19) Early Chinese Buddhism

Our journey follows the ancient Silk Road as it enters China at Urumqi. My family traveled to Urumqi twenty years ago in 1999 to adopt our oldest daughter Emily who was six at the time. 


Marco Polo’s map of Silk Road

The Silk Road that went from Venice in Italy to Xi’an and Luoyang in China was the primary connection for the exchange of not only goods, but acceptance and understanding differences in culture and religion along the more than thirty-five hundred mile journey. Marco Polo and silk seemed to be the main conveyors, but Buddhism from India also found its way to the Silk Road and headed east to China. Another way was by sea from India to Canton (now Guangzhou), then to Nanjing…

Christianity found its way from the Vatican and Jerusalem eastward too and was accepted as long as it respected other ways of thinking… just as today in the Christian Family Church throughout China.


Buddhist sutras leaving India for Xi’an

The Buddhist sūtras coming from India had to be converted from Sanskrit to Chinese. Buddhism also traveled by elephant over the Himalayas via Chengdu to Xian, Luoyang, and south to the Shaolin Temple where Chinese Chan Buddhism got its beginning. We’ll go there in my next entry. This was initially done by Taoist who could translate into the local language. This made the introduction of Buddhist ideas less threatening and more appealing to local Chinese. It was believed that even Chuang Tzu’s writings from centuries earlier were influential in adapting the first Buddhist ideals to Chinese culture. His ability to challenge Confucian orthodoxy demonstrated the strength of what was to become Taoism in combining various ways of thinking – showing that there was more than one way to get to your final destination by following your own nature. Taoist terminology was used to express Buddhist doctrines in the oldest translations of Buddhist texts, a practice termed ko-i, was called “matching the concepts”. This reasoning led others to Chan and later Zen Buddhism in Japan.  Much later Buddhist monks were able to do the translations of the sutras themselves beginning at the White Horse Buddhist Temple in Luoyang.

There were several stops and locations along the way that helped to fuse together existing thought with that of Buddhism that changed the landscape of how China saw themselves and who they were to become. 


Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an

After twenty-five years of study, travel, and writing, one word seems to define for me how philosophy, transcendental thought, and adapting to change, could make it all fit together. That word is convergence. The ability to convert old into something new into something better. The journey always beckons – not knowing where it leads almost as if our fear is only in being alive to paths that lead to places we cannot find or know that ultimately must define us. As if taking snapshots along the way in places we have seen and been before. Only curious as to what remains and changes over the time since we were there before, as if acknowledging past times spent in both joy and sadness. It’s the remembering and seeing what things have become that makes the trip memorable.

The Chinese intrinsically could do this because of the I Ching (yin/yang) and the basis behind the idea of “complimentary opposites”. Relying on the nature of things – not simply our initial idea of what outcome should occur, but to nature and ABud4what brings all things (the ten thousand things) into unison.

Emblem of the I Ching from the Temple of the Eight Immortals in Xi’an more than fifteen hundred years old.

The Taoist would say to wait patiently for nature to run its course that tells the inevitable answer. For the Buddhist, I think it is finding that perfect moment and staying there in an unfiltered life. It’s what the silence and mindfulness tell us in meditation.

What is it that keeps us from living an unfiltered life? When I travel around China, I always try to envision… what were they thinking and how they made the pieces all fit together. Four cities begin to tell the story – to a lesser extent Urumqi that serves as the gate to China, and more importantly Chengdu, Xian and Luoyang, the latter two both capitols of ancient China in different eras and dynasties. First Xi’an, and the Big Wild Goose Buddhist Pagoda.

In June 2014 I traveled to Xi’an. On a Tuesday afternoon I decided to try to see the Little Wild Goose Pagoda.  I walked following the map and directions of people ABud5along the way and finally arrived, but as fate would have it, it was closed on Tuesdays.

Mandala at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda 

Luckily a couple from Germany arrived about the same time and together we decided to find our way by bus to the Big Wild Goose Buddhist Pagoda instead. One of them had an IPhone with map of Xi’an and bus routes. I found that very interesting. He found the bus and it came by our street in a few minutes and we arrived about fifteen minutes later. After we arrived, we went separate ways, but another example of people coming into my life at just the moment I need help.


