The Leaves of Mutual Learning between India and China

In the new century, let the ‘Nigrodha’ tree of Sino-Indian friendship grow deeper roots and more luxurious leaves.
by Wang Bangwei
May 29, 2010: Then-President of India Pratibha Patil (second left) attends the completion ceremony of the Indian-style Buddhist hall at the White Horse Temple, dubbed the “first Buddhist temple in China,” in Luoyang City, Henan Province. VCG

In world history, India and China are the only countries to share both proximity and similar historical experiences. Both China and India are ancient civilizations with long history and uninterrupted cultural development. Both are Asian and world giants with vast territory and large populations. The combined population of the two accounts for about a third of the world total. We are neighbors with only the natural boundary of the Himalayas between us. We share many commonalities, and we have maintained a history of friendly contact for over 2,000 years. Across two millennia, only in the early 1960s did the two countries engage in an unfortunate but very brief conflict. Looking at the world around us, can we find such an example in Asia, Europe or America whether in the remote past or present? Probably there are none. The history of mankind has seen many civilizations, but their traditions only live in distant memory after they have long been discontinued. From ancient times to the present, countless protracted conflicts, big and small wars between various countries or regions, have come to pass, and some conflicts continue to rage on today. Looking at the big picture of world history, the legacy of contact between China and India is indeed very different from anywhere else.

Zhongguo’ is translated as “China” in English. The origin of the word is the Sanskrit word Cīna [Cheena]. The word ‘China’ in Western languages was mostly drawn from Sanskrit. What does this indicate? This, at least, evidences that most people around the world understood China through Cīna—it would not be wrong to assert that India has played a key role in the world getting to know and understand China.

The English word for the nation of India also originates from Sanskrit—the word ‘Sindhu,’ meaning ‘River’ or the ‘Indus River.’ Persian people were the first to use this word for India. Later, it spread to Greece, and distorted pronunciation finally made it ‘India’.

To this day, although the Chinese call China ‘Zhongguo,’ and Indian people call their country ‘Bharata,’ people in most countries of the world know our two countries as China and India. We say the globe is big, but the world is also shrunken because communication and exchange between people and countries is more frequent and intimate today, and now ‘China’ and ‘India’ have been the most frequently used terms for the two countries globally.

Many concrete examples help illustrate this point, but I believe that Buddhism is a central and probably the foremost one, followed by language and art. Obviously, many more convincing cases could be presented.

Buddhism originated in India and spread to China, where it was accepted by many Chinese people about two thousand years ago. If India is the root of Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism could be considered as the trunk and leaves that sprouted from the Indian roots. However, this does not properly illustrate the issue. A story from the history of Chinese Buddhism may further illustrate this point:

May 17, 2017: A visitor at a photo exhibition of India’s Buddhist cultural heritage in Beijing. VCG

During the mid-Tang Dynasty, a Buddhist monk named Amoghavajra, who was called Bukong in Chinese, traveled to China from India. Amoghavajra propagated Esoteric Buddhism in China and became highly revered by Chinese people. Among the Buddhist monks who came to China from India during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), there were three monks who were revered as the “First Three Great Buddhist Masters of the Kaiyuan Era,” and Amoghavajra was one of them. Amoghavajra had a Chinese disciple named Han’guang. When Amoghavajra returned to India, Hanguang went with him. The Biography of Han’guang was found in the 27th volume of Biographies of Eminent Monks of Song Dynasty (Song Gaoseng Zhuan). According to the text, upon returning from India, Han’guang went to Wutai Mountain during the reign of Tang Emperor Taizong. On Wutai Mountain lived an eminent monk called Zhanran who asked Han’guang about his experience in India. Han’guang told him the following:

There was a monk from some county of India who was well versed in the School of Emptyness. He asked me about the teaching of Zhizhe. He said: ‘I once heard Zhizhe’s teaching can judge right and wrong, discern flat and round, understand Samatha and wisdom, being reinforced by his merit.’ He repeatedly pleaded, ‘If you have chance to come to India again, please translate Zhizhe’s work from Chinese into Sanskrit so I can learn it.’ He held my hand and repeatedly begged for this.

Traditionally, it was Chinese people who learned Buddhism from India. But as time passed and after understanding China’s conditions, Indian monks showed enthusiasm for learning about Chinese Buddhism. This is a very interesting development to consider. Although some doubt the credibility of this anecdote, the story as whole is solid. Zanning, the compiler of Biographies of Eminent Monks in the Song Dynasty, commented as follows after recounting the previous story:

While Buddhism was being preached and developed in China, did anyone hear about Buddhism going back to the western regions? It is said that during the time of Liang Emperor Wu, Kualu Khan, the King of Tuyuhun, dispatched an envoy to Liang and sought Buddha’s Statue and 14 Buddhist Sutras and Abhidarma works. Emperor Wu gave them his commentaries on the Sūtras of Pariṇirvāna, Prajñāpāramitā and Suvarṇaprabhā, a total of 103 volumes. Because the envoys were well versed in Chinese, after they went back, they translated the texts into Hu languages so they could be understood by the people. Buddhist monks in their kingdoms were tasked with translating and disseminating the texts to various kingdoms ranging from Qinghai to northern tribes to the Pamir. Subsequently, these texts were certainly disseminated into India. So in Cheshi, today’s Turfan, the Songs of Mao, Analects of Confucius and Classic of Filial Piety were taught in schools. Translations of Chinese texts were readily available in Hu languages.

