Buddhist Sculpture from China

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Resource Collection
  • Colossal Buddha at Bamiyan in present-day Afghanistan (West Buddha surrounded by caves, c. 6th-7th c C.E., stone, stucco, paint, 175 feet high, Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destroyed 2001)

Selections from the Xi’an Beilin Museum Fifth Through Ninth Centuries


To the northeast of the royal city there is a mountain, on the side of which is placed the stone figure of Buddha standing, in height one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet. Its golden colors sparkle on every side and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes with their brightness (Beal 1969: 121).

So wrote the monk Xuanzang (c. 596-664), China’s most famous Buddhist pilgrim. He was talking about the colossal Buddha at Bamiyan in present-day Afghanistan, a sight which awed travelers from all over Asia until its destruction by the Taliban in 2001. Its iconography and style were a model for sculpture both in China and Japan. As a universal faith transcending barriers of culture and language.

Images were central to carrying the Mahayana Buddhist message of universal salvation to China: “In the first centuries of its introduction into China, Buddhism was known as ‘the religion of images’” (Lopez 2002: 92).

The religion of images became part of Chinese culture during one of the most turbulent periods in its long history: the era of division between the fall of the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) and reunification under the Sui (581-618). From the early fourth century on, China was divided in two, the north ruled by a succession of nomad peoples and the south governed by Chinese émigrés who had fled the north. The violence and uncertainty of these times was fertile soil for the establishment and growth of Buddhism, a foreign religion, and Daoism, China’s indigenous faith.

Buddhist Sculpture from China focuses on objects from the late fifth through the ninth centuries, that is to say, Northern Wei (386-534), Western Wei (535-556), Northern Zhou (557-581), Sui (581-618), and Tang (618-907).

The institutions established by Northern Wei and subsequent dynasties marked the beginning of transition from political fragmentation to a unified empire under the short-lived Sui and its successor, the Tang dynasty (618-907). The Wei rulers, Tuoba people from what is today Manchuria and eastern Mongolia, were ardent supporters of Buddhism.

The Beilin (“Forest of Stone Steles”) in Xi’an houses one of the most important collections of stone artifacts in China. Xi’an was formerly known as Chang’an. It was a capital city for more than a thousand years and a center of Buddhism since the fifth century. It was also the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads, the caravan routes that were a main conduit for the entry of Buddhism into China.

The exhibition consists of seventy-three pieces, some excavated from burial sites within the last twenty-five years. They provide a unique look at the relation between Buddhist art and Chinese society during these centuries.

The period covered by Buddhist Sculpture from China fits within Era 4 of the National History Standards, “Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter, 300-1000 CE”: Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu Traditions: Not only Islam but other major religions also spread widely during this 700-year era. Wherever these faiths were introduced, they carried with them a variety of cultural traditions, aesthetic ideas, and ways of organizing human endeavor. Each of them also embraced peoples of all classes and diverse languages in common worship and moral commitment.

The entry of Buddhism into China and East Asia at the beginning of the Common Era is central to any perception of cultural exchange as playing “a crucial role in human history, being perhaps the most important external stimuli to change, leaving aside military conquest” (Curtin 1984: 1).

This web-companion provides a variety of background material on Buddhism. It will be useful to educators who either visit Buddhist Sculpture from China with their students or for anyone interested in gaining a deeper appreciation of Buddhism.

Buddhist art is a powerful lens for multidisciplinary inquiry into Chinese history and culture. In pre-modern China, Buddhism touched the daily lives of all classes of society. Also, over the last fifty years it has experienced a major resurgence in the Chinese-speaking world.

An Introduction to Buddhism

Chün-fang Yü

This brief introduction and passages cited elsewhere as “Yü 2005” are part of “Religions Along the Silk Roads” in From Silk to Oil: Cross-Cultural Connections Along the Silk Roads, a curriculum guide published by China Institute. Chün-fang Yü, a distinguished scholar of Chinese Buddhism, teaches at Columbia University. She is the author of Kuan-yin–The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara (Columbia University Press, 2001), among other works.

