Book Workshop: Buddhisms in Modern China

Eyal Aviv

Mirror Image of the World: Buddhist Logic in Republican China

It would not be too controversial to state that throughout most of the Buddhist history in China, Buddhist Logic (Hetuvidyā 因明) achieved little of the prestige it enjoyed in India. What, then, triggered a renewed interest in Buddhist Logic in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty and the Republican period? This paper will argue that the Chinese intellectuals who studied Buddhist Logic used the renewed appreciation for the systematic nature of logic to revitalize Buddhism in times of great challenges and promising prospects. However, my paper will avoid a one dimensional “reaction to modernity” explanation for such a phenomenon. In fact, upon closer study this group of scholars was not united in their aims and methods of study. For Some, such as Taixu (1890-1947 太虛), Buddhist Logic was a mean to strengthen Buddhist credential as a modern philosophy rather than a superstitious religion. For others, such as Zhang Taiyan (1868-1936 章太炎), Buddhist Logic was part of the Chinese discovery of “Logic,” a category that was introduced to China as a separate field of knowledge only in the first decade of the 20th century. Finally, for others Buddhists, such as Lü Cheng (1896-1989 呂澂), Logic was a part of a larger quest to articulate for the modern Chinese audience the message of authentic Buddhism. Buddhist Logic attracted the attention of the Chinese intelligentsia, contributed to the rise of Buddhist Studies in China and became part of the curriculum in many Buddhist seminaries across China to this day. These case studies will add Buddhist Logic to the tapestry of doctrines and practices that has shaped modern Chinese Buddhism during the Republican and the contemporary periods.

Raoul Birnbaum

A “vanishing world” of Chinese Buddhist practitioners? Farewell to the twentieth century

This paper looks to a particular slice of the Chinese Buddhist population as defined informally from within the tradition, the “practitioners” (xiuxing ren修行人). It considers some individual examples from the twentieth century, both lay and monastic, within their various contexts, and it examines the conditions under which they have developed. If those conditions change drastically, will there be visible effects in this particular sphere? Examples range from the layman Gao Henian 高鶴年 (1872-1962) to the contemporary monk Ven. Miaojing 妙境長老 (1930-2003), as well as such obvious figures as Master Hongyi 弘一大師 (1880-1942), etc. A long-standing hidden tradition also is addressed, individuals without significant public reputation either by deliberate choice or by circumstance. As Buddhist institutions in China change, and as economic, social, political, and environmental matters shift in China, where will there be room for such individuals, who traditionally have been recognized as the very heart of the transmission of the tradition? Will they step away from the public eye in order to survive? Without the visible presence of such accomplished individuals, what might the effect be on the populace in terms of long-scale Buddhist continuity? The intent of this paper is to highlight the issues involved and raise questions about them.

Daniela Campo

A different Buddhist revival: The religious regeneration based on monastic discipline in Republican China.

In this paper, I attempt to offer a new perspective on the Buddhist revival of the Republican era by focusing on the so-called “conservative” segment of the monastic leadership. In the first half of the twentieth century, many influential Buddhist representatives – including Cizhou 慈舟(1877-1957), Hongyi 弘一(1880-1942), Xuyun 虛雲 (ca 1864-1959), Yinguang 印光 (1861-1940), Xingci 興慈 (1881-1950) and Tanxu 倓虛 (1875-1963) – carried on a religious regeneration based on the reinstatement of Chinese monastic discipline (jielü 戒律). Their action was realized through the composition of new codes of monastic rules, the restoration of correct ordination procedures and the propagation of traditional Chinese Vinaya texts. By analyzing the way these Buddhist leaders implemented a model of monastic regeneration dating back to medieval times, I will address meaning and effects of monastic revivalism in modern China. Is the Buddhist revival of the Republican era merely to be conceived as a set of Christian-inspired transformations? The paper argues that a modernist adaptation of Buddhism has not been the only significant response of religious representatives to the beginning of the secularization process in China: an important segment of the clergy shared the conviction that Buddhism itself had the resources to meet the challenges of modernity.

