Let history repeat itself: Important lessons on harmonious co-existence

By Shannen Ho and Delisa Jiang

In a world that remains strife with conflict and hatred, peace has always been a kind of wishful thinking, a distant goal at best. Yet, history has also shown that humankind has not always been in this dark place. There were eras of harmonious co-existence, where people were not asked to be homogeneous but to instead embrace the multitude of cultures, religions and other social influences. Through sincere dialogues that involved the courage, compassion and wisdom to listen, speak and understand others, it gave birth to new civilisations and flourishing kingdoms.

A three-day dialogue on Buddhism and Greek philosophy

During the 2nd century BCE, the Greek King Milinda was ruling the Bactrian kingdom (North India to parts of present-day Afghanistan) when he encountered a young Indian Buddhist monk named Nagasena. Being a ruler, King Milinda could have sought to eliminate foreign influences by imposing his own views on Nagasena. Instead, he decided to engage the monk in an intense dialogue that spanned across three days, seizing the opportunity to ask as many questions as he could about Buddhism since it was a completely new religion to the Hellenistic Greeks.

An illustration of King Milinda and Nagasena’s dialogue that highlighted one of the earliest exchanges between the East and the West

Nagasena, undaunted by King Milinda’s power and authority, listened intently to the various questions and answered each of them with great calm and wisdom. This fascinating dialogue was recorded in the Milindapanha, and thereafter King Milinda became a great patron of Buddhism. As the two different worlds of Eastern and Western cultures came into contact with one another, harmonious co-existence became a reality, with a fusion of both Hellenistic and Buddhist influences that could even be found in various everyday objects, artworks and sculptures around ancient Bactria.

A Hellenistic coin found in ancient Bactria

From captive to advisor: Kumarajiva’s 18-year imprisonment

There was also Kumarajiva, whose life story mirrored that of modern-day war victims. He was born in the kingdom of Kucha (present-day Xinjiang, China), became a monk and crossed the Pamir Mountains with his mother, seeking to deepen his study on Buddhism. During his journey, he was held captive by Chinese warlord Lü Gang during a state war and was imprisoned for 18 years in a foreign land. Initially, he could not understand a single word of the Chinese language, but instead of dwelling on his unfortunate circumstances or detest his captive country, he decided to master the language of the country in great earnest.

Bronze statue of Kumarajiva

When Kumarajiva was later sent to Chang’an (presently Xi’an), China, he became highly proficient in Chinese and translated a grand total of 35 Buddhist scriptures in 294 volumes, including the Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra, also known as the Miaofa lianhua jing 妙法莲花经 (Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law). His version was described by many scholars throughout history as “the best that ever was, and the best that ever will be.” Despite being of a different ethnicity, nationality and religion from the non-Buddhist Chinese community, he gradually won the trust of the people around him. Many locals would attend his lectures on Buddhism, and he even became an important advisor to the Chinese emperor Yao Xing, thriving in this once foreign land.

Kumarajiva’s Chinese manuscript of the Lotus Sutra

From these anecdotes of the past, the peace and harmonious co-existence that we all yearn for are very much within our reach. However, this is not without a dynamic and intensive process of dialogue, reflecting and learning from one another. The Lotus Sutra Exhibition is a message of peace and harmonious co-existence. This is because the Lotus Sutra reveals the ultimate truth that all living beings possess an inherent state of Buddhahood or supreme goodness and are therefore worthy of respect. If we can actively substitute our skepticism and cynicism with respect and trust, the world around us can transform in unimaginable ways just like our predecessors did.

The Arts House will be displaying the following artefacts as well as other rare manuscripts and paintings at the Lotus Sutra Exhibition from 1 to 25 October 2017.