5th Century India: a Turning Point in Buddhist History

Sarnath, India.
I believe the fifth century marks a subtle albeit quite profound turning point in Buddhist history. It was around this time that support for established Buddhist institutions was waning while Mahāyāna imagery starts to appear in the art record. The Mahāyāna in India was still a fringe movement, quite possibly disdained and rejected in many places while finding popular support only in frontier realms in Central Asia and distant China. In the greater geopolitical situation Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric I. The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire did affect international trade, which indeed included India. Reduction in trade might very well have contributed to the declining support for formerly prosperous sanghas in India, which is revealed in the archaeological record. Circumstances changed and for various reasons the
Mahāyāna in India became relevant and quite influential, laying the foundation for a mature Mahāyāna that came of age in a feudal age and which in due time gave rise to Vajrayāna. Here I want to take a brief look at how and why this occurred as well as the outcome.
As we discussed in another post to some extent, in the fifth century a Chinese monk named Faxian 法顯 (338-c423) spent some years in India gathering and studying Buddhist texts. At about the age of sixty he departed Chang'an in the year 399 CE, accompanied by his fellow monks Huijing 慧景, Daozheng 道整, Huiying 慧應 and Huiwei 慧嵬. He took the overland route through Central Asia down through northern India and then to Sri Lanka before taking to sea when returning to China in 414.

The record of his journey (see Legge's translation here) offers a first-hand account of early fifth century India under the reign of Candragupta II (375-415) of the Gupta dynasty (320-550) and some of the surrounding kingdoms. Historians have long recognized the value of such witnesses in Indian history (Xuanzang is another notable figure) given the lack of extant histories from the subcontinent during ancient pre-Islamic times. The historical image becomes all the more clear when we combine these accounts with archaeological and epigraphical findings.

One valuable observation Faxian records is the seeming scarcity of Mahāyāna in India and elsewhere at the time of his visit. Naturally, we should not rely entirely on his testimony. Fortunately, we can refer to archaeological evidence that supports the idea that Mahāyāna was indeed a fringe movement in India proper during the period of its early emergence from the first century BCE to the fifth century CE despite it having gained popularity elsewhere in the world.

The geographical spread of Mahāyāna as described by Faxian is noteworthy, which Take'uchi Masayoshi 竹内正祥 in his article “The Distribution of the Influence of Buddhism as Seen in Records such as the Fa-hsien-ch'uan” points out. For ease of understanding let us look at this using some tables.

- The account lists nine countries which were exclusively Hīnayāna as follows.

Shanshan 鄯善國
Central Asia
Agni 烏夷國
Kashgar 竭叉國

Darada 陀歷 North India
Udyāna 烏萇國
Gandhāra 揵陀衛國

Bana1 跋那國 West India

Kanyakubja 罽饒夷城 Middle India
Kausambi 拘睒彌

- Two countries which were exclusively Mahāyāna.

Khotan 于闐 Central Asia
Kukyar (Yarkand) 子合國

- Three countries which were mixed Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna.

Luoyi 羅夷國 North India

Bhida 毘荼 West India

Sankasya 僧迦施 Middle India

It is clear that the regions where Śrāvakayāna (i.e., Hīnayāna) was prevalent outnumbered those where Mahāyāna existed. Furthermore, Faxian only identifies two realms which were exclusively Mahāyāna, both of which were in Central Asia and not India proper.

We should take a moment to consider Khotan as it seems to have been a frontier land that especially hosted the Mahāyāna away from its motherland. Khotan is located in the south west corner of the Tarim Basin at 37°06′ N 79°56′ E (see Google Maps). As the map shows it is located on the frontier of Tibet and is on the far side of the Himalayas and Pamirs. It is not so far from Leh in Ladakh (for my description of contemporary Leh see here). Nevertheless, it was a tough hike from Khotan to the plains of India.

Book of Zambasta
In the fifth century the Chinese considered Khotan part of the “western regions” 西域 and not India proper 天竺. It was a unique country located strategically between a few cultural spheres and major trade routes, hence it prospered throughout its history despite being frequently invaded. While the realm was often under Chinese domination, it was occupied in 670 by the Tibetans and then conquered around 798. Regardless of such foreign influence, the Khotanese people were Iranian during their long history and they produced much of their own native literature. In Old Khotanese they called their land Hvatana. In Indic it was called Gostana. It was Buddhist early on, perhaps from the first century BCE. We might infer that it was a significant centre for Mahāyāna as well given how the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in 25,000 verses, which was one of the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to be translated into Chinese, was brought from Khotan in 282 CE. Many other Khotanese monks contributed to translation projects in China later on (some of them seemed to have preferred Indic originals, but they sympathetically translated the texts into Chinese nonetheless). When Faxian visited he observed it having many Mahāyāna monks and a devout population. This is noteworthy because as far as the archaeological record in India and Faxian's observations go, it was only in Khotan and Kukyar where such exclusive centers of Mahāyāna were to be found.