And the people of the western region during the Tang era revered the Book of Changes and Daode Jing. The emperor ordered Buddhists and Taoists alike to translate them into Sanskrit. An intense debate was sparked between Buddhists and Taoists over whether the Daode Jing could be translated into Bodhi. Eventually, the project was abandoned. How nice it would have been if these classics had been translated and sent to the western regions!

If China’s western regions are like the root and trunk of Buddhism, and Dongxia, eastern China, is like its branches and leaves. The branches and leaves are more known to humans than the root and trunk, but branches and leaves cannot be planted in the soil to grow a root and trunk, which is what happened with the Nigrodha tree.

Chinese people are agile. How do we know this? They like things brief, fewer words and more understandable. People of the western regions are simple and honest. How do we know this? Indian people like things complicated, more words and final enlightenment.

The elements of the Nigrodha tree are “branches and leaves planted in soil, root and trunk growing up from branches and leaves.” Zanning used the root, branches and leaves of the Nigrodha tree as a metaphor to illustrate the relationship between Buddhism and the cultures of China and India. He discussed the commonalities and differences quite profoundly. The words of Zanning made me think of the experience of Xuanzang in India. Xuanzang went to India with the objective of learning Buddhism from the Great Masters of India, but at the same time he contributed greatly to the development of religion and culture in India. Xuanzang studied the text of Yogācārabhumī from Śilāditya at Nālandā. Moreover, he travelled far and wide in India and acquired vast knowledge.

In Nālandā, Xuanzang wrote Huizong Lun (Integrating the Doctrines of Two Schools) and Po Ejian Lun (Refuting the Fallacy) in Sanskrit. While the former reflects on the fusion of the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra School of Mahāyāna Buddhism and expounded Xuanzangs personal views on the subject, the latter argues in favor of the theory of Mahāyāna and received considerable appreciation from Indian scholar monks. Śilāditya (Harṣavardhan), the Indian king at the time, held the highest esteem for Xuanzang’s moral character and knowledge. When he organized a mass assembly at his capital of Kanyākubja (present day Kannauj), he invited Xuanzang to be the key speaker. He also invited twenty Kings and more than four thousand Buddhist Monks from across India, in addition to more than two thousand disciples of other religions participating in the assembly. Xuanzang presented a paper at the assembly with arguments that no one could refute for eighteen days. Therefore, the monks of Mahāyāna Buddhism dubbed Xuanzang “Mahādeva.” The monks of the Hīnayāna faith named Xuanzang “Mokṣadeva.” Xuanzang was the only Chinese monk to go to India and earn the title of “Deva” for his scholarship.

Over the course of two millennia of interaction between China and India, many instances of “roots” and “branches” can be found as well as examples of “branches” changing into “roots” and vice versa. In Sanskrit, some words like Cīnī (sugar), Cīnaja (steel), Cīnaputra (pear), Cīnanī (peach) are all related to China. Using Zanning’s metaphor, the cultural interaction between India and China could be described as a big “Nigrodha’ tree, the roots crisscrossing, with luxuriant foliage, and emitting vitality even today. Actually, both Chinese and India people are living under the same big tree.

In China, the ancient scholars had a great debate on world peace and harmony just before the Warring States period (475-221 BC). However, the people at that time had limited sense about the world and its scope. Subsequently, China and India came into direct contact with each other. As far as Chinese people were concerned, the scope of the world gradually widened, especially after frequent contacts with India were established. China and India coexisted peacefully until modern times. For two thousand years, China and India avoided the unceasing conflict that has plagued many regions in favor of peace and friendship as the main theme of relations between the peoples of China and India. The pursuit of peace and harmony globally has always been the goal of the peoples of the two countries.

Today, peace and tranquility are hard to come by in many places around the world. Discordance and tension are all around. Fortunately, in Asia, classical common understanding between Chinese and Indian people has been strengthened of late. Peaceful coexistence, friendly contacts, mutual learning and common development are all that is needed. Today, if India and China can handle their affairs well, almost a third of world affairs will have been managed properly. So, what is preventing the people of India and China and peace-loving people around the world from making joint efforts to set such an example?

I believe that all friends in China and India hold unanimous consensus on this point. In this new century, let the ‘Nigrodha’ tree of Sino-India friendship develop deep roots and luscious leaves. Under the big tree, China and India can come together and make a historic contribution to world peace.

The author is a professor of Peking University