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Lecture-Discussion on “Bodhidharma: The India-China-Japan Connection”

C3S Event Report No: 007/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) organized a Lecture-discussion on “Bodhidharma: The India-China-Japan Connection”, led by Dr. T. Kambe, Director of the Bodhidharma Dojo Foundation and former Professor of Physics at the University of Tokyo at C3S on 19th February 2019. Mrs. Uma Balu, Member, C3S introduced the speaker. Prof. Kambe was part of the first delegation from Japan that was invited to China after the reform and opening up of 1978.

Prof. T. Kambe initiated the lecture-discussion by inviting all C3S members to an event in Kanchipuram organized by the Indo-Japan Association to commemorate the legacy of Bodhidharma, an Indian monk that travelled to China in 6th century A.D, spreading Buddhist principles and practices. Prof. Kambe informed C3S members that a granite stone will be laid to commemorate Bodhidharma and preserve his legacy at Kanchipuram. The story of Bodhidharma has excited the curiosity of Indians, Chinese and Japanese, who search for greater evidence of Bodhidharma’s influence in India, Japan and China. The quest to rediscover historical linkages has formed a common base for Chinese, Japanese and Indian civilizations, Prof. Kambe noted.

Prof. Kambe discussed the relevant historical evidence that suggests Bodhidharma taught Buddhism in China and was originally from India. Prof. Kambe pointed out that people speaking the MinNan language, in modern day Fujian, are familiar with the words ‘Kang Zhi Guo’ which roughly translates to Kanchipuram. People living in those parts are familiar with Kanchipuram and other supplementary evidence of Pallava influences remain to this day. Prof. Kambe also displayed a picture of a stone relief in a Pallava temple at Kanchipuram that depicted a Chinese figure accompanied by scenes of the imperial court. Some interpretations have suggested that the Chinese figure could be Bodhidharma himself.

Professor Kambe also spoke of the appreciation for Buddhist practices and beliefs in China, where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced in a unique fashion. The preservation of sites and artefacts in China has revived interest in Buddhism among the citizenry. However, Prof. Kambe also pointed out that events like the Cultural Revolution had destroyed numerous documents and sites relevant to Buddhism in China. Nevertheless, the appreciation of Buddhism has not waned in China as more and more people travel to Buddhist sites discovering the shared history of India and China.

Prof. Kambe spoke extensively on the reasoning for Bodhidharma’s visit to China, a theme scarcely touched upon in discussions of Indian history. Bodhidharma’s journey to China was sparked by Prajnyatara, his guru, who suggested that Buddhism in India was going to die out and that China had plenty of scope to learn and understand Buddhism. China only had access to translated sutras (documents), but desired a teacher who could explain the meaning of Buddhist principles.

Discussion with Members

C3S Member, Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan pointed out that a Shaivite temple in Southern China was built by Indian travellers and merchants between the 4th and 10th century A.D. Such linkages over time and across borders contribute to a shared understanding of religious and spiritual beliefs among people. Mr. Rajaram Muthukrishnan also noted that Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) transported various cultural artefacts to Taiwan during the Civil War. This allowed Japan and Taiwan to become custodians of Chinese cultural and historical artefacts.

On the subject of temples in China, C3S Treasurer, Mr. K. Subramanian, argued that temples and historical sites in China are well preserved and maintained. The restoration of historical sites has evolved into an industry of its own that creates a culture-based economic model for towns and cities. Despite the active efforts at preservation today, there have been numerous instances of cultural artefacts being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Additionally, the one party state exercises tight control over the functioning of Buddhism and other religions. Research Officer, Ms. Asma Masood was interested in understanding the consciousness of Buddhism among Japanese youth today and wondered if the present generation is active in adopting and following Buddhist practices and principles. Prof T. Kambe pointed out that the elder population of Japan is much higher than the youth population and it is largely the older generations that adopt a proactive role in preserving Buddhism. Prof. Kambe also argued that the influence of Westernization on Japanese youth has dampened the enthusiasm for religion among the current generation.

(Compiled by Rahul Reddy, Research Officer, C3S)

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