Now, this brings to mind a few things. If Mahāyāna could only remain a fringe movement in India proper, then it possibly confirms Jan Nattier's theory as stated in her work The Bodhisattva Path: Based on the Ugraparipṛcchā a Mahāyāna Sūtra concerning the non-universalism of Mahāyāna texts.

[T]hey recognize that not all beings have the capacity to become Buddhas, and that the śrāvaka and not the bodhisattva path is appropriate for some. Thus even as they instruct the bodhisattva on the specifics of his or her chosen path - for in some of these scriptures bodhisattvas may also be women - they also treat the path of the śrāvaka as entirely legitimate. A careful reading of the surviving texts classified as "Mahāyāna sūtras" (preserved for the most part, only in Chinese and/or Tibetan) shows that this nonuniversalist position was actually quite widespread, especially in the early stages of the production of Mahāyāna sūtras literature.2

This aids in explaining in part why the Mahāyāna remained unsupported in the earlier centuries. Lacking a universalist approach would have presumably rendered it unappealing to large numbers of devotees and in turn institutions would have proven difficult to establish and maintain. The archaeological record on the Indian subcontinent does seem to confirm this given the scarcity of references to the Mahāyāna in the period around and before Faxian's visit to India. In other words, the Mahāyāna was a fringe movement and lacked economic support in India. Gregory Schopen has revealed that for the first half of the millennium donative inscriptions in the epigraphical record constantly show that mainstream orders were patronized by prominent laity and royalty. There is only one clear example of a Mahāyāna group receiving patronage prior to the fourth or fifth centuries, which curiously is around the time that Mahāyāna imagery starts appearing. Around that time the mainstream institutions start showing a clear lack of patronage, perhaps revealing a shift of fortunes where the Śrāvakayāna lineages waned and Mahāyāna movements only then gathered substantive support.3

If this is true, it still begs the question why did the Mahāyāna come to grow and even dominate north Indian Buddhism in the decline of the Guptas and thereafter in post-Gupta India? I believe the answer might be found in how the Mahāyāna was better able to adapt to and even thrive in the political and economic consequences of that collapse (c. 550). Former institutional paradigms for religion shifted away from old models and in the new setting it was the Mahāyāna with free license to exercise expedient means that had the ability to survive and grow in what became an Indian version of feudalism.

The question of whether or not there really was feudalism on the subcontinent is contested, but for our purposes here might consider one major view on the matter. Burjor Avari in his work India: The Ancient Past A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200 summarizes R.S. Sharma's contentious conclusion that post-Gupta India was in fact feudal. Consider the following:

The distinguished twentieth century historian R.S. Sharma has argued that the political, social and economic development of India during the period examined here can be characterised as feudal too. He sees the subservience of the lower classes of people and their servile mentality arising out of the oppression of their superiors. He has based his argument on the evidence, as he saw it, of manifestations resulting from the widespread disruption in the post-Gupta period, such as the loss of public revenues through the decline of trade and debased coinage, the issuing of land grants (fiefs) by monarchs to their subordinates, the subjugation of the peasantry by landed intermediaries, and the rise of religious devotional movements emphasising loyalty and reverence in general. The fact that the Puranas contain descriptions of the general disorientation within contemporary society, leading to the breakdown of old loyalties and certainties, has also been used as an argument to support the feudal thesis.4

The loss of public revenue is relevant to the direction the Buddhism took. The decline of trade can be traced back before the final demise of the Guptas. As Burjor Avari notes, “The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the disappearance of the flourishing trade with Rome meant a certain definite decline from the end of the fourth century in the value and volume of Indian international trade. One indicator of this was the paucity of metallic money from the late Gupta period onwards.”5 Of course trade did not entirely collapse, though the debasement of coinage and the issuance of land grants that likely resulted from declining trade presumably led to issues with funding Buddhist monasteries as was done before.

