Buddhist stupa in China

by Arun K Bhandari, Central Chronicle, Sept 14, 2006

Henan Province, China -- As part of efforts to boost ties of friendship and share culture between India and China, a majestic Indian-style Buddhist stupa on the pattern of the World Heritage Sanchi Mahayana stupas, is taking shape in this historic temple town of Henan Province.

Located on the western side of the ancient White Horse Temple, it is a joint venture as part of an agreement inked between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao during the latter's visit in April last year.

The idea was first mooted by the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee when he visited Bai Mai Si Temple on a trip to Luoyang City in 2003.

Besides funding 10 million yuan for construction, India is providing architectural design, landscape planning and other related material while the Bai Ma Si has allotted 2,667 sq m. China is offering official cooperation and permits to facilitate the travel of Indian architects and other construction experts.

''Stupa construction began in June this year and will take 310 days for completion,'' says Honglu Temple Abbot Shi Yin Le. A UNI correspondent visiting the site found construction progressing in top gear. Work on outer corridors and the 27-ft-high stupa is underway simultaneously. Foundation beams have been completed while iron rods have been fixed for columns.

The shrine will be formally declared open on April 26 next year in the presence of senior Indian and Chinese officials, besides monks.

Buddhists in China hold India in high esteem and ordinary Chinese, who cannot afford to make a trip to India, can now have a glimpse of 'little India' here.

With India promising not to allow anti-China political activity from Indian soil, particularly with reference to the Tibetan government-in-exile at Dharamsala--led by the Dalai Lama - and relations between the two countries acquiring a global and strategic character, an atmosphere of cordiality towards India is visible at different places including here.

Buddhism is witnessing a renaissance in China. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), temples across the country were razed, their monks publicly flogged and bundled off to remote areas as punishment.

Today, the monks seem satisfied with patronage being extended by the Chinese government and express their commitment to work for Chinese society's welfare. The masses, after meeting their materialistic needs, are somewhat turning to spiritualism to realise mental peace and are being influenced by Buddhism, say the monks.

Some Chinese pilgrims, in a conversation with UNI, expressed a desire to visit Sanchi and other Buddhist pilgrim centres in India. Such exchanges, they feel, will contribute towards further cementing relations between denizens of the two giant Asian neighbours who constitute a third of the world's population.

A visit to this area is inspiring, particularly due to new ways of depicting deities, novel types of architectural spaces for worship and new ritual motions and actions. One also catches a glimpse of cultural ties between the ancient civilisations of the two nations.

Today, there are still 2,100 caves and niches, 100,000 Buddhist images, more than 3,600 inscribed tablets and 43 Buddhist pagodas in existence. Among the images, the largest stands 17.14 m high while the smallest is only 2 cm.

The White Horse Temple is of historic importance to Buddhism. Constructed almost two millennia ago in 68 AD, the shrine is the location from where Buddhism was introduced in China. Two eminent monks from India--Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaranya--are said to have been originally seated there.

There are several caves and grottoes such as the Qianxi Temple, Binyang Cave, Ten Thousand Buddhists' Cave, Lotus Cave and Fengxian Temple.

The Fengxian shrine is the most famous. Located on the slope of a hill on the western bank of the Yi river, with a horizontal depth of 38.7 m and a south-to-north width of 33.5 m, the temple is the largest one in the Longmen Grottoes. Seated in the 'Xumi' position, the chief statue Buddhist Lushena towers to 17.14 m; the head is 4 m high and each ear 1.9 m long. The lively and vivid statue wears a cheerful look and a shallow smile.

As one of the three great Buddhist treasures, the statues in the Grottoes are exquisitely carved, all presenting a dignified manner and delicate look. These are an embodiment of an extraordinary sculptural style.

With breadth of spirit, profound implication and beautiful workmanship, the Longmen Grottoes constitute a bright pearl in the treasure house of world sculpture.

The Baima Temple here was the first Buddhist shrine in China. A jade statue of Sakyamuni--the Buddha--in the Hall of the Jade Buddha stands 5 m high and weighs 8 tonnes. A statue of a heavenly general adorns the Mahavira Hall.

Legend has it that in 64 AD, Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han Dynasty (206 BC--220 AD) dreamt of a golden man 12 ft high and the light from the man's head illuminated the hall where he stood. In the morning, the Emperor told his officials what he had seen and one of them, Fu Yi, said the Emperor had dreamt of the Buddha, a god of the west.

The Emperor sent Cai Yin, Qin Jing and others to Tianzhu (now India) for Buddhist scriptures. When Cai, Qin and their group arrived in what is now Afghanistan, they met Kasyapamatanga and Dharmaranya who were preaching there. In 67 AD, they loaded Sanskrit scriptures and a Sakyamuni portrait on white felt onto a white horse and returned here with the monks who were lodged at the Honglu Temple.

Abbot Le said traditionally monks are not buried within a shrine. ''Recognising their contribution to Buddhism, an exception was made and that is why we find tombs of the two first Buddhist monks in the temple premises.''

The history of Buddhism in China is a complex story of importation, assimilation and transformation of a foreign religion. Buddhism reached China from India by the first century but did not flourish until the Six Dynasties Period (220 BC -- 89 AD) when political and economic turmoil encouraged its full acceptance. Under these conditions, the religion's emphasis on personal salvation and renunciation of worldly ties, coupled with monk-sponsored welfare projects, attracted devotees from several social strata.

Buddhism sometimes prospered under imperial patronage; however, its foreign origin led other rulers to sponsor major persecution. The faith survived these periodic challenges and continues to flourish today. According to Chinese historians, Mahayana Buddhism--the most prominent branch in China--played a key role in shaping Chinese civilisation and the latter also had a profound impact on the manner in which Buddhism was transformed in China. Buddhism's influence grew to such an extent that vast amounts of financial and human resources were expended on creation and establishment of impressive works of art and elaborate shrines.