Recently I found this article on the Interwebs about a robotic Buddhist teacher in China. Personally, I like the idea of mixing ancient Buddhist teachings with modern technology.  

Buddhism and technology is not a new subject but usually people assume that traditonal Buddhism is not compatible with 21st century, high-tech, consumerist lifestyles. But I think the Washington Post article shows that traditional Buddhism can thrive and adapt to modern industrialized societies thanks to caring and dedicated people. 

Concepts like mettā (goodwill), saṃsāra (aimless wandering) and sīla (personal conduct) are timeless and pertain to us as much as they do to people who lived many centuries ago in a different culture and place. The challenge for us Buddhists is how to transmit these teachings fluently to a 21st century audience whole remaining faithful to the spirit of the traditional Dharma. There’s no easy solution here, but examples like the Washington Post article above show that people are finding a way. 🙂


Enjoy the Spring!

Another great poem by Li Shangyin (李商隐, 813-858):

To Tzu-Chih: “Among the Flowers”

The light on the pool suddenly hides behind the wall,

Mingled scents of flowers invade the room.

On the edge of screen, powder smeared by the butterfly;

On the lacquered window the yellow print of the bee. 

Push those state papers across to the clerks. 

There’s a maid for every honest servant. 

Let’s ride abreast and hear each other’s poems. 

What’s so urgent about this business you waste your heart on?

(Trans by A.C. Graham)

Happy Spring, everyone!

P.S. For readers in the Southern Hemisphere, happy Autumn!

P.P.S. The previous poem

For Whom The Bell Tolls

I have been lately reading the poetry of Li Shangyin (李商隐, 813-858), a famous poet of the late Tang Dynasty in China. I like this one in particular translated by A.C. Graham:

Written on a Monastery Wall:

They rejected life to seek the Way. Their footprints are before us. 

They offered up their brains, ripped up their bodies; so firm was their resolution. 

See it as large, and a millet-grain cheats us of the universe. 

See it as small, and the world can hide in a pinpoint. 

The oyster before its womb fills thinks of the new cassia.1 

The amber, when it first sets, remembers a former pine. 

If we trust the true and sure words written on Indian leaves.2

We hear all past and future in one stroke of the temple bell.


1 In traditional Chinese culture, people believed a cassia tree grew on the Moon. Further, it was believes that oysters grew pearls during the waxing of the moon.

2 In ancient India, the Buddhist sutras were frequently written on palm leaves and carefully preserved.

The Poetry of Li He

Hi Guys,

Lately, I’ve been reading a book on Chinese poetry from the late Tang Dynasty, which is one of the high points of Chinese history and culture.1 I wanted to share some poetry by a man named Li He (李賀, 790–816) which is written as “Li Ho” in some old sources.2 Li He was a short-lived poet who did at the age of 27, and having failed the Imperial Examinations. Nevertheless, he was a an influential poet who was then forgotten for centuries until the 1800’s when his poetry received a kind of revival.

One of my favorite poems is “On the Frontier”, translated by A.C. Graham:

A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind,
Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
The sky swallows the road to Kokonor.
On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.

The dew comes down, the banners drizzle,
Cold bronze rings the watches of the night.
The nomads’ armour meshes serpents’ scales.
Horses neigh, Evergreen Mound’s champed white.

In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
North of their tents is surely the sky’s end
Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.

According to Chinese tradition, when the Pleiades flickered, this was an omen of a barbarian invasion. Also according to the book, the Evergreen Mound was the grave site of a Chinese imperial concubine named Wang Zhao-jun who was betrothed to a Xiongnu (Tartar) warlord. It is said that grass always grows there on account of her tremendous beauty.

I’ll post more poetry soon. Enjoy!

1 It is almost a fascinating period to me because of the strong Buddhist influence, and its effect on other Asian countries at the time. Subsequent dynasties were also culturally brilliant, but had more influence from Neo-Confucianism, as did neighboring countries.

2 His name is pronounced like “Lee Huh”.

The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. 😉

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. 🙂

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same

Buddhism and Printing


As readers know, I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the life of a Japanese-Zen monk named Tetsugen (1630-1682). Tetsugen was a prominent teacher and lecturer of the Obaku Zen sect, but his greatest accomplishment was providing a complete, printed collection of the entire Buddhist canon in Japan called the Obaku Edition of the Triptaka: Ōbakuban daizōkyō  黄檗版大蔵経.