It is interesting to consider how this decline in trade owing to the economic decline and final collapse of the Western Roman Empire might have indirectly affected the Buddhist sangha in India. We need only consider that any sizeable vihāra would have required extensive funding and resources, which, as donative inscriptions show, they indeed received. However, from the fourth or fifth centuries those erstwhile prosperous lineages went into economic decline as a result of benefactors perhaps having to tighten their purse strings as investment in religion became infeasible. Nevertheless, this is when the Mahāyāna begins to thrive, perhaps because, unlike the Śrāvakayāna lineages, it was not bound to archaic observances and protocols in respect to social engagement, money and more significantly a closed canon – that is to say, new scriptures emerged suited to the times. It seems that the Mahāyāna had full license to employ expedient means and this made them a more attractive investment option, especially with the emergence of feudalism post-Gupta and the subsequent shift in religious outlooks and needs.

Ronald M. Davidson in the Handbook of Oriental Studies Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia describes the effects of the Gupta collapse in the sixth century on Buddhists and also how they responded. To begin with, whole areas became inaccessible to Buddhists, such as the Kṛṣṇa River Valley, which was home to early Buddhist communities such as Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa, owing to hostile Śaivaite forces. A number of monasteries in north India, including the famous Nālandā in modern Bihar state, effectively became feudal fortresses with the abbots overseeing taxation and policing over their territories (maṇḍala). Davidson also suggests that female participation in the religion declined owing to “institutional negotiation with non-Buddhist values”, eventually leading to the end of bhikṣuni ordinations in India around the end of the first millennium. This also brings to mind the brahmanization of Buddhism, which is a theory proposed by Bronkhorst and discussed in an earlier post (see here).

In terms of how the Mahāyāna coped in such an environment, institutions adapted to the new circumstances and this led to subsequent ideological and iconographic developments.

While institutions began to assume feudal dimensions, abbots, however, did not provide three important services that acted as much of the glue of the Indian feudal system: they did not engage in marital exchanges (being ostensibly celibate renunciates), they did not swear fealty to provide troops in time of war, and they did not provide the Brahmanical ceremonies needed by the king—marriage, postmortem, coronation, renewal, sacrifice, agricultural, and military rites among them. Buddhists had been aware of coronation ceremonies right from the early days of the order, but the earlier traditions had erected a strong ideological buttress between the law of the land (rājadaṇḍa) and the Buddhist administration (dharmavinaya). Both the Madhyamaka/Prajñāpāramitā ideology of the identity of samsara and nirvana and the feudalization of real Buddhist institutions eroded these ideological walls, so that earlier flirting that Buddhists had done with the Brahmanical practices of homa, coronation, image consecration (pratiṣṭhā), mantra recitation, and so on were now engaged in a much more sustained manner.6

Said practices might have been forbidden or discouraged in previous times, especially in orthodox Śrāvakayāna monasteries, but owing to the Mahāyāna capacity for adaptability it seems many appropriated heterodox practices for their own needs. In such feudal social arrangements, these were indeed real needs. It was no longer enough to engage in skilled debate or act as a field of merit as the benefactors had alternative concerns, especially since by this time the brahmanization of India likely forced a lot of Buddhists, either consciously or unconsciously, to adopt forms suitable to a changing social climate

One such practical concern is perhaps reflected in what is effectively Mahāyāna sorcery literature. These are texts and practices where through various means such a rites and incantations a mundane benefit not directly related to liberation from saṃsāra is sought. One such example is the Mahāmegha Sūtra 大雲輪請雨經, which provides a dhāraṇī for summoning rain.

It was via such functional practices perhaps that Mahāyāna gained a further foothold even before the collapse of the Guptas. In due time the Mahāyāna was able to modify already canonical works from the Śrāvakayāna. One such example such influence is reflected in the Mahāyāna vocabulary and incantations of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. Such adaptation of the Śrāvakayāna canon to Mahāyāna ends would have been common around Nālandā. It was translated into Chinese in 703 by Yijing 義淨 (635-713), who had traveled to India between 671-695 and went to great lengths documenting Vinaya practices as he observed them (for an English translation see here). We can assume then that the version he translated was from the late seventh century. Hence by the seventh century Mahāyāna influence was capable of appropriating and refitting canonical literature.

One thing I find remarkable is that with the rise of feudal India the major pilgrimage sites associated with the Buddha also fell into ruin. As we explored in an earlier post, based on the recorded observations of East Asian pilgrims to the region, both Kushinagar and Kapilavastu were desolate by the seventh century. Meanwhile, institutions like Nālandā were still operating. This indicates that perhaps Buddhism had effectively lost popular support at the ground level. If Buddhism was still relevant to the laity in the region, presumably such a site as Kushinagar would have been kept in repair. Were the people in that region hostile towards Buddhism? Or had the religion and its holy sites simply become irrelevant to them? Why was Nālandā operating while holy sites fell into ruin and became forlorn? These are questions I lack answers for and perhaps we can investigate them further in a future post.