Founded by the Buddha, the Enlightened One, who lived during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Buddhism shared with Brahmanism, the dominant religion of India, basic beliefs about the world and the human condition. Human beings constitute one of six realms of existence, the other five being gods, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts, and hellish beings. One is bound to be reborn in any one of these realms after death, depending on the moral quality of the life lived or one’s karma. The perpetual rebirth, or samsara was regarded as painful. But unlike Brahmanism, early Buddhism did not rely on religious rituals or gods to gain release from samsara. Instead, it was by following the Dharma or the Truth, which the Buddha himself experienced, that one would gain the insight leading to nirvana or the cessation of rebirth. Soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, he preached the first sermon of the Four Noble Truths. The audience for this first sermon was a group of five ascetics. These men had been his disciples in the pursuit of enlightenment through self-mortification, a path the Buddha came to reject for being as extreme as the reckless pursuit of pleasure. The Four Noble Truths state succinctly that human existence is painful, that the pain is caused by desire, that nirvana is the end of pain, and that the way to nirvana is the Eightfold Noble Path. This path includes training in morality and meditation and results in wisdom. With the conversion of the five ascetics, who had left the Buddha when he put aside the practice of self-mortification, the Buddhist Sangha came into being. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the Three Treasures that all Buddhists of later generations living in different parts of the world honor. By taking refuge in the Three Treasures, one becomes a Buddhist believer (Yü 2005: 28).

Buddhism is the first world religion. Like Christianity and Islam centuries later, its message is for everyone. In Early Buddhism, although there is a difference in status between the monastics and lay believers, the difference is not hard and fast. If one chooses to lead the life of a monk or nun, one devotes oneself to meditation and study. But if one is not ready to give up the life of a householder, then one can engage in merit-making activities such as feeding the monks, giving donations to temples, having a Buddha image made, or sponsoring sutra recitations. Such merit is believed to bring good fortune in this life and a better rebirth in the next. Through merit making and good karma, everyone can eventually be fortunate enough to become a monk and nun. Good intention and hard work unfailingly bear results. This is a positive and optimistic belief. It offers hope and encouragement to those who must rely on their own efforts to succeed in life. The Mahayana message of compassion is even more attractive (Yü 2005: 30).

In China, after the fall of the Han dynasty [202 BCE-220 CE] in 220, there was unrest and turmoil until 589 when the country was united under the Sui dynasty. It was during these centuries that Buddhism took root in China. There is good reason why Buddhism could make its conquest at a time of political and social disorder. When the world is in chaos and life is full of uncertainties, how can one live in equanimity? It is perhaps during times such as these that the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion could be truly appreciated (Yü 2005: 30).

From the record of Chinese translation of Buddhist sutras, we know that the earliest types of literature translated were the meditation texts of Early Buddhism, which were followed by the Mahayana scriptures known as the Perfection of Wisdom. What do these scriptures preach? The message, which is reiterated, is that everything is sunya or empty. The Diamond Sutra, which is the best-known scripture in this group, declares:

This fleeting world is like
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Wisdom is the realization of the insubstantial nature of all things, including oneself. To view the world in this way will initially lead to detachment and equanimity. But the final realization is not the rejection of the world but rather the acceptance of all: be it war or peace, misfortune or good luck, foe or friend. This is the wisdom of the Buddha and the bodhisattva (Yü 2005: 30-31).

Indian Religion: Hinduism and Jainism

“Hindu Beginnings—Assessing the Period 1000 BCE-300 CE” (Guy Welbon, Education About Asia)

An article from Education About Asia, a journal for K-12 educators published by the Association for Asian Studies. It defines Hinduism, discusses its core values and texts, and places it in the context of both Indian religion and world history.

Religion & Ethics–Hinduism (BBC)

Religion & Ethics–Jainism (BBC)

These information-filled BBC websites discuss topics ranging from history and beliefs to ethics and everyday life.

The Buddha the Dharma and the Sangha

The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are called the “Three Jewels.” The first step in becoming a Buddhist involves taking refuge in the Three Jewels.

The Buddha

We can distinguish two separate but related understandings of what a Buddha is. In the first understanding the Buddha (represented in English with a capital B) was an unusual human being born into a royal family in ancient India in the sixth or fifth century BCE. He renounced his birthright, followed established religious teachers, and then achieved enlightenment after striking out on his own. . .In the second understanding a buddha (with a lowercase b) is a generic label for any enlightened being (Teiser 1999: 100).


