Excerpt: A History of Uyghur Buddhism 

Read a brief of A History of Uyghur Buddhism by Johan Elverskog, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Columbia University Press.

By Johan Elverskog

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

Centuries ago, the Uyghur people of northwestern China were largely Buddhist. Before that, they were Christian and Manichaean. But in the face of expanding Muslim power, they were eventually converted to Islam, severing ties with their past religious alliances. In A History of Uyghur Buddhism (Columbia), Johan Elverskog explores the history of the Uyghur Kingdom and its people, and the evolution of their religious alliances. Elverskog sheds new light on common perceptions about the meeting between Buddhism and Islam in Asia, explores what it means to be Buddhist, and highlights the importance of both Uyghurs and Buddhism in shaping Asian history more broadly. Lucidly written and accompanied by maps and images, this book offers fascinating insight into a region and people who have been largely overlooked in the field of Buddhist Studies.

[Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of Chinese characters and diacriticals; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt:

Buddhism is anchored by two myths. The first is that the Dharma is so profound and human ignorance and greed are so vast that the comprehension and practice of Buddhism will be lost and disappear. The second myth, however, tempers this claim by asserting that a new buddha will appear in the world and teach the Dharma anew, and the cycle of rise and decline will be set in motion again. Early Buddhist texts claim that seven buddhas have appeared through history: Vipasyin, Sikhin, Visvabhu, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa, and Sakyamuni (the Buddha of the contemporary era, on whom the clock is ticking). When Buddhism will actually end has animated Buddhist thought for two millennia, and it has also driven Buddhists across Asia to transform both their religious tradition and its political realities. In China, for example, fears about the “end of the Dharma” were instrumental in the development of both the Zen and Pure Land traditions and in various millenarian political movements over the centuries. 

Central to many of these movements, and indeed the entire apocalyptic narrative of the Dharma, is the myth of the Buddha Maitreya. Buddhist texts tell us that he currently resides in Tusita heaven and will, messiah-like, eventually return when the Dharma has been totally forgotten to revive the Buddhist dispensation. For Buddhists, of course, the question has always been when this would actually happen. For those partaking in the East Asia-wide Buddhist turn in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the answer was that the end times would start in 1052 CE. 

Why and how this date was determined is unclear, but it has been suggested that the advance of Islam into Buddhist India and especially the fall of Khotan to the Qarakhanids may have been a factor. These events had given rise to the myth of Shambhala among Buddhists in what is now northwest India and Pakistan. Shambhala is first found in the early eleventh-century Kalacakratantra, which prophesies a world where the Dharma is under relentless assault. In particular, it claims that Buddhism will be threatened in the future by Muslims, and the final eschatological battle will take place between them and the twenty-fifth (and final) ruler of Shambhala, Kulika Rudracakrin, who will ride forth with his Buddhist army from the hidden realm, annihilate the Muslims, and usher in a new golden age of the Dharma.

Although this myth was animated by real-world events, it also drew upon the Buddhist tradition’s deep well of apocalyptic narratives concerning the rise and fall of the Dharma. It became a readily accepted model to explain the contemporary world for Buddhists in northwest India, and through the burgeoning relations between India and China and the Song dynasty’s Kaibao Buddhist canon project, made its way east as well. One such conduit was the Kashmiri monk Devasantika (Ch. Tianxizai, d. 1000), who translated a text into Chinese detailing such apocalyptic language and visions. This work was followed by others, such as the Essential Readings for Buddhists (Ch. Shishi yaolan), a dictionary compiled in 1019 by the monk Daocheng that included timetables for the end times. 

