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How the “Crown Jewel” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative Harkens Back to Ancient Glory

Apr 11, 2018
  • Patrick Mendis

    Visiting Professor of Global Affairs, National Chengchi University


Beijing has already rejuvenated the Buddhist diplomacy in Sino-Sri Lankan relations that had begun in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). More than two millennia later, Sri Lanka will soon inaugurate the Chinese-built 350-metre-high Lotus Tower—also known as the “Crown Pearl” of the String of Pearls strategy—in Colombo, a symbol that manifests the ancient Buddhist and diplomatic intercourse between the two nations.

The Buddhist tower is a hallmark of China’s geopolitical and geo-economic strategy associated with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This purpose-driven skyscraper with its sophisticated telecommunications technology is the tallest in South Asia.

The widely-recorded Chinese re-engagement with Sri Lanka began with the famous Chinese scholar-monk Faxian (337-422) who called the island the Buddhist “Kingdom of the Lion” in his Records of 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 enduring Sino-Lankan cultural and friendly relationship continued—except for 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. 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 Sino-Lanka connection has also increasingly drawn American attention, especially after The Kerry-Lugar Report (2009) in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee where I once worked. Thus, I ventured out to explore this ancient history to get a glimpse at a possible future for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.

Rediscovering Roots

Born in Sri Lanka but later naturalized 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 on the United States and its spirited sojourners in freedom. But the 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. It was the second capital (1056-1236) of the Buddhist nation after the Anuradhapura Kingdom.

My formative years were filled with the free propaganda literature of the “victorious” Cultural Revolution and its powerful images of industrial and agricultural China promoted by the Socialist Government (1971-77) of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first female prime minister in the world. I was then a farmer’s son (a Catholic father and a Buddhist mother) adopted by my paternal Catholic grandparents in rice-growing Polonnaruwa. I went to a Buddhist high school. I had the best of both worlds as I developed my affinity for a “Christian America” with political freedom and a “Buddhist China” with economic development.

All that changed when I arrived in Minnesota on an American Field Service (AFS) high school exchange scholarship in 1978.

My latent interest in Sino-Sri Lankan affairs was revived when I became a visiting professor of the University of Maryland in Xian, the ancient capital of China. After my government service in the U.S. Department of State, I began to visit China and traveled to all the provinces and climbed every major Sacred Mountain of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist heritage that collectively forms the perennial Chinese culture and national identity.

While climbing the Sacred Buddhist Mountain of Mt. Emei, I had a satori moment. I suddenly realized the enduring and purpose-driven Sino-Lanka connection, which is at last manifested in the Colombo Lotus Tower.

Mt. Emei and Sri Pada

Mt. Emei, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Sichuan province is one of the four leading Holy Mountains of Chinese Buddhism, known as Chan Buddhism. Each of these Buddhist mountains has a patron bodhisattva, an “enlightened person” (in Sanskrit) 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 has a historical significance as the birthplace of introducing Buddhism to the Middle Kingdom.

In Sri Lanka, the ancient Theravada Buddhists venerated “Samanta” as the guardian deity of their land and the religion long before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka in 246 BC. With the northward spread of Mahayana Buddhism, Samanta evolved into Samantabhadra (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 symbols of Buddhism. The perceptive Chinese monk also gave the first-recorded eyewitness account of Buddhist practices, numerous pilgrims, and various foreign merchants in the island as he stayed at several places, most notably at the legendary Fa-Hien Cave. The erudite monk stayed 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 (i.e., ancient scriptures). 

The Importance of Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra—one of the most influential and popular Mahayana scriptures—was originally translated to Chinese from Sanskrit by 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 Brahmin father from Kashmir in India and a Kuchan princess in China) in 406.

The prolific-monk Kumarajiva, however, revolutionized the evolving Chinese Buddhism without relying on the earlier translations through the concepts of Confucianism and Daoism during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420). The surviving Indian manuscripts were nevertheless fragmented but the learned Kumarajiva abbreviated the Sanskrit and Prakrit versions of available Buddhist texts into Chinese.

Like the pioneering monk Faxian, when Xuanzang (602–64) from Luoyang in 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 [means ‘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 as the Symbol of Lotus

With the rising Lotus Tower from the Beira Lake in Colombo, China has seemingly taken the 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 Buddhist “Kingdom of the Lion” attracted foreign visitors and pilgrims who often stopped over the ancient port city of Weligama in the southern coast of Sri Lanka 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 had 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 other things.

Like the Ming admiral, Marco Polo, an envoy of Kublai Khan in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), visited the island twice (1284 and 1293) 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.

Peaceful Identity and Shared Destiny

As President Xi has now replaced Deng Xiaoping’s earlier motto of “Peaceful Rise,” Beijing appears to be looking for a Buddhist “peaceful identity” in creating 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 civil war ended in 2009, while the United States and others “chose to ignore” the island-nation’s conflict.

Even after The Kerry-Lugar Report, the 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 diplomacy will continue for a better and shared destiny.

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