As the fertile ground of earlier centuries allowed for the Mahāyāna to gain influence, the next layer of the foundation was readied for Vajrayāna in the seventh and eighth centuries. The liberal application of expedient means by the former only enabled more innovative mystics to push the boundaries of what was acceptable. The tendency towards syncretism was taken to its limits owing perhaps to unlimited allowances for anything designed to benefit beings and enable liberation. Taboo subjects such as sexuality and forbidden substances could be revised given the logical application of emptiness analysis. There was furthermore the freedom to re-adapt former adaptations. For example, Buddhism in India had adopted Sanskrit in order to survive (see here), and it did become the official language of orthodoxy at the expense of excluding commoners, but in the Paramādibuddhatantra we see the following sympathetic remark directed to the use of regional languages:

When one understands the meaning from regional words, what is the use of technical terms?

On the earth, a jewel is called by different names from country to country, but there is no difference in the jewel itself.

Likewise, the various redactors of my pure Dharma use diverse terms in accordance with the dispositions of sentient beings.

So, summing it all up, from my perspective the fifth century or thereabouts marks a significant turning point in both regional Indian as well as global history which initiated a lot of changes in Buddhism. It was a kind of fertile ground from which the Mahāyāna after many years of maturation as a largely fringe movement found itself in circumstances suitable to gradual albeit firm growth while its Śrāvakayāna counterpart started to wane given changes in the greater geopolitical context. It was subtle and perhaps nobody noticed. I do not have the impression Faxian perceived this in his years in India, nor did he foresee it coming. It was the eventual decline and fall of the Gupta empire that launched the Mahāyāna into a clear and prominent role on the subcontinent, in part due to its adaptability and its capacity to provide needed occult services to a new feudal society.

We will look at those services in greater detail in the future.



1 Legge suggests this is Bannu in the Punjab.

2 Jan Nattier, The Bodhisattva Path: Based on the Ugraparipṛcchā a Mahāyāna Sūtra (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2007), 175.

3 Daniel Boucher, “Dharmaraksa and the Transmission of Buddhism to China” in Asia Major, Volume 19, part 1/2,2006, 36-37. See here.

4 Burjor Avari, India: The Ancient Past A History of the Indian-Subcontinent from 7000 BC to AD 1200 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007), 208-209

5 Ibid., 192.

6 Ronald M. Davidson, "Sources and Inspirations: Esoteric Buddhism in South Asia" in Handbook of Oriental Studies Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 21.

Buddhism and Time

"One Time, One Meeting"
The concept of time is a rich subject of discussion that produced countless metaphysical theories in ancient India. Buddhists likewise joined into the discussion and in due time it seems this attracted the criticism of figures like Nāgārjuna and his later students who refuted any possibility of a substantially existent time. Here I want to take a brief look at how time was divided into two types by Nāgārjuna and expand on the significance of the two concepts. Outside of Buddhism there were of course many alternative heterodox ideas, such as time being a causal agent responsible for the creation and destruction of phenomena. Nāgārjuna sought to refute the theories of both his fellow Buddhists (namely the Sarvāstivāda) and heterodox schools. Curiously, one refuted heterodox concept of time came to be adopted into the Kālacakra Tantra, which is what will consider at the end.

According to the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa 大智度論 (MPU) there are two types of time.

《大智度論》卷11 序品〉:「天竺說「時」名有二種:一名迦羅,二名三摩耶」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 65, b5-6)

In India there are said to be two types of time. The first is called kāla. The second is called samaya.

Now, before we examine these two terms I should say something about the MPU. Said text is attributed to Nāgārjuna. It was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (344-413) near the end of his life. As Arakawa Shintaro's study reveals there are fragments of the text in Tangut (I suspect they would be a translation of the Chinese), but otherwise the complete text only remains extant in Classical Chinese translation.

There is an ongoing discussion about whether Nāgārjuna was the true author of it or not, but there is no unanimous consensus on the matter. Kumārajīva as a translator was known to add material and edit his translations to make them more readable, which his contemporaries at the time noted with his edition of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā 中論 (MMK). Jizang 吉藏 (549–623) in his commentary on the MMK cites a source which states Kumārajīva would "cut away redundancy and make up for any deficiencies."1 He likely took the same approach with the MPU. This would help to explain peculiar parts of the text such as mentioning “India” 天竺. If it was a completely faithful translation of an Indian text, presumably the Indian author would have been addressing an Indian audience and hence would have had no need to specify “India”. Consequently, while it is not a completely faithful translation of the source text, we cannot confidently deny Nāgārjuna as the author.2 Here I assume he was the author despite Kumārajīva's editing.

