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1 a Portrait of Buddhism in Licchavi

1 a Portrait of Buddhism in Licchavi

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A Portrait of Buddhism in Licchavi Nepal
 
Charles M. Novak
 
Buddhist Himalaya: A Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods
 
V
ol. I
V
NO. I & II (1992)
 
Copyright 1992 by Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods
 
T
he most noted characteristic of Buddhadharma as practiced by the Newars of Kathmandu
V
alley is that it has to a large extent preserved those forms of later IndianBuddhism known as Mahayana and
V
ajrayana in an unbroken, lining tradition. onlyrecently Have scholars begun to explore the rich storehouse of /Buddhist traditions of Newar Buddhism from the point of view that it is an independent and unique tradition of Buddhism which deserves to be studied on its own merits. In order to better understandthe background from which the complex socio-religious system of the Newar Buddhistcommunity developed, the present article present to portray Buddhism as it developedin the Katmandu
V
alley during Nepal's Licchave Period )(ca. 300-879 A.D) Although, asmuch as possible, historically reliable information has been used here, given the4scantiness of historical references from this earliest period do Nepalese History and theauthor's desire to provide as complete a picture as is currently possible, somelegendary material as well as reasonable supposition is included below.
 
Perhaps more so than most other places, the environment of the Kathmandu
V
alley has had adeep and abiding impact on the religious outlook of its people.
T
he dramatic variety of physicalfeatures inspires awe: a central circular basin of just over 200 square miles surrounded by anuneven ring of high hills ranging from 6000 to over 9000 feet in height: vast forested areas onthe hills and plenty of fertile crop land in the lower areas which is drained by a weblike networkof rivers and streams: spectacular sunrise and sunsets which sometimes include many show-capped Himalayan peaks. Most important from a religious point of view are the high hills andmountains in and around the
V
alley and other sacred locales (Skt; tirtha) which are oftenassociated with bodies of water and are scattered throughout the
V
alley. From ancient timesseveral of these prominent places have been venerated by the Buddhist population of Kathmandu
V
alley. Most important among these are: Swayambhu Hill, Nasgarjun Hill, themountains of Namobuddha and Manichuda places like cobar and Codavari that are associatedwith Manjusri Bodhisattva, as well as numerous sites around the
V
alley which are connectedwith Buddhist deities such as Mahakala,
T
ara,
V
asudhara, Padmapani Bodhisattva in hisseveral forms, Hariti and manu places such as Guheswari, Bajrabarahi and the two shrines of vajrajogini which are related with the worship of female Buddhist deities known as yoginis. It iswidely believed by the Newars and by most scholars that ancient sites such as these were heldsacred even before the onset of strong cultural influences from India, which started perhaps inthe first or second century A.D. this early phase of cultural influence from India Correspondsroughly to the latter half of the Kushana Period and is most strongly felt throughout the Guptaperiod (ca. 300-550 A.D.). During this time, the old, indigenous place-names began to bereplaced by Sanskrit, but the original named did not easily give way to the Sanskrit and some of these ancient Newar names survive even today.
 
 
 
T
he extent of the territories controlled by the Licchavi kings of Nepal is point that is still beingdebated from the fact that all but a handful of the Licchavi inscriptions are found in theKathmandu
V
alley, it is obvious that this was the central and most important part of the Licchavedomain. Fleeting and perhaps false references from the inscriptions have led scholars to believethat the Licchavis held sway over vast are as to the east and west of the
V
alley. Be that as itmay, more important with regard to the study to Buddhism in Nepal are the cultural connectionsto the south with India's heartland and later on to the north with
T
ibet. For over a thousandyears, from Kushana times until the early thirteenth century, Nepal received a steady flow of cultural influences from India which were directly connected with Buddhism (and Hinduism).
T
his includes the entirety of the Indian Buddhist tradition, with the notable exception of PaliBuddhism. It is only toward the end of the Licchavi period that
T
ibet begins to play a role a withregards to Buddhism, and that is mainly in the role of Patron to the Newar Buddhist artisans.
 
In a real sense, Licchavi Nepal can be seen as an evolving "Oasis" of Buddhist culturaltraditions, An "Oasis" in the sense that all of the nearby, traditional centers of ancient Buddhismsuch as
V
aisali, Sravasti, Sarnath, Kushinagara, Pataliputra, Limbini and Kapilavastu had beenabandoned about 500 A.D., and Licchave Nepal was the only major center of Buddhism to thenorthest of Magadha for several hundred years, until the rise of Buddhism in
T
ibet.
T
he ancientBuddhist centers mentioned above were (as today) thought of only as places of pilgrimage, andnot looked to as real sources of Buddhist teaching.
T
his meant that the main centers of IndianBuddhism which served as important sources of Buddhist teaching.
T
his meant that the maincenters of Indian Buddhism which served as important sources for Licchave Nepal wereespecially the Nalanda/Rajgir/Bodhagya area, Mathur, perhaps pushpoagiri in Orissa,
T
amralipti, Bharhut and even as far away as the western Indian cities of Ajanta, Ellora andNasik. Wherever in India Buddhist art forms and teachings might have come from, these founda warm welcome in Licchave Nepal and were cared for and developed with devotion andsensitivity.
 
