In Buddha’s Footsteps

How Buddhist teaching made its mark on the Silk Road.

How does the old Silk Road »sound«? Which of this great trade route's strings still vibrate today? The export of Chinese silk first prompted German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen to refer to the »Silk Road« in 1877. But at the same time he was well aware that this wasn't a one-way road for transporting China's exports to the West. And nor was it a roaring highway for the mere exchange of material goods. Cultural and linguistic encounters over a length of thousands of miles were responsible for a dynamic exchange, and it seems likely that music also played a major role in peaceful understanding between people.

Chinese silk, Persian strings

The instruments of the Silk Road introduced in short videos and descriptions.

Anyone studying ancient texts and pictures can't help be surprised by the size of the orchestras and the variety of their instruments at the imperial court of China's Tang dynasty. Not all of these instruments have survived into modern times. But the traditional Chinese instrument called the pipa is still widely known. The name of this pear-shaped lute tells us pretty much everything: originating in Persia, the pipa was later introduced to the Chinese court, where a new name had to be found for the exotic-looking instrument: pi for plucking with the index finger, pa for the thumb. So while silk Made in China was all the rage in the West, Persian strings and many other foreign instruments were eagerly received in the Middle Kingdom, as China became known.

A Buddhist demigod paying the pipa in a cave painting at Dunhuang

»Originating in Persia, the pipa was later introduced to the Chinese court, where a new name had to be found for the exotic-looking instrument: pi for plucking with the index finger, pa for the thumb.«

The doctrine of emptiness

Quieter by far, but not without a musical component, Buddhist doctrine found its way over the mountains and deserts of the Silk Road to China. It was a »doctrine of emptiness«: everything is transitory, nothing has a permanent existence. This concept should not be understood as nihilistic, as the historic figure of Buddha taught circa 500 BC with his idea of the »Middle Way«. For the Buddha's own way of life in ancient India, the cultivation of asceticism obviously played an important role, and to this end he abandoned personal property and embarked on a life of mendicancy, meditation and teaching. His ultimate goal was to reach Nirvana, a state in which the spirit is liberated from all constraints, both from the attachment to secular existence and from extreme self-castigation. The monastic order founded by the Buddha specialised in this spiritual teaching, and developed it further. But among lay persons, too, piety evolved in a wide variety of forms.

»The historic figure of Buddha aimed to liberate the spirit from all constraints.«

From Central Asia to China – and vice versa

»The Heart Sūtra is one of the writings that found its way to the East, where it was learnt by heart and recited and sung from memory.«

The Buddhist religion had a predominant influence on the old Silk Road for a good thousand years, until well into the 11th century; the best-known artefacts today are the caves of Dunhuang with their wall paintings and the invaluable texts found there. But here, too, things moved in different directions: there were not only Buddhist masters travelling from Central Asia to China. In the opposite direction, a Chinese monk by the name of Xuanzang embarked in the 7th century on a »Journey to the West«, as others did before and after him, looking for Buddhist scriptures in India that he then translated into Chinese. His detailed travelogue served as the basis for a Chinese novel, which has been filmed several times.

The »Heart Sūtra« is one such piece of writing; this extremely popular sutra confronts Buddhism scholars to this day with the question as to how it found its way to the East. But the effect it had is undisputed: it is seen not only in China, but also in Korea, Japan and Vietnam as the quintessence of Buddhist teaching, and is learnt by heart and recited, sung and set to music in many different forms. It is a text abounding in wisdom, whose simplest claim is that »Form is empty, emptiness is form«. The Heart Sūtra's language has been transmitting spiritual sparks transformed into music for more than 1500 years now. So it comes as no surprise that the well-known contemporary composer Tan Dun, whose concert at the Elbphilharmonie in April 2020 had to be cancelled, also set this short text, consisting of just 260 characters, to music in his »Buddha Passion«,

A picture of the monk Xuanzang (602-664), who travelled the Silk Road to India in search of Buddhist scriptures

Tan Dun: Buddha Passion

Tan Dun
Tan Dun © Nana Watanabe

Inspired by Buddhist temples many hundreds of years old that lie along the Chinese Silk Road, Tan Dun, the most important contemporary Chinese composer, wrote the opulent oratorio »Buddha Passion«.

Evidence of a lively development

It's true that Buddhist tradition and profound learning from India and along the Silk Road led to the evolution of a comprehensive canon. But the Silk Road primarily furnishes evidence of a lively development. Thus the increasingly popular worship of an infinite number of different buddhas from every era and every direction promoted the growth of a downright cult around Amitābha, the Buddha in »the pure land of the west«. Here, again, the rituals of a mantra-like invocation of the Buddha Amitābha are of special musical quality, and at the same time recall the qualities of the Buddha himself, who aims to rescue all living creatures.

»The monk Bodhidharma sailed to China in the 6th century, where he spent nine years meditating in a cave.«

The old Silk Road can also be seen as standing for other ways and even quieter sounds. For instance, the trade route over the south seas also became important in the first millenium as part of the Silk Road network. It was this route that Bodhidharma is said to have followed to China in the 6th century. Words meant little to him, likewise monastic life and the Imperial court. He is believed to have spent nine years meditating in a cave close to the present-day Shaolin Monastery. He saw the practse of the Middle Way in chan (Sanskrit: dhyāna), the state of rapt contemplation. But even this direction, which became known in Japan and then worldwide as Zen Buddhism, found verbal expression in the end. In musical terms, to this day the famous riddle of an 18th century Japanese monk helps achieve complete enlightenment: music lovers or visitors to the Elbphilharmonie might take inspiration from it, especially in between the movements of a concerto, if they ask themselves the wise question »How does the clapping of one hand sound?«

Text: Dr. Carsten Krause, Research Fellow, Numata Centre for Buddhism Studies, University of Hamburg. Last updated: 08.04.2020

Chan – the character used for »contemplation«

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