Chinese concern about the Dharma’s demise and Maitreya worship spread to Japan on account of the interconnected Khitan Liao Buddhist world. Ten catastrophic outbreaks of smallpox, measles, influenza, and plague between 995 and 1030 had occurred in Japan, fueling the apocalyptic vision. In addition, “the appearance of SN 1006 on Kyoto’s southern horizon in May of 1006—the largest supernova in history—contributed to the growing sense of doom.” The supernova was followed by meteor showers in 1007; a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 1007–8; the Kamo river flooding in 1017; a Jurchen fleet attacking Hakata in 1019; typhoons in 1028 and 1034; and the main sanctuary at Toyouke Shrine in Ise collapsing in heavy wind in 1040 and the palace burning down a month later. With such a concatenation of catastrophes, the Japanese practiced ritual actions such as placing scriptures—most often the Lotus Sutra—in caskets and then burying them in mounds. As D. Max Moerman explains:

The process required that sutras be transcribed according to strict ritual protocols, enclosed within reliquary-shaped containers, and buried underground to protect and preserve the teachings until the arrival of the next Buddha, Miroku (Skt. Maitreya), some 5.67 billion years in the future. . . .The primary motivation was the concern to preserve the sutras throughout the age of mappo [the end times] until the coming of Miroku, who will use the buried sutras in his three inaugural sermons beneath the Dragon Flower Tree. The location of the major sutra mounds—such as the mountains of Hiei, Koya, and Kinpusen—were, like Hiko, believed to be the sites of Miroku’s future descent. 

The Japanese were not the only ones to take ritual action to deal with the end times and the coming of Maitreya. The Khitan Liao, for example, revived the cutting of the Buddhist canon into stone at Yunju monastery on Fang Mountain near Beijing. The cutting had been initiated by the monk Jingwan in the seventh century when the fear of the Dharma’s demise was also rampant. By the end of the eighth century the project had faltered, and in 964–965 it was revived under Liao patronage. Mimi Yiengpruksawan describes the new project:

Extant stone tablets were reorganized, and subsequent carving went forward based on the Liao edition of the canon. It was a massive project, eventually yielding thousands of tablets, whose impetus clearly lay in Jingwan’s pledge. Indeed, his vow to preserve the Buddhist scriptures is echoed in the inscription by a Liao official and his monastic advisor on a stele commemorating the restoration of Yanjunsi in 965. They seek, through the durability of stone, to safeguard Buddha’s teachings in the many worlds and ages that lie ahead. In 1005 the stele was recut and another inscription added, which states that through the medium of stone the teachings will be preserved until the coming of Maitreya—that is, Future Buddha who appears after the eschaton. 

The Khitan also rebuilt the northern pagoda at Chaoyang, and when they installed relics inside it, they memorialized them with an inscription: “deposited at noon of the 8th day of the 4th moon of the 12th year of the Chongxi reign (May 19, 1043) of the Great Khitan State, with eight years remaining of Xiangfa (Semblance Dharma) followed by entry into Mofa (Latter Dharma).” Moreover, as Youn-mi Kim has shown, “these relics and texts suggest that the upper cella was intended to function as a ‘miniature ritual altar related to the Buddhist incantation known as Usnisavijaya dharani (Superlative Spell of the Buddha’s Crown),’ which would generate protective powers of the spell in perpetuity. By 1052 there were five Chinese versions of the dharani in circulation . . . [that] explained its efficacy during the Semblance and Latter Dharma.” Such texts and ideas made their way to Dunhuang, where in the tenth century “the most grandiose and important restoration project” was the repair of Cave 130, which featured a large statue of Maitreya Buddha as its main icon. 

The worship of Maitreya and its links with an “age of anxiety” was pervasive across Asia around the time of the Uyghur conversion, and the cult of Maitreya became the most important element of early Uyghur Buddhism. Yet unlike the Japanese and Khitan, who had only recently adopted this tradition from the Chinese, the Uyghurs had long been involved with the worship of Maitreya on account of their engagement with the Tokharians. The Tokharians focused on Maitreya and had already in the fifth century begun representing the so-called pranidhi scene—the prediction of future buddhahood—in their artwork. This scene would become central to early Uyghur Buddhist art. 

