The Transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Road

Speech by 


Apart from carrying silk, paper, pepper and other commodities, the Silk Road carried another product which was equally noteworthy in world history. Together with trade and migration, the Silk Road was the vehicle which spread Buddhism through Central Asia. The transmission was launched from north-western India to modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Xinjiang, China, Korea and Japan.

At that time, the Silk Road had become the center of business. People from all over the world came there for their business purposes. As a result, among the people of different nationalities, there were a good interaction and cultural transmission. They got introduced with the new religion there in which they found moral and ethical teachings.

Moreover, the expansion of Kushan Empire in the Central Asia, travelling of the missionaries and pilgrims to Buddhist historical places, the role of Buddhist scholars and monks are focal characters for the transmission of Buddhism. The Silk Road also was accompanied by enriched Buddhist art and literature. The Buddhist arts are mostly found in Gandhara (Greco-Buddhist art), Tarin Basin, Bamiyan, and Dunhuang.

The Development of Buddhism in India

On the full moon day of May, in the year 623 B.C. the Buddha was born in the Lumbini Park at Kapilavatthu, on the Indian borders of present Nepal. Gotama was his family name and Sākya is the name of the race to which the Buddha belonged. It was in his twenty-nine that Prince Siddhattha made his historic journey and left home in search of Enlightenment after witnessing sights of suffering, sickness, ageing and death. He gained Enlightenment at Bodh Gayā and expounded the first sermon at Sāranāth. He spent his remaining time in travelling, teaching and spreading Buddhism.

The Buddha passed away at the age of 80 (543 B.C.) on a Vesāk fullmoon day. Seven days after the Buddha’s death at Kusinārā, his body was cremated and the relics were divided equally among eight clans. Each of these built a sacred cairn over the relics, a form of memorial known in India as stūpa, which later become the focus for Buddhists’ devotions. For the next two centuries, there was a steady growth of Buddhism in India.

Three months after the final passing away of the Buddha, the monks gathered at Rājagaha for the first general council. The Second Buddhist Council was held in vesāli one hundred years after the death of the Buddha. The third one was held in Pātaliputta under the reign of Emperor Asoka after three centuries of the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. The Indian King Asoka (273-232) demonstrated his conversion to Buddhism by vigorously promulgating across India. His edicts were carved on pillars of stone and wood, from Bengal to Afghanistan and into the south. He celebrated the distribution of ashes of the Buddha and placed inside 84,000 stūpas. The Buddhist monks were free to move throughout the whole area. As a result, the Buddhist community probably had reached the Hellenized neighbor, the Kushan/ Bactrian kingdom, by the end of the Asoka’s reign.

Silk Road

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction originally through regions of Eurasia connecting the East and West and stretching from Korean peninsula and Japan to the Mediterranean Sea. The German explorer of western China and Central Asia coined the name Silk Road at the end of the 19th century.

Cultural Transmissions along the Silk Road

At the end of the fourth century B.C.E., The Mauryan Empire controlled the Indian sub-continent, but its cultural influence went far beyond it. Indian Buddhist Missionaries sent by the Maurya King Asoka, started proselytizing in Ceylon, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, carrying a new religion. Indian trade and cultural identity not only survived the fall of the Mauryan Empire but expanded under the Gupta Empire in the fourth century C.E.

China dominated East Asia culturally and politically. Beginning in the second millennium B.C.E. Chinese civilization expanded from the Yellow River valley, assimilating various groups of people. Successive rulers of the Han Dynasty incorporated present-day Korea and Vietnam into Chinese empire. They also conquered areas deep in Central Asia. By the first century B.C.E. the two great empires, the Roman and the Chinese, had extended dominion over much of the Eurasia world. The resultant trade and cultural interactions along the Silk Road that linked Chang’an and Rome by land and sea and that included Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, and the Middle East.

The Propagation of Buddhism by Kushan

The Kushans were Indo-European people who came to Bactria–now northwestern Afghanistan—about 135 BCE. They had built an empire and took control of Gandhara. They established a capital near what is now Kabul, Afghanistan and eventually it crossed Central Asia and South Asia. The Kushans controlled a strategic portion of the Silk Road and a busy port on the Arab Sea near what is now Karachi, Pakistan. Kushan Gandhara was a multi-ethnic blend of many cultures and religions, including Buddhism. It was under Kushan rule that Gandharan Art developed and flourished.

The Kushan King Kanishka I (127-147) in particular is remembered as a great patron of Buddhism and is said to have convened the Fourth Buddhist council in Kashmir. He built a great stūpa in Peshawar. Beginning in the 2nd century, Buddhist monks from Gandhara actively engaged in transmitting Buddhism into China and other parts of north Asia. Around 2nd century Kushan monk named Lokakṣema was among the first translators of Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Thus, the northern transmission of Buddhism into China was through the Kushan Gandhara Kingdom.

