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Buddhist Stone Sutras in China

Links to the project

The second half of the 6th century AD marks a significant epoch in the history of Chinese Buddhism. In the years 577/578, the faithful suffered persecution under the secular state of Zhou. Concurrently, monks made great strides in translating the writings of the Buddha, resulting in a completely transformed appreciation of his teachings. Originally hailing from India, this religion was now adapted to many elements of local tradition. This historical development manifested itself in inimitable rock inscriptions. In part, the holy texts were inscribed into bedrock with gruelling effort in characters up to 3 metres in size, and, in part, inscriptions were integrated into the architectural design of cave temples. By means of this ‘network’ of stone inscriptions, Chinese Buddhists had thereby fashioned Northern China’s most culturally-historically significant monuments of the age.

The research project’s objective is the complete and systematic documentation of these stone inscriptions, partially only rediscovered in the past years. Especially in the provinces Shandong, Henan and Hebei the stone inscriptions have been preserved over the centuries. The academic evaluation of these texts’ historical and biographical information alike (along with their commentary) affords the depicting of the Sinification of Buddhism in a new light. Of particular interest is additionally that the texts are embedded in differing spatial contexts. These impart upon the landscape a sacral character: Monumental steles promulgate the holy texts, sheer cliff faces become sites for meditation, and huge boulders mark uphill pilgrim trails.

The project is based upon international collaboration, most prominently with Chinese academics who have returned to religious historical questions in the past years. Furthermore, close contacts also exist with Japanese scholars who continue their country’s distinguished Buddhological tradition. Incorporated into the project in an interdisciplinary manner are also researchers from the department of “Geo-information systems” of the University of Applied Sciences Karlsruhe (FH), so as to elucidate the topographical situation of the inscribed texts. They not only generate an overall plan of all inscriptions, but also 3D models of the sites of the inscriptions, permitting an inspection and reading of the monuments on computers.

Buddhist Stone Sutras in China

Host Academy
Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Location and federal state
Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg

Editions: Epigraphy and Onomastics

Project number

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