N3.12 Keeping the faith - Discovery of Buddhist India
Sun Shuyun, The Scotsman, Glasgow, Scotland
I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous time
when everything was turned upside down.
Landlords, shop-keepers, artists, party officials and Buddhist monks
were frequently paraded in the streets as
It was like a public entertainment, drawing huge crowds. One day I
dragged my grandmother along to watch. People
splashed ink on them, a Red Guard whipped them with a belt, loudspeakers
on a truck announced that they were
"the enemies of the people", traitors who dreamed of toppling the
dictatorship of the proletariat.
I remember asking grandmother, how could those people possibly topple
the government? I did not understand.
Especially the old, bald priests in their long dirty robes. They looked
so frail, as if they could collapse any
minute under their heavy placards.
My grandmother said that they were the gentlest of men - they walked
very carefully so they would not tread on
ants and in the old days, when they lit a lamp, they would cover it with
a screen, so that moths would not fly
into it. But my father said I should not be fooled by appearances. "Even
a dying cobra can bite," he warned me.
In this battle between my father, a devout Communist, and my
grandmother, a pious Buddhist, I was firmly on my
father's side. My education had taught me that Buddhism was feudal and
poisonous, part of the old life, like the
last Emperor. As we sang in the Internationale: "There is no saviour,
nor can we depend on gods and emperors.
Only we can create happiness for ourselves." How could Grandmother be so
foolish as to think that there was an
almighty God up there? China had suffered centuries of wretchedness with
no help from the Buddha; Chairman Mao
had liberated us.
Mao died in 1976 and so did the Utopia he tried to build. But now many
of the things that were attacked in his
time are making a comeback. Buddhism, an integrated part of Chinese life
and culture, has once again become a
focus of people's belief.
I found myself thinking more and more about grandmother. When I visit a
temple, I light incense for her.
Sometimes I read a Buddhist text and find the stories in it very
familiar - the stories she told me as a child.
The forbearance, the kindness, the suffering, the faith and the
compassion were what she embodied. I began to
see how extraordinary her faith was.
She lost seven of her nine children in a smallpox outbreak, a tragedy
enough to crush anyone, let alone such a
frail person, but her faith kept her going, even though all she could do
was to pray on her own in the dark,
without temples and monks to guide her, and was derided by her own
family. She wanted me to follow her faith and
acquire the strength it gave her. I never gave it a chance, rejecting it
early on without really knowing what it
By chance, I came upon the story of Xuanzang in my adult life, the
Chinese monk who travelled from China to
India and back in the seventh century. He went in search of the true
Buddhism, convinced that Buddhism in China
had become corrupted and that he would find everything he needed to know
in India. I had read of him in my
childhood as a character in a popular novel, The Monkey King: kind and
pious, but weak, bumbling and, as the
Chinese say, with a mind as narrow as a chicken's intestine. But the
real Xuanzang was a truly remarkable man
and his life is an extraordinary tale - one of spirituality,
determination and adventure - a tale that would
have challenged the Communist ideology, which is why he had been hidden
His journey was fraught with danger: he was lost in the desert for four
days without water. He was robbed many
times - once pirates threatened to throw him into a river as a sacrifice
to the river goddess. He was almost
killed by an avalanche on top of the Heavenly Mountains. At one point he
even had to go on hunger strike to be
allowed to continue his journey. He travelled for 18 years and he
returned to China with the scriptures he
sought and persuaded the Emperor to allow Buddhism to flourish in China.
He did more for the spread of the faith in China than anyone and he left
a detailed record of his travels,
Record of the Western Regions, which opened up the history of the whole
Silk Road region.
I wanted to find out more about him and about his faith, and my
grandmother's. I decided to follow in his
footsteps. My journey was hardly a patch on his, a mere ten months. It
was quite hazardous - walking into a
hostage crisis in Kyrgyzstan, being surrounded by election violence in
the poorest part of India, escorted by
armed guards in Peshawar, and being caught in the midst of a Muslim
uprising in western China - but nothing like
what he went through. I found many of the things I was looking for on my
journey but I did not expect to learn
that we owe to Xuanzang's Record nothing less than the rediscovery of
the Buddha and all the places of
pilgrimage associated with him.
It is hard to imagine that until 150 years ago, both Indians and people
in the West had little idea who the
Buddha was. Many considered him to be either an Egyptian or an
Even as recently as 1942, the Encyclopedia Britannica began its entry on
Buddhism by defining the Buddha as "one
of the two appearances of Vishnu", the Hindu god, a view confirmed by
Brahmin priests, the custodians of
knowledge in India. There is a drawing of the Mahabodhi Temple - the
holiest place for Buddhists, the place of
the Buddha's enlightenment - made by a British officer of the East India
Company in 1799.