The Obaku Edition was the de facto edition of the Buddhist canon in Japan until the modern period when it was superceded by the Taishō Edition (大正新脩大藏經, taishō shinshū daizōkyō).  While it wasn’t the first edition, the Obaku Edition stood out because of its quality and accessibility because of the way it was printed.

But why such a big deal? It helps to look at the history of Buddhism and printing to understand.

Printing in China

As early as the Tang Dynasty, China was printing texts using either movable type or woodblock printing. Movable type is easier for languages with Alphabets like English, but for Chinese, which has 40,000+ characters it was error-prone and time consuming.
Yangzhou Museum - woodblock for printing - fragment - CIMG2879

Instead, a block of wood could be carved to print a whole page and re-used over and over. This is called “wood block” printing. If the blocks were good quality and well-maintained (i.e. protected from insects and the environment), it could be used for centuries.

Pen ts'ao, woodblock book 1249-ce

The entire Buddhist canon or Tripitaka was a popular choice for printing. However, unlike religious texts such as the Quran or Bible which encompass a single book, the Tripitaka is HUGE. Imagine a complete set of encyclopedias then double or triple that. That’s the size of the Buddhist canon roughly. So compiling and printing an official copy was a massive undertaking.

Further, especially in the Tang Dynasty and earlier, translation was a big challenge. As the story of Xuan-zang shows, going to China was to learn Sanskrit was a dangerous journey and very few succeeded. Instead the Chinese government brought in Buddhist monks from various cultures on the Silk Road: Parthians like An Shigao, Kushans like Lokaksema and Kucheans such as Kumarajiva. The language differences between Sanskrit and Chinese were formidable and sometimes multiple editions of the same sutra were translated but eventually a complete Buddhist canon was compiled in the readable, literary Chinese of the day.

Starting in the year 983, with the Sichuan Edition, to the late Ming Dynasty, 20 official editions of the Buddhist canon were printed out. Some were better than others. The Yuan Dynasty Edition for example was considered inferior quality.

Printing in Korea

Similar to China, Korea developed sophisticated wood-block printing methods for publishing. Both were based off the Chinese Song Dynasty edition and were produced in the 11th and 13th centuries, using the Chinese Song Dynasty edition as their source. Similar to the Chinese editions, they used Korean-style Chinese characters:

Tripitaka Koreana sutra page

Further, the Korean woodblooks used to preserve the printing of the Tripitaka for the 13th century edition are preserved at Haeinsa Temple:

Korea-Haeinsa-Tripitaka Koreana-01

You can see how many blocks it took to print the whole thing. 🙂

Printing in Japan

Block-printing or any mass-printing of Buddhist texts in Japan came surprisingly late. Further, unlike the Chinese canon, there was never any effort to translate it into Japanese. Instead, similar to the Korean canon, Buddhist texts were preserved in Chinese characters.1 Further, Japanese Buddhist monks often had fewer texts and resources available for research. Finding a copy of the Lotus Sutra or Pure Land Sutras was easy but more obscure texts like the Surangama Sutra2 would be all but impossible for most monks.

Wood-block printing on a large scale finally came during the Edo Period, starting in the 17th Century. As Professor Baroni points out, there are reasons for this: Japan was finally stable after a century of warfare, and Buddhist monks turned more and more to scholarship so the demand for texts increased. At that time, most Buddhist monks relied on hand-copies versions, or Buddhist texts imported from China, which were carefully guarded. A typical monk or temple in Japan would have had access to far fewer sutras than their counterparts in Korea and Japan, but with the Edo Period, the demand for more texts finally changed the situation.

The first edition to be published was a government-sponsored edition called the Tenkai Edition or Tenkaiban (天海版) and was completed in 1648. Professor Baroni explains that only a few copies were printed and it was based on the problematic Yuan-Dynasty Chinese edition. Further, it used moveable-type, so there was a risk of human error in each copy due to the complexity of Japanese language and its use of Chinese characters.