Under Kushan influence, Buddhism further spread out to the realm of the Parthians and Sassanians. Their existence can be inferred from the presence of Buddhist and Indian terms in Manichaean Parthian theological vocabulary from the earliest texts (3rd—4th Century BC). The mention of Parthia in the Singhalese Mahāvaṃsa is a historical reliability. For the next few centuries, Kushan/ Bactrian Buddhist centers were expanded to Hadda, Bamiyan and Kondukistan. Among them Bamiyan became one of the greatest Buddhist monastic communities in all Central Asia by the 4th century. The gigantic standing Buddha carved in the rock mountain at Bamiyan, a valley in the Hindu Kush Mountains, exemplified this continuing tradition which was destroyed by Taliban extremist in 2001. With its strategic location at the intersection of roads to Persia, India, Tarim Basin, and China, it developed an art style with a fusion of Iranian, Indian, Gandharan.

In the 3rd century, the territory ruled by Kushan kings began to shrink, and Kushan rule ended altogether in 450.

Buddhism in Tarim Basin

In the middle of the 2nd Century, the Kushan Empire under the King Kaniṣka expanded into Central Asia as far as taking control of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang. All the small kingdoms of the Tarim region had been entirely won over to Buddhism, which brought with it so much of Indian culture that Sanskrit had become the religious language. Consequently Buddhism advanced towards Tumsuk, Aksu, and Kizil in the north, Loulan, Karasahr and Danhuang in the east, and Miran and Cherchen in the south became important centers of Buddhist art and thought.

Around the 3rd century, 236 Buddhist Kizil Caves Complex were developed which lasted for next five centuries until Tang influence reached there. The Kizil caves represent some of the highest cultural achievements of the ancient Indo-European petty kingdom of Kucha. Given the importance of the Kucha region in the development and transmission of Buddhism along the ancient Silk Road. Many paintings are preserved depicting events from the life of the Buddha and a parinirvāṇa scene. The earlier paintings found in some of the caves reflect more Greco-Indian or Gandharan influences, the next phase paintings show Iranian (Sassanian) influences and the later caves shows fewer legends and jātakas.

Buddhism was established in the Steppes by the Nomads

Buddhism had a great impact on the lives of the Nomads in the steppes. Even once a nomadic tribe adopted the Buddhist faith, they no longer possessed barbaric and soldierly qualities. This can demonstrated by the Tobgatch Turks or the Toba, whose empire extended to Mongolia and northern China. In 438 Toba ordered the secularization of Buddhist monks. In the Buddhistic caves of Yunkang, near Tatung, where artists were at work from 414 to 520, the finest sculptures and the ones which enduring fame for Wei art date from this reign. The religious favor of these people inspired them to produce works of such profound mysticism from the traditional Greco-Buddhic forms which had reached from Gandhara along the Tarim routes.

Toba Hung was so devout a Buddhist that in 471 he abdicated in favor of his son in order to become a monk. This son, Toba Hung II (471-499), showed himself on attaining his majority to be equally in sympathy with Buddhism, and under its influence he introduced a more humane legislation. By the time he moved his capital from Pingcheng in Jehol to the south, Loyang in 494. He and his Turkic people have been completely Sinicized. At his instigation, work began on the famous Buddhist Longmen caves, south of Loyang. The Queen Hu favored Buddhism who added to the adornment of the Lungmen sanctuaries and sent the Buddhist pilgrim Sung Yun on a mission to northwestern India.

Uighur Turks became masters on Buddhism in the area of steppes around 745. But Uighur Turks settled in the area of the northern Tarim oases, mainly Turfan from 850 to 1250 being driven out from Mongolia around 840. They quickly abandoned Manichaeism in favor of the local Buddhist faith. Turfan remained the main center of Turkish Buddhism until the end of the 15th century.

Tibetan Buddhism expanded to regions as far away as the Mongolian grasslands. It was in fact the astonishing Mongolian expansion that brought the Mongol empire in contact with the Buddhist Uighur and Tanguts, and with the Buddhist environments of Tibet and China. The first contact with Buddhism was probably established when Chinggis Khan conquered the Naiman region in the western part of Mongolia beginning of the 13th century. When the Mongols were controlling the Silk Road, Kublai Khan clearly showed his preference for Buddhism even though most of the Mongol kingdoms converted to Islam.

Buddhism was introduced to China from the Silk Road

The entry of Buddhism in China was very likely brought about by Chinese emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (reigned 140-87 B. C.) . He was the first Chinese ruler to push his armies through Central Asia, and brought China into contact with many people whose had previously been exposed only to cultural influences from Persia and India. Once Han Dynasty armies had created a secure pathway from China into Central Asia, and the first Buddhist missionaries accompanied merchant caravans that travelled using the pathway known as the Silk Road, probably during the 1st century BCE. The majority of these missionaries belonged to the Mahāyāna school.