It shows a lonely structure covered with weeds, its roof fallen in and
its walls cracking. The caption of the
drawing says it all: "East view of the Hindu Temple at Bode Gya". It was
as if nobody knew Jerusalem was the
holy city of Judaism and Christianity, or Mecca was the holy place of
Islam. In New Delhi I asked Dr RC Agrawal
of the Archaeological Survey of India, the ASI, why this history had
disappeared. He had led most of the recent
excavations of Buddhist sites in India. "For us Hindus, this life is
only transitory," he said. "What is history
and historical knowledge but a kind of unnecessary baggage?"
Buddhism disappeared in India in the 11th century, due to its own
decline and the fatal blow by invaders from
today's Afghanistan. Jungles swallowed all the thousands of its
monuments. The Buddha was all but forgotten in
the land of his birth. "We owe Xuanzang a lot," Dr Agrawal said,
sincerely. "So much of our history would have
been lost without him. Open any book on early India, he is there. But
more than anything else, he brought
Buddhist India back to life for us."
The other key figure in the story was Alexander Cunningham, the first
director of the ASI and its founder.
Cunningham was the son of Allan Cunningham, a poet and man of letters
from Dumfriesshire - Allan's father was a
neighbour of Robert Burns.
As was the custom of the day, Cunningham and his two brothers went to
India to seek fame and fortune. He joined
the Bengal Engineers in 1833 and was first stationed in Benares. Outside
the city and across the Ganges was
Sarnath, a quiet retreat from the crowded Hindu city. Here, among
ancient trees and overgrown grasses, was an
imposing 145ft-high domed edifice, with superbly crafted sculptural
ornaments on its surface. What was it for?
Cunningham was curious.
The general belief in Benares was that it held the ashes of the "consort
of some former rajah or prince".
Cunningham decided to do a little exploration. Being an engineer, he
built scaffolding as high as the dome and
sank a shaft, 5ft in diameter, from the top all the way down to the
foundations. After 14 months of labour and
an expenditure of more than 500 rupees, he found nothing but a stone
with an inscription he could not read. He
sent it to James Princep, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society,
who finally deciphered it as a standard
homage to the Buddha, whose followers still practised his teachings in
Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet. But
it was not clear where the Buddha was born, or where he preached and
All was to be made plain by the publication in English of the eyewitness
accounts of two Chinese monks, Faxian's
Record of Buddhist Countries in the 1840s and Xuanzang's Record in the
1850s. Copies of both books had always
existed in China and now they were "discovered" by European orientalists
and translated for the first time into
French and then English. Between the two of them, they had mapped out
the whole of Buddhist India, with all the
main sites, their locations, their importance, their histories, and
details of the monasteries and the monks who
Cunningham conceived an ambitious plan: to use them as his guide and
throw light on more than 1,000 years of
this history. He had to wait almost three decades before realising his
dream. In 1861, now aged 47 and retired
from the army with the rank of Major-General, he landed the job he
wanted: he would head the new Archaeological
Survey of India, a grandiose name for him and his two assistants. He was
It all gives new meaning to the phrase, "the rest is history". One by
one the Buddhist sites were uncovered and
identified by Cunningham and his men. The magnificent monument that he
had drilled through in Sarnath marked the
spot of the Buddha's first sermon after his enlightenment.
The Mahabodhi Temple as we see it today in Bodh Gaya was restored by
him, meticulously following Xuanzang's
descriptions. Perhaps most dramatically, Cunningham recorded how he read
the monk's account of the temple that
marked the spot where the Buddha died. Within it, Xuanzang said: "There
is a figure of the Buddha. His head is
towards the north and he looks so serene he might be asleep."
Cunningham sent his assistant Archibald Carlleyle there in 1875 to
supervise the dig. The place was covered in
jungle. When it was cleared away, the ruins were found 10ft deep in the
ground, complete with the reclining
Buddha - exactly as Xuanzang had described it 1,200 years before.
Cunningham's reaction reveals his excitement: "To the west of the stupa
we found that famous statue of the
Buddha's Nirvana, as recorded by the Chinese pilgrim. I have no doubt
this is the statue that Xuanzang had seen
Xuanzang and Cunningham together gave us back this place, returning it
from the graveyard of history, into the
light, into recognition, into worship. It really is an astonishing
Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun is published by
Buddhist News Network (BNN).