In recent years, Beijing has rejuvenated a diplomatic relationship between China and Sri Lankan relations that began in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). More than two millennia later, Sri Lanka is set to inaugurate the Chinese-built 350-metre-high Lotus Tower in Colombo, the centerpiece of the Belt and Road Initiative and a symbol that embodies the ancient Buddhist diplomatic intercourse between the two nations.
The skyscraper is a hallmark of China's geopolitical and geo-economic strategy associated with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This purpose-driven building, with its sophisticated telecommunications technology is the tallest in South Asia.
China's engagement with Sri Lanka began with the famous Chinese scholar-monk Faxian (337-422) who called the island the "Kingdom of the Lion" in his Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms. At the time Faxian arrived in the Anuradhapura Kingdom (377 BC-1017 AD) of Sri Lanka, it was the epicenter of Buddhist learning and teaching—attracting pilgrims from China, India, and elsewhere. This friendly and enduring Sino-Sri Lankan cultural relationship has continued ever since, except during the period of European colonialism.
The undercurrent of that long history of civilizational cultures is still pervasive in the mindsets of strategic thinkers and policymakers today. With this legacy, my interests have naturally deepened over the years as the United States, China, and Sri Lanka have triangulated their diplomatic and trade relations.
The Chinese-built 350-metre-high Lotus Tower in Colombo, Sri Lanka (FILE)
Born in Sri Lanka but later naturalized as a U.S. citizen, I developed an intense curiosity about the United States first and China second. American Peace Corps and 4-H Volunteers visiting my village in the late 1960s had an enduring impact on my childhood views of the United States and its spirited sojourners of freedom. But my teenage years in the 1970s were progressively influenced by China and its ancient connections to Sri Lanka—especially my birthplace of Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was the second capital (1056-1236) of the Buddhist nation after the Anuradhapura Kingdom.
My formative years were filled with free literature about the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-76) and its powerful images of an industrial and agricultural China promoted by the Socialist Government (1971-77) of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first female head of state. I was then a farmer's son, with a Catholic father and a Buddhist mother, adopted by my paternal grandparents in rice-growing Polonnaruwa. I went to a Buddhist high school, and had the best of both worlds as I developed an affinity for a "Christian America" with political freedom and a "Buddhist China" with economic development.
My latent interest in Sino-Sri Lankan affairs was revived when I later became a visiting professor of the University of Maryland in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China. After my government service in the U.S. Department of State, I began visiting China and traveled to all the provinces, climbing every major sacred mountain of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist heritage that form an important part of Chinese culture and national identity.
While climbing the Sacred Buddhist Mountain of Mt. Emei, I underwent a revelatory moment as I suddenly realized the enduring and purpose-driven connection between China and Sri Lanka, which has at last manifested itself in the Lotus Tower in Colombo.
Patrick Mendis travels on the ancient silk road once taken by Chinese buddhist monk Xuanzang in western China, and visits the Samanthabhadra statue in Weligama, Sri Lanka (COURTESY PHOTO)
Mt. Emei and Sri Pada
Mt. Emei in southwest China's Sichuan Province, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the four leading holy mountains of the Chinese school of Buddhism known as Chan. Each of these Buddhist mountains has a patron bodhisattva, the Sanskrit term for an "enlightened person" embodying compassion and other noble qualities. The Buddhist monasteries associated with Mt. Emei are dedicated to Samantabhadra bodhisattva. Samantabhadra means "universal virtue" in Sanskrit. Built in the first century on the location of an originally Daoist temple, it is the home of the first Buddhist temple in China, which is historically significant as the birthplace of Buddhism in the Middle Kingdom.
In Sri Lanka, the ancient Theravada Buddhists venerated "Samanta" as the guardian deity of their land and religion long before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka in 246 BC. With the northward spread of Mahayana Buddhism, Samanta evolved into Samantabhadra, or Puxian in Chinese.
The visiting scholar monk Faxian wrote that Buddha's footprint was carved "on the top of a mountain" of the Samanala, referring to Adam's Peak or Sri Pada in Sri Lanka. Both Mt. Emei and Sri Pada have for centuries shared the same deity as their guardian, accompanying an elephant and a lotus flower, two important symbols of Buddhism. The perceptive Chinese monk also gave the first-recorded eyewitness account of Buddhist practices, numerous pilgrims, and various foreign merchants on the island as he visited several places, most notably staying at the legendary Fa-Hien Cave. The erudite monk stayed for two years (411-12) at the then world-renowned Abhayagiri Monastery in the capital city and described Buddhist rituals, drew pictures, and most importantly copied Buddhist sutras.
