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Pet Sins January 2009

South Asians as respected expatriates

South Asians had a direct impact on history beyond the borders of their home countries. Their learning and political influence were not limited by national boundaries. Many Buddhist monks were well-travelled, well-educated and highly sought-after by rulers of foreign realms. Below, we take a brief look at South Asians who shaped East Asian history.

South Asian monks in Tibet

Many Indian Buddhist monks of antiquity had been invited to Tibet to share their learning. At the beginning of the 8th century, the famed logician Shantaraksita was invited to Tibet by King Khri-srong-lde-btsan. His contemporary Pandit Padmasambhava, one of the greatest exponents of the Yogyacara school of Tantricism at Nalanda, also received an invitation from the Tibetan king. Pandit Padmasambhava, famous for subduing the demons of the old Tibetan religion, is revered as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan tradition.

Another famous South Asian monk who directly shaped Tibetan life was Dipankar Srijnan (or Dipankara Srijnana), reformer of Tibetan Buddhism. Dipankar Srijan was born in Bangladesh around 980. He became a monk at age 19. Constantly hungry for more learning and enlightenment, Dipankar Srijnan sought many teachers during his youth. At age 31, having been ordained as a Bhikkhus, he went on to further his studies, traveling to Suwarnadvipa (located in modern Indonesia). There he was a student of the famed Buddhist teacher Acharya Dharmakirti.

After 12 years, Dipankar Srijnan returned to India, where he was appointed to head the Buddhist university of Vikramasila. There he met Nagtso, a Tibetan scholar sent by Tibetan king Lah Lama Yeshe Yod to study at Vikramasila and to invite Dipankar Srijnan to Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism, at that time, had fallen into its Dark Age. But faced with his responsibilities in India, Dipankar Srijnan initially declined. It was King Lah Lama's successor who succeeded in inviting the renowned Indian Buddhist scholar to Tibet.

In 1042, Dipankara Shrijnana went to Tibet where he preached compassion and morality to the common people, capturing the hearts of the masses through spiritual songs, a practice of his native Bengal. He undertook engineering and irrigation projects and wrote books on Buddhism, medicine and science in Tibetan, leaving a lasting legacy to the natives. The Tibetans gave this much loved expatriate the title of Atisha, the Greatest one. His chief Tibetan disciple Bromtompa founded the Kadampa sect which became the Gelugpa sect (Yellow sect), one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddism.

Atisha is honored in Tibet to this day; his image worshiped on the high altar of monasteries. Other famous Indian monks in Tibetan Buddhism include Kamalashila, Sthiramati, Buddhakirti, Kanapati, Suryadhvaja and Karnashri.

Atish Dipankar Srijan (980-1053)
Atisha in wikipedia

Atish in Banglapedia

Buddhism in a nutsell
On the Nalanda Trail: Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia

South Asian monks in China

The most famous Indian monk to influence the Chinese world is probably Bodhidharma. Scholars have differing opinions on his exact origins and the route he took to China, but it is known he left India for China around 520-526 CE and taught dhyana (meditation). He is regarded as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism and the 1st Patriarch of Chan Buddhism (also known in Japanese as Zen), both Chinese chan and Japanese zen being derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana or the Pali term jhana. Bodhidharma's Chinese disciple Huike became the 2nd patriach of Chan Buddhism.

Legends about Bodhidharma and Huike abound, and it is not always possible to distinguish fact from fiction. Contrary to myth, Bodhidharma did NOT introduce martial arts to China. Fighting systems were documented in China long before the arrival of Bodhidharma or even Buddhism. Tradition also has it that Bodhidharma introduced the fighting systems of South India to Shaolin Temple, thus founding the Shaolin martial arts that went on to influence the indigenous fighting systems of East Asia. While that is certainly more plausible than the claim that Bodhidharma introduced martial arts to an East Asia allegedly previously devoid of indigenous fighting arts, Bodhidharma's contribution to East Asian fighting arts remains more legendary than historical.

But it is known that the Indian monk's meditation-based practice became the Chan/Zen school of Buddhism, whose profound influence on Chinese and Japanese society lasts even to this day.

Other Indian monks who were well-known in China include Paramartha who worked in China from 548-569, and Bodhiruchi who died in China in 727. Patronized by Chinese emperors, these Indian scholars taught Buddhist doctrine to the locals and translated Buddhist texts into Chinese.

Buddhist Schools: Chan/Zen Founder - Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma in wikipedia

Chan Masters - Bodhidharma

Great Buddhist Figures: Bodhidharma on about.com

On the Nalanda Trail: Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia
Chinese martial arts in wikipedia

Indians in Korea and Japan

The influence of Indian individuals on the Tibetan and Chinese spiritual and cultural landscape is relatively well-known, while direct Indian influence on Korea and Japan is a less widely-studied subject. Even so, it is known that people from India have also reached these countries in antiquity and left an imprint in local history.

India Times article South Korea's Ayodhya connection tells the story of an ancient Indian princess who married a Korean king:

"According to Sam Kuk Yusa, the ancient history of Korea, Queen Huh, wife of legendary King Suro, who founded the Karak Kingdom, was born in Ayodhya..."

The book India And Japan: A Study In Interaction During 5th-14th Cent A.D. explores the topic of Indian monks in Japan in the larger context of Indian influences on Japanese culture.