This is a photo I took a couple weeks ago on my driveway. We don’t have a lot of snails around my yard, so I was surprised to find this tiny one. It reminds me of a famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶 1763-1827):

蝸牛 Katatsumuri
そろそろ登れ Soro soro nobore
富士の山 Fuji no yama

Which can be translated as:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

Happy Spring!

Posted in Japan, Photography, Poetry | Leave a comment

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.

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.

Posted in Buddhism, China, India | Leave a comment

Mind as Mirror

While visiting my good friend in Portland, Oregon recently, we had a good theological discussion while my daughter slept in the next room. One of the things I mentioned was the Buddhist notion, not exclusive to Zen, of the mind as a mirror. This is based in ancient Yogacara-Buddhist teachings and can be hard to grasp. It’s also hard to find a good, simple explanation, even in Buddhist sources.

Then, recently, while reading the book about the Japanese monk Tetsugen (鉄眼, 1630-1682), I found this passage, which he wrote in his famous “Dharma Lesson in Japanese” or tetsugen zenji kana hōgo (鉄眼禅師仮名法語), section 4:

When you see images reflected in a bright mirror all day long, it reflects the sky, the land, flowers, willow trees, people, animals and birds. All the colors change and the types of things [reflected] change without a moment’s rest, but the true form of the mirror is not the birds and animals, or the people, or the willows, flowers, the land, or the sky. It is just the shining and unclouded mirror itself. Our original minds reflect and illuminate the ten thousand dharmas, but have no connection to their distinctions.

If we can see the mirror, we can then see how everything is a reflection of one’s own mind. They are not permanent, and will quickly change and fade. As the book’s author, Professor Helen J. Baroni, writes:

The mind, like the mirror, is independent of the images it reflects and remains unchanged by them. Therefore, there is no need to purify it of them. While it is possible to quiet the flow of psychic constructions in meditation, there remains a dualism inherent in the practice. For the enlightened mind, the mirror should be visible “even if images of blossoms and willows are reflected.”

Pretty deep stuff.

Posted in Hosso, Japan, Religion, Zen | 3 Comments

Tulip Festival 2015


It’s April, and once again the family went to see the famous Tulip Festival in the town of Mount Vernon here in Washington State. We love going to one farm called Tulip Town every year. This year we were fortunate to take some good friends with us, and we all had a great time.

The weather was unusual because it was both cloudy and sunny, which made some unusually beautiful photos. Plus, I followed the advice of a good friend who taught me that good photos are taken from angles that are different from the ones we normally see. That’s your photography tip for the day. ;)

You can see the full collection here, but these are my favorite photos:





The pictures this year turned out much better than previous years, I think. I was carrying Little Guy in one arm and trying to take photos with the camera phone so it wasn’t easy, but I’m happy with the result.

Anyhow, enjoy! 🌷

Posted in Photography, Seattle | Leave a comment

Scattering Blossoms

Chidorigafuchi sakura


As we are now in the month of uzuki (卯月) in the old Japanese calendar, I was reading through the Kokinshu poetry anthology again, and I wanted to share a couple poems for Spring. This first poem was composed by the Kokinshu’s main compiler, Ki no Tsurayuki:

116. 春の野に haru no no ni
若菜つまんと wakana tsuman to
来しものを koshi mono wo
散りかふ花に chirikau hana ni
道はまどひぬ michi wa madoinu

Which Professor Laurel Rodd translates as:

To these spring meadows
I came to pluck the first herbs
of the year but then
in the tumbling cascade of
blossoms I lost the path home.

And this one was written by anonymous:

112. 散る花を chiru hana wo
何か恨みむ nani ka uramin
世の中に yo no naka ni
わが身もともに waga mi mo tomo ni
あらむものかは aran mono ka wa

which again, Professor Rodd translates as:

Why should we grieve to
see the petals falling to
earth for won’t we too
who share this ephemeral
existence someday follow?

The second poem is a classic example of the Japanese notion of mono no aware (物の哀れ). You can read more about it here.

Happy Spring everyone!

Posted in Japan, Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

How to do Incense Offerings at Japanese Buddhist Temples

Hi Guys,

At the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple we go to, there is a ritual called oshōkō (お焼香), where families go up to the temple before service and offer a little incense, as well as a small donation, usually a dollar or so. I’ve seen similar rituals at other temples too: Shingon Buddhist, etc. The word oshōkō simply means the burning of incense.

So, for those new to Japanese Buddhism, or if you are visiting a temple for the first time, I wanted to provide a quick overview. There is a helpful guide in Japanese on how to do this, but I haven’t found a helpful guide in English. So, here is a rough translation:

  1. Holding your rosary in your left hand, if any, take 2-3 steps toward main altar, then bow at the waist.
  2. If the incense brazier is closed, take the lid off and place it to the right.
  3. Take a pinch of powdered incense using the pointer finger and middle finger.1
  4. Drop the incense into the brazier. Some people will put the incense before their forehead in respect, but this is not really necessary.
  5. Put one’s hands together, with the rosary draped over both hands and recite the nembutsu.2
  6. Bow while reciting, hands still together.
  7. Take a few steps back, bow again, and then take your seat.

This is of course only a suggestion, but if you are new to a Japanese-Buddhist temple, this is a good start. Make sure to look at the photos linked above. If unsure though, just watch everyone else. ;)

Good luck!

1 Actually I usually see people pinch incense with the thumb and finger, so this is probably not a strict rule.

2 Or whatever prayer/chant is appropriate for that temple, of course.

Posted in Buddhism, Japan, Jodo Shinshu, Religion, Travel | Leave a comment

Preparing for Children’s Day

Hi all,

As readers know, we celebrate Girls’ Day every year. This is a Japanese holiday on March 3rd celebrating young ladies and wishing them happiness and prosperity. However, there is another holiday for boys called Children’s Day, or kodomo no hi (子供の日) on May 5th. This is another one of the 5 seasonal holidays in Japanese culture. Originally, it was known as the Day of the Iris, and since the word for Iris (shōbu 菖蒲) was a homophone martial prowess (尚武), it became a festival for boys.

In modern times, the holiday has grown to become a celebration for all children, hence the modern name. However, special traditions just for boys are still observed on this day.

Whereas Girls’ Day has a doll display, Children’s Day has a either a full suit of samurai-armor (yoroi 鎧) or just the helmet alone (kabuto 兜). My wife’s parents knew that we would have to carry this back to America by ourselves, so it was too risky to bring a whole set. So, instead they bought a nice kabuto display. It looks great, but is smaller and easier to carry.

My daughter and I set it up last week, and it turned out very nice:

Snail in the Rain

Also, the snacks are slightly different too. On Girls’ Day, it’s common to eat sakuramochi which is pounded-rice with sweet filling inside. However, on Children’s Day, people often eat kashiwa-mochi, that is mochi wrapped in the leaves of a Sweet Oak. Unlike sakuramochi though, do not eat the leaves. They are too thick and do not taste very good. They look nice though.

This is Little Guy’s first Children’s Day, so we’re excited to celebrate with him. Last year he was only a few months old, and we hadn’t been to Japan yet, so we had no suit of armor to set up. So this feels more like a true celebration this year. :)

I’ll post more on Children’s Day of course. Stay tuned!

Posted in Family, Japan | Leave a comment