The next edition was the Obaku Edition mentioned above. What was impressive about this edition was that it was superior quality using woodblock prints, and entirely a voluntary effort. Government funds were not used. Tetsugen, the famous Obaku Zen monk, started the effort around 1667. Per tradition, Tetsugen first got permission to take a break from Zen practice from his Chinese-teachers Yinyuan (隠元隆琦 1592—1673) and Muan (木庵性瑫 1611-1684). From there, Tetsugen, a skilled orator, toured Japan providing lectures mainly on the The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the Surangama Sutra and the importance of keeping the precepts.

Through these lectures, Tetsugen was able to secure enough funding to setup a print shop in Kyoto, while the compilation and editing of the edition took place at Obakusan, the main Obaku Zen temple an in another temple in Osaka, Zuiryuji where Tetsugen resided. A number of monks under Tetsugen also volunteered in the project, and by 1680, there were 6,956 volumes and over 20,000 blocks used. This was the de facto Buddhist canon used in the Edo Period due to availability and quality of work.

Sadly, Tetsugen did not live to see his edition completed. While waiting in the capitol of Edo (Tokyo) to present an edition to the Shogun, he heard of a famine in the countryside and left to assist in the relief efforts. Tetsugen died from illness while raising funds and distributing relief from the famine and his students completed the projected and presented the edition to the government.

Junjiro Takakusu

The Obaku Edition was the preferred copy of the Buddhist canon edition used until the 1920’s when it was superseded by the afore-mentioned Taisho Edition. The Taisho Edition project was started by a Buddhist scholar named Takakusu Junjirō (高楠順次郎 1866 1945 pictured above) who wanted to promulgate Buddhist-based education around the world. The quality and breadth of the Taisho Edition, or “Taisho Tripitaka”, has made it one of the most popular sources used for East-Asian Buddhist research. You can find it online easily, though not all of it is translated into English.


Long before printing was available in Europe, Buddhism and Printing went hand-in-hand in Asia, and due to the complexities of the languages, various methods were used to ensure quality and ease of printing. Much of what we know about Buddhism today and Asian literature is due to the efforts of these early masters of printing.

1 This is a big reason why Buddhist chanting in Korea and Japan uses the original Classical Chinese as the liturgical language. Presumably this was intended to preserve the teachings from changes over time, but comes at the cost of requiring translations for modern readers and students.

2 The Surangama Sutra is very popular in Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan (Zen) Buddhism, but wasn’t well-known in Japan, and did not have much influence until the pre-modern period.

The Lost “Iranian” Buddhism: A Brief History of the Silk Road

Hello Everyone,

I recently finished two related books this week: the Xuan-zang book I wrote about before and a new book by Richard Foltz about the religions of the Silk Road. The latter book was fairly short, but it was well-written and I finished it in about 4 days. I highly recommend it.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed these books so much is that they helped explain an important question about Buddhist history: how the hell did Buddhism go from India to China?

Anyone who’s studied a little history about Buddhism knows it travelled the Silk Road from India to China, where it flourished and influenced other East Asian countries (Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc). But this glosses over a lot. So these two books helped explain what exactly happened, and historical research was actually kind of surprising.

Bas relief nagsh-e-rostam couronnement.jpg

Different kingdoms and people “ruled” the Silk Road at different points of time, but many of them had a common “Iranian” origin. This is not the same as the modern country of Iran, but rather a common ancestry, which included such people as the Persians, the Sogdians, the Parthians and the Indo-Aryans such as Siddhartha Gautama. They had a common ancestry, spoke related Iranian-languages, and had common religious traditions that helped influence the new religions they encountered.1

What Is the Silk Road?

Silk route

The Silk Road was actually a network of trade routes that connected China with India, Persia and beyond Persia to the Near East. There were multiple routes, not a single road, and it was not common for a single merchant to travel the entire length. Instead, merchants would often use a “relay system” to bring goods to a major city along the road and trade there. The same goods might be carried by another merchant elsewhere, and so on.

For example, between Indian and China for example, there were three major roads, two passing through Central Asia: the “north” road which was longer but somewhat safer and passed north of the Taklamakan Desert, and the shorter “southern” road which was quicker but was riskier due to mountains, flooding rivers and the Desert. Xuan-zang, in his famous journey, took the northern route from China to India, and was relatively safe, but on his return, he took the southern route and nearly drowned twice, lost his elephant and many important items he brought back from India. Meanwhile, in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, mummies have been found wrapped in Chinese sill.

