Rerelease of Sino Platonic Papers no 85 of October 1998
Tokharian Buddhism in Kucha:
Buddhism of Indo-European Centum Speakers in Chinese Turkestan before the 10th Century C.E.
By Mariko Namba Walter
Kucha, in the present-day Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region of northwestern China, was one of the major Buddhist kingdoms of Central Asia before Islamization began to take place in this area at the end of the tenth century C.E. The other Buddhist oasis kingdoms in the region were Shan-shan, which was buried under sand by the sixth century C.E., and the kingdom of Khotan, which had been a flourishing center of Mahayana Buddhism forcenturies until around the eleventh century C.E. The language of these Central Asian kingdoms varied, as many different kinds of people settled in and around theTarim Basin for many centuries. The Khotanese spoke a Middle Iranian language and the people in the Kucha and Agni region a language commonly called Tokharian. Tokharian is classified as an archaic Indo-European language, belonging to the so-called Centum branch of Indo-European languages. It has two dialects, Tokharian A, used in the Agni region only for Buddhist texts, and Tokharian B found in Kucha for both vernacular and religious textual use. It should be noted that Tokharian is not the name of the language used in Tokharistan in Bactria which was East-Iranian (Bactrian). Despite such complications, the name Tokharian has stuck and continues to be used by both philologists and historians alike up to now. The Tokharian language continued to be used at least up to the end of the eighth century C.E., and Henning suggests that the language faded away eventually, although this was not caused by drastic changes such as war. We do know, however, that the Tokharians disappeared from the stage of history at
the same time the Turkic-speaking Uighurs came to dominate the parts of the Tarim Basin where they were located, so there may well be a causal relationship betwen the two events.
How did such west Indo-European speakers come to exist in the midst of speakers of Chinese, Turco-Mongol, and East Iranian languages? As Tokharian languages have an archaic form showing relatively early separation from the other Indo-European languages, Henning suggested that the proto-Tokharians, originating from South Russia, were the first Indo-Europeans in history, appearing as "Outi" in Akkadian and Babylonian records of Mesopotamia. According to him, these ancestors of the Tokharians moved to Persia and eventually appeared in Chinese Turkestan as the Yiieh-chih fJ~ in the Kan-su region. The question of the origin of the Indo-European speakers in Chinese Turkestan has to be considered along with the movements of peoples over an extremely broad area in Eurasia over several millennia up to ca..1000 C.E.
Wherever they are originated, Caucasian-featured residents of Kucha were fIrst noted by the Chinese in the Han-shu in the first century B.C.E. as one of the barbarian kingdoms in their western region which had been involved in many wars with the Chinese, along with the Hsiung-nu (Mongolian nomads), Turks, and Tibetans. Exactly when Buddhism was introduced to Kucha from India is unknown since there are no historical records describing such a transmission. Nevertheless it is likely to have been
around the beginning of the Common Era, since there were already some Kuchean missionary Buddhist monks in China from the third century C.E., a topic which will be discussed later in this paper.
In this paper I would like to present a survey of Tokharian Buddhism in Kucha from the following three perspectives: first the fragmentary information derived from the Chinese Buddhist literature including traveling monks' records, second from the
Tokharian Buddhist, texts, and third from the art-historical evidence gleaned from the Buddhist paintings in the Kizil caves near Kucha. The issues we are concerned with here are the school affIliation of Kuchean Buddhism in its relation to Indian and Chinese Buddhism, and the relationship between the Kuchean kings and the Buddhist samgha.
Unlike in China, Mahayana Buddhism seems not to have taken a firm hold in Kucha, where monastic-based Nikaya Buddhism flourished for over a millennium until the end of the tenth century C.E. Despite this general tradition of Sthavira Buddhism,Kucha produced a major Mahayana translator called Kumarajiiva, to whom China owes a great deal for the transmission of major Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra. Through the literature concerning Kumarajiiva and other monks of Kuchean origin, and through the study of Tokharian Buddhist texts, I hope to delineate the features of Buddhism in Kucha.