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Buddhism in Kazakhstan

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Buddhism in Kazakhstan

Pranidhi scene, temple 9 (Cave 20). Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Sogdian merchant donors giving to the Buddha. Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Bust of a bodhisattva from Kucha, 6th-7th century. Musée Guimet.
Central Asian Buddhist monk teaching a Chinese monk. Tarim Basin, China, 9th-10th century.

Buddhism in Central Asia refers to the forms of Buddhism that existed in Central Asia, which were historically especially prevalent along the Silk Road. The history of Buddhism in Central Asia is closely related to the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism during the first millennium of the common era.


Buddhist monastic groups

A number of Early Buddhist schools were historically prevalent throughout Central Asia. A number of scholars identify three distinct major phases of missionary activities seen in the history of Buddhism in Central Asia, which are associated with the following sects (chronologically):[1]

  1. Dharmaguptaka
  2. Sarvāstivāda
  3. Mūlasarvāstivāda

The Dharmaguptaka made more efforts than any other sect to spread Buddhism outside India, to areas such as Iran, Central Asia, and China, and they had great success in doing so.[2] Therefore, most countries which adopted Buddhism from China, also adopted the Dharmaguptaka vinaya and ordination lineage for bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. According to A.K. Warder, in some ways in those East Asian countries, the Dharmaguptaka sect can be considered to have survived to the present.[3] Warder further writes:[4]

It was the Dharmaguptakas who were the first Buddhists to establish themselves in Central Asia. They appear to have carried out a vast circling movement along the trade routes from Aparānta north-west into Iran and at the same time into Oḍḍiyāna (the Suvastu valley, north of Gandhāra, which became one of their main centres). After establishing themselves as far west as Parthia they followed the "silk route", the east-west axis of Asia, eastwards across Central Asia and on into China, where they effectively established Buddhism in the second and third centuries A.D. The Mahīśāsakas and Kāśyapīyas appear to have followed them across Asia into China. [...] For the earlier period of Chinese Buddhism it was the Dharmaguptakas who constituted the main and most influential school, and even later their Vinaya remained the basis of the discipline there.

In the 7th century CE, Yijing grouped the Mahīśāsaka, Dharmaguptaka, and Kāśyapīya together as sub-sects of the Sarvāstivāda, and stated that these three were not prevalent in the "five parts of India," but were located in the some parts of Oḍḍiyāna, Khotan, and Kucha.[5]


One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century AD, Gandhara: Standing Buddha (Tokyo National Museum).

Buddhism in Central Asia began with the syncretism between Western Classical Greek philosophy and Indian Buddhism in the Hellenistic successor kingdoms to Alexander the Great's empire (Greco-Bactrian Kingdom 250 BC-125 BC and Indo-Greek Kingdom 180 BC - 10 CE), spanning modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. See Greco-Buddhism and Dayuan (Ta-yuan; Chinese: 大宛; literarily "Great Ionians"). The later Kushan empire would adopt the Greek alphabet (Bactrian language), Greco-Buddhist art forms and coinage, and Greco-Buddhist religion of these Hellenistic kingdoms.

The first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddhist art was "aniconic": the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the Buddha's footprints, the Dharma wheel). This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body.[6]

Probably not feeling bound by these restrictions, and because of "their cult of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha".[7] In many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks did develop syncretic divinities, that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions: a well-known example is the syncretic God Sarapis, introduced by Ptolemy I in Egypt, which combined aspects of Greek and Egyptian Gods. In India as well, it was only natural for the Greeks to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King (The Sun-God Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius), with the traditional attributes of the Buddha.

Many of the stylistic elements in these first representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greek himation (a light toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders: Buddhist characters are always represented with a dhoti loincloth before this innovation), the halo, the contrapposto stance of the upright figures (see: 1st–2nd century Gandhara standing Buddhas [8] and [9]), the stylized Mediterranean curly hair and top-knot apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo (330 BC),[10] and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism (See: Greek art). Some of the standing Buddhas (as the one pictured) were sculpted using the specific Greek technique of making the hands and sometimes the feet in marble to increase the realistic effect, and the rest of the body in another material. Foucher especially considered Hellenistic free-standing Buddhas as "the most beautiful, and probably the most ancient of the Buddhas", assigning them to the 1st century BC, and making them the starting point of the anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha ("The Buddhist art of Gandhara", Marshall, p101).

Kushan empire

When King Kanishka came to power in 78 AD in Central Asia a new system of chronology was adopted, replacing the chronology from the era of the Seleucids. During the Kushan period, various religious systems were widespread in Central Asia. These were the local cult of Mitra and Anahit, Zoroastrian pantheon (Ormuzd, Veretzanga, etc.) the Greek pantheon (Zeus, Helios, Helen, etc.) and the cult of local heroes (Siyavush in Khorezm and Sogd). The followers of Buddhism had been banished from Iran in the 2nd - 3rd centuries and found support in Central Asia, where Buddhism became widely practiced. According to Chinese chronicles Buddhism came to China in 147 from the country of the "big yue dzhi", and thanks to the Kushan missionaries Buddhism was adopted as the official religion of the court of the Chinese emperor, Huangdi (147-167).

