Reinventing the Tripitaka

Transformation of the Buddhist Canon in Modern East Asia

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Jiang Wu, Greg Wilkinson
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , September
     268 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reinventing the Tripitaka is the second volume on the history of the Buddhist canon in East Asia to appear in English in recent years. Like Spreading Buddha’s Word in East Asia: The Formation and Transformation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon (Jiang Wu & Lucille Chia, eds., Columbia University Press, 2016), Reinventing the Tripitaka is the result of a series of conferences organized by Jiang Wu, which were dedicated to the history of the Buddhist canon in East Asia. While Spreading Buddha’s Word mostly focuses on pre-modern editions, the essays collected in Reinventing the Tripitaka are about the modern history of the Buddhist canon, starting in the late 19th century and ending with two contributions on digital editions.

The contributions in this volume thus look both back and ahead, and are aptly dedicated to the late eminent historian Tsuen-hsuin Tsien and to the co-organizer of one of the first digital editions of the canon, the late Aming Tu.

The history of the Buddhist canon in East Asia is a densely researched topic in Japanese and Chinese Buddhist studies, but has attracted only very limited attention in English. The efforts of Jiang Wu and his collaborators have managed to close an irksome gap.

The essays in Reinventing the Tripitaka often use the term “Chinese Buddhist canon,” with the emphasis on “Chinese”—as in “written in Buddhist Classical Chinese,” not as in “made in China.” Thus, although the idea of a comprehensive canon (dazangjing 大藏經) including works by later authors originated in China, the seven contributions in this volume do range across East Asia and discuss the Buddhist canon in China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. After a helpful and comprehensive overview of the issues at stake in the modern formation of the canon, Jiang Wu and Greg Wilkinson have divided Reinventing the Tripitaka into three sections. The first section starts out with a study by Wu on how the first copy of the Chinese canon came to Europe. Wu explains how Samuel Beal was able to make a successful request for a Buddhist canon, which resulted in a copy of the Ōbaku edition arriving in London in 1875. This was the copy used by Nanjō Bun’yū (aka Nanjio Bunyiu) for the first Western catalog of the Chinese canon. Nanjō’s catalog (1883) to what we now know to be the Ōbaku canon became an indispensable tool for European Buddhist studies, until being replaced by a catalog to the Taishō edition: the Fascicule Annexe of the Hōbōgirin project (1931, rev. 1978).

In the second essay Greg Wilkinson and Nicolas Frederick report on Japanese attempts to create what they call “a Buddhist bible.” They attempt to argue that the efforts of (again) Nanjō Bun’yū and, somewhat later, Numata Yehan, to create a reader of Buddhist “sacred texts” (seiten 聖典) were a reaction to the role of the Bible in Christian evangelicalism. That these readers have been in part influenced by and modeled on the Bible is undisputed, but to call them “Buddhist bibles” seems a bad choice. Their compilers were fully aware of the differences between their selection and modern translations of Buddhist scriptures and the role of the Bible in Christianity as the unique, authoritative, and complete record of revelation. The term seiten, which has been used since the 3rd century, simply cannot mean “bible,” as it implies a plurality that is quite absent from the way the Bible has been perceived in the singular both as a book (“The Holy Scripture”) and regarding its function (sola scriptura) over many centuries. To my mind, Wilkinson and Frederick do not provide sufficient evidence that anybody in Japan thought of these texts as “bibles” rather than simply Buddhist readers, for which there is a long tradition within Buddhism. They are mistaken (on 53) about the presumed similarity of the “New Testament” and the “New Translation of Buddhist Scriptures.” The former is shinyaku seisho聖書 (lit. “Holy book of the New Covenant”) not the homophonous 新聖書 “New translation of Buddhist Scriptures.”

The second section features three essays on the production and use of modern editions of the canon. Tomoo Kida presents an account of Kōzui Ōtani’s acquisition of a Qing Dragon Canon in 1899. The history of a single copy of this edition that went from China to Japan makes for an interesting comparison with Wu’s account of the copy that Japan had sent to England some twenty-five years earlier. Gregory Adam Scott describes in fascinating detail the production of the little known Pinjia Canon, that was published in Shanghai in 1913. Based on his thorough knowledge of Buddhist publishing ventures in Republican China, Scott elucidates what went into the attempt to produce an affordable, modern Buddhist canon in early 20th century China. The essay by Richard D. McBride II combines fieldwork and historical research to show how the “ritual of bearing [the Buddhist canon] on one’s head” (jeongdae bulsa 頂戴佛事) has developed at Haein Monastery in Korea over the last fifty years. The essay is a valuable reminder that the ritual veneration of the canon is still alive in East Asia today.

The third section is dedicated to digital incarnations of the Buddhist canon in Chinese. In his essay, Christian Wittern, a long-standing contributor to the CBETA project and eminent expert in the digitization of the East Asian textual heritage, outlines the commonalities and differences of the three main projects that have produced digital versions of the Chinese canon. In the final essay Charles Muller,‎ Masahiro Shimoda,‎ and Kiyonori Nagasaki, the core team steering the SAT research platform, give a brief overview of the history of their efforts.

As an appendix, the editors have decided to translate a study by Guangchang Fang, the outstanding expert on Dunhuang Studies as well as the history of the manuscript canon, that was first published in 2006. In it Fang presents a “panoramic overview of the history of the Chinese Buddhist canon” (187). Fang’s essay is a welcome summary and would work well as introductory reading in a seminar.

The original and wide-ranging contributions in this volume are an important contribution to our understanding of the fate of the Buddhist textual heritage in modern East Asia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcus Bingenheimer is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jiang Wu is professor of Chinese religion and thought in the department of East Asian Studies and director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of Arizona.

Greg Wilkinson is assistant professor of religious education at Brigham Young University.


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