While comparing notes on the Indian language essays with the book, Cultural History of India by the Ramakrishna Mission I came across an interesting chapter on the above subject. So far had only heard about it in the passing or some vague references by people but for the first time got to read about it. Here is it for you verbatim from the book. What you read are excerpts, tried to make it comprehensive. The article is divided into three chapters namely –
Literature of Buddhism
Buddhist missionaries from India began their visits to China starting 65 a.d. The first Indian missionaries were Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaraksa, who translated a number of Buddhist works into Chinese. In the Wei period 386-354 a.d. it became the state religion there. The visit of Fa Hien to India and his stay in India from 401 to 410 a.d. is a matter of great significance in the history of Sino-Indian cultural relations in general and the growth of Buddhist literature in China in particular. He was the first authentic translator of the Mahasanghika Vinaya, which he discovered in a monastery in Patna and carried to China. Cultural contacts reached their hey day during the Tang period 618 to 907 when Buddhism made its deepest impact on the Chinese mind. Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing belonged to this period. The Chinese version of the Tripitaka is in the main a translation from the Indian original. The work of translating Indian Buddhist texts continued throughout the first millennium. By means of translations and commentaries, the Chinese collection has preserved a number of texts of the vast Sanskrit cannon of Buddhism, while the originals in Sanskrit were lost in India – thanks to foreign invasion.
Sutra, Sastra and Vinayaka
The Chinese Buddhist cannon forms a huge collection. It follows the broad pattern of the usual Buddhist classification namely –
1. Sutra or Buddha-vacana or the Word of Buddha.
2. Abhidharma or the Sastra.
3. Vinayaka or the Code of Conduct and discipline that one has to follow in one’s cultivation of the Buddhist way.
The entire cannon falls into two broad divisions – Hinayana and Mahayana.
The sutras of the Hinayana consist of the Agamas, which are the Sarvastivadins’s collections of Buddhist teaching. The agamas form a small part of the Chinese collection. Some sutras are also grouped together as pen-yuan-ching, a term that can be translated as jatakas. The Chinese Sutra Pitaka also includes three different translations of the Udanavarga (the Dhammapada in Pali) made as early as the third and fourth centuries a.d. The Hinayana sutras attracted little attention in China.
The major sutras on Mahayana, have from the beginning been a subject of very wide, serious and sincere study in China. These sutras are classified into certain groups namely Prajnaparamita, Saddharmpundarika, Nirvana and Vai-pulya.
In the Prajnaparamita group, there are six translations in Chinese while the Pancavimsatisahasrika group has two. One of these is by Kumarajiva, famous Buddhist scholar and guide – early 5th century. He translated most of the early Madhyamika texts attributed to Nagarjuna, famous Madhyamila philosopher. The biggest in this group is the one translated by Hiuen Tsang. The central theme of the Prajnaparamita group is that the undivided being as the Ultimate Reality, and this is expounded through sunyata.
The Saddharmpundarika, Avatamsaka and Nirvana sutras set forth and emphasize different aspects of the philosophy of Mahayana. Each of these sutras provided the basic inspiration as well as foundation to a specific school of Buddhism. The school that takes the Saddharmpundarika school takes the name Tien-tai school, to which the Nirvana sutra is fundamental. One of the sections in the Avatamsaka-sutra, the section on the ten bhumis – levels, expounds the levels in the course of a bodhi-sattva’s wayfaring. This sutra has a commentary by Vasubandhu, famous philosopher of Vijnanavada. Also the Yogacara-bhumi-sastra, translated by Hiuen Tsang provides the psychological analysis and the details pertaining to the kinds and different levels of wayfaring. The group called Vaipulya or the Wide Collection contains sutras of the miscellaneous type.
Sastra or Abhidharma texts
In this case the term Abhidharma (AB) means analysis, definition, and classification of elements as well as laying bare of the various ways in which the elements function in order to bring about events that constitute the world of experience. All the seven AB texts of the Sarvastivada School, one of the most important schools of Buddhism, are preserved in Chinese translations. The AB-mahavibhasa-sastra is a great commentary on the Jnana-prasthana-sastra, which was the basic text of the Sarvastivada study of dharmas. This was the main work with the other six being deemed supplementary to it. They were translated into Chinese by Hiuen Tsang.
The school of Buddhism that prevailed in China as the Kosa school was later absorbed into the Fa Hsiang School. The Madhyamika School is known as the ‘School of Three Treatises’ namely the Madhyamika-sastra and the Dvadasamukha-sastra of Nagarjuna and the Sata-sastra of Aryaveda.
Based on these texts there came into being the ‘School of the Four Treatise which emphasized the positive side of the teaching of sunyata. Later it got absorbed into the Tien-tai school. Among the Mahayana texts in the Sastra class, the Prajnaparamita-sastra and the Yogacara-bhumi-sastra are the most significant and outstanding. But in the Chinese collection, there are a large number of sastras of Mahayana which are either expositions of special topics like logic, psychology, and metaphysics are brief introductions to these systems.
