they related to work from other regions. Jade cups had stems, an emulation of the Roman style of making glasses and a form that’s much more natural to extruded material than stone. Amphora jars were copied, blending Greek and Chinese motifs.

This all relates to my ongoing question of what happened to Buddhism in the West. We know that it originated in India spread throughout East and Southeast Asia, and also that it was prominent in Afghanistan. What happened next? Why are the Japanese Buddhist, while the Iranians and Arabians and Greeks never seem to have been? According to a Wikipedia article on Greco-Buddhism, Buddhism was a major cultural force in Greek Afghanistan until the invasion of the White Huns in the 5th century. Indeed, some scholars believe that the standard iconographic portrayals of the Buddha may have originated in the Greek Buddhist world, influenced by Greek naturalism. Bactria was also where Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhism may have gotten their starts. It seems Buddhist ideas may have been known in the Roman world — certainly they knew about silk, anyway — but the trail seems to go colder in that direction.

An article by Andrew Skilton, excerpted from his Concise History of Buddhism, explores the Buddhist interaction with Persia. There seems to be evidence for Buddhist ideas circulating and even moving further west:

In the last century it was pointed out that the Buddhist Jataka stories, via a Hindu recension under the title of the Pancatantra, were translated into Persian in the 6th century at the command of the Zoroastrian king Khusru, and in the 8th century into Syriac and Arabic, under the title Kalilag and Damnag. The Persian translation was later translated into Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was to form the basis of the collections of stories known as Aesop’s Fables (complied in the 14th century by a Byzantine monk), the stories of Sinbad, and the Arabian Nights. In the 8th century a life of the Buddha was translated into Greek by St John of Damascus and circulated widely in Christian circles as the story of Balaam and Josaphat. So popular was this story in medieval Europe that we arrive at the irony of the figure of Josaphat, this name a corruption of bodhisattva, being canonized, by the 14th century, and worshipped as a saint in the Catholic church. Rashid al-Din, a 13th century historian, records some eleven Buddhist texts circulating in Persia in Arabic translations, amongst which the Sukhavati-vyuha and Karanda-vyuha Sutras are recognizable. More recently portions of the Samyutta and Anguttara-Nikayas, along with (parts of) the Maitreya-vyakarana, have been identified in this collection.

This is the story we saw illuminated in a manuscript in the Byzantine exhibition.

Skilton goes on to say that there’s little evidence for actual Buddhism in Persia, but also that not all that much archeology has been done. I wonder.