Anyhow, the constant trade back and forth also brought other people who were not in business. Monks, priests and people seeking their fortune would sometimes travel with merchant caravans. Cities and kingdoms on the Road often welcomed such people because they helped connect them with important cultures like Persia, India and China, and would help improve their prestige. With greater prestige and culture, the kingdom might prosper over rivals.

Why Did Buddhism Spread Along the Silk Road?

The original reason was probably trade. Rulers along the Silk Road would patronize traveling monks by building monasteries and establishing new Buddhist communities. This would help generate donations for the local economy, and enhance the culture and prestige of the city helping the economy further. For example, at the city of Balkh (now Afghanistan), Xuan-zang found 100 monasteries and a 3000 monks there in the 7th Century.

In reality, the local population probably didn’t convert to Buddhism en masse, but instead if may have blended with existing religious traditions. Also, as Buddhism declined, later religions such as Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam spread the same way. It was a recurring pattern: whoever controlled the trade influence the religious tendencies of the religion.

What Kind of Buddhism Did They Spread

The three main schools of Buddhism, out of the original 18, that spread along the Silk Road were:

  • Mahasangikas – Who tended to downplay the importance of the enlightened arhats, and emphasize intuition. They helped build the famous giant statues at Bamiyan, now destroyed.
  • Dharmaguptakas – Who elevated the importance of the Buddha, such that only he was worthy of offerings, and not the monks. They were the most important school early on, but gradually declined. The Agama Sutta in the Chinese Canon (equivalent to the Pali Canon in Theravada) is partly from Dharmaguptaka sources, as well as the Chinese monastic code of discipline.
  • Sarvastivadins – Who believed that past, present and future all existed simultaneously and were thus considered heretical according to the 3rd Council of Buddhism. Otherwise they were similar to other schools. Much of the Agama Sutta above derives from Sarvastivadin sources as well.

Finally of course was Mahayana Buddhism, which is what we see now in East Asian Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism was not a distinct school at this time, but had members from each of the various Indian schools, interacted closely with them, and was thus influenced by them. Mahayana Buddhism and its “bodhisattva practices” was a kind of extra-curricular activity monks and nuns could participate in, on top of their usual monastic discipline.

Research shows that much of imagery and sutras used in Mahayana Buddhism may have been composed outside of India in Central Asia. Iranian culture already had a diverse pool of beliefs and imagery, including but not limited to Zoroastrianism, and this may have helped shape what we now know as East Asian Buddhism. More on that in another post.

Who Spread Buddhism?

There were four major peoples that help spread Buddhism along the Silk Road, three of whom were ethnically Iranian:

  • The Bactrians, who blended Indian Buddhism with Greek culture.
  • The Kushans, who learned form Bactrians and spread it further.
  • The Sogdians, master traders and translators
  • The Parthians, the last and most powerful group who brought many texts and translators to China.

Buddhism began to spread from India to the Greco-Iranian kingdom of Bactria first. It was close to Kashmir, which was a major center of Buddhist learning, and the Bactrian kings were tolerant of all religious traditions. The people and language were a mix of Greek setters, Indian and Bactrian (Iranian), while the Bactrian language used Greek letters. As an example of diversity and tolerance, King Menandros patronized Buddhism, though he was not a follower. He is preserved in a Buddhist text called the Questions of King Menander.

But the Bactrian kingdom didn’t last long, and was soon conquered by an Iranian people called the Sakas, then the Kushans. The Kushans are possibly a mixed-ethnic group (Iranian and Tocharian) who revived the Greco-Bactrian culture and helped spread Buddhism further than before. It was under the Kushan Empire that Buddhist statues, which resembled Greek statues in some ways, began to appear. This is the “Gandhara-style” of Buddhist art, named after a famous region of the Kushan Empire.