Now, among the many definitions of the term kāla in Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary we find several relevant definitions:

a fixed or right point of time , a space of time , time (in general)”

the proper time or season for”

occasion, circumstance”


time (as leading to events , the causes of which are imperceptible to the mind of man), destiny, fate”

“time (as destroying all things) , death , time of death (often personified and represented with the attributes of yama, regent of the dead , or even identified with him: hence kālam- √i or kālaṃ- √kṛ , " to die " ”

In Chinese the term is understood as “real time” 實時. It refers to specific demarcated portions of time, mostly notably for the purposes of the Vinaya where midday marks the point of time where a bhikṣu must not eat anything until dawn the following day (more specifically when the lines on the palm of one's hand become visible). 

The MPU denies that time has any ultimate existence and goes on to refute the suggestion that it does, much like the MMK. It does however posit that “real time” in the context of the Vinaya is real only in the conventional mundane sense (世界中實). This is in reference to the two truths: ultimate (paramārtha-satya) and conventional (saṃvṛti-satya). In the former there are no phenomena to be perceived. The latter is common reality as it is perceived by ordinary beings and hence we can speak of “real time” as it relates to common perceptions.

Kāla is also understood by one heterodox school and the late-period Kālacakra Tantra as being the causal genesis of the production and destruction of phenomena (consider the last dictionary definition above). We will consider this shortly.

The term samaya refers to the sense of time specified in sūtras and śāstras. Sūtras generally start with ekasminsamaye (“at one time”). Monier-Williams defines it as “appointed or proper time, right moment for doing anything ..., opportunity ,occasion ,time , season”. In Chinese it is understood as “false time” 假時 in contrast to “real time”. The notion behind ekasminsamaye is explained as follows in the MPU:

《大智度論》卷11 序品〉:「隨世俗故有一時無有咎。若畫泥木等作天像,念天故禮拜無咎。說「一時」亦如是,雖實無一時,隨俗說一時,無咎。」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 64, c13-16)

According to mundane convention there is no fault with there being “one time”. There is no fault if with paint, clay or wood one makes an image of a deity, and in recollecting the deity thus pays respects. To speak of “one time” is also like this. Although there really is no “one time”, there is no fault in speaking of “one time” according to mundane conventions.

What is unique is that there is soteriological function to samaya. According to the MPU, samaya is used instead of kāla in order to eliminate views. The former is nebulous and does not make specific reference to a definite span of time. The latter is definitive and more importantly associated with heterodox philosophy. Here the paradigm from the Prajñāpāramitā literature is evident. The interpretation here posits that the Buddha's aim was to have beings eliminate attachment to views and this would include reified notions of time, hence the wide use of samaya in sūtras and few examples of kāla as the MPU suggests is a result of the Buddha's express intent. In other words, indefinite time is used for the edification of beings – more importantly, it is out of the concern that beings will generate wrong views on the matter of time. This is a key concern of the MPU and MMK. It is in direct response to heterodox assertions that time is permanent and the causal genesis of all phenomena. The MPU cites two different arguments suggesting a true existence of time:

《大智度論》卷11 序品〉:
 「『時來眾生熟,  時至則催促,
  時能覺悟人,  是故時為因。
  世界如車輪,  時變如轉輪,
  人亦如車輪,  或上而或下。』」
更有人言:「雖天地好醜一切物非時所作,然時是不變因,是實有。時法細故,不可見、不可知、以華果等果故可知有時。往年今年,久近遲疾,見此相,雖不見時,可知有時。何以故?見果知有因故。以是故有時法,時法不壞故常。」」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 65, b10-21)

Some say, “The cause for all agreeable and disagreeable things in heaven and earth is time. As the verses of the Time Scripture state:

Time comes and beings mature,
Time arrives and they hasten,
Time can awaken people,
For this reason time is the cause.
The world is like a chariot wheel,
Passing of time is akin to the wheel turning,
People are also like the chariot wheel,
Some rise and some descend.

Some also say, “Although all agreeable and disagreeable things in heaven and earth are not produced by time, time is a static cause and truly existent. The phenomenon of time is subtle and thus cannot be seen and cannot be [directly] known. We can know that time exists because of the result of flowers and fruits. The past year and the present year, distant and close, slow and fast – seeing these characteristics we can know that time exists although we do not see time. Why? It is because in seeing the result we know that there is a cause. Thus the phenomenon of time exists. The phenomenon of time is indestructible and thus permanent.”

