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Kashmir Played a Vital Role in the Spread of Buddhism

Dr. Vivek Sharma has been a faculty member at the University of Jammu since 2009. He earned his PhD under the guidance of Professor Baidyanath Labh. He has written a book “Buddhism in India and Abroad” and at the recently concluded Tantra conference spoke on “Tantra and Tantric tradition in Buddhism”. In this interview,  he speaks about Kashmir Buddhism.

Was there ever a grafting of Buddhist ideas on the native religious practices of Kashmir in its initial spread?

In Kashmir, the spread of Buddhism resulted in the integration of Buddhist concepts into the native religious customs, which is known as “syncretism.” Due to its significant cultural and religious history, Kashmir played a vital role in the dissemination of Buddhism in ancient times. Buddhism emerged as a prominent religion in Kashmir approximately in the 3rd century BCE, and it coexisted with the local religious practices. As Buddhism progressed, it assimilated ideas from the pre-existing religious and philosophical beliefs of Kashmir through interaction and absorption.

In Kashmir, Buddhist missionaries and scholars blended native religious practices with their own beliefs. They integrated local deities and gods into the Buddhist pantheon, making it more relatable to the local population. This led to the emergence of syncretic practices that combined elements of both Buddhist and indigenous Kashmiri religious traditions. The result was a unique blend of rituals and ceremonies that reflected a harmonious fusion of these influences. Kashmir had a tradition of philosophical and intellectual exchange, and Buddhist scholars engaged with local thinkers in debates and discussions. This interaction contributed to the development of new philosophical ideas that were a fusion of Buddhist and indigenous thought.

The blending of Buddhism and native religious traditions in Kashmir had a profound impact on the region’s religious and cultural development. This fusion can be observed in many facets of Kashmiri culture and holds great historical and cultural importance to this day.

In Buddhism, we have the three levels of reality or the three-fold fields (KhamsgSum) -the field of desire, the field of form, and the field of non-form. In your mind what is the relationship between Buddhism and other Indian philosophies like Advaita Vedanta or Shaivism with regard to this?

The “Threefold Fields” or ‘Hamsum Sangye’ is a Buddhist concept that refers to the three levels of reality. This concept is unique to Buddhist thought and is not found in other Indian philosophical traditions such as Advaita Vedanta or Shaivism. Despite this, there are overarching philosophical ideas that can be compared and contrasted between these different traditions.

  • Buddhism (Threefold Fields): In Buddhism, particularly in the Mahayana tradition, reality is often categorized into three levels or fields:
  • Field of Desire (Kama-dhatu): This level represents the ordinary, mundane world of sensory desires, attachments, and suffering. It encompasses the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara).
  • Field of Form (Rupa-dhatu): This level represents subtle, non-material aspects of reality. It includes various meditative states and realms where the form is still a part of existence but in a refined or subtle form.
  • Field of Non-form (Arupa-dhatu): This is the highest level, characterized by formlessness and the absence of material attributes. It includes the formless meditative states where consciousness transcends all materiality.

To summarize, although some philosophical similarities exist between these traditions, such as a desire to transcend dualistic perceptions, the concept of the Threefold Fields is exclusively found in Buddhism. Each system has its own metaphysical framework and objectives, and their approaches to comprehending and engaging with reality differ significantly. It’s crucial to recognize the nuances and distinctions among these traditions when comparing their views on reality and ultimate truth.

Tantrik Buddhism has solved the problem of the dichotomy of theory and practice by theory yielding to practice. A famous quote of a master to his student is: You should study in your youth. If you begin to meditate without having first studied, the demons may carry you away.” What did this kind of study mean to you? What was your training in Buddhism both theory and practice?

