The “Silk Road,” an idea that dates from 1877, wasn’t a single “road.”

I’ve recently had the occasion to acquaint myself with the history of the Silk Road.

It’s a topic that is of interest to me – among other things, because the Silk Road has a relationship to the history of mindfulness meditation, which I’ve been practising as a beginner student of mindfulness, for 10 years.

The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (2013)

The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (2013) by James A. Millward is a useful reference, with regard to the historiography of the Silk Road.

I read with interest Millward’s comment (p. 7) that instead of thinking of a silk road connecting China and Rome as a single east-west route, it’s more useful to picture a network of routes.

He adds (pp. 18-19) that the term “silk road” refers to more than the trade in silk between Rome and China for a few centuries. It also stands for the exchange of things and ideas, both intended and accidental, “that intensified integration of the Afro-Eurasian continent from Neolithic through modern times.”

The concluding paragraph in the first chapter of the book sums up the story:

  • The silk road had no such clearly identifiable point of departure, and was more in the nature of a growing acquaintanceship than a sudden encounter. But its effects on world history are no less profound for that. By understanding the biological, technological, and cultural commonalities shared across the continent, we see that much of what we consider the intellectual, religious, political, or economic patrimony of “the West” or “the East”- or Christendom or Islam or Europe or Africa or Asia – are actually varied expressions of what was, on a fundamental level, an Afro-Eurasian joint venture.

[End of excerpt]

Renaissances: The One or the Many”? (2010)

The discussion brings to mind Jack Goody’s study, Renaissances: The One or the Many? (2010). A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website notes:

  • One of the most distinguished social scientists in the world addresses one of the central historical questions of the past millennium: does the European Renaissance deserve its unique status at the very heart of our notions of modernity? Jack Goody scrutinises the European model in relation to parallel renaissances that have taken place in other cultural areas, primarily Islam and China, and emphasises what Europe owed to non-European influences. Renaissances continues that strand of historical analysis critical of Eurocentrism that Goody has developed in recent works like The East in the West (1996) or The Theft of History (2006). This book is wide-ranging, powerful, deftly argued, and draws upon the author’s long experience of working in Africa and elsewhere. Not since Toynbee in The Study of History has anybody attempted quite what Jack Goody is undertaking in Renaissances, and the result is as accessible as it is ambitious.

[End of excerpt; in this excerpt I have corrected the name of a book – The East in the West, not The East and the West – by James Goody]

Millward’s overview also brings to mind ongoing debates regarding orientalism.

Journeys on the Silk Road (2011)

Journeys on the Silk Road (2011) by Joyce Morgan offers a different – that is, a journalistic  as contrasted to a scholarly – narrative concerning what the term “silk road” entails.

A passage I enjoy in the latter study concerns a comment (pp. 251-253) by Robert Thurman concerning a Buddhist text that Morgan’s narrative focuses on. According to Thurman, the essential part of the teachings that the text in question refers to is the “relativity of everything. People get excited about the idea of emptiness, and they think that’s something very, very deep and the world must disappear.”

The latter observation is a direct quotation, by Morgan, of Thurman.

“It doesn’t,” Joyce Morgan comments in turn.

“Rather, it means that contrary to our everyday assumptions, everything in our lives, including ourselves, constantly changes.”

Joyce Morgan thereupon proceeds with the following direct quotation from Robert Thurman:

“People think there’s something in me that is really me, that is always unchanging. They think it was there when I was sixteen and it will be there when I’ m sixty or seventy. They have this sense of a solid being there.  But we’re empty of that thing. That  doesn’t mean we don’t exist. It doesn’t mean we are empty of existence. We exist, but we don’t exist in a non-relational  way that we feel that we feel that we do.”

The overview by Joyce Morgan of Robert Thurman’s comments continues (p. 253)

  • He  cautions against equating emptiness with nihilism and a view that life is meaningless. This is a misunderstanding many Westerners make, he says. “The word emptiness is not  wrong, voidness is also not wrong. But a more interesting one for us in a modern time would be the word ‘freedom.’ We are not frightened of that word because we hear politicians rattling on about it,” he says. “When you say sugar-free or salt-free or trouble-free, you mean lacking those things.”
  • Thurman, who shares [Paul] Harrison’s concern over the adequacy of English translations of Buddhist texts, says our habit of see­ing the world and ourselves as unchanging has unfortunate consequences. “It leads to an exaggerated sense of self-importance. This brings one into terrible conflict  with the  world,  because the world will not agree that one’s self is so important,” he says. People get frustrated  because they think others are getting more than their share, and then become mired in aggression, fear, and greed. “Everything is stressful when one is unrealistic about one’s relationship  to things.”

 [End of excerpt]

Buddhist Practice on Western Ground (2004)

The foregoing discussion, which I find of interest, brings to mind Harvey B. Aronson’s Buddhist Practice on Western Ground (2004), which notes that the Buddhist precept that the self is illusory is readily subject to misinterpretation. Aronson highlights how easily concepts from Buddhism such as no-self can get lost in translation from East to West.

As Aronson explains (p. 69), “The ontological self we presume ourselves to have is understood as a fiction. This is not ontological loss; it is seeing through a misconception.” He adds that in everyday language, self and ego each has “(1) a technical use, (2) a meaning associated with pride, and (3) a usage referring to ‘I.'” He underlines that Buddhism, in referring to the absence of self, is not negating self or ego in the technical psychological sense.

An Armchair Traveller’s History of the Silk Road (2013)

Jonathan Clements notes (p. 1) that the “Silk Road” is a modern idea, dating only from 1877. The book includes an overview of travel logistics that is based on first-hand research.


A resource of interest is the study entitled: Buddhism between Tibet and China (2009).

The Silk Roads (2015)

Also of interest: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015).

A blurb reads:

Our world was made on and by the Silk Roads. For millennia it was here that East and West encountered each other through trade and conquest, leading to the spread of ideas and cultures, the birth of the world’s great religions, the appetites for foreign goods that drove economies and the growth of nations. From the first cities in Mesopotamia to the growth of Greece and Rome to the depredations by the Mongols and the Black Death to the Great Game and the fall of Communism, the fate of the West has always been inextricably linked to the East. The Silk Roads vividly captures the importance of the networks that crisscrossed the spine of Asia and linked the Atlantic with the Pacific, the Mediterranean with India, America with the Persian Gulf. By way of events as disparate as the American Revolution and the horrific world wars of the twentieth century, Peter Frankopan realigns the world, orientating us eastwards, and illuminating how even the rise of the West 500 years ago resulted from its efforts to gain access to and control these Eurasian trading networks. In an increasingly globalized planet, where current events in Asia and the Middle East dominate the world’s attention, this magnificent work of history is very much a work of our times.

[End of blurb] 

Please note: The book is listed as published in 2016 at the Toronto Public Library website; it’s listed as 2015 at the Mississauga Library System site. I’ve borrowed the book from the latter library system; the date listed at the front of the book is 2015.


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