During the archeological excavations in Khorezm (Bazaar-Kala, Gyaur-Kala, Gyaz-Kala) and Sogd (tali-barzu, Zohak-i-Maron castle, Er-Kurgan and others) it was found out that many settlements and castles dated back to the Kushan period. But the largest number of traces of Buddhist culture during the Kushan period was found in Tolharistan.

Architectural fragments dating back to the Kushan period have been found in "Old Termez". Some Buddhist monuments date back to the period of the Great Kushans.[11][12]

In the middle of the 2nd century, the Kushan empire under king Kaniṣka expanded into Central Asia and went as far as taking control of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand, in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. As a consequence, cultural exchanges greatly increased, and Central Asian Buddhist missionaries became active shortly after in the Chinese capital cities of Luoyang and sometimes Nanjing, where they particularly distinguished themselves by their translation work. They promoted both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna scriptures.


The ancient Kingdom of Khotan was one of the earliest Buddhist states in the world and a cultural bridge across which Buddhist culture and learning were transmitted from India to China.[13] Its capital was located to the west of the modern city of Hotan. The inhabitants of the Kingdom of Khotan, like those of early Kashgar and Yarkand, spoke the Iranian Saka language.

Available evidence indicates that the first Buddhist missions to Khotan were carried out by the Dharmaguptaka sect:[14]

... the Khotan Dharmapada, some orthographical devices of Khotanese and the not yet systematically plotted Gāndhārī loan words in Khotanese betray indisputably that the first missions in Khotan included Dharmaguptakas and used a Kharoṣṭhī-written Gāndhārī. Now all other manuscripts from Khotan, and especially all manuscripts written in Khotanese, belong to the Mahāyāna, are written in the Brāhmī script, and were translated from Sanskrit.

By the 3rd century CE, it appears that some Mahāyāna texts were known in Khotan, as reported by the Chinese monk Zhu Shixing:[15]

When in 260 AD, the Chinese monk Zhu Shixing chose to go to Khotan in an attempt to find original Sanskrit sūtras, he succeeded in locating the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā in 25,000 verses, and tried to send it to China. In Khotan, however, there were numerous Hīnayānists who attempted to prevent it because they regarded the text as heterodox. Eventually, Zhu Shixing stayed in Khotan, but sent the manuscript to Luoyang where it was translated by a Khotanese monk named Mokṣala. In 296, the Khotanese monk Gītamitra came to Chang'an with another copy of the same text.

When the Chinese monk Faxian traveled through Khotan, he recorded that everyone there was Buddhist. According to his accounts, there were fourteen main monasteries, and he stayed at the most important of these, the monastery of Gomatī, which housed 3000 Mahāyāna monks.[16] When Xuanzang was later traveling through Khotan in the 7th century, he wrote that the king came out to personally greet him at the border of Khotan. He was escorted to the capital, and lodged at a monastery of the Sarvāstivāda sect.[17] Xuanzang records there being about 100 monasteries in Khotan, housing a total of 5000 monastics who all studied the Mahāyāna.[18]

A manuscript in Tibetan called The Religious Annals of Khotan was found at Dunhuang, and may date to sometime in the 8th century CE.[19] It describes the initial appearance of Buddhism in Khotan, including the eight major tutelary deities of Khotan, the "self-originated bodhisattvas" of the country, and a description of the major principles of the Śrāvakayāna and the Mahāyāna, though the Mahāyāna is given preeminence. The śrāvakas are depicted as entering the Dharma through the Four Noble Truths, while the Mahāyāna bodhisattvas are depicted as entering through non-conceptualization and the Śūraṅgama Samādhi.[20]

After the Tang Dynasty, Khotan formed an alliance with the rulers of Dunhuang. Khotan enjoyed close relations with the Buddhist center at Dunhuang: the Khotanese royal family intermarried with Dunhuang élites, visited and patronized Dunhuang's Buddhist temple complex, and donated money to have their portraits painted on the walls of the Mogao grottoes. Through the 10th century, Khotanese royal portraits were painted in association with an increasing number of deities in the caves.

Khotan's indigenous dynasty (all of whose royal names are Indian in origin) governed a fervently Buddhist city-state boasting some 400 temples in the late 9th / early 10th century—four times the number recorded by Xuanzang around the year 630 CE. The Buddhist kingdom was independent but was intermittently under Chinese control during the Han and Tang Dynasty.