From an inscription dated 156. Fo, The character for “Buddha.”

The word Fo [“Buddha”] does not make literal sense in Chinese. Instead it represents a sound, a word with no semantic value that in the ancient language was pronounced as “bud,” like the beginning of the Sanskrit word buddha. . .In Sanskrit the word “buddha” means “one who has achieved enlightenment,” one who has “awakened” to the true nature of human existence (Teiser 1999: 98).

Life of the Buddha (Thematic Essay, Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History)

Life of the Buddha for Secondary Students (BuddhaNet.net)

“This ‘Life of the Buddha’ has been prepared for secondary school students. There are exercises with each story which teachers can elaborate on when it is used as a text book. However, while the stories are simple and brief, they do follow the scriptural tradition and so are of value for the general reader who wishes to learn about the Buddha’s life.”

The Illustrated Life of the Buddha (Teaching Comparative Religion Through Art and Architecture)

This website (a work in progress) was created as a result of a series of teacher institutes for California middle and high school educators. It was designed to “present sets of visual materials to enrich the state-mandated curriculum on world history and to address visual literacy skills.”

A Sketch of the Buddha’s Life–Readings from the Pali Canon (Accesstoinsight.org)

Pali was the sacred language of northern India used in Theravada Buddhism. Theravada (“Way of the Elders”) is the Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos

Jatakamala: Garland of Stories (Thirty-four Jataka Tales accompanied by traditional Mongolian paintings, Himalayan Art Resources)

The Jataka are popular stories about the former lives of Shakyamuni Buddha. In these morality tales the future Buddha may appear as a king, a beggar, or even an animal. Painters and sculptors have drawn inspiration from them for centuries. Many Jataka have been published on the internet, including this collection.

“Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before? Samsara and Karma in the Jataka Tales” (NEH Edsitement)

The Dharma


From an inscription dated 156. Fa, The character for “dharma.”

The Dharma includes the doctrines taught by the Buddha and passed down in oral and written form, thought to be equivalent to the universal cosmic law. . .As a literary tradition the dharma also comprises many different genres, the most important of which is called sutra in Sanskrit (Teiser 1999: 101).

The Tibetan Wheel of Life (World Treasures of the Library of Congress)

“The Wheel of Life describes the cause of all evil and its effects, mirrored in earthly phenomena just as it is experienced by everyone from the cradle to the grave. Picture by picture it reminds us that everyone is always his or her own judge and responsible for their own fate, because, according to Karma, causes and their effects are the fruits of one’s own deeds.” Click here for an interactive tour of another version of the Wheel of Life.

Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called Lamaism, was important to both the Mongols and the Manchus, peoples who had ruled China as conquest dynasties: the Mongols as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and the Manchus as the Qing (1644-1911).

The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path According to the Pali Canon

The heart of the Buddha’s teaching lies in the Four Noble Truths which he expounded in his very first sermon (Rahula 1959: 16):

The Fourth Noble Truth is that of the Way leading to the Cessation of Dukkha [Suffering]. This is known as the “Middle Path” because it avoids two extremes: one extreme being the search for happiness through the pleasures of the senses. . .the other being the search for happiness through self-mortification in different forms of asceticism. . .Having himself first tried these two extremes, and having found them to be useless, the Buddha discovered the Middle Path. . .generally referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path (Rahula 1959: 45):

  1. Right View
  2. Right Resolve (Intention)
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

The Dhammapada (Accesstoinsight.org)

The Dhammapada (“Path of Dharma”) is one of the most popular works in the Pali canon. Although a Theravada text, it is widely read among all Buddhists. The 423 verses were traditionally believed to have been spoken by the Buddha and are considered one of the most concise expressions of his teachings.


Coin with portrait of King Menander (Milinda) British Museum

The Questions of King Milinda (Tr: T.W. Rhys Davids, Internet Sacred Text Archive)

Alexander the Great’s fourth century BCE conquests spread Hellenic culture into Central Asia and across the Indus River. During the second century BCE, Milinda (Menander in Greek) ruled an Indo-Greek kingdom covering parts of northwest India and Pakistan.