C. Julia Huang

Buddhist Ideas for Cadaver Donations in Taiwan

When the Buddhist humanitarian movement, Tzu Chi (Ciji), founded its medical college in Taiwan in 1994, they were told, as a late-comer among the seven medical schools, they’d be on their own for procuring the cadavers for the foundational course of gross anatomy, since until then the only – and scanty – supply was unclaimed dead bodies. (1) Tzu Chi received its first voluntary corpse donation in 1995. By 2013, the total number of donors signed up at Tzu Chi is 34,478. (2)

This “surge of cadavers,” as The Wall Street Journal calls it (3), has not yet been systematically studied (4), although it has attracted attention from mass media and from other medical schools in Taiwan and Asia. What’s worth noting in Tzu Chi is not only the increase in donation, but also the distinctive practice of encouraging communication between the donor’s family and the medical staff – a practice in stark contrast to the privacy rule abided by in voluntary donation efforts in the United States. Indeed, the Buddhist medical college in Taiwan formally creates bonds between the donor’s family and the medical students and faculty who dissect his/her dead body. The cadaver keeps its real name, and is respectfully addressed throughout the endeavor as “corpse teacher (dati laoshi).” Each corpse teacher is solemnly commemorated by ceremonies before and after the dissection led by the university president and attended by the faculty and students of the medical school, the donor’s family and friends, and the Tzu Chi monastics and lay followers. Part of the ash from cremation is placed an individual urn permanently stored in the university’s splendid columbarium named “Great Giving (or Equanimity) Hall (da she tang),” bestowing their donation an act of one of the Buddhist four immeasurables, equanimity (she). Together the growing number of corpse-faculty are referred to as “silent mentors (wuyu liangshi).”

Drawing on my ethnography, this paper will analyze the silent mentor movement in the framework of the “gift of the body” genre (5) of bodhisattvas who are ready to give out parts of or the whole body to save another being’s life. The paper will explore in what ways the silent mentor movement re-interprets the Buddhist ideas of body (kaya) and death.

(1) Ha, Hongqian and Gao Tian, A Century of Anatomy in Taiwan, 1899-2003 (Taiwan jiepou xue bainian shi, 1899-2003). (Taipei: Heji, 2003), p. 234.
2) The Tzu Chi University website (, accessed on September 30, 2013.
(3) Ian Johnson. “Poems and Tears for ‘Silent Mentors’ Spark a Surge of Cadavers in Taiwan: Medical Students Bond With Families to Quell Traditional Resistance to Donating Bodies.”
(4) See, for example, Lu Hwei-syin’s pioneering study, “Sanctification of the Corpse, Transcendence of the Death.”
(5) Reiko Ohnuma

Matthias Koenig

Beyond secularization theory? A topography of current debates in the sociology of religion

Secularization theory has, over the past two decades, come under fierce attack in the humanities and social sciences. As a result, it can no longer be taken for granted that the transition to modernity leads to a decline in religious belief, to a privatization or individualization of religious practices, and to a differentiation of religion and politics. It is far less obvious, however, which theories, if any, are better positioned to understand and explain the variable place of religion in modern societies. This presentation explores current trends in the sociology of religion and discusses some avenues of moving beyond the impasses of the secularization debate

David McMahan

Buddhism and Global Secularisms

Secularism as a discourse, political project, or tacit set of assumptions guiding modern social formations takes different shapes in different geographical locations and nation-states. In China, for example, the secular is configured quite differently than in the United States, therefore the configuration of “religion” is different as well. Each configuration is conducive to the thriving or withering of particular kinds of religious communities, ideas and practices, establishing what counts as secular, what counts as religious, and what becomes marginalized, perhaps as “superstition” or “cult.” This paper takes a selective sampling of how various secular/religious configurations have shaped Buddhist ideas and practices around the world, hopefully establishing a broad context within which more specific inquiries into the Chinese case can be explored. For example: the pluralistic conception of secularism in India has ramifications for how Ambhedkar Buddhists conceive of their tradition in relation to the Indian state and to India’s other religious traditions; the mindfulness movement in the United States, though derived from Buddhism, insists on its secularity and thus gains access to public educational institutions; in China there is official encouragement of “scientific” Buddhism that eschews “superstitious” practices, while minority traditions, especially Tibetan, are exoticized and marginalized. In each case the particular boundary conceived between secular and religious opens up certain personal, social, and institutional possibilities and closes down others, all the while helping to constitute visions of normativity.

