Buddhist Asia: Traditions, Transmissions and Transformations

  An NEH Summer Institute ~ May 25 to June 26, 2015 ~ Honolulu, Hawai'i ~ Hosted by the Asian Studies Development Program

Week Two: The Buddhist Conquest of China: Canons, Commerce and Culture. This week will open with an overview of the dynamics of Buddhism’s continued spread throughout East and Southeast Asia. Focusing on the period from the 7th century to the 16th century when Buddhist Asia began encountering European imperialism, colonialism and modernity, Tansen Sen will begin by highlighting the economic and political factors involved in the adoption and localization of Buddhist teachings and practices. Following this, he will discuss how the eventual disappearance of Buddhism from its South Asian homelands cannot be explained solely by the arrival of Islam (as is often taught). Buddhist institutions and practices remained vibrant across much of the region for several centuries thereafter, with remnants persisting in South and Central Asia until the 11th century, and understanding their gradual replacement by Muslim and Hindu counterparts requires careful attention to broader social, commercial and political dynamics across the region.


Within four hundred years of first arriving in China in connection with Silk Roads traders in the 2nd century, Buddhism had “conquered” China. In the 6th century, one out of every twenty-five people in China were ordained as monks and nuns and Buddhist thought had earned a preeminent position in Chinese intellectual and cultural life. On Tuesday morning, Kate Lingley (University of Hawai′i) will illustrate these impacts using monumental Buddhist sites like those at Yungang in Shanxi Province, donor-sponsored shrines like those in the famed Dunhuang caves, and masterworks of architecture, calligraphy and painting. But she will also address the social dimensions of Buddhist practice by looking at art-related Buddhist mutual aid societies and the intersection of kinship and Buddhist observations.


John Kieschnick (Stanford) will speak Wednesday morning about how Buddhism took root in China, focusing both on how Chinese cultural convictions about the authority of writing and the centrality of exemplary persons in achieving social harmony helped to shape the formation of the first schools of Buddhism in China, especially the Tiantai, Huayan and Zhengyan traditions. On Thursday morning, he will explore how Buddhism not only impacted Chinese philosophy, beliefs, and ritual, but also how it intimately affected Chinese material culture.


Institute director, Peter Hershock, will speak on Thursday afternoon about the iconoclastic Chan Buddhist tradition that emerged in Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) China. The “grandparent” tradition of Japanese Zen and Korean Sôn, Chan claimed to be based on a direct, heart-to-heart transmission “beyond words and letters,” but generated a voluminous literature centered on the interactions of Chinese Buddhist teachers and their students—a rustic and raucous literature that celebrated responsive virtuosity in ways that blended so well with indigenous Confucian and Daoist teachings that the Song emperor Xiazong (r. 1162-89) proclaimed the “three teachings are one.” To round out the week’s lecture/discussions, on Thursday afternoon Paola Zamperini (Northwestern) will discuss how Buddhism affected the Chinese literary imagination, making use of shorter popular works that illustrate important Buddhist themes as well as the great Ming dynasty novel, Journey to the West, that imaginatively invokes the transcontinental journeys of the Tang dynasty monk, Xuanzang (602-664).


The week will close with Hershock and Zamperini looking at three primary texts: excerpts from the Sutra in 42 Sections, one of the earliest and most widely circulated texts introducing Chinese readers to Buddhism; excerpts from the Discourse Records of Linji (Linji Lu), a classic example of Chan iconoclasm; and “Mulian Rescues His Mother,” a story about a son’s journey to hell to save his mother that inspired the summer ghost festivals celebrated across East Asia to the present day.