What we have then, is a situation in which medieval Christians were influenced, perhaps deeply influenced, by the life of the Buddha, no matter how much this story was viewed through a Christian lens. This indicates that we need to be careful when we draw our tidy lines of division between the religions. Religious influences may arrive from the strangest points of origin: once present, they will be adapted to fit in with the dominant paradigm. In the later Middle Ages, more accurate information about Buddhism started to reach the West.
Christianity and the survival of the West
Marco Polo's story is well known, but he was not the first medieval European to reach the far East. The franciscan missionaries John of Plano Carpini and Benedict the Pole arrived at the Mongol court at karakorum in , nearly 30 years before Polo. In , another franciscan, John Rubruck also visited the court. All three wrote about their travels and so gave the West its first glimpse of Buddhism as it was in fact practised.
Here we find the first descriptions of core Buddhist doctrines such as rebirth and karma. The next report comes from Hethum I, king of Lesser Armenia, who undertook a state visit to his liege lord, Mangu khan. He too briefly mentions a "god" worshipped by the Mongols, called Chakemonia , i. Shakyamuni Almond In , Polo was therefore not the first westerner in East Asia, but he was the first to penetrate all the way into China - something even his father and uncle had not succeeded in during their previous journey. In his travelogue he does mention Buddhism as he encountered it in various provinces of the Mongol Empire.
Il Milione did not seem to have much patience with doctrinal hair-splitting; like a good phenomenologist he describes the rituals he observed in temples dedicated to Chagamoni Burkhan 3 , and there is no evidence of him enquiring into the philosophical background to these rituals. However, during his travels homewards he did encounter and write down the Buddha's biography. Once his travelogue was published, therefore, after two thousand years of rumours, distorted legends and half-understood teachings, the West finally had a reasonably accurate version of the life of the Buddha.
It had some impact: in , years after the book's publication, an unknown editor of a Venetian reprint inserted a comment remarking on the parallels between the stories of the Buddha and St Josaphat Almond In Vasco Da Gama discovered a sea route to India. European Christians of late antiquity and the middle ages, as we have seen, did have access to information about Buddhism, but it was limited and distorted. It was much easier for Asian Buddhists to get to know a little about Christianity: one could simply ask the neighbours. There have been Christians in Asia since the beginning, and indeed, we know of more than twenty bishops active between kurdistan and the Caspian see by the year CE Moffett Sadly, this has become a forgotten chapter in Christian history.
Today, Christians, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, might at best be aware that there once was a community of "Nestorians" in Asia. But even that is not quite correct. The Persian church was already four centuries old when the Nestorian controversy erupted, and had long regarded itself as independent from either Rome or Constantinople.
Even when the established church in the Persian capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon strongly endorsed Nestorius' position and made his view of the Trinity its doctrine, there always remained sizeable minorities that stayed true either to the Monophysite view or to Chalcedonian orthodoxy.
Despite this, we will use the established term "Nestorian" to indicate the Persian church as a whole, especially in its later phases.
Until recently the existence and history of this Persian branch of Christianity was known mainly to specialists, and it has only become available to the general reader with the appearance of works by Moffett and England , from which most of the information in this section has been taken. Most of this tale takes place in Persia. Christians were always a minority here, first under the Zoroastrian yoke of the Parthian and Sassanid Empires, and later under Islamic domination.
But they were a sizeable minority: It has been estimated that by the end of the eighth century there were a million Christians in Persia alone. England estimates that for the first few centuries of Christianity's existence, there were more Christians in Persia than in the West. Moffett's estimates are more conservative, but still leave no doubt that the Persian Church was an organisation to be reckoned with.
Life under the Zoroastrians was hard: There were periods of persecution in Persia that, according to some authors, exceeded those in the Roman Empire. During a period of forty years in the reign of Shah Shapur II r as many as Christians were killed.
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Later persecutions would be shorter in duration, but just as cruel: in the year CE, ten bishops and an unbelievable lay Christians were executed in the city of kirkuk Moffett , Despite such persecutions, Christianity persisted in Persia. It was only under Islamic rule, and more particularly under Mongol conquerors who had accepted Islam, that the Persian church finally disappeared from the scene, leaving only a few small remnants.