I was initially perplexed as to who this was referring to, but in reference to this the Edo period Japanese Shingon monk Donjaku 曇寂  (1674-1742) in his Sub-commentary on the Commentary on the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra 大日經住心品疏私記 cites Āryadeva's description of the twenty theories on nirvāṇa by twenty externalist and Hīnayāna schools. Number seventeen is described as follows:

《提婆菩薩釋楞伽經中外道小乘涅槃論》卷1:「問曰。何等外道說諸物皆是時作名涅槃。答曰。第十七外道時散論師作如是說。時熟一切大。時作一切物。時散一切物。是故我論中說。如被百箭射時不到不死。時到則小草觸即死。一切物時生。一切物時熟。一切物時滅。時不可過。是故時論師說。時是常生一切物。名涅槃因。」(CBETA, T32, no. 1640, p. 158, a10-16)

Question – Which of the externalists teach that all things are produced by time and that this is called nirvāṇa?
Answer – The seventeenth externalist proponent of time dispersal teaches as follows. “Time matures all elements. Time creates all things. Time disperses all things. For this reason in my theory we say that if shot with a hundred arrows you would not die if time had not arrived. When time arrives, you would die immediately if touched by a small blade of grass. Time produces all things. Time matures all things. Time destroys all things. Time cannot be passed over.” For this reason the proponent of time teaches that time constantly produces all things. It is called the cause for nirvāṇa.

Zhanran 湛然 (711-782) also affirms the aforementioned verses in the MPU as being heterodox and moreover the soteriological function of these two types of time as follows.

《法華文句記》卷1〈釋序品〉:「是故外人計時為實。而說偈云。時來眾生熟。時去則催促。時能覺悟人。是故時為因。故須破邪說三摩耶。故今文中以實時示內生善。假時破外斷惡。」(CBETA, T34, no. 1719, p. 162, b1-4)

Thus the externalist conceives of time as real. In verse they state, “Time comes and beings mature. Time goes3 and they hasten. Time can awaken people. For this reason time is the cause.” Thus there is a need to refute error and teach samaya. Hence now in the text here real time reveals the inner production of virtue [i.e., the Buddhist Vinaya] while false time refutes externalists while severing away evil.

We need to bear in mind it was not only heterodox schools which reified time. Jizang also goes on to explain how the Buddhist Dārṣṭāntika (associated with the Sautrāntika) and Sarvāstivāda proponents likewise reified time in their respective theories as a substantive entity, which he notes the MMK sets out to “greatly disrupt” and refute. In his extensive commentary on the MMK he explains as follows.

《中觀論疏》卷819 時品〉:「所言時者外道有二師。一云。時體常。但為萬物作於了因。不生諸法故非生因。次云。別有時體。是無常法。能為萬化作生殺因。故偈云。時來眾生就。時去則摧促。是故時為因。佛法中亦有二師。一者譬喻部云。別有時體。非色非心。體是常而法是無常。但法於是時中行。如人從房至房。如物從器至器。婆沙云。為止此說,明法即是時,法無常,時即無常。辨因法假名時,離法無別時。三世之時雖無別體。而時中之法則決定不無。薩婆多部中有四大師。立三世不同。」(CBETA, T42, no. 1824, p. 130, c1-12)

In respect to time, there are two externalist proponents. One states that the essence of time is permanent. Myriad phenomena just produce the cause for awareness [i.e., the cause for awareness of time as stated in MPU quote above; jñāpaka-hetu?]. It does not produce phenomena, hence it is not the generative cause. Another states that there is particular essence to time. It is an impermanent phenomenon. The “killing cause” is produced for myriad manifestations [phenomena]. Thus the verse states, “Time comes and beings mature. Time goes and they hasten. Time can awaken people. For this reason time is the cause.

In Buddhadharma there are also two proponents.

The first are the Dārṣṭāntika which state that there is a separate essence to time. It is neither material (rupa) nor mental. The essence is permanent, but the phenomena are impermanent. Phenomena are only active in time, like when a person goes from one room to another, or when an object is transferred from one vessel to another. The Vibhāṣā states, “In order to refute this theory it is explained that phenomena are time. As phenomena are impermanent their time is impermanent.” This recognizes time as a conventional appellation [prajñapti] resulting from phenomena. There is no separate form of time apart from phenomena. While the three periods of time have no distinct essence, the phenomena within time itself are definitely not non-existent.

