Buddhism South to North

Buddhist monasteries are dotted along the route, which is hardly remarkable. However, it’s an unexpected measure of the length and range of the Tea Horse Road that it covers, from south to north, all three great schools of Buddhism. These are Theravada (‘The Teachings of the Elders’) in the south, Mahayana (‘The Great Vehicle’) in central Yunnan, and Tibetan Buddhism in the north. Coincidentally also, Buddhism reached the region at about the same time as the Tea Horse Road began—religion, culture and tea are here thoroughly intertwined.

The far south of Yunnan, where the tea mountains lie, is home to the Dai peoples, related to the Thai and Lao, and practising, like them, the older, conservative form of Buddhism known as Theravada. If you’re familiar with Thailand and Laos, the gilded wooden monastery buildings with their sweeping roofs and low eaves look remarkably similar. Indeed, the contacts flowed back and forth across the centuries, before the region became a part of China, connected by language and culture.

North from here, we enter the mainstream world of Mahayana Buddhism, with an increase in the number of beings worshipped and honoured, in particular the Compassionate Bodhisattvas—those who advanced far along the path to Enlightenment but chose to stay and help the rest of humanity. In China, the most revered is Guanyin, frequently represented as female. It was in this form that Buddhism reached China relatively early, in the second century.

North again, the Road enters ethnic Tibet, where the Mahayana Buddhism that arrived in the seventh century (as the Tea Horse Road began) absorbed a whole pantheon of goods and demons from the original Bön cult of Tibet. The result, as you can see in monasteries such as Songzhalin near Shangri-La and Dongzhulin in Benzilan, is an explosion of imagery, iconography and ceremony. Both, incidentally, are of the Gelugpa, or Yellow-Hat school.