The Yellow River is an iconic symbol of Chinese civilization. Its yellowness comes from the immense amount of silt it carries from the desert regions in the northwest, where Buddhism entered China via the Silk Road. The sand blown off from those deserts has blanketed the region for millenia, leaving soil that is both fertile and easy to dig. The main result was the civilization’s early farming communities. The easily dug soil from the desert also helped create a great number of caves, which house thirty million Chinese people to this day.

But the Yellow River took nearly as much as it gave. Its silted currents caused the river to clog and overflow its banks regularly, leaving death and destruction in its wake. China’s imperial dynasties are said to have begun when Yu the Great organized the local tribes to conquer the river through dredging and a system of dykes. In Chinese art, leaping carp symbolize Yu’s accomplishment, as the dredging occurred near a place called Dragon’s Gate, where carp leapt upstream through the river’s rapids. The story goes that if the fish survived the river’s currents, they became dragons just like Yu, who became the first “dragon” on the Chinese throne by conquering the river. Goldfish were originally bred in China to embody this.

And in this dusty, silted landscape, Buddhism also flourished. Buddhist monks could not survive outdoors in snowy and freezing northern climates. As home-leavers, their choice of dwelling was between caves and monasteries. But since emperors paid for the monasteries, they were also able to choose the abbots who presided there and the doctrines taught therein.

Such doctrines were often controversial, even offensive, to many of the Buddhist monks. Historical records speak of riots by both monks and lay Buddhists against certain new doctrines that appeared at that time, such as buddhanature or new teachings about the inviolable and eternal “self” taught in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. So many monks opted to live in caves carved out of desert silt instead, a choice that ended up playing a key role in the development of Zen and other traditions. Like Chinese civilization itself, Buddhism germinated within the yellow earth that a river by the same name carries to the sea.  

This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson’s new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

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