The Renewal of Buddhism in China
Zhuhong and the Late Ming Synthesis (Fortieth Anniversary Edition)
- ISBN: 9780231198530
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: March 2021
The Renewal of Buddhism in China: Zhuhong and the Late Ming Synthesis, Chün-fang Yü’s study of the prominent Buddhist master Zhuhong (1535-1615) first published in 1981, is an indisputable classic in premodern Chinese Buddhist history. Although it has exerted tremendous influence since its original release, readers nowadays may have difficulty accessing it. The reissuing of the Fortieth Anniversary Edition thus represents a welcome effort to introduce this work to a new generation of scholars.
When Yü’s book was initially published, scholars of Chinese Buddhist history almost exclusively focused their attention on the medieval era (ca. 4th-14th centuries). According to the well-established historiography, this era stood out as the golden age of Chinese Buddhism, as evidenced in the noticeable accomplishments of scripture translation, doctrinal sophistication, and sectarian systematization. Measured against this idealized height, it was believed that Chinese Buddhism suffered a secular trend of decline in the following centuries. Yü, however, goes against this scholarly consensus in the book. She argues that the nature of Chinese Buddhist practice changed after the medieval era. Instead of emphasizing doctrinal exclusiveness, post-medieval Buddhism “attempted to become fully integrated with Chinese society” (72). Furthermore, Yü demonstrates that it was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the process of Buddhist Sinicization reached its maturity. As a leading monastic figure of this era, Zhuhong thus offers Yü an excellent prism through which to examine this process.
After providing a biographical sketch of Zhuhong (chapter 2), the main body of the book consists of two major parts. The first focuses on Zhuhong’s involvement in the late Ming lay Buddhist movement, whereas the second investigates his efforts to reform the sangha (the Buddhist monastic order). From Zhuhong’s perspective, both activities were vital to the revival of Buddhism in Chinese society.
Yü’s investigation begins with a critical examination of the joint practice of Pure Land and Chan Buddhism, the pivotal theological underpinning of Zhuhong’s lay and monastic activities. Ever since the medieval era, Chan and Pure Land had become two major schools of Chinese Buddhism. Even though both endeavored to attain nirvana, they adopted different practices: whereas Chan relied on mediation, Pure Land resorted to nianfo (“Buddha invocation”). Although numerous masters had previously attempted to reconcile these two approaches, Yü contends that it was Zhuhong who ultimately succeeded in synthesizing the two. In particular, Yü analyzes Zhuhong’s specific understanding of the relationship between the two traditions. For Zhuhong, Pure Land nianfo was essentially a form of Chan meditation since it helped practitioners terminate discursive thought, thereby having the same effect as mediation in Chan.
In spite of underscoring the compatibility of Pure Land and Chan, Zhuhong insisted that nianfo was more effective than mediation because it best fit the spiritual needs of the laity. Such a consideration is, in turn, indicative of Zhuhong’s larger preoccupation with the lay Buddhist movement. Throughout his lifetime, Zhuhong made thorough efforts to transform Buddhism so that it could be readily appreciated by the laity. In particular, Zhuhong advocated for the Buddhist notion of compassion for life among the lay people (chapter 4). To facilitate his proselytizing efforts, Zhuhong ensured that practitioners received both spiritual and worldly rewards for engaging in activities such as releasing live fish in rivers. Such a nonintellectual approach betrays Zhuhong’s emphasis on concrete, practical methods of lay practice. Moreover, Zhuhong incorporated teachings and practices from Confucianism and Daoism to promote Buddhist doctrine to a larger audience (chapter 5). An illuminating example is his compilation of the morality book Zizhi lu (The Record of Self-knowledge). However, Zhuhong’s embrace of Confucianism and Daoism was not indiscriminate. Instead, he strategically appropriated certain aspects of the other two religions that were in accordance with Buddhist values. Meanwhile, Zhuhong gave a particularly prominent place to Buddhist practices by assigning more merit points when an act benefits Buddhism and less when the same act benefits Confucianism or Daoism.
In concert with his efforts to spread Buddhism to the masses, Zhuhong endeavored to reform the monastic order to reverse the perceived decline of the sangha. To contextualize Zhuhong’s reform agenda, Yü first discusses the condition of the monastic order in the late Ming period (chapter 6). Zhuhong, like the majority of his contemporaries, took a rather abysmal view of monastics. To explain the decline, Yü weighs several factors. Externally, the Ming government’s religious policies, such as indiscriminate sale of ordination certificates, had significantly decreased the quality of the monastic population and contributed much to the sangha’s loss of public esteem. Internally, Zhuhong identified a number of monastic practices that resulted in the influx of unqualified and uncommitted monks (chapter 7). In addition to the abuse of Chan practice and neglect of Vinaya (i.e., Buddhist monastic law), Zhuhong concentrated his criticism on the secularization of the monastic order, as evidenced by monks’ pursuit of non-Buddhist activities and their indulgence in material luxury and personal comfort.
To renew the monastic order, Zhuhong devoted much of his time to regulating monastic life by enforcing strict discipline. The gist of Zhuhong’s reform efforts can be best found in his lifelong administration of the Yunqi Monastery, a monastic complex in which he had resided from 1571 until his death (chapter 8). He significantly raised the bar for allowing laypeople to join the monastic order, strengthened monastic discipline, and strove to curb the trend toward worldliness. Nevertheless, Zhuhong did not simply aim to replicate existing monastic rules. Instead, he adapted the Vinaya to the needs of his own times by incorporating socially dominant Confucian values into his construction of ideal monasticism.
The Renewal of Buddhism in China marked the first major attempt to study Ming Buddhism, and it succeeded in establishing the importance of critically examining post-medieval Chinese Buddhist history. Not surprisingly, it has inspired a generation of scholars to examine the distinctive features of Buddhism of this era (e.g., Jennifer Eichman, A Late Sixteenth-Century Chinese Buddhist Fellowship: Spiritual Ambitions, Intellectual Debates, and Epistolary Connections, Brill, 2016; Dewei Zhang, Thriving in Crisis: Buddhism and Political Disruption in China, 1522–1620, Columbia University Press, 2020). Therefore, even though it was first published more than four decades ago, Yü’s book is still an extremely valuable starting point to understand the complicated history of Buddhism in late imperial China and will thus continue to stimulate scholars for years to come.
Gilbert Chen is an assistant professor at Towson University.Gilbert ChenDate Of Review:June 30, 2022