Taiwanese academic on a mission to study Buddhist heritage in Central Asia

By Lillian Lin, CNA, Sept 28, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Since 1999, Roland Lin has traveled to Central Asia a dozen times to study Buddhist heritage sites. As a follower and researcher of Buddhism, he considers it his mission to promote public awareness of Buddhist civilizations in the region along the ancient Silk Road.

Lin, a specialist with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was invited to attend an Exhibition of Buddhist and Taoist Artifacts in Taipei from Thursday last week through yesterday.

At the exhibition, Lin spoke about his work and the progress that he and the Oriental Cultural Heritage Sites Protection Alliance (OCUHESPA) have made in rediscovering Buddhist heritage sites.

“It was long forgotten that between the fifth century and the ninth century, Buddhism was the predominant religion in Central Asia before the arrival of Islam,” Lin said in an interview.

However, under communist rule, there was hardly any trace of Buddhism in the region, especially in the former republics of the Soviet Union, he said.

The history and cultural heritage of the five newly independent republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan — were suppressed for ideological reasons during the Soviet Union years, while many Buddhist heritage sites were destroyed and others were abandoned, he said.

“It was not until the 1990s the issue began to get increasing attention internationally, and UNESCO and some non-governmental organizations have been seeking to restore history,” said the Yilan County-born academic, who is now based in Paris.

He cited in particular the efforts of OCUHESPA, which was established in 2007 by a group of academics from Asia and Europe at the initiative of Buddhist nun Ven Shih Shi-huei.

In July 2008, the alliance convened its first international conference on Buddhist heritage sites protection in Lumbini — a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Nepal where Buddha Gautama was born.

Consolidating the efforts of many international academics and archeologists, the alliance helped to have Lumbini declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Kapilavastu, where Buddha received his enlightenment, was also named a protected site.

“The governments of Central Asian countries in general do not have sufficient funds or personnel to conduct research, survey or protect heritage sites, therefore the initiatives of NGOs such as OCUHESPA are important,” Lin said.

Academics with the alliance usually offer their expertise and help governments raise funds for preservation projects, he added.

Lin holds a doctorate degree in history of art from the Sorbonne University in Paris and is a program specialist in the Asia and Pacific section of the World Heritage Center. In the past decade, he has been invited by several governments and academic institutes in Asia to advise on cultural heritage rehabilitation projects.

The rediscovery and preservation of Buddhist heritage sites in Central Asia is one of his lifelong tasks, he said.

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