The Questions of King Milinda is an important Theravada text discussing basic questions of interest to laypeople. It purports to be a record of conversations between the king and the Buddhist monk Nagasena. In the end Milinda is converted to Buddhism.

“The Origins of Buddhism” (Ch. 2 of Topics in Medieval Japanese History)

From one of the East Asian history textbooks prepared by Gregory Smits, a historian of Japan at Penn State University.

“Buddhist Literature” (The Columbia Encyclopedia)

A brief description of the Buddhist canon.

The Sangha


The Chinese word for “sangha,” pronounced “sengqie” in modern Chinese.

The third jewel is sangha. . .meaning “assembly.” Some sources offer a broad interpretation of the term, which comprises the four sub-orders of monks, nuns, lay men, and lay women. Other sources use the term in a stricter sense to include only monks and nuns, that is, those who have left home, renounced family life, accepted vows of celibacy, and undertaken other austerities to devote themselves full-time to the practice of religion (Teiser 1999: 101).

Ordination of Monks and Nuns (BuddhaNet.net)

A brief description of the ordination of monks and nuns and monks and nuns in different Buddhist traditions.

Monks and Nuns (A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization)

Photos and commentary on monks in Chinese Buddhism.

Lives of Monks and Nuns (Buddhapia.com)

Various materials (photos as well as text) on the lives of Korean Buddhist monks and nuns, including “The Life of a Korean Zen Nun,” and “Daily Life of Korean Monks and Nuns.”

The Vinaya–Rules of Conduct for Monks and Nuns

“The Vinaya Pitaka, the first division of the Tipitaka, is the textual framework upon which the monastic community (Sangha) is built. It includes not only the rules governing the life of every Theravada bhikkhu (monk) and bhikkhuni (nun), but also a host of procedures and conventions of etiquette that support harmonious relations, both among the monastics themselves, and between the monastics and their lay supporters, upon whom they depend for all their material needs.”

Women and the Female in Buddhism

Buddhism as a World Religion

Over the course of many centuries after the death of the Buddha, his words and his image made their way from India to the nations now named Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. Over the past two centuries, Buddhism has become established in Europe, Australia, and the Americas (Lopez 2002: 7). These websites focus on the spread of Buddhism from India through Central Asia to China along the Silk Roads.

Map: The Spread of Buddhism

Migrations of Buddhism (Background Essay, Asia Society AskAsia)

The Buddhist World (Buddhanet.net)

“The Growth of Buddhism & its Spread to East Asia” (Ch. 3 of Topics in Medieval Japanese History, Gregory Smits, Penn State University)

The Kushan Empire (c. 2nd century BCE-3rd century CE) (Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History)

The Kushans (c. 2nd century BCE-3rd century CE) controlled parts of northwest India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the southern routes of the Silk Road across the Tarim basin in northwest China. Kushan control of the Silk Roads facilitated the spread of Buddhism to China.

Gandhara, a region in northwest Pakistan formerly occupied by Alexander the Great’s successor’s, was a center of the Kushan empire. Consequently, Kushan art was influenced by Greek and Roman myths and art styles. The first images of the Buddha were produced in the Kushan period.

Buddhism and Its Spread Along the Silk Road (Silk Road Foundation)

Buddhism in China–Historical and Cultural Contexts

Buddhist monks and nuns added a new group to the traditional Chinese “four classes of people”: farmer, scholar-official, craftsman, merchant. Early texts emphasized the contradictions between Confucian family values and the Buddhist ideal of “leaving the family” (chu jia) to pursue enlightenment. Although this excerpt from the sixth century Lives of Eminent Monks (Gao seng zhuan) might be considered a kind of Buddhist propaganda, it hints at some of these social fissures. Here a young man named Du, having become a monk, is upbraided by his fiancé and bids her farewell:

“The ancestral temples should not be abandoned as you, Du, the monk, have done. Moreover, considering the teaching of Confucian society you should abandon your lofty hermit ideal, and arousing your talents make a name for yourself in the world.”