The Sarvāstivāda school although has four great proponents. They establish that the three periods of time are different. …

Here we are informed about externalist and Śrāvakayāna schools which see time as being substantial and truly existent. This is problematic for the Madhyamaka project, in India and elsewhere, which sought to refute any possibility of anything at all having substantial existence (svabhava). Again, time is permitted to have a conventional function and existence, though any postulate beyond this will be rejected.

Incidentally, for a recent thesis on Jizang's ideas on time see Ernest Brewster's work entitled “Timeand Liberation in the Three-Treatise Master Jizang's Mādhyamika Thought”.

Interestingly, the definition of kāla in the Kālacakra literature is remarkably different from how Nāgārjuna in the MPU understood it, but more remarkable is how the former absorbs aspects of what the latter rejects. Vesna Wallace in her work The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual provides an explanation of an idea that is quite akin to what is cited in the MPU above:

In this tantric system, the term "wheel of time" (kāla-cakra) designates the dynamic and nondual nature of a single reality that manifests primarily in two ways—the conventional (saṃvṛti) and the ultimate (paramārtha). The conventional reality itself appears in two ways—the individual (adhyātma) and the individual's environment (bāhya), the macrocosmic and microcosmic aspects of that single reality. With regard to the external aspect of conventional reality, the term "wheel of time" refers to the passage of days, month, and years in the cycle of time. The Vimalaprabhā defines time (kāla) as a circle of twelve solar mansions or zodiacs (rāśi-cakra). The unit day-and-night (aho-rātra) is also called "time."

With regard to the individual, the "wheel of time" denotes a circulation of prāṇas within the wheel of the nāḍīs in the body. In view of the close interrelatedness of these two aspects of conventional reality, the "wheel of time" also designates a circulation (cakra) of twenty-one thousand and six hundred pairs of inhalations and exhalations, which takes place in the course of a day-and-night called "time."

Even though the cosmos ultimately neither arises nor ceases, conventionally, the entire cosmos, with its three worlds, is said to arise and cease due to the power of time. More specifically, this is said to occur due to the union of the time of origination and the time of destruction. It is stated in the Ādibuddhatantra:

Time brings forth phenomena, and time always destroys phenomena, for time is the
Bhagavān, vajrī, who has the nature of a day and a night.

In accordance with the classification of the mind, a day is the sun, uterine blood,
and vulva; a night is the moon, semen, and male sexual organ. Their union is Kālacakra, the supreme bliss (mahā-sukha).

This indeed sounds like the heterodox theory cited in the MPU. The difference between the aforementioned externalist theory of kāla and the Kālacakra Tantra is perhaps that whereas the former sees causal time as being ultimately real and substantial, the latter only sees causal time as conventionally real, much like how Nāgārjuna in the MPU above posits that kāla functions only as conventionally real. The bhikṣus might not eat after midday, and hence kāla serves an expedient function. Likewise it seems in the Kālacakra literature the aspect of causal time being the creator and destroyer of phenomena is merely a means to an end, and not a view to cling to. Vesna Wallace explains the ultimate aspect of the Kālacakra as follows:

With regard to the ultimate reality, the "wheel of time" indicates the nonduality of two facets of a single reality—namely, wisdom (prajñā), or emptiness (śūnyatā), and method (upāya), or compassion (karuṇā). The word "time" refers to the gnosis of imperishable bliss (akṣara-sukha-jñāna), which is a method consisting of compassion; and the word "wheel" designates wisdom consisting of emptiness. Their unity is the Buddha Kalacakra.4

Kālacakra Maṇḍala
This degree of syncretism is remarkable, though not unusual for Kālacakra literature. As John Newman in his article (see here) “Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra” explains the“Kālacakra tantra syncretism is unusually obvious and is even self-conscious - the tantra makes little effort to disguise its borrowings from the Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, and Jaina traditions. The basic structure of the Kālacakra system is itself non-Buddhist: the Kālacakra uses the ancient idea of the homology of the macrocosm and the microcosm as the foundation of its soteriology.”5

Much like how Nāgārjuna granted a practical function to kāla, the Kālacakra literature as a form of expedient means employs what was a heterodox vision of time as well as other non-Buddhist ideas into its soteriological framework, the whole intent of which is to enable rapid liberation from saṃsāra. In other words, time is put to good use for the purposes of liberation.

There could be much more said about the concept of time, especially in respect to how it was conceived in the Śrāvakayāna schools. We might discuss that in a later post.



1 《中觀論疏》卷1:「法師裁而裨之者。法師即羅什也。裁其煩重裨其乖闕。」(CBETA, T42, no. 1824, p. 5, a21-22)

2 Curiously the citations of the MMK in the MPU are different from how Kumārajīva rendered them in his complete translation of the MMK. See the following: http://hdl.handle.net/2261/2002.