Presentation of Buddhist sutras

The Big Wild Goose Buddhist Pagoda is located in southern Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China. It was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty and originally had five stories, although the structure was rebuilt in 704 during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian and its exterior brick facade was renovated during the Ming Dynasty. One of the pagoda’s many functions was to hold sutras and figurines of the Buddhas that were brought to ABud7China from India by the Buddhist translator and traveler Zuanzang. Xuanzang started off from Chang’an (the ancient Xi’an), along the Silk Road and finally arrived in India, the cradle of Buddhism.

Over the next seventeen years he obtained Buddha figures, 657 kinds of sutras, and several Buddha relics. Having gotten the permission of Emperor Gaozong (628-683), Xuanzang, as the ABud8first abbot of Daci’en Temple, supervised the building of a pagoda inside it. With the support of royalty, he asked 50 hierarchs into the temple to translate Sanskrit in sutras into Chinese, totaling 1,335 volumes. On my visit today, I am simply taking as many pictures as possible and getting “feel” for this place of such great influence on what would come to be known as Chan Buddhism and later Zen in Japan.

What I am mostly interested at this point is how Buddhism arrived in Xi’an from ABud9both the Silk  Road and coming up from the southwest in Sichuan and Chengdu where I had just been a week earlier. The continuing moderating influence of Confucius and Taoism as Buddhism became popular was significant.

Pavilion with Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Background

Also, the power and influence of Buddhism here in the ancient capital eventually led to its moderation or predominance, due to its growth in incorporating Confucian and Taoist Ideals into its religious practice. This becomes clearer as we move ahead to the end of the Silk Road in Luoyang, and eventually the Shaolin Temple and Songshan Mountain. But first, a visit to the Shaanxi History Museum here in Xi’an.

Wednesday morning, June 11th, I take a taxi and arrive at the Shaanxi History ABud11Museum. It was very crowded with what I would call swarms of tourists, school kids and locals. It was easy to see why. The breadth of history that is on display was hard to take in, especially with so many people wanting to see this great museum. Of course, this didn’t keep me from taking several hundred pictures, or in other words when both batteries were spent by 11:30.  While I still have the Temple of the Eight Immortals this afternoon and terracotta warriors ABud12tomorrow, I have taken about two thousand pictures so far.  These pictures are only one piece of how I assemble an impression of the times people lived through the centuries and corresponding dynasties. Almost as though I am an anthropologist and historian reliving history as I go. It’s the ABud13same feeling I get in Qufu and Shandong after so many years of being there. For my Chinese History and Philosophy Class for the Confucius Institute at Miami Dade College, I assembled almost two hundred “pages” for my Power Point presentations covering Chinese pre-history up through the Song Dynasty and Genghis Khan before this trip and visits to Qufu, Chengdu and now Xi’an. It is as though I already have a pre-ordained sense of time, space, and places I have seen and been many times in the past. (The power point presentation is here on my website. I was teaching at Miami Dade College at the time).

That is what makes today and these three days in Xi’an so different. For one thing I ABud14don’t sense or have the comfort level obvious to me in Qufu and Chengdu. While I find myself comfortable in places where there is little or no contention present, here in Xi’an there seems to be contention in the air on every street corner. Yet this feeling is hard to pinpoint. There is so much here that needs to be sorted out to be more fully appreciated and understood. It seems the spirit of Emperor Qin is never too far away…

So, as I entered the Shaanxi Museum, I knew I was literally taking a brief snapshot ABud15of something that would take much longer to try to digest and understand. Chang’an (Xi’an) stood at the epicenter of what was known as the Middle Kingdom for more ABud16than a millennium.  It is as if those present all want their story retold in such way that expresses what they felt were best intentions, not necessarily outcomes, or how they left things at their end. Or perhaps even the rest of the story.

Buddhism came to Xi’an and moved on to more hospitable locations. From Xi’an I move along the Silk Road to Huashan Mountain and Luoyang where I visited last year (2018).  First, to the White Horse Buddhist Temple, then to the Buddhist Longman Grottoes. I plan to return to Xi’an to take the fast train to Chengdu and then Tibet. Then on my trip home I had a stop over again in Xi’an on my way to Beijing and home.