Seng Du [Monk Du] responded, “Serving the king, as demanded by Confucianism, is to assist in the ruling of one’s country. That cannot be compared with pursuing the Buddhist path for all peoples. Serving one’s parents means to establish a family of one’s own; but that cannot be compared with following the Buddhist path for the sake of all beings in the three realms. . .Dear one, let this be the last parting and let all the karmic ties from ten thousand years that brought us together end here” (Ebrey 1993: 99-100).

As Buddhism became part of the Chinese landscape, its critics also objected to the wealth of monasteries and the fact that they and their monks were tax-exempt.

Buddhism (A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization)

The Spread of Buddhism Among the Chinese (BuddhaNet.net)

Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, 386-589 (Thematic Essay, Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History)

China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Buddhism on the Silk Road (International Dunhuang Project)

Sections on “Buddhism in India and Central Asia, “Buddhism of the Kushana Empire,” “Buddhism of Khotan” (a major oasis in the Tarim Basin), “Tibetan Buddhism on the Silk Road,” and others.

The Exoticism of Tang (Silk Road Foundation)

Xi’an / Chang’an (Silk Road Seattle)

Map of Tang Chang’an (Monkeytree.org)

Chang’an Reconstructed (National University of Singapore)

Sections on “Buddhism in India and Central Asia, “Buddhism of the Kushana Empire,” “Buddhism of Khotan” (a major oasis in the Tarim Basin), “Tibetan Buddhism on the Silk Road,” and others.

Buddhist Thought in China

Buddhist doctrine was different from anything the Chinese had encountered in their native Confucian and Daoist traditions. The earliest translations of Indian texts were made during the second century CE by non-Chinese working with groups of Chinese assistants. There were many difficulties involved in translating Indian Buddhist terms and concepts. It was only during the Tang dynasty (618-907) that Buddhist doctrine became fully “Chinese,” in part through the efforts of monk-translators such as Xuanzang (c. 596-664), who knew both Sanskrit and wrote literary Chinese.

It is important to note that viewing Chinese Buddhism in terms of mutually incompatible schools or sects tends to distort a tradition where, although

“monks and other literati did indeed make sense of their history by classifying the overwhelming number of texts and teachings they inherited under distinctive trends. . .any clear-cut criterion of belief, like the Nicene Creed, or a declaration of faith like Martin Luther’s, is lacking (Teiser 1999: 104).

Furthermore, the view that all scriptures [whether Theravada or Mahayana] represented the word of the Buddha tended to blur. . .the doctrinal differences that might have distinguished one sect from another. . .Some Chinese monks are claimed as patriarchs by as many as three or four different schools” (de Bary 1999: 434).

These websites, some informational and others linked to key texts, are by necessity limited to a few highpoints. For more on this subject see Section 11, “Suggestions for Further Reading.”.

The Chinese Buddhist Schools (BuddhaNet.net)

The Lotus Sutra–”The Universal Gate of Bodhisattva Kanzeon [Guanyin]” (Ch. 25) (Tr. by Burton Watson; Lotusnichirenshu.org)

Bodhisattvas (Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization)

Section 4 discusses the importance of the Lotus Sutra and the Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. As Buddhism became part of daily life in China, so did the figure of the Bodhisattva:

For Central Asian and Chinese Buddhists, the most important bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara or Guanyin. He is the all-compassionate and all-powerful savior. One does not have to earn his favor by scriptural study, moral perfection, or meditative proficiency. Most amazingly, in order to get all these benefits, all one must do is simply call his name with single-minded sincerity. With the cult of Amitabha Buddha [see below] and the cult of bodhisattvas such as Guanyin, Mahayana Buddhism can be called an “other power” religion. Unlike Early Buddhism that stressed “self power,” a Mahayana believer is not alone in his or her endeavors. Through the free gift of divine grace, salvation is no longer beyond the hope of ordinary men and women (Yu 2005: 30).

Ch. 25 of the Lotus is read separately as the Guanyin Sutra. Its popularity in pre-modern China is reflected in the thousands of copies preserved in libraries around the world (Yü 2001: 75).