We can offer insights into the fundamental principles of Tantric Buddhism and highlight the significance of the connection between theory and practice in Buddhist traditions. Tantric Buddhism places great emphasis on blending theory and practice, as both are crucial for spiritual advancement. Here’s an explanation of what this type of learning entails:

The study of Tantric Buddhism involves gaining knowledge of its theoretical aspects, philosophy, and practices. It requires understanding the philosophical roots, metaphysical concepts, and symbolism in Tantric texts. Additionally, it involves learning the rituals, mantras, and visualizations used in meditation practices.

On the other hand, the practice of Tantric Buddhism is the practical application of the teachings. It entails engaging in meditation, contemplative practices, and rituals to experience the transformative power of these teachings. The primary goal is to go beyond intellectual understanding and obtain direct insight and realization.

It is crucial to note that a solid theoretical foundation is crucial before engaging in advanced meditation and tantric practices. Without proper knowledge of the theory, one may misinterpret or misuse the practices, which may lead to confusion or spiritual obstacles.

In traditional Buddhist training, qualified teachers guide individuals through both the theoretical and practical aspects of the tradition. This training may include studying Buddhist scriptures, commentaries, and philosophical texts, as well as intensive meditation and ritual practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.

In conclusion, the combination of theoretical study and practical application is fundamental to developing wisdom and insight in Tantric Buddhism, as well as other Buddhist traditions.

Could you describe the meditation practices and rituals you engage in and which are commonly associated with Kashmiri Buddhism?

These are some meditation practices and rituals that are associated with Kashmiri Buddhism:

Kashmiri Buddhism incorporates various tantric rituals and ceremonies that often involve the use of mantras, yantras (sacred geometric diagrams), and mudras (hand gestures). These rituals aim to invoke divine energies and facilitate spiritual transformation.

Devotional meditation on specific deities, such as Lord Shiva or Goddess Shakti, is common in Kashmiri Buddhism. Practitioners visualize, chant mantras, and meditate on the formless aspects of these deities as a means of spiritual realization.

Kundalini Yoga practices, including pranayama (breath control), asana (physical postures), and meditation, play a significant role in Kashmiri Buddhism. These practices are designed to awaken and channel the dormant energy at the base of the spine (Kundalini) up through the energy centers (chakras) to achieve spiritual illumination.

Kashmiri Buddhism places a strong emphasis on self-inquiry and self-realization. Practitioners engage in introspective meditation to investigate the nature of the self and the ultimate reality.

The relationship between a guru (spiritual teacher) and a disciple is highly valued in Kashmiri Buddhism. The guru imparts teachings, initiations, and guidance to the disciple, facilitating spiritual progress and realization.

Kashmiri Buddhism is renowned for its spiritual approach that emphasizes direct personal experience of the divine instead of relying solely on intellectual understanding. However, it is important to remember that the practices and rituals may differ between lineages and teachers within the tradition. Like any spiritual path, gurus provide personalized guidance to practitioners on the most effective practices for their individual journey

What are the main differences between Tantrik Buddhism and other Tantrik traditions? The deities are different, yet similar. What according to you sets Tantrik Buddhism apart and which draws you to it?

However, we can certainly explain some of the main differences between Tantric Buddhism and other Tantric traditions and highlight what sets Tantric Buddhism apart.

Tantric Buddhism is a unique sect of Buddhism that incorporates aspects of Tantra. Although Tantric Buddhism shares some similarities with other Tantric traditions, there are also significant differences between them.

In Tantric Buddhism, the practices of deities such as Tara, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri are central to Vajrayana rituals and meditation. On the other hand, other Tantric traditions, like Hindu Tantra, focus on different deities such as Shiva, Shakti, or Kali.

The ultimate goal of Tantric Buddhism is to attain enlightenment or Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, which aligns with the broader Buddhist goal. However, this is different from some Hindu Tantric traditions where the aim may be union with a personal deity or liberation within a specific theological framework.

Tantric Buddhism follows the Buddhist principle of anatta, or the absence of a permanent self, which means that reality is devoid of any inherent essence. However, different Tantric traditions may have their own views on the nature of self and reality.