Gandhara Buddha (tnm).jpeg

King Kanishka of the Kushan Empire, was considered a great patron of Buddhism, though he wasn’t a follower (he patronized Greek gods and Hindu deities as well). He organized a new Buddhist council in Kashmir to rewrite old Buddhist texts from obscure local “Prakrit” dialects into more standard Sanskrit, for example. Kanishka also helped build monasteries and communities throughout his empire. He is often called the “Second King Ashoka” for this reason.

But the group that helped spread Buddhism the most wasn’t the Kushans, it was the Sogdians. The Sogdians were a small Iranian people who lived around modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and were master translators and traders.

Sogdian artwork of Rostam

Their location along the Silk Road meant that they interacted with many different cultures, and thus they were able to carry ideas and goods to other major cultures easily. After Buddhism, the Sogdians helped spread other religions such as Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism as well as Islam. The Sogdians frequently translated texts from one language to another: for example Prakrit to Bactrian, Aramaic to Turkish, Parthian to Chinese, etc. Ironically the Sogdians did not translate much Buddhist texts into their own language until much later (mainly from Chinese) and this may help explain why Buddhism didn’t take root in Sogdian culture. There were definitely examples of devout Sogdian monks and communities but not wide-scale devotion.

Finally, the last major group to bring Buddhism to China were the Parthians. The Parthians were another major Iranian group that eventually conquered the Kushans and establaished the Parthian Empire. it was during this time that Buddhism probably spread the furthest into Central Asia. For example in the famous city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan), researchers have found extensive Buddhist texts from the 1st-5th centuries and Buddhist communities in Shash (modern Tashkent) show that Buddhism had spread northwest of India before it turned east toward Chin.

The Parthians also contributed many famous translators into Chinese.2 The most famous was An Shigao (安世高) who translated a lot of basic Buddhists texts along with his student An Xuan (安玄). The surname ān (安) was frequently used for Parthians at the time. Some of these texts are still used in the East-Asian (and Western) Buddhist canon.

Why Did Buddhism Decline on the Silk Road?

As mentioned earlier, whoever controlled the trade of the Silk Road influenced religion there. After Buddhism was established, newer religions such as Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism gradually dominated. The Persian merchants patronized both religions, as well as the state religion of Zoroastrianism and soon the Silk Road became very religiously diverse.

The final religion to appear was Islam. By the time that Islam reached Central Asia, Arab traders dominated the trade, and local kings and merchants found it advantageous to convert in order to build closer ties. In the countryside and the remote steppes, people tended to follow Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism for much longer, but in the cities, Islam and Arab culture were the new rising star and people tended to convert. Buddhism was already declining in India, so there wasn’t much incentive to maintain cultural ties with the Buddhist world. People simply lost interest.

Foltz’s book shows how the history of “Islamic conquest” at this time was often greatly exaggerated too. Writings at the time depicting local kings and warlords conquering other lands in the name of Islam were often a cover to simply expand control of trade, not religion. Research shows that the “convert or die” policies of these kings were often unsuccessful and limited in scope. What actually persuaded Central Asian people to convert to Islam were oftentimes charismatic Sufi preachers who helped fulfill the role of “shaman” that previous religions had done generations earlier. To this day, Islam in Central Asia is often syncretic and blends elements of earlier religions with canonical Islam. Meanwhile, the Nestorian Church ironically survived in the heart of the Islamic world in the form of the Syriac Church in northern Iraq and other places.


Between the change in economy, decline of Buddhism in India and role Sufi preachers played in spreading the new dynamic faith, Buddhism naturally declined and faded entirely as did Nestorianism and Manichaeism.


The Iranian peoples of Central Asia were critical to bringing Buddhism out of India to Central Asia, China and now the modern world. We wouldn’t have things like Zen and Pure Land Buddhism if it weren’t for the Sogdians, Kushans and Parthians among others. Ironically many of these cultures no longer exist, yet their legacy lives on in many others.

The books mentioned at the beginning of this post were a lot of fun to read and I can’t recommend them enough for those interested in Buddhist history.

1 Even the modern Islamic Republic of Iran is just the latest in a very long series of dynasties and rulers that stretches back to the earliest civilizations of Man. See for example the Safavid Dynasty and Achaemenid Dynasty.

2 Other famous translators were not Parthian though: Lokaksema was Kushan while Kumarajiva had ancestry from both Kashmir and Kucha, another major Buddhist center at the time.