A Late Sixteenth-Century Chinese Buddhist Fellowship

Spiritual Ambitions, Intellectual Debates, and Epistolary Connections

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Jennifer Eichman
Sinica Leidensia, vol. 127
  • Boston, MA: 
    , January
     422 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This exciting new work makes an important contribution not only to our historical understanding of Pure Land practitioners in Ming China, but also provides a methodologically sophisticated example of the value of studies focused on the particular.

Practice associations that included both monastics and laity have long played a key role in the historiography of Pure Land Buddhism in East Asia. Indeed, some scholars have considered the founding of the White Lotus Society by Lushan Huiyuan (334–416) in 402 a foundational event, establishing him as the first “patriarch” of Pure Land Buddhism in East Asia. The Society is said to have numbered 123 members—including both monks and laymen—whose purpose was to assist one another in their devotions. Rather than all authority being held by monks, some laymen apparently held leadership roles. This kind of organization appears to have been a novelty, without precedent in South Asian Buddhism.

Similarly, in Japan the monk Genshin (942–1017) and Yoshishige no Yasutane (c. 931–1002) jointly formed a society called the “Kangaku-e,” also comprising both monks and laymen. Meeting twice a year, they heard lectures on the Lotus Sutra in the morning, chanted the name of Amitābha in the evening, and composed poetry during the night. And, during the mid-Koryŏ dynasty, Wonmyo Yose established a White Lotus retreat society in 1211. Retreat societies of this kind were numerous in China and Korea. Devoted to various kinds of practices, including Pure Land, they were outside the monastic systems and included, again, both monks and laymen.

Jennifer Eichman’s study focuses on a fellowship of Pure Land practitioners, both monks and laymen, during the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). One figure that serves to unify this study is Zhuhong (1535–1615), an eminent monk who functioned as a nexus point for the network of relationships that comprised the fellowship. Eichman examines the relationships between members of a community, though—borrowing a term from Arjun Appadurai—she emphasizes that this community is “deterritorialized” (5). In other words, this is not a physically contiguous social grouping, but rather one that was able to maintain itself by means of letters and occasional visits between members. These social categories are important.in that Eichman is examining a more diffuse set of relationships than those implied by the kinds of formal membership of other groups with which this fellowship might be compared. Instead of being defined either geographically or by formal membership, it “was a diffused network of varying alliances that created with it smaller ‘groups’ or solidarities” (7).

Eichman purposely limits her study to the relatively narrow Wanli period (1573–1620), giving the work a depth that would otherwise not be possible. This allows her to examine the development, over about half a century, of a religious network strung together by personal relationships. While some may prefer a historiography that includes wider spans of time, such works must be balanced by compensatory studies focusing on more narrowly delimited times, events, and actors.

As indicated by the last word of the subtitle, Eichman works with epistolary evidence from the members of the network. As she says, “This approach grounds discourse in community rather than merely imagining the reception of Buddhist ideas through analysis of prescriptive sources” (2). This very “fine-grained” method provides a level of detail that is essential in understanding the actual workings of the network—the nature of relations between specific monks and laymen, the kinds of inquiries made regarding practice and ideology, the ways that personal meetings were arranged, and the nature of social practices, such as letter-writing itself and gift-exchange, that held the network together as a viable social entity. This level of detail assists us—both author and reader—to avoid one of the pitfalls of the study of Pure Land Buddhism, which is the presumption of the normative status of later Japanese developments, such as exclusive adherence.

Eichman’s study makes important contributions for several different interested audiences, more than can be discussed adequately in this brief review. Two of these are historians of Chinese religions, and scholars of religious studies. For the former, Eichman challenges received notions of the dominance of the religious culture of the era by the Confucian tradition. “Much previous scholarship portrays late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Buddhist culture as one where Confucians and literati dominated a weakened monastic group. To the contrary, I argue that monks like Zhuhong and his cohorts had far more power to shape their own tradition and influence others than scholars have previously realized” (24–25).

For scholars in the academic study of religion, an important contribution relates to the idea of exclusive adherence. A continuing presumption about the nature of religion in much of religious studies scholarship is that exclusive adherence is normative—despite its being largely grounded in the theology of the Reformation, when the socio-religious presumptions inherent in the concept of Christendom were challenged by the creation of voluntary associations of laity, and by the increasing soteriological centrality of orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy. Exclusive adherence is also, however, an artifact of the history of how the concept of religion per se came to be formulated in Euro-American thought. Rather than viewing non-exclusive participation in a variety of differing praxes as the exception requiring explanation, it should be seen as the norm, in contrast to which exclusive adherence is the exception requiring explanation. Such a shift of perspective shows that even the academic discourse on dual-membership or dual-belonging presupposes that exclusive adherence is the normal state of things.

Given the important contributions made by this work, it will continue to provide resources for later studies, as well as standing as an exemplary instance of how such studies should be conducted.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graducate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Eichman, Ph.D. (2005), Princeton University, is a Research Associate at the Centre of Buddhist Studies, SOAS, University of London. She has published on late Ming Chinese Buddhist traditions and the intersection of Confucian and Buddhist ideas.


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