The earliest extant Uyghur text—a trilingual Sanskrit, Tokharian, and Uyghur fragment from the ninth century—mentions Maitreya. Another important and early Uyghur text, the Maitrisimit, which was translated from a Tokharian original and probably dates to the second half of the tenth century, is a twenty-seven-chapter teaching about Maitreya. In the colophon of the earliest version of the Maitrisimit, the lay brother Boz Bay Tiräk and lay sister Yidläk, who commissioned the work, state their wish: “Later may it happen that we meet Buddha Maitreya, attain the blessing of Buddhahood and . . . Buddhahood.” Similarly, in another version from 1067, the colophon records: “In order that . . . I, lay brother [Čuu] Taš Yegän Totok, who believes in the Three Jewels, and [my wife] Tözün will meet the coming Buddha Maitreya, we have arranged for the painting of this image of Maitreya and the copying of the Maitrisimit Sūtra.” 

Central to the Uyghur cult of Maitreya was the desire to be reborn at the time of the future Buddha—or in Tusita heaven—in order to receive a blessing or prophecy of future buddhahood. In a stake inscription commemorating the founding of a Buddhist monastery in 1019, for example, the two donors express their hope for such a prediction from Maitreya. From the Sanskrit inscriptions that top the Uyghur pranidhi scenes in the Bezeklik caves, we know that the mythology of this tradition goes back to the Mahavastu, which claims that there were actually fourteen (not six) buddhas between Dipamkara and Kasyapa. With the addition then of the present Buddha, Sakyamuni, the pranidhi murals in caves 20 and 15 at Bezeklik together depict fifteen buddhas, each of which iconographically confirms that in times of trouble the best hope for future buddhahood is not one’s effort in this life but being reborn at the time of a future buddha so as to acquire both the merit and the prophecy needed for salvation.

This desire to be reborn at the time of Maitreya’s earthly descent is found in the earliest texts of the so-called Nikaya schools. This was the tradition that the Tokharians followed and transmitted to the Uyghurs. Yet on account of the Maitreya fever in the tenth and eleventh centuries, new ideas and rituals relating to the future buddha were developing in other Buddhist traditions. In China, for example, the Yogacara school had long promoted not simply waiting for Maitreya to be reborn on earth but praying to be reborn directly into Tuṣita heaven, where Maitreya now resides. Leading Buddhists such as the pilgrim and translator Xuanzang promoted this idea. In the tenth century the Yogacara Faxiang school, which was then growing in popularity both in the Liao dynasty and in Dunhuang, revived it, and the Uyghurs subsequently adopted the tradition. They not only adopted its new ideas and rituals but also fused them with the original Tokharian practices to create a distinctive new ritual repertoire. One such practice was asking Maitreya directly to “eradicate ailments and the sufferings of the Uyghur people in the realm of Kocho.” Jens Wilkens describes another text that includes “a diagnosis of the present situation” as one of “degeneration, depravity and impurity, in which the Uyghur nobility tirelessly work to rebuild a thriving Buddhist community.” In these works the nobility are represented as the “‘charisma of the realm of Kočo’ (OU kočo ulušnung kuṭı kıvı), a term reminiscent of the protective deities guarding the land of the Uyghurs.” 

The worship of Maitreya among the Uyghurs thus worked on multiple levels. By promoting the cult through textual and artistic production—including representations of themselves—the Uyghur elite were “shoring up the self in an age of anxiety” and grappling with the “idea of annihilation.”

Yet unlike all the other surrounding polities, even amid fear and upheaval, the Uyghur ruler himself did not take up these issues. He never claimed to be a cakravartin, a bodhisattva, a new Aśoka, or any of the other standard ideological models available for Buddhist rulers. Rather, the Uyghur nobility were the “charisma of the realm of Kočo.” Their support of the Dharma was both protecting the Uyghur state and making salvation possible.

Excerpted from A History of Uyghur Buddhism by Johan Elverskog.  Copyright (c) 2024 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. We thank Columbia University Press for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Johan Elverskog

Johan Elverskog is Dedman Family Distinguished Professor, professor of religious studies, and, by courtesy, professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is the author or editor of eleven books including the multiple award-winning Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road.