Kharoṣṭhī manuscript from Shanshan
The Tarim Basin in the 3rd century

Buddhism was known to be prevalent in the kingdom of Shanshan. An inscription in the Kharoṣṭhī script was found at Endere, originally written around in the middle of the 3rd century CE. The inscription describes the king of Shanshan as a follower of Mahāyāna Buddhism — one who has "set forth in the Great Vehicle."[21] The king who this refers to was probably Aṃgoka, who was the most powerful king of Shanshan. According to Richard Salomon, there is every reason to believe that Mahāyāna Buddhism was prominent in Shanshan at this time and enjoyed royal patronage.[22]

More evidence of official adoption of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Shanshan is seen in a letter inscribed in wood which dates to several decades later. The letter describes the Great Cozbo Ṣamasena as one who is, "beloved of men and gods, honoured by men and gods, blessed with a good name, who has set forth in the Mahāyāna."[23]

Persian Buddhism

Parts of the Buddhist Indo-Greek Kingdom, and its successor, the Buddhist Kushan Empire, in particular Balkh, were Persian speaking. The famous Persian Buddhist monastery in Balkh called Nava Vihara was conquered by Muslims in 663, but continued to function for at least another century within the Abbasid Caliphate. In 715, after an insurrection in Balkh was crushed by the Muslims, many Persian Buddhist monks fled up the Silk Road to the Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan and further. Several Persian speaking Buddhist monks, including An Shigao and Bodhidharma, played key roles in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism and introduction of Buddhism in China. Nava Vihara's hereditary administrators the Barmakids converted to Islam after the monastery's conquest and became powerful viziers under the Abbassid caliphs of Bagdhad. The last of the family's viziers Ja'far ibn Yahya is mentioned in the Arabian Nights. In popular culture Ja'far has been associated with a knowledge of mysticism, sorcery, and traditions lying outside the realm of Islam. Muslim mysticism and syncretism continued in Balkh, which was the birthplace of Rumi.

Later History

Other religious kings, such as the 16th century Mongol potentate Altan Khan, invited Buddhist teachers to their realm and proclaimed Buddhism the official creed of the land in order to help unify their people and consolidate their rule. In the process they may have prohibited certain practices of non-Buddhist, indigenous religions and even persecuted those who followed them, but these heavy-handed moves were primarily politically motivated. Such ambitious rulers never forced their subjects to adopt Buddhist forms of belief or worship. This is not part of the religious creed.

Buddhist percentage by country

Here is the percentages of Buddhists in some nowaday Central Asia countries from many different sources:

Buddhism by country in the Central Asia
National flag Country Population(2007E) % of Buddhists Buddhist total
Kazakhstan 15,422,000 0.50% [24] 81,843
Kyrgyzstan 5,317,000 0.35% [25] 18,610
Tajikistan 7,076,598 0.1% [26] 7,076
Turkmenistan 5,097,028 0.1% [27] 5,097
Uzbekistan 27,780,059 0.2% [28][29] 55,560
Total 60,692,685 0.278% 168,186

See also


  1. ^ Willemen, Charles. Dessein, Bart. Cox, Collett. Sarvastivada Buddhist Scholasticism. 1997. p. 126
  2. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 278
  3. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 489
  4. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. pp. 280-281
  5. ^ Yijing. Li Rongxi (translator). Buddhist Monastic Traditions of Southern Asia. 2000. p. 19
  6. ^ "Due to the statement of the Master in the Dighanikaya disfavouring his representation in human form after the extinction of body, reluctance prevailed for some time". Also "Hinayanis opposed image worship of the Master due to canonical restrictions". R.C. Sharma, in "The Art of Mathura, India", Tokyo National Museum 2002, p.11
  7. ^ Linssen, "Zen Living"
  8. ^ Standing Buddha:Image
  9. ^ Standing Buddha:Image
  10. ^ Belvedere Apollo: Image
  11. ^ The History of Buddhism in India and central Asia
  12. ^ About religion in Central Asia
  13. ^ "Khotan - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2012-04-06. 
  14. ^ Heirman, Ann. Bumbacher, Stephan Peter. The Spread of Buddhism. 2007. p. 98
  15. ^ Heirman, Ann. Bumbacher, Stephan Peter. The Spread of Buddhism. 2007. p. 100
  16. ^ Whitfield, Susan. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith. 2004. p. 35
  17. ^ Whitfield, Susan. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith. 2004. p. 35
  18. ^ Whitfield, Susan. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith. 2004. p. 35
  19. ^ Nattier, Jan. Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. 1991. p. 200
  20. ^ Nattier, Jan. Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. 1991. p. 200
  21. ^ Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 31
  22. ^ Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 31
  23. ^ Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 32
  24. ^ Religious Intelligence
  25. ^ Religious Intelligence
  26. ^ Religious Freedom Page
  27. ^ Turkmenistan
  28. ^ Religious Freedom Page
  29. ^ Religious Intelligence


  • Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim (1990). Buddhism in Turkish Central Asia, Numen 37, 53 - 69
  • Puri, B. N. (1987). Buddhism in Central Asia, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
  • Kudara, Kogi (2002). A Rough Sketch of Central Asian Buddhism, Pacific World 3rd series 4, 93-107
  • Kudara, Kogi (2002). The Buddhist Culture of the Old Uigur Peoples, Pacific World 3rd series 4, 183-195
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