Luoyang was home and capital of thirteen dynasties, until the Northern Song ABud17dynasty moved it east to Kaifeng in the 10th century.  Both the Tang and Sui dynasties were centered here in what was considered the height of Buddhist influence and demonstrate how the connection between Luoyang and ABud18early Buddhism became so important. At one point there were thirteen hundred Buddhist temples here.  Luoyang was home to many emperors and had lasting importance to early Chinese history. Luoyang was the capital city for the longest period, the most dynasties, and the earliest time compared with the other ancient capital cities. Luoyang lies in the Central Plain surrounded by mountains, which were natural barriers against invasions.

Apart from its favorable geographical location, Luoyang had an agricultural ABud19advantage as several rivers flow through it. Therefore, 105 emperors of 13 dynasties set their capitals in Luoyang during China’s history. Luoyang was the center of politics, economy, and culture in China for 1,500 years. Since the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC), Luoyang had begun its history as a capital city. In the Western Han Dynasty, ABud20Luoyang was not chosen as the capital, but the ruler still attached great importance to the city. There is so much history here that I want to come back to Luoyang for further study. It is said Lao Tzu lived here for a while and Taoism got its beginnings at Mount Songshan to the south where I will visit while I am here. Where we will go on my next entry.

On Monday (9/24) I went with three students by bus to the Buddhist White Horse ABud22Temple. I took several pictures until my battery stopped then I used my phone camera for a few more. Many I encounter think I am brave to travel alone where I can’t speak the language. But I counter that I generally know them by their history better than they know themselves. After seeing my writing, they mostly agree.

What struck me was the continuing presence as if the joining or coming together ABud23of history with one’s natural environment and connecting this with the universe, or divine spirit within us and that which surrounds us as well. Continually coming home to visit something that is innately a part of yourself, i.e., your source. Something you have always known, but simply needing to be reminded. This seems to be the motive behind all these ancient “temples”. A desire to continue to return to be reminded innately of something we may not see at first, but as I said at the beginning.…  The ABud24journey always beckons – not knowing where it leads almost as if our fear is only in being alive to paths that lead to places we cannot find or know that ultimately must define us. As if taking snapshots along the way in places we have seen and been before that show, or tell us the way forward. I would call it having and keeping to the true transcendental spirit that I keep referring to with others I have highlighted here on my blog/web page. To places we in the west today would describe as “parks having great historical and religious significance”. They bring a sense of longevity and simplicity to it all spanning thousands of years and our being reminded that both the inner and outer are the same reality we each choose to live in the present every day. They become temples, as if paying respect or homage, defining the past in the best way of how we want to see them and ourselves.

The Buddhist White Horse Temple on the outskirts of Luoyang has always been on ABud25my bucket list here in China. It’s influence in the spread of Buddhism over the centuries has been immeasurable. At some point in our lives there is something more than just knowledge and understanding. It comes with wisdom, as acceptance, and an enduring presence. What is it we’re grounded too? Others may teach, but ultimately it is something that becomes innately ourselves. It is having the presence of self-assurance knowing that kindness and simplicity are the keys that opens all doors. (something I need to work on) Keeping things simple means there are fewer doors that need to be opened as well. As if “becoming simple minded” is a good thing.

Two other overreaching influences from Buddhism coming to China, was that Luoyang was the start of the Silk Road that headed back to Venice in Italy. It was by way of the Silk Road (and elephants going through Tibet to Chengdu and Xian), that Buddhism came to China, or by sea to Canton. By the time Marco Polo came here to Luoyang with his father and uncle in 1270 AD on their way to visit Kublai Khan in Beijing, the Silk Road had been a functioning means of transportation of goods and culture between east and west for almost fifteen hundred years.

The White Horse Temple and Long Man Grottoes have had the most lasting historical presence in this area of China. What Buddhism brought was a sense of permanence and presence that people could see as their own connection to what we would now call “becoming universal”. That you were more than your body, and a good life could lead to better things, as yet unknown, in the future. That we are one and there is no separation between the world we live in and what we might find for ourselves afterwards. It’s the convergence of thought I spoke of earlier.