3 The character qu here is different from zhi in the MPU.

4 Vesna A. Wallace, The Inner Kālacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 92-93.

5 John Newman, “Islam in the Kālacakra Tantra” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): 313.

Ethnicity in Tang Buddhist Art

In an earlier post we examined some Tang Dynasty (618-907) artwork depicting Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha before his enlightenment) as a Chinese prince complete with the appropriate attire and surroundings (see here). Let's take a look again at one of the pieces:

Here we see the prince exiting the south gate on horseback and encountering an ill man. The artist made no attempt to portray the setting or prince as Indian. We can really only speculate why, but I assume it was because the artist was unfamiliar with contemporary Indians and just naturally portrayed the setting and characters as he or she could visualize them. The other images in the set are done in a similar manner.

However, not all Buddhist art from the Tang Dynasty is like this. Here I want to take a look at some other examples from Dunhuang and show that some artists knew what an Indian looked like.

The following piece is "Tejaprabhā Buddha and the Five Planets" from Qianning 乾寧四年 (897 CE) 熾盛光佛并五星圖 by Zhang Huai Xing 張淮興. The planets as depicted here are largely identical to what is described in the astrological text the Brahma Horanavagraha 梵天火羅九曜, as translated by Yijing 一行 (683-727). Consequently, it is assumed that the shadow planets Rāhu and Ketu might have a part in this because there are supposed to be nine luminaries (five planets, sun, moon and the two shadow planets), but due to damage their depictions might have been lost. Yijing incidentally was an esoteric monk who studied of Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 and Vajrabodhi  金剛智. He was adept in mathematics and astrology and calendrical sciences.

You will notice in the bottom left a certain figure noticeably different in skin tone from the others. He is a Brahmin depicting Saturn, carrying a staff and directing the ox. Atop him is an ox head. His garments, hairstyle, footwear and adornments are likewise different. Here is what appears to be a realistic portrayal of a figure from the subcontinent. Three of his companions are dressed in Chinese garb. We might also compare these images to what is preserved in the Taishō (T.1311).

The female figure on the bottom is Venus depicted as a beautiful lady playing the pipa 琵琶. Her skin tone is snow white. Incidentally it was part of the female aesthetic which was transferred to Japan and emulated by the Geishas. She has a bird hat atop her head.

At the bottom right the four-armed externalist (外道) is Mars. He has a donkey atop his head. He carries an arrow, bow, double-edged sword and trident.


To the top there is another female figure dressed in Chinese attire holding a brush and paper with a monkey atop her head. She is Mercury.

The minister in the top left is Jupiter. He carries a plate of flowers and fruits while wearing a pig hat.

Tejaprabhā Buddha naturally is depicted as a proper buddha complete with radiant golden skin (it seems the gold leaf has largely worn away) and uṣṇīṣa (on the crown of his head). He too is wearing Indian garb.

While the symbolism in this work is quite rich, I think one notable feature is how the Brahmin is portrayed as an actual Indian. The artist made a conscious effort to depict this in contrast to the first image we viewed where Prince Gautama is seen as a Chinese prince. Either he was working from existing examples or he quite possibly had seen travellers from the subcontinent.

Here is another piece consciously depicting a non-Chinese ethnicity. From upper left to right the figures include Ākāśagarbha 虛空藏菩薩, Mahāmaudgalyāyana 大目揵連 (foremost in supermundane abilities), the Buddha, Śāriputra 舍利弗 (foremost in wisdom) and what appears to be "Treasure Virtue Bodhisattva" 寳德菩薩. Below them all are two more Indian figures and beneath them are lay devotees dressed in Chinese attire.

What is notable here is that Mahāmaudgalyāyana is quite fair while his companions are darker in their complexions. I do not precisely know why this is, but one source tells me that in the Sri Lanka tradition he (Pāli: Moggallāna) is normally portrayed as blue, which is according to the Buddhavaṃsa 1.58 (see here). It seems the artist in the above painting was under a similar impression, but the colour was different. Perhaps someone can clarify this for me.

Quite often in ancient Chinese art Indian deities lose their original identity and are portrayed as Chinese complete with the regalia and entourage. One last image we will look at here is Vaiśravaṇa 多聞天 (Mahārāja of the north continent Uttarakuru) and his entourage, which includes yakṣas and rākṣasas (see here for some related information), crossing the waters.

For a few more interesting images see an earlier post Six Female Spirits to Protect Children.