Viren Murthy

Interrogating Time Through Religion: The Cases of Modern Buddhism and Judaism

After the publication of Rodger Kamanetz’s best-selling book, The Jew in the Lotus, there began to be interest in the points in common between Judaism and Buddhism. At first sight, one might think that there could be nothing more different than these two religions, especially because one usually opposes the Judeo-Christian tradition, which stresses a transcendent deity, to Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism, which to different degrees stress immanence. However, in what follows, I will attempt to historicize the question of the reception of Judaism and Buddhism in the context of the expansion of global capitalism, by focusing on intersections between, the German Jewish tradition, the early 20th Century thinker Zhang Taiyan’s reading of Yogacara and the Kyoto School reading of Buddhism. I will focus in particular around their readings of history and their critique of modernity, especially progressive visions of time.

Scholars debated whether Buddhism has a concept of history, but regardless of how one answers this question, we can find attempts to read Buddhism in terms of a theory of history in China and Japan. In 1907, Zhang Taiyan articulates a negative theory of history in his On the Five Negations, which draws heavily on Yogacara Buddhism. In the 1930s and 1940s, Kyoto School philosophers such as Miki Kiyoshi and Tanabe Hajime attempted to develop a theory of history based on the work of Shinran, the famous thinker of the Pure Land sect during the Kamakura period. During this same interwar period in Germany, we can see Jewish thinkers as diverse as Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin and others who construct a messianic vision of history, which is antagonistic to modern ideas of progress and capitalism. Despite their differences, all these thinkers develop a negative perspective from which to criticize the logic of their worlds and construct a vision of a future that has negated the dominations of the present. Given that such utopian visions have increasingly faded while the problems they address continue to haunt us, the above schools of thought are especially pertinent to us today. We need to inquire into their conditions of possibility and the reasons for their decline.

Almut-Barbara Renger

Spreading a New Chan Culture: Reflections on the Revival of Chinese Buddhism

The revival of religion has been among the many transition processes occurring in the People’s Republic of China in recent decades. There is a diverse set of reasons for this popularity, especially of Chinese Buddhism. A major factor is that China can be seen as the original centre of Buddhism, which today constitutes important Chinese cultural heritage. This is what makes Buddhism appealing not only to tourists but also to spiritual seekers or at least to people with religious needs who seek guidance in an old tradition of Chinese culture. In this context, Ch’an has also seen a revival, known for both its complex historical evolution and tradition within Chinese Buddhism, and for the meditation practices so central to this multi-layered tradition. In many Chinese Buddhist monasteries, Ch’an meditation takes place alongside the worship and devotional practices of Pure Land Buddhism. This paper centres around this development, and focuses on Master Jinghui as an important actor in this area. Before passing away in 2013, Jinghui was among the driving forces behind the revival of Buddhism in China. In East and Southeast Asia, he enjoyed international recognition as one of the most important Ch’an Masters in the PR China. He was considered to be a renowned successor to Xuyun and bearer of the Dharma transmission of all five Ch’an Schools. Jinghui regularly travelled abroad, especially in Asia, but also Europe, to teach and disseminate internationally Ch’an Buddhism as spiritual practice and as China’s cultural heritage. In this, his objective was to spread and to establish a new Ch’an culture, including in Germany.

Axel Schneider

Buddhist soteriology and the modern ideology of progress: 20th century Chinese reflections on the nature of the modern condition

Buddhist inspired critiques of modern progressivism, especially of Social Darwinism are among the earliest and most powerful critical engagements with modern Western views of history and their concomitant views of ethics and human agency (such as Zhang Taiyan‘s critique of progressivism before 1911). However, with the May Fourth movement these highly critical voices seemed to recede in the context of a movement aiming to transform Buddhism into a modern, somehow progressive humanistic version of Buddhism. In my contribution I will focus on examples of Buddhist inspired, post May Fourth radical critiques of progressivism and Social Darwinism (such as expressed in the texts of Jing Changji) comparing them to earlier critiques and the humanist Buddhist attitude towards history and progress.