The primary texts used in Tantric Buddhism are Buddhist Tantras and teachings from various Buddhist schools, with a focus on Vajrayana teachings. Other Tantric traditions have their own lineages and texts, which may differ in content and philosophy.

In terms of ethical principles, Tantric Buddhism adheres to the Buddhist Five Precepts and the Bodhisattva vow, emphasizing the importance of ethical conduct for spiritual growth. However, ethical guidelines may vary in other Tantric traditions, based on different moral codes.

Tantric Buddhism welcomes both monastic and non-monastic practitioners, allowing monks and laypeople to engage in tantric practices. In contrast, some other Tantric traditions, such as certain Hindu Tantric schools, may have a more distinct division between monastic and non-monastic paths.

Ultimately, choosing a spiritual path is a personal decision, and individuals may be drawn to traditions that align with their beliefs, values, and spiritual goals.

 Are there efforts to revitalize or preserve Kashmiri Buddhist heritage and teachings in the modern world?

In modern times, there have been attempts to uphold and conserve the teachings and legacy of Kashmiri Buddhism. This is part of a larger initiative to safeguard Buddhist heritage throughout the Himalayan region and India. The objectives of these efforts are to preserve historical sites, facilitate research, and ensure the continuation of traditional teachings.

In the Kashmir area, attempts have been made to protect and restore ancient Buddhist sites and monastic complexes. This includes identifying and preserving sites like the ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries, stupas, and cave temples.

Experts and organizations have also taken on the task of researching and documenting Kashmiri Buddhist texts, artifacts, and oral traditions. This is important for preserving the cultural and intellectual heritage of the region. Some Buddhist teachers and institutions, both within Kashmir and in other parts of the world, continue to transmit the teachings of Kashmiri Buddhism. This includes meditation practices, philosophical teachings, and rituals associated with the tradition.

Discussions about the cultural and historical importance of Kashmiri Buddhism are frequently included in interfaith dialogues and conferences. These conversations promote an understanding and appreciation for the tradition. Additionally, promoting tourism in the region indirectly supports the preservation of Kashmiri Buddhist heritage. When tourists visit historical sites, it increases awareness and appreciation for the cultural and religious history of the area.

Academic institutions and scholars have conducted studies and published works on Kashmiri Buddhism, which helps to disseminate knowledge about the tradition and its historical context. Overall, preserving Kashmiri Buddhist heritage is a complex task that involves various stakeholders, such as government agencies, academic institutions, religious organizations, and local communities. These collective efforts aim to ensure that the rich legacy of Kashmiri Buddhism continues to be appreciated and studied in the modern world.

How has the political and social landscape of Kashmir affected the study and practice of Buddhism in the region?

The history of Kashmir’s political and social dynamics has greatly impacted the study and practice of Buddhism in the region. Kashmir was once a significant center for Buddhist learning and practice, especially during the spread of Buddhism in the area from the 3rd century BCE onwards. However, by the 14th century, Buddhism had declined in Kashmir due to a combination of factors, such as political changes, the rise of other religions, and invasions.

The spread of Islam in the region in the 14th century marked a crucial turning point in Kashmir’s history. Many Buddhists and Hindus converted to Islam, leading to a decline in Buddhist and Hindu populations. As a result, the changing religious demographics had a direct impact on the study and practice of Buddhism in the region. The region of Kashmir has experienced religious tensions and conflicts over the centuries, which have affected the freedom and safety of religious minorities, including Buddhists. These tensions have at times hindered the practice and study of Buddhism and other non-Muslim religions in Kashmir.

Despite the challenges, there has been a cultural exchange between different religious and philosophical traditions in Kashmir. This exchange has led to the development of syncretic traditions like Kashmiri Shaivism, which incorporates elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Tantra. Some Buddhist influences can still be found within these traditions.

