The Role of Buddhism

Indian influence in China was extensive from Han times on. It is hard to determine what kinds of information might have been brought by mariners and merchants, but Buddhist missionaries brought in major cosmological ideas and associated beliefs and practices. Many Buddhist texts were translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. Buddhist monks from India settled in China and established families that sometimes maintained contacts with India. Converts were numerous, and Buddhism became a major force in China from the 4th century a.d. onward.

Figure 10.10. A forerunner of the shih ("Diviner's Plate") found in a Han tomb: It is the earliest known artifact that shows the unequal divisions of the 28 xiu. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

In the reign of the Former Ch'in (Qin) dynasty king Fu Chien (357-384), the first of a remarkable set of finely decorated caves excavated from solid rock faces was dedicated at a scarp 10 miles (16 km) north of the oasis city of Dunhuang in western China: the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. The Dunhuang caves were constructed where the Buddhist monk Lo Tsun saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas over three nearby mountain peaks in 366 a.d. Buddhist cos-mological ideas from across the five centuries of construction are evident. Painted cave roofs center on the lotus, here held (Gray 1959, p. 36) to represent Mt. Sumeru (or Mt. Meru), the navel of the world, seen from the inside. In the paintings of the "Thousand Buddhas" (Gray 1959, Fig. 45; p. 58), rows of 19, 21, 24, and 26 Buddhas are shown on the best preserved side. Extrapolating this count to the damaged and unshown sections on the other three sides gives a more interesting total: 360 Buddhas. Other paintings depict the Sun and Moon on chariots (Gray 1959, Fig. 22a and b; p. 44). The latter is interesting because the Sun chariot is drawn by four horses and is in a Sasanian style, rather than the seven-horse chariot of Surya. Another painting is revealing in a different way. The previous Buddha Prabhutaratna is depicted sharing his throne with Gautama (see § for a general discussion of Buddhism and of the Seven Buddhas in particular). Prabhutaratna is said to have thrown open his jewel-encrusted stupa and to have invited Gautama to join him. Together, they appeared amid the jewels as "meteors in the sky" (Gray 1959, p. 18, citing Saddharma Pundarika, tr. H. Kern 1884, pp. 236-237). Similar caves are also found at Lung Men (near Loyang) in Honan as well as at Yun-Kang. In 1900, a great Buddhist library was found preserved at Dunhuang; it had been walled up around ~1035 a.d. to protect it from Tibetan marauders.

One of the most noted of the medieval Chinese astronomers was the Buddhist monk, I Hsing (or Yixing, 682-747 a.d.). His possible discovery of proper motion, 1000 years before Halley, has been mentioned (§3.1.7, §10.1.2). In 721, he attempted to recalculate the dates of the Xia (Hsia) and Shang dynasties using improved eclipse parameters. His 11-year change from the calculations of the Han astronomer, Liu Hsin, has been adopted by Tung Tso Pin, one of the leading modern authorities on Chinese chronology (Chang 1980, p. 17). In 725, he and his colleague Lueng Ling-tsan were the first persons to invent an escapement for a mechanical clock. Unlike other Chinese astronomers, he made an armillary sphere with ecliptically mounted sighting tubes (Needham 1959, pp. 202, 313). He was also an influential figure in introducing Indian astrological ideas to China, and one of the earliest Chinese examples of a western-type personal horoscope appears in a work he wrote about 710 a.d. (Walters 1992, p. 271). Horoscopes came with, or slightly after, the western zodiac in an Indian form. Even without the abundant literary evidence for Buddhist influences, the iconographic representations alone would be enough to indicate derivation from an Indian form of the zodiac. These zodiacs normally show Gemini as a male and female pair, the Bow for Sagittarius, the Water Pot for Aquarius, the single fish for Pisces, a series of characteristics attested in Indian culture, but not elsewhere.

Calendar experts in three families of Indian origin became important members of the Bureau of Astronomy [Kasyapa (in Chinese, Chiayeh), Gautama (Chhuthan), and Kumara (Chumolo)]. The most prominent among these scholars was

Figure 10.11. A recently discovered shih of the Sui Dynasty (581-681 a.d.) has the Branches and eight of the Stems both on the earth-plate and on the sky-plate. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

Chhuthan Hsi-ta (Gautama Siddharta), who is the first person in China known to have used a zero symbol, in a work written in 729 a.d. (Needham 1959, pp. 202-203).

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