“Introduction to Pure Land and the Amithaba Sutra” (J.C. Cleary)

The Amitabha Sutra (Tr. by J.C. Cleary)

Pure Land of the Patriarchs (Hanshan Deqing [Han-Shan Te-Ch’ing], 1546-1623) (Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada)

Pure Land and Chan (Japanese: Zen) are the two major forms of Buddhist practice in China. The Pure Land sect emphasized salvation by faith and became the most important popular form of Buddhism in China. . .”The Pure Land” is the sphere believed by Mahayana Buddhists to be ruled over by the Buddha Amitabha. . .anyone who meditates or calls upon his name in good faith will be born in his Buddha-world (de Bary 1999: 481-482).

Zen Buddhism (Thematic Essay, Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History)

The Ten Oxherding Pictures (Prints by Tomikichiro Tokuriki; Tr: Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps)

The “Ten Oxherding Pictures” are about cultivating the mind: the ox represents the mind and the herdboy represents the seeker of truth.

Book of Zen (Tsai Chih Chung, Asianet.net)

The word “Chan” (Zen in Japanese) comes from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means meditation.

As Chan developed in China, it came to style itself as “a separate transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent on words and phrases” and to describe its teaching as “transmitted from mind to mind.”

“To see into one’s own nature and become Buddha” was the objective of all Chan practitioners, and it was to this end that all study was directed. Different Masters developed various techniques to bring the student to realization and awakening. In addition to meditation over a period of months and years, physical work. . .was stressed and became an integral part of the Chan training program (de Bary 1999: 491, 492).

Dunhuang Scroll of the Sutra of the Ten Kings (British Library)

Buddhism introduced strong notions of sin and guilt into Chinese culture. Punishment in hell and evil rebirths awaited those who violated basic Buddhist precepts against taking life, theft, profiting from human or animal suffering, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying, speaking poorly of others or gossiping, and using alcohol. This scroll illustrates the stages through which souls of the dead must pass through after death.

Buddhist Pilgrimage: “In the Footsteps of the Buddha”

Buddhist pilgrimages, like many others, were directed toward places sanctified by history and marked by remains of enlightened beings. As in other religions with identifiable founders, later followers of the Shakyamuni Buddha (sixth to fifth century BCE) wanted to travel to the sites in India commemorated by his life, specifically his birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death (Naquin 1992: 5).

The four main pilgrimage sites connected to the life of the Buddha are located in northern India and southern Nepal on the plains that drain into the river Ganges:

Lumbini–Birthplace of the Buddha (Nepal)

Bodh Gaya–Where the Buddha Attained Enlightenment

Sarnath–Site of the First Teaching

Kusinara–”Place of the Great Passing Away”

A Virtual Pilgrimage to the Holy Places in India

The Four Mountain Sanctuaries (Buddhistdoor.com)

China’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

Faxian’s A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (394-414) (Brooklyn College Core 9 Chinese Culture Website; Paul Halsall, Brooklyn College, 1996-1999)

This section of Faxian’s account discusses important Indian shrines associated with relics of the Buddha.

Xuanzang–The Monk Who Brought Buddhism East (Asia Society AskAsia)

Travels of Hsuan-Tsang [Xuanzang]–Buddhist Pilgrim of the Seventh Century (Irma Marx; Silkroad Foundation)

Xuanzang (c. 596-664) is the most famous of all Buddhist pilgrims. Once in India, he visited sacred sites connected to the life of the Buddha, debated with learned monks, and devoted himself to study. In all, his pilgrimage took sixteen years (629-645). Xuanzang eventually became a folk hero. In the sixteenth century, legends about his travels went into the making of China’s most popular novel, Journey to the West.

Buddhist Art and Architecture

It is difficult to overstate the importance of images in Buddhism. In the first centuries of its introduction into China, Buddhism was known as “the religion of images.” In societies where only a tiny portion of the population was literate, other modes of communication played a far larger role then the texts that have so often provided the primary focus for our understanding of Buddhism (Lopez 2002: 92).