Dan Smyer Yü & Khenpo Sodargye

Revisioning Tibetan Buddhism as a Science of the Mind in China

Tibetan Buddhism is one of the fastest growing religions among Chinese in the twenty-first century. The transnational teaching activities of numerous Tibetan lamas attest to this religious trend in the popular realm of contemporary China. Unlike on their native soil, Tibetan lamas immersed in urban China encounter converts whose acceptance of Buddhism often rests upon a “scientific” assessment of Buddhism. Thus, Buddhism-science dialogue stands out as a central theme in contemporary Sino-Tibetan Buddhist encounter. Based on the authors’ collaborative study of the Buddhism-science entanglement in this transnational Buddhist context, this paper wishes to illustrate that science signifies not merely the conventionally accepted system of knowledge based on the modern, empirically driven search for the understanding of the material world. Instead, it connotes a web of inter-connected social meanings pertaining to Buddhist understanding, critique, and appropriation of it. In this regard, the authors argue that science is simultaneously identified as an integral part of the iconoclastic secularism in modern China subject to contemporary Buddhist critique; science is utilized as an instrument of Buddhist conversion; and science is reconceived as a neutral, open social space for knowledge making, in which an increasing number of Buddhist teachers is persistently claiming Buddhism as a science of its own.

Sogyal Rinpoche & Patrick Gaffney

"The Art of Living and Dying": A Tibetan Spirituality in the Chinese Buddhist World

Tibetan Buddhist teachings are a familiar part of the global spiritual landscape in the twenty-first century, forming a significant part of the West’s growing Buddhist Spirituality and considered an integral aspect of “modern Buddhism.” Less widely known, Tibetan Buddhism is also the subject of serious attention in the Chinese Buddhist world. As Buddhist practitioners and teachers, the co-authors of this paper present a case study of the impact of Tibetan Buddhist teachings about death and dying, especially elaborated in “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” (1992) and “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (1960), on Chinese Buddhists since the end of the last century. We will explore the effect of these teachings and their approach to transforming suffering and coping with loss, taking the hospice and palliative care movement as one example. In addition, by providing details of conversations with Chinese Buddhists worldwide and reviewing practitioners’ online forums and blog entries, we wish to affirm that Buddhist teachings are trans-historical and cross-cultural in nature, and that Tibetan Buddhism in the Chinese Buddhist world is unique in the socio-cultural awareness it raises about Tibetan Buddhist civilization and in its contribution to education, healing, and peace-building.

Yanfei Sun

Jingkong and Buddhist Modernity: A Master of Contradictions

In the studies of modern Chinese Buddhism, most attention has been given to the Chinese counterpart of “humanistic Buddhism” or “engaged Buddhism” and the thoughts, figures and movements associated with this type of Buddhism. These studies consider promoters of Pure Land Buddhism as representatives of “traditional Chinese Buddhism,” which they deem to be static, resist modernity, and lack the will and capacity to transform this world. By examining the teachings of Jingkong (1927-), a Buddhist teacher of Pure Land Buddhism, and the Buddhist movement influenced by him in mainland China, this paper aims to complicate and challenge these understandings. An examination of Jingkong’s teachings suggests that he holds a rather ambiguous attitude towards Western modernity. While a critic of Western modernity, he often resorts to practices and authorities in the West to legitimize his claims. Moreover, he is a most skilled user of modern communication technology to disseminate his teachings. The paper also maintains that even though Jingkong’s Pure Land Buddhism has an exceptionally strong otherworldly orientation, his teachings have given rise to religious movements and institutional building endeavors which inevitably led to a deep entanglement with the world, especially in mainland China where these endeavors and movements have reached some substantial scale. The prior understanding of “traditional Chinese Buddhism” often assumes that its promoters are self-coherent and one-dimensional. In actuality, while Jingkong teaches that persistent mindfulness of Western Pure Land is the way to salvation, he also avidly promotes “traditional Chinese culture,” Confucian ethics in particular, to be the remedy to modern malaises. The various educational programs, institutions, as well as social experiments that respond to his call are probably the most vigorous efforts in today’s mainland Chinese Buddhist community that seek to transform the society at large. Ironically, it is not the heir of humanistic Buddhism, but the latter-day embodiment of “traditional Chinese Buddhism” that has become the most engaged Buddhism in the context of mainland China.


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