The Vinaya class in the Chinese section is rich with enormous value. We have Vinaya texts of five different Buddhist schools. What the Chinese have belonged to the first four schools and were translated in the early 5th century. These texts were brought in order to meet the growing need of regulating the community life of the Sangha and for discipline in the daily life of its members.
Tantrayana or Mantrayana Sutras
Around the eight-century a.d. there are in the Chinese collection a number of sutras that together form the esoteric school of Buddhism known as Tantrayana, under the influence of Hindu Tantricism. The basic philosophy of two groups of sutras is that of Mahayana. Of the various mystic forms only the Vajrayana works are available in Chinese. Vajrabodhi and his disciple Amoghavajra, two Indian monks carried the works to China and translated about 150 of them into Chinese between 720-744 a.d. Amongst others there were two Indian monks Dharmadeva and Danapal who rendered into Chinese about 200 Vajrayana texts. Many of these works are in the form of mantras, dharanis and sadhanas relating to deities of the Mahayana pantheon.
The vast literature preserved in Chinese consisting of translations from the original Indian Buddhist works in Sanskrit amply testify to the study of Sanskrit during the first millennium a.d. Chinese-Sanskrit dictionaries were compiled. Also that a variety or derivative of Brahmi called Siddham, used in North India in the 7-8th centuries became very popular in China – due to its association with the Mantrayana school. This script was used in China during the 8-10th centuries a.d. for writing Sanskrit mantras and dharanis. Bricks in certain temples in Yunnan (China) bear magical formulas in the Siddham script. It appears that Prakrit was also known in China in the early centuries of the Christian era and is supposed to have played an important role in the propagation of Buddhism in the country.
The introduction of Buddhism into China made the two countries get closer. In the course of time the Chinese gained a first hand knowledge of other aspects of Indian culture such as music, maths, astronomy, astrology etc. When we study the lists of Indian books translated into Chinese, we realize that most of the books translated deal with astronomy and astrology and two most of the books were translated by the Buddhists during the Sui (581 –681) and Tang (618-907 a.d. Indians maths was appreciated as a useful tool to understand Indian astronomy.
Although Indian music, painting and sculpture exerted great Indian influence on the corresponding aspects of Chinese culture, no reference is now available to Indian books on music and Silpa-sastra being translated into Chinese. In the 5-6th centuries a.d. the Indians had attained a high degree of development in astronomy so it was of keen interest to the Chinese.
Astronomy - There are lots of details on the Indian contribution shall share a few aspects only. The annals of the Sui dynasty completed by Wei Cheng in 636 a.d. contains in its bibliographical catalogue the following Indian astronomical works, almost all beginning with the words Po-lo-men (Brahmin), The Brahmin Astronomical Manual, The Astronomical Theories of the Brahman sage Chie-chie, The Brahmin Calendrical Methods. These works must have circulated around 600 a.d. but are all lost today. Between 718 and 719 Indian astronomer Siddhartha (His-ta) who was president of the Bureau of Astronomy at the Chinese capital produced K’ai-yuan-chan-ching, the greatest collection of Chinese astronomical and astrological fragments from the 4th century onwards. Chapter CIV of this collection is virtually a translation from the Indian calendar, Navagraha-siddhanta.
The Kumara School contributed a method of computation of solar eclipses to the Ta-yen calendar 728 a.d. The influence of Indian astronomy on this calendar is evident from its introduction in the Indian fashion, of nine planets, namely the sun, moon, the five planets, and Rahu and Ketu. Said Amoghavajra who translated another Buddhist astrological work named Hsiu-yao-ching in 759 a.d. “Those who wish to know the position of the five planets adopt Indian calendrical methods. One can this predict what hsui (a planet will be traversing). So we have three clans of Indian calendar experts, Chiayeh (Kasyapa), Chutan (Gautama) and Chumolo(Kumara) all of whom hold office at the Bureau of Astronomy.
Mathematics - Due to the development of trigonometry, Indian astronomy was valued in China and Indians works on maths were translated into Chinese. The Yin-te Index no 10 mentions three books on maths, all beginning with Po-lo-men. These books were Brahmin Arithmetical Rules, The Brahmin Arithmetical Classics are two Indian books that find mention in the annals of the Sui dynasty.
Medicine - Chinese Buddhist monks had felt interest in the Indian medical system from the 5th century a.d. There is a work called Chih-ch’an-ping-pi-yao-fang by a Chinese noble converted to Buddhism, Ching Sheng. Translated in 455 a.d. this is a compilation from different texts of Indian origin. Also the Yin-te Index no 10 mentions Indian books on pharmaceutics. The Sanskrit work Ravana-kumara Tantra deals with the method of treatment of children’s diseases as well as fumigation was translated into Chinese in the 11th century a.d.