There seems to be a progression in my travels, first to Beijing and the Llama Buddhist Temple, and knowing The Eight Protectors (to the left), then the opening of the gate with Confucius in Qufu.


 Finally, for now, coming to the famous White Horse Temple and Long Man Grottoes. Like stepping stones to greater appreciation, understanding, and hopefully wisdom of my own origins in Chinese history. As if both a progression and remembrance, retracing my steps – later heading back to Xian and Chengdu again before ultimately going to Tibet. With more than a week in between to discover new mountain vistas and clouds waiting for me to rise above.

The White Horse Temple, one of the oldest temples in China, is located about 6 ABud27miles from the city of Luoyang in eastern China’s Henan Province. It is a place that disciples of the Buddha school recognize as the palace of Buddhist ancestors and the place where Buddhist theory was taught. It was built by Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (29 AD – 75 AD), and there is a legend about its establishment. The scholar Fu Yi told the emperor after his dream: “Your subject has heard it said that there is somebody who has attained the Dao (Tao) and who is called Buddha; he flies in the air; his body had the brilliance ABud28of the sun; this must be that god.” According to the historical book of records that after a dream, Emperor Ming sent an envoy to Tianzhu in southern India to inquire about the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhist scriptures were said to have been returned to China on the backs of white horses, after which White Horse Temple was named.

Two senior monks She Moteng and Zhu Falan, preached at White Horse Temple and jointly completed the translation of the 42-chapter Sutra, the first Chinese version of Buddhist scriptures. After She Moteng passed away, Zhu Falan continued to translate a number of scriptures. Their translations of the scriptures were all treasured in the Main Hall for the monks to worship. It was said that in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534), when the Buddhist monks worshiped the scriptures, the scripture suddenly glowed with colored lights and lit up the Main Hall.

Longman Grottoes on the outskirts of Luoyang

 I think the trip is catching up with me… in more ways than one. I seem to have eaten something that didn’t sit well, or not eating enough. Today is Sunday, September 30th and I’m heading by taxi to the Longman Grottoes, although I’m not sure how long I’ll last. Hopefully not too much walking today. There is lots of information on the internet as to history, and I will add more later when I feel better. ABud29It didn’t dawn on me until the next day that I may have been experiencing a far greater hunger than just filling my stomach.

As I look at the side of the mountain and think of those who might have carved out of stone these caves and statutes south of Luoyang all those centuries ago, quite possibly after a long trek covering several months or even years to get here over the Silk Road or from the southwest and Xi’an. I can only marvel at their work and their religious veracity. And what was in all likelihood their mantra – repeated over and over again with every strike of the hammer and chisel as they did their ABud30life’s work. As they repeated those four magic words over and over again with every strike of the hammer.

OM MANI PODME HUMThese words can be translated and have a universal meaning:

OM – The Jewel in the Heart of the LOTUS! The deep resonate OM is all sound and silence throughout time, the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being; when intoned with the prescribed vibrations, it evokes the ALL that is otherwise inexpressible.

ABud31The MANI is the “adamantine diamond” of the Void – the primordial, pure and indestructible essence of existence beyond all matter or even antimatter, all change, and all becoming.

PADME – In the lotus – is the world of phenomena, samsara, unfolding with spiritual progress to reveal beneath the leaves of delusion the mani-jewel of nirvana, that lies not apart from daily life but at its heart.

ABud32HUM has no literal meaning, and is variously interpreted perhaps simply as a rhythmic exhortation, completing the mantra inspiring the chanter as a declaration of being (like the stone carvers here at Longman Grottoes), symbolizing the Buddha’s gesture of touching the earth at a moment of enlightenment. As if saying all that is or was or will ever be is right here in this moment.

For myself, I am especially attracted to the mythical embodiment of the Buddha, ABud33called a Bodhisattva known as Avalokita Ishuara – who is seen as “The Lord that looked down in compassion”. He represents “the divine within” sought by mystics and has been called “The Lord that is seen within”.

Maybe this is the answer as to why the Buddha is always seen smiling. Could it be as though reaching the ultimate state of heart and mind within ourselves? Perhaps living within one’s own “true nature”. It is the Avalokita… i.e., the Presence within each of us.

