Tracing the path of enlightenment

by Jiro Ikeguchi, Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct 26, 2006

Buddhist treasures from Silk Road featured at Shoso-in exhibition

Tokyo, Japan -- The Silk Road, which has a long and multifaceted history as the ancient trading route for a variety of goods, was also a conduit for Buddhism, which was brought to the East by monks who risked their lives to undertake the perilous journey along the road.

Marking the 1,250th anniversary of the death of Emperor Shomu, who dedicated his life to guarding ancient Japan through his Buddhist beliefs, many of the treasures brought via the Silk Road to the emperor are on display at the 58th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures in Nara.

Prior to the opening of the exhibition, Yomiuri Shimbun writer Jiro Ikeguchi traced the ancient routes looking for the footprints of Buddhism along the Silk Road. Here is his account.


In Taxila, the ancient capital of northern Pakistan, I saw ruins of a Buddhist temple known as Dharmarajika, which is famous for its domed-shaped shrine known as a stupa. Located in a fertile plain near the banks of the Indus River, the archaeological grounds--a World Heritage site--attracts many tourists.

According to legend, a stupa was first built about 2,500 years ago to hold the remains of Buddha, who founded Buddhism in ancient India. In 300 B.C., King Ashoka divided the remains and constructed 84,000 stupa to hold them. They served as hubs of religious belief and later prospered.

Dharmarajika is one such stupa. In addition to a small temple and ruins of a monastery, which were both built later, there are many small minars (a type of tower) that were dedicated by followers, illustrating the way the Buddhist temple was formed.

A local archaeologist, Fidaullah Sehiai, 78, said, "Because Dharmarajika served as a religious hub, Buddhism was brought to Gandhara."

Located in the west of Taxila, Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, and its vicinity were called Gandhara in ancient times.

Known as the place where Buddhist culture flourished in the first to third century, Gandhara is nestled in the foot of the eastern edge of the Hindu Kush range, which has mountains as tall as 7,000 meters. Gandhara was a crossroads of the Silk Road as it leads to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass in the west, and also to China through Karakoram Range in the north.

Buddha was first embodied in a stupa or a lime tree, also known as the tree of Buddha, since he is said to have become enlightened while meditating under the tree.

People are believed to have begun depicting Buddha in the shape of a human being in Gandhara around the first century. Some of these images created in the early stages are on display at Peshawar Museum. The faces of the blue-black schistose images are craggy, as is often the case with sculptures of the Greek gods, implying a Hellenic influence.

According to the archaeologist Sehiai: "The Buddhist sculpture was created as a result of a marriage of different cultures, and it helped spread Buddhism to the world. All this was made possible by the Silk Road."

Buddhism eventually came down to faraway Japan. The great influx of treasures representing the origin of Buddhist culture is also represented in the Shoso-in repository in Nara.

Swat, another city along the Silk Road, is located 150 kilometers northeast of Peshawar.

I visited a local craft shop in a bazaar after learning it had an incense burner with a handle similar to Oudo no Egoro, a brass incense burner with a long handle, one of the Shoso-in treasures.

The 38-year-old owner of the shop showed me the incense-burning custom known as nazar mar.

"It's a way of expelling evil spirits and praying for business prosperity," he said. The custom is said to have continued among the people of the Pashtun tribe, including the shop owner, who mainly lives in the North-West Frontier Province.

Although they are now Muslim, the tribe used to follow Buddhism.

Burning incense was performed in Buddhist rituals in India in ancient times and then spread to Japan. Nazar mar may be a remnant of Buddhism, which still remains in the Muslim nation.

Karakoram Highway, linking Islamabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in the Chinese autonomous region Xinjiang Uygur, stretches about 1,300 kilometers, and the areas around The Karakoram Range have much rough terrain.

Most of the highway was constructed by broadening the ancient Silk Road. Fa-xian, a Chinese priest, and many other Buddhist priests once traveled the road, which overlaps with the highway. Some of them headed to India to search for fundamental truth, and others spread Buddhist teachings in China by carrying holy scriptures. Many of them risked their lives to travel the road.

In Chilas, in north Pakistan, various pictures were inscribed in the rocks in the bank of the Indus River. The whitish line drawings depict various things, including stupa, an illustrated biography of the Buddha, and bodhisattva. Chinese characters and letters of ancient India were also inscribed there.

The travelers of the Silk Road carved the drawings and their names. Among the drawings is said to be a stupa dating to before Christ.

I wonder whether they carved the drawings out of their anxiety over crossing the border or from relief after getting through the rough area safe and sound. The line drawings conjured up images of the Chinese and Indian monks who inscribed them on the surfaces of rocks.


For more information of the exhibition, please go here:

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