Faxian was one of the first and perhaps the oldest Chinese monk who travelled India by foot and visited present Xinjiang, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from 399 to 412 and translated many Buddhist texts including the Lotus Sutra. Xuanzang was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk who brought up the interaction between China and India in the early Tang period. Moreover, he developed the desire to visit India after knowing about Faxian’s visit to India and when he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese.

The arrival of many new Buddhist scholars from Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, An Shih-Kao, a Parthian monk, and Lokakṣema, a Kushana monk from Central Asia, Dharmarakṣa in 3rd century Ad, Kumārajīva in 4th century AD, who got a number of Buddhist texts translated into Chinese gave a driving force to Buddhism that had a lot of captivating characteristics besides an organized approach to the study and race of religion. During the same time, many Buddhist texts were translated Pāli and Sanskrit into Chinese.

From China, Buddhism entered Korea in 372 CE, during the reign of King Sosurim, the ruler of the Kingdom of Koguryo.

The Merchants’ Contribution to Transmit Buddhism

The merchants supported Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road and spread Buddhism to foreign encounters after being introduced with the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism during the 5th and 6th centuries. Buddhist institutions in India also benefited from the trade. With wealth flowing into their monasteries, Buddhists expanded their organizations to create a world religion.

Trade attracted Buddhism to northwestern and western regions of south Asia and made monasteries rich. When monasteries grew into large institutions, they provided hospitality to travelling traders. In the first few centuries CE, when the Silk Road trade passed through India, enormous Buddhist cave temples appeared on the northwestern Indian seaports to the core region of the Kushan Empire.

The Proto-Tibetan people had been in touch with Buddhism from an earlier time through Buddhist merchants and missionaries. Buddhism grew powerful an earlier time, through Pre-Buddhist Tibetan religions.

Buddhist Art and Literature

The Buddhist art has a great impact on the development of Central Asian art. The art of Buddhism left the most powerful and enduring monuments along the Silk Road. Artists of Gandhara began to sculpt and paint the Buddha in ways that have influenced Buddhist art ever since. In a style influenced by Greek and Roman art, Gandharan artists sculpted and painted the Buddha in realistic detail.

When Buddhism expanded in Central Asia from 1st century AD, Bactria saw the results of the Greco-Buddhist syncretism arrive on its territory from India. The most of these realizations are the Buddhas of Bamyan influenced by the style of Hellenistic culture. The art of Tarim Basin is the art that developed from 2nd through the 11th century AD in Serindia or Xinjiang, the western region of China that forms a part of Central Asia. It derives from the art of Gandhara and clearly combines Indian traditions with Greek and Roman influences. Buddhist missionaries travelling on the Silk Road introduced this art, along with Buddhism itself.


Until 8th century, Buddhism dominated the territories of Silk Road vigorously. But from about this time, the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism began to decline due to the collapse of Tang Dynasty in the East and the invasion of Arabs in the West. The conversion of Islam started in the 8th century in Central Asia. Since Islam condemned the iconography, most of the Buddhist statues and well-paintings were damaged. Buddhist temples and stūpas were buried beneath the sand. By the 15th century, the entire Central Asia had been converted to Islam. By this time, Indian Buddhism itself was decline due to the resurgence of Hinduism on one hand and due to Muslim expansion on the other.



  • Ackerman, Marsha E. Encyclopedia of World History. New York: Facts on File, 2008.
  • Buswell, Robert E. and S. Lopez, Donald. The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Bentley, Bentley. Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Foltz, Richard. Religions of the Silk Road. Palgrave Macmillan; New York, 2010.
  • Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Jersey; Rutgers University Press, 1970.
  • Heirman, Ann and Bumbacher, Stephan P. The spread of Buddhism. Boston: Brill, 2007.
  • Klimkeit, Hans-J. Buddhism in the Turkish Central Asia. Brill, Vol. 37, Fasc 1, 1990.
  • Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Loewe, Michael. The Religious and Intellectual Background, in the Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC. – AD. 220. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Nārada. The Buddha and His Teaching. Kua Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1988.
  • Piyananda, Walpola and Long, Stephen. Thus We Heard Recollections of the Life of the Buddha. Los Angeles: Metta from Us, 2010.
  • Pollard, Elizabeth. Worlds Together Worlds Apart. New York; W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015.
  • Starr, S F. Xinjiang: China’s Muslim borderland. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2004.
  • Thomas, Edward J. The life of the Buddha as Legend and History. London: Routledge and Kegen Paul Ltd., 1927.

Additional Bibliography



related to this presentation


related to this presentation

Copyright 2020 © Swedish Buddhist Studies Association
Developed by Eugene Rossin