Am I becoming a Buddhist? I don’t know. I still am a Taoist at heart. But I can see how they became intertwined in Chinese history, religion, and culture. I lived and taught in Qufu, home of Confucius for many years, now moving to Buddhism I think. There is a saying in China that goes – you are born a Taoist, live as a Confucian, and die a Buddhist… Its allegorical of course, but you can see the reasoning. I still have those two things called discipline and patience to work on – and a sense that I still have a way to go yet. For myself, it has always been about the freedom to breathe. Perhaps an anomaly – always the outlier. But maybe not – maybe it is the sense of ultimate freedom yet to be found – I’m just not there yet. Maybe I’ll find it on this trip. Perhaps I will look for Avalokita when I get to Lhasa in a couple weeks. Or maybe I should just ask the stone carvers here at the Longman Grottoes. They obviously knew the answer. (with excerpts from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard).

To the right is a map of how Buddhism came from India to China showing the routes ABud35via the silk road (in red), and the blue to Chang’an (Xi’an) and Luoyang. This area in northern India southwest of Tibet is still the central foundational location for what is considered as Tibetan Buddhism described in my last entry. Once the weather cleared, I made it to the Long Men Grottoes and then south to the Shaolin Temple before heading to Xi’an, back to Chengdu and Lhasa next Monday. In the afternoon I decided to take a walk and get a foot bath, ABud36then walking further I came across Zushi Temple, dedicated to Lao Tzu.

It is as though now that I have entered this journey, there is an acknowledgment that there is no turning back to the person I was before I left. I’ve been gone for only a week, and it seems so long ago. I have always been enamored with the stars and cosmos… what is seen ABud37as universal. It makes sense now that what is changeless and immortal is not your mind/body, but rather the Mind that is shared by all existence. Stillness that never ceases because it never becomes more than the present. It simply is. I think this is helpful in releasing ego that then dissolves into nothing. It is here that we can enter the mystic nature of who we are. A commonality that enhances… as if a cosmic field of vision that becomes you. I know that’s all pretty deep, but going there is what literally helps me to focus and see beyond myself. It is where my Taoist beginnings are taking me now that means I must get my “mind right”. As if living a dream as the dream ABud38becomes me. All else falling away, this re-enforcement of Buddhist and Taoist thought moving me fearlessly into the mystic, becoming transcendent, even transcendental.

Finally, I am reminded of my own version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching that I wrote in May/June 2000 and my book, Thoughts on becoming a Sage, The Guidebook for leading a virtuous Life. Just who was this Lao Tzu and why is he so important in bringing it all together? Lao Tzu was the culmination of thousands of years of philosophical thought of what was to become Taoism. I plan to continue this journey from the top of Huashan Mountain 100_5671made famous as a respite by Lao himself next week. Ultimately, it is what the sage has learned and then in turn taught others along the way that guides us demonstrating how Taoist and Buddhist philosophies became so compatible before returning again to Chengdu, spending a few days in meditation and visiting the giant Leshan Buddha before going to Tibet on this trip.

Thoughts on becoming a Sage

Verse 78 – Following the way of Heaven

The sage endeavors to follow the way of heaven while only revealing everything for its true and natural place. Pulling down the high while lifting the low he stays on an even keel finding the natural balance of all around him.

Continually moving forward unsure or unconcerned if what he does is ultimately good or bad as long as the natural order of things are followed and are allowed to take their places.  Moving without presumption or staking claim to what may be perceived as personal achievement.


Dan at Heaven’s Gate on top of Huashan Mountain

Choosing to remain in the background and not displaying his skills, nothing can deter or get in his way.  His burden to keep his virtue to himself and not revealed to those who continually come running to his doorstep.

Modeling his actions after the way of heaven, the sage takes from the long and gives to the short so that the ten thousand things naturally find their places.  For all things under heaven to find their place, it is best for heaven to sit back and do nothing. Allowing the nature of all things to come forward unimpeded fulfilling its ultimate endeavor and finding its true identity and destiny.

My next entry here on thekongdanfoundation.com will be a continuation of what Buddhism found in China… Shaolin and what became Chan and Zen Buddhism – stay tuned.

By 1dandecarlo

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