The Lotus Sutra
The Lotus Sutra—one of the most influential and popular Mahayana scriptures—was originally translated to Chinese from Sanskrit by the scholar-monk Dharmaraksa of Dunhuang in 286 during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-317). The earliest and later translations were revised and completed by Kumarajiva, the son of a Brahmin father from Kashmir in India and a Kuchan princess in China, in 406.
The prolific monk Kumarajiva however revolutionized Chinese Buddhism without relying on earlier translations through the concepts of Confucianism and Daoism during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420). The surviving Indian manuscripts were fragmented, but the learned Kumarajiva nevertheless abbreviated the Sanskrit and Prakrit versions of the available Buddhist texts into Chinese.
Like the pioneering monk Faxian, when Xuanzang (602–64) from Luoyang in central China's Henan Province travelled to India in search of sacred Buddhist scriptures, the Tang envoy was equally concerned about the misinterpreted and incomplete nature of Buddhist manuscripts in China. Even though he never visited Sri Lanka, Xuanzang, who returned to the White Horse Temple in Luoyang, described the ancient capital of Anuradhapura and its Buddhist monasteries, monks, and books from the eyewitness accounts of traveling pilgrims and merchants. In his Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, Xuanzang—referring to Sri Pada as "Mount Lanka" in the "Sorrowless Kingdom"—wrote that "the Tathagata [Buddha] formerly delivered the Lankavatara [meaning 'Entering into Sri Lanka'] Sutra," which is another important sutra in Mahayana Buddhism.
While Kumarajiva elegantly emphasized the meaning of the sutras, Xuanzang paid more attention to the literal and precise translations of Buddhist texts. Their central theme of the translations of the Lotus Sutra was focused on "the unity of all things and beings" for a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.
Colombo: the symbol of the lotus
With the Lotus Tower rising from the Beira Lake in Colombo, China has seemingly taken this Buddhist symbol to formulate an enlightened vision for a world of human diversity. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha counseled a Brahman: "Just as a blue or red or white lotus is born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in this world and grew in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world. Remember me as one who is enlightened." This portrayal may have appealed to China as an emerging global power, capturing the ancient legacy connected to the Buddhist nation.
For centuries, the "Kingdom of the Lion" attracted foreign visitors and pilgrims who often stopped over the ancient port city of Weligama on Sri Lanka's southern coast to pay respect to the Samantabhadra Bodhisattva at a temple, the place of the stone-carved statue of Samantabhadra. Many Chinese and Indian monks and pilgrims visited the visage of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva on their way to the "sacred footprint" on the summit of Adam's Peak.
Among them was the famous Admiral Zheng He in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), who visited the island during his seven voyages (1405-33). The Ming emissary offered gifts to the sacred footprint of Sri Pada, including "1,000 pieces of gold, 5,000 pieces of silver . . . six pairs of gold lotuses, 2,500 catties of perfumed oil," and many others.
Like the Ming admiral, Marco Polo visited the island twice (in 1284 and 1293) as the envoy of Kublai Khan during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and paid homage to the holy mountain. But his intent was also to take the sacred tooth relic of Buddha back to China. The Temple of Buddha's Tooth Relic has for centuries been the symbol of national unity and the Buddhist identity of Sri Lanka.
Beijing aims to create a harmonious community at home and abroad. The symbolic yet universal meaning embedded in the Lotus Tower might serve as a strategic asset in Chinese diplomacy as the BRI gains momentum in the Asia-Pacific region.
The ancient Buddhist discourse seems to have served as an instrument in modern diplomacy for China and Sri Lanka to revive their shared religious and cultural civilizations. Over the years, China has increased its engagement with Sri Lanka, including after the end of the civil war in 2009, while the United States and others chose to ignore the island-nation's conflict.
Even after the Kerry-Lugar Report, successive U.S. administrations placed greater emphasis on cultivating better relations with bigger and more strategic countries like India even though several senior American officials visited Sri Lanka during the Obama administration. All that changed with the Trump administration.
In the meantime, President Xi Jinping described the island as a "splendid pearl" during his historic visit to Sri Lanka in 2014. Thus, the presidential engagement has sent a clear and committed message that the ancient Buddhist trend of diplomacy will continue for a better and shared destiny.
The author is an academic advisor and a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution in Beijing as well as an associate-in-research of the Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University in Boston
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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