Despite its minority status, the Persian Church had a strong missionary outreach. The various indigenous churches in India have at least some historical influence from Persia, and there were Nestorian communities as far south as Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. But we are more interested in the Nestorians' movement into the Asian interior.
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This movement mainly followed the old Asian trade routes - the same routes taken by Buddhism in its movement from Central Asia to China. Persian missionaries crossed the steppes to do mission work among the Turkish and Mongol tribes living there. They reached Samarkand by the fifth century and the oases of Turfan and Dun-Huang shortly afterwards. No known Tibetan texts confirm their presence there, but this was the period when Vajrayana Buddhism was first established in that country, so we can imagine that the theological struggle for the conversion of Tibetans must have been considerable.
Artefacts, mostly crucifixes, have been found that indicate a Christian presence in Tibet by the tenth century. More speculatively speaking, perhaps the strict hierarchical composition of Tibetan Buddhism may have found some inspiration in the Nestorians' system of bishops and metropolitans.
The centuries-old dialogue between buddhism and christianity
In the year a Persian missionary known to us only by his Chinese name Alopen possibly a Chinese pronunciation of Abraham arrived in the capital of China, the city of Chang'an. He proceeded to found a church in the city we know of eleven Nestorian churches in China by the end of the seventh century , and to translate the New Testament into Chinese.
In a Buddhist monk named Prajna reached Chang'an and was appointed as scripture translator. Unfortunately his knowledge of the Chinese language was insufficient to the task and it was only with the help of bishop Ching-Ching, Chinese-born but of Afghan ancestry, that Prajna managed to translate seven volumes of Buddhist sutras. What makes this incident even more interesting is that while they were working on this task, by there were two other great names in Buddhist history resident in the same monastery.
Both were Japanese. On his return to Japan he brought with him a number of Buddhist texts, quite possibly including those on which Ching-Ching en Prajna worked together. The other Japanese monk resident in the Ta-ts'in monastery at the time was Dengyo Daishi Saicho , later to found the Japanese Tendai school of Buddhism. Such a concentration of religious founders can rarely have been together in all of religious history and as Moffett remarks, who can resist the temptation of speculating about the mutual influences between the Nestorian and the three Buddhists?
Was there ever a Nestorian church in Japan? Opinions differ. England accepts that certain Japanese place names and archaeological findings indicate a Christian presence in kyoto, then the Japanese capital city. Moffett is more sceptical. In korea excavations have shown a possible Nestorian presence, but it is unclear if the area in question was under korean or Chinese domination at the time.
By the end of the eighth century, Nestorian Christianity disappeared from China. One reason for this was the persecution of all religions of non-Chinese origin under the T'ang dynasty it hit Buddhism just as hard, in fact only the Ch'an and Pure Land schools managed to go underground and survive.
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It would return only with the creation of a new dynasty the Yuan by the successors of Genghis khan. Some tribes, such as the Uighurs and keraits, were even predominantly Christian. Genghis khan's brother Tolui, to name just one example, was married to the kerait princess Sorkaktani, a known Christian. But she was not to be the Empress Helena of Asia, for of her three sons, Mongke the chief of the Mongols, Hulegu the conqueror of the Persians and kubilai the emperor of China, none converted to Christianity Moffett ff, The founding of the Yuan dynasty by the Mongol conquerors saw a second blossoming of Chinese Nestorian Christianity.
Once again, Christian churches and Buddhist temples were in close proximity, although we do not again hear of co-operation between individuals from these two religions. But this time around the Nestorians were too closely allied to the Mongol overlords. Now the Chinese saw them, not as a religion of Persian origin as before, but as the religion or one of them, at least of the hated Mongol barbarians. This was also the period when franciscans started their own missionary expansion into China, and they regarded the Nestorians as the worst kind of heretics.
The disagreements between these two groups of Christians could not have done much for the public image of Christianity in China. The fall of the Yuan dynasty in saw the final disappearance of Nestorian Christianity from China. The Catholic missionary attempts of the thirteenth century were also unsuccessful.