Buddhism and Buddhist Art (Thematic Essay, Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History)

Gallery Guide–The Art of Buddhism (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

“Hand Mudras–Symbols of Deeper Meaning” (BuddhaNet.net)

Buddhist Symbols / Iconography (BuddhaNet.net)

The Art of Buddhism–A Teacher’s Guide (Free Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

This 136 page guide includes an overview of Buddhism in India, China, Japan, and the contemporary world; a vocabulary list, four lesson plans, and a resource guide.

The Gandhara School (Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation)

Gandhara Art (Indian Art Circle)

Gandhara, a region in northwest Pakistan once occupied by Alexander the Great’s successor’s, was a center of the Kushan empire. Consequently, Kushan art was influenced by Greek and Roman art styles. The first images of the Buddha were produced in the Kushan period.

Museum Collections of Silk Road Art (Silk Road Seattle)

Treasures of the Silk Road (British Museum)

Buddhist Art and the Trade Routes (Asia Society)

Monks and Merchants Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu, and Ningxia, 4th-7th Century (Asia Society)

Winding through northwestern China, Central Asia, Iran, and the Middle East, the Silk Roads were arguably the most important conduit of cultural exchange in world history. Although not the only avenue for the introduction of Buddhism to China and East Asia, the Silk Roads were central to the eastward spread of this, the first world religion.

Mogao Caves Photo Gallery (Chinese Resources, Dartmouth College Humanities Resources)

By the late fourth century Dunhuang (in today’s Gansu province) was a key oasis in western China. It was from there that the two main routes of the Chinese Silk Roads split, traversing the northern and southern edges of the Taklamakan desert in the Tarim Basin.

Outside Dunhuang the Mogao caves, over half of them decorated, became a place of residence and worship for Buddhist monks. Long before the site was abandoned in the fifteenth century, some fifty thousand documents and artifacts were stored in one of the caves, which was then sealed around the year 1000, probably out of fear of an invasion. In 1900 it was discovered. News about the hidden treasures brought the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1907. He succeeded in buying seven thousand complete manuscripts and six thousand fragments as well as several cases of paintings, embroideries, and other artifacts, for the price of 130 British pounds. He was soon followed by French, German, Russian, Japanese, and American explorers, who made the same trip and carried away as many documents and silk paintings as they could (Yü 2005: 26).

Buddhist Art of China (Huntington Archive)

Traditional Chinese Temple: Lian Shan Shuang Lin Si (Buddhanet.net)

A multimedia tour of a nineteenth century Buddhist temple in Singapore.

Himalayan Art Resources

“The mission of Himalayan Art Resources is to create a comprehensive research database, a virtual museum, of Himalayan and Tibetan art.”

Contemporary Buddhism

DharmaNet Internationa

“DharmaNet International’s Internet clearinghouse for Buddhist study and practice resources has been online since 1991. Dharmanet hosts its own in-house databases and collections, as well as providing links to worldwide online Buddhist resources, large and small.”

The Journal of Global Buddhism

“The Journal of Global Buddhism has been established to promote the study of Buddhism’s globalization and its transcontinental interrelatedness.”

Sakyadhita–International Association of Buddhist Women

Urban Dharma–Buddhism in America

Women Active in Buddhism

World Buddhist Directory (BuddhaNet.net)

General Resources


“BuddhaNetTM is the result of a vision to link up with the growing world-wide culture of people committed to the Buddha’s teachings and lifestyle, as an on-line cyber sangha. . .BuddhaNet is a non-sectarian organization, offering its services to all Buddhist traditions.” Click here for BuddhaNet’s “Basic Buddhism Guide.”

The Art of Buddhism–A Teacher’s Guide (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

This 136 page guide includes an overview of Buddhism in India, China, Japan, and the contemporary world; a vocabulary list, four lesson plans, and a resource guide.

Religion & Ethics–Buddhism (BBC)

The BBC’s Religion & Ethics websites cover over thirty belief systems including atheism. Topics are of both historical and contemporary relevance.

Silk Roads Seattle

This ever-expanding website explores many aspects of the Silk Roads including arts, architecture and cities, traditional cultures, and geography.

A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization

“The goal of this ‘visual sourcebook’ is to add to the material teachers can use to help their students understand Chinese history, culture, and society. It was not designed to stand alone; we assume that teachers who use it will also assign a textbook with basic information about Chinese history.”

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.