Efforts have been made to revive and promote Buddhism in Kashmir by restoring its sites, celebrating cultural festivals, and initiating educational programs. However, the ongoing political situation in Kashmir, including the conflict between India and Pakistan, has presented obstacles to these efforts.

Academic institutions and scholars have contributed to the study and documentation of Buddhism and its history in Kashmir, preserving the knowledge and heritage associated with the tradition in the region. The study and practice of Buddhism in Kashmir are also influenced by global interest, leading to collaborations, research projects, and exchanges between scholars and practitioners worldwide.

The evolving political and social landscape of Kashmir continues to affect the study and practice of Buddhism in complex ways. Despite the challenges, ongoing efforts are being made to preserve and promote the rich Buddhist heritage of Kashmir and to ensure its place in the region’s cultural and religious landscape.

Throughout my journey in the field of Buddhist studies, I have had countless memorable experiences. Buddhism is a vast subject, with many different areas of specialization. One of these areas is Kashmir Buddhism, which is only a small portion of the overall subject. Despite Ladakh recently being designated as a new union territory of India, there are still a significant number of important Buddhist locations in Jammu and Kashmir. The significance of Kashmir can be traced back to the reign of Kushan king Kanishka when the fourth Buddhist council was held there.

The Buddhist site of Ambaran, also known as Pamberwan, is situated on the banks of the Chenab River in Akhnoor, approximately 30 kilometres from Jammu. The excavation of this site has revealed a cultural sequence spanning four periods, from Pre Kushan to Post Gupta, and has been dated from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD.

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Ambaran in November 2011 sparked global interest in the site.

The Thiksey Monastery can be found in Thiksey, which is 19 kilometres away from Leh, Ladakh. This monastery is the biggest one in central Ladakh and is renowned for its striking resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It belongs to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism and has a separate set of buildings for female renunciates.

(Figure 1 : The Thiksey Monastery near Leh, Ladakh)

What advice would you give to individuals interested in studying Kashmiri Buddhism or pursuing a career in Buddhist scholarship?

If you’re considering studying Kashmiri Buddhism or pursuing a career in Buddhist scholarship, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, it’s important to have a solid understanding of Buddhism in general, including its foundational teachings, history and major schools. Kashmiri Buddhism is a specific area within this field, so it’s worth considering whether it aligns with your interests and goals. Think about what aspects of Kashmiri Buddhism interest you the most, whether it’s its history, philosophy, meditation practices or cultural elements. If you plan to pursue academic scholarship, consider enrolling in academic programs in Buddhist studies or related fields, such as religious studies, Asian studies, or comparative philosophy. Pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in these areas to build a strong academic foundation.

To establish yourself as a scholar in the field of Buddhism, it is important to conduct research and publish your findings through scholarly publications, conference presentations, and contributions to academic journals. Attending conferences, seminars, and workshops related to Buddhism and Kashmiri Buddhism can help you build relationships with established scholars and experts in the field, which can open up opportunities for collaboration and mentorship. If possible, conducting fieldwork and visiting relevant regions such as Kashmir and Himalayan areas can provide firsthand experience and access to resources.

Teaching opportunities at academic institutions or Buddhist centers can be a rewarding aspect of a career in Buddhist scholarship. Keep in mind that Buddhist studies often benefit from an interdisciplinary approach, so collaborating with scholars from other fields can gain broader insights into your research. Stay up-to-date with the latest research and developments in the field by regularly reading academic journals, and books, and attending relevant events.

Pursuing a career in Buddhist scholarship, especially in a specialized area like Kashmiri Buddhism, can be a long and challenging journey. It is important to remain patient and persistent in your pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Remember that a career in Buddhist scholarship can take various forms, including academia, research, teaching, and contributions to the wider Buddhist community. Tailor your path to align with your interests, skills, and aspirations within the field of Buddhist studies, and remain dedicated to deepening your understanding of this rich and diverse tradition.

Watch video on Tantra And Tantric Traditions In Buddhism By Dr. Vivek Sharma at the Tantra Conference

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