T
wo forms of Buddhist worship which came into prominence during the Licchavi Period were theworship of the caitya or stupa and the cart festival (or rath jatra) of Avalokitesvara.
T
he manyancient sites within the Kathmandu
V
alley which are identified with major Buddhist caityas or stupas such as Swayambhu Hill, Buddha and Cabahil, Kathmandu and the four "Ashoka"stupas of Patan not to mention the almost two hundred examples of stone caityas dating fromthe Licchavi Period, testify to the widespread antiquity of caitya worship. One can imagine thatthis practice in its earliest incarnation in the
V
alley was analogous to the worship of stones,which probably had its origin with the early, tribal inhabitants of the
V
alley long before we thecoming of the Licchavis. According to one of the very earliest Licchavi inscriptions caityaworship could even involve encasing an existing Caitya and covering the new surface with manyelaborate paintings, but ordinarily consisted of ritual circumambulation of the caitya along withcertain standard offerings such as incense, colored powder, oil lamps and ablutions. Caityaworship must have been as important factor in bringing more and more of the tribe, proto-Newar inhabitants into the Buddhist fold, since it was a devotional practice designed for the generalpublic. Perhaps even more effective in involving the masses was (and is) the cart festival of  Avalokitesvara/ Matsyendranath (Bunga kya:) which was probably begun during the latter half of the seventh century A.D.
T
his festival was involved hundreds or even thousands of people inthe process of the construction and transport of a huge, wheeled cart bearing the image of  Avalokitesvara for several days or weeks along a prescribed route.
T
his sort of festival musthave been an instant success with the majority of the
V
alley's population and surelystrengthened Buddhism's standing in relation to the other main religious faiths of the
V
alley atthe time.
 
 
 
T
here are about forty stone inscriptions (Skt: silalekha) which make some mention of Buddhismthroughout the Licchave Period and most of the references found in these inscriptions areconcerned with Buddhist monasteries and the monks and nuns living therein. Even so, almostnothing can be said about the day-to-day life in the monasteries (skt:
V
ihara) or how theyfunctioned administratively.
T
he names of more than fifteen Buddhist monasteries are known,and it is clear from the contest in which some of these are named that they are among the mostimportant religious foundations of the time. Although nothing definite is known about whichschools of Buddhism were most prominent, it is probable that the strongest early influences(omitting mention of an even earlier probable substratum of Pali Buddhism) came from theMahasanghika, Sammitiya and also the Sarvastivada, with the Makhyamaka and Yogacaraschools of thought being more influential later in the period with the emergence and growth of the
V
ajrayana. A trend which stands out from inscriptional evidence is that there was a stringtraditions of making religious gifts (Skt: deyadharma) for the sake of merit and that the womenof the Buddhist community seemed to take the lead in offering these gifts.
T
hese last twoelements find striking parallels in the Buddhist cave inscriptions of Maharastra which predatethe Licchvi Nepal.
T
he references in the Licchave inscriptions to the Mahayana and
V
ajrayanawill be mentioned below in connection with Buddhist art and notable Buddhist figures of theLicchave period.
 
In attempting to account for the Buddhist notables who date from Nepal's Licchave Period, weare entering the realm of legend, myth and unsure historical reference. Famous teachers andadepts from India such as
V
asubandhu (the Younger?), the tantric Nagarjuna,Padmasambhava, Santiraksita and Kamalasila are said to have come to Kathmandu
V
alley inthe service of Buddhism but none of these seems to have stayed for very long. As would beexpected with such colorful figures as Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava and
V
asubahdhu, their activities are identified with miraculous events, which tend to support the notion that tantricforms of Buddhism were present in the
V
alley at a very early stage,
T
he Licchave inscriptionsand later chronicles mention that several kings of the time such as
V
rsadeve, Manadeve,Dharmadeva, Amusvarma, Narendradeva and Sivadeve I had very strong Buddhist associationsbut details are scanty. One important event which seems to have occured before 650 A.D. wasthe marriage of Bhirikuti, a Nepalese princess, to the king of 
T
ibet. She is credited with havingbrought the dharma to
T
ibet and the translator Silamanju is said to have also been sent fromNepal to
T
ibet at this time in order to translate Buddhist texts. As we move into the last 200years of our period (ca. 700-879 A.D.), such shadowy figures as Santikara Acaruya and a fewother adepts in the early phase of 
V
ajrayana Buddhism are met with in Nepal. All in all, it is notpossible to isolate recognized Buddhist schools of thought by analyzing this listing of Buddhistluminaries of Licchave Nepal, but one does suspect from this that Buddhism enjoyed a highstatus and a continuous tradition during the Licchavi Period.
 
 Another interesting aspect deserving attention here concerns the matter of Buddhist texts inLicchavi Nepal.
T
he Cabahil inscription of ca. 400 A.D. mentions the Kinnari Jataka and impliesthe currency of the Saddharmapundarika Sutra, but this is the solitary inscription of the period tomention Buddhist texts. From fragments of manuscripts which date from the eight and ninthcenturies, it appears safe to say that the famed "Nine Dharma" texts of Nepal were well knownin the Licchavi Period.
T
his collection includes texts which represent Mahayana Buddhism in allits diversity, including the "wisdom" school (Prajnaparmita texts). delineating the Bodhisattvapath Dasabhumika and Samadhiraja Sutras), texts which are major classics of Mahayanadevotion (Saddharmapudarika, Gandavyuha, Lalitavistara and suvarnaprabhasa Sutras) animp0ortant text of the "mind-only" school (Lankavatara Sutra) and perhaps the mostfundamental text of the
V
ajrayana (Guhyasamaja
T
antra). Considering the relative

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