[POSTPONED] Historical Mirror for the Contemporary World: International Conference on the Sinification of Buddhism through the Perspective of World History and Globalization

[POSTPONED] Historical Mirror for the Contemporary World: International Conference on the Sinification of Buddhism through the Perspective of World History and Globalization

[Photo caption: The walled gate of Zhenzhou in the lower right corner of the Wutaishan mural. The Mellon International Dunhuang Archive.]

Historical Mirror for the Contemporary World: International Conference on the Sinification of Buddhism through the Perspective of World History and Globalization

POSTPONED, details TBA; Hong Kong & Mount Wutai

The organizing committee for the international conference on “Historical Mirror for the Contemporary World: The Sinification of Buddhism through the Perspective of World History and Globalization” cordially invites the submission of related papers.

The conference is organized by the Wutai Research Institute for Eastern Buddhist Culture 五臺山東方佛教文化研究院 in Shanxi, China, co-organized by the Center of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong 香港大學佛學研究中心, Research Center for Buddhist Texts and Arts (RCBTA) at Peking University 北京大學佛教典籍與藝術研究中心, and the From the Ground Up project based at the University of British Columbia (www.frogbear.org). The conference will be held in the Center of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong and the Great Bamboo Grove Monastery 大聖竹林 on Mount Wutai 五臺山.

From the perspective of the global history, when the teachings of Buddhism first arrived in the heartland of China around the first century CE, East Asia had just started what would become an ongoing exchange with Central and South Asia. Influence from the Han Empire already had spread to Central Asia, and as a result, at least two civilizations communicated with one another through various channels to allow for diverse cultural interactions and fusion. Buddhism, in this context, was one among many players to participate in this rich cultural dynamic.

Buddhism, as a product of a foreign culture from the Chinese perspective, underwent an extended period of adaption and intermingling with indigenous cultures before many teachings were altered by the seventh century, which gave rise to a distinct Chinese Buddhist tradition that embodied the spirit of a new and vibrant host culture. Meanwhile, the Chinese Buddhism religion spread across East and Southeast Asia, generating a novel Chinese Buddhist sphere of influence with the classical Chinese language as its lingua franca. Against this backdrop of world history and globalization, the spread of Buddhism transcends a singular cultural phenomenon in one defined region, and instead represents a grand religious and cultural transformation with profound and far-reaching implications.

The Sinification of Buddhism, or more specifically the Chinese metamorphosis of core Indic cultural elements, transpired within several domains, including philosophy, religious practice, and the construction of Buddhist institutions. During the migration from its homeland in South Asia to China, Buddhism retained many core doctrines, such as the doctrines of independent origination and of the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, and the threefold training in discipline, concentration and wisdom. But when it comes to the exegetical traditions that interpreted the many Indian classics, the process of Sinification is evident. In the early period, Chinese Buddhists digested Indian concepts by clumsily relating them to indigenous Chinese terms. Even later on, as Chinese Buddhists developed sophisticated insights about the nature of reality as ultimately unconditioned, they could not restrain a powerful urge to integrate Indian elements into systems of Chinese thought, especially by infusing Buddhism with Confucian and Daoist teachings. Furthermore, Buddhist teachers were often learned masters of both Chinese and foreign traditions of learning and exegesis. These teachers symbolize cultural fusion at a time when the Buddhist teachings were understood with uniquely Chinese characteristics. In addition, for a thousand years after the fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), Chinese Buddhists not only translated and interpreted texts imported from India, but also many composed apocrypha and treatises that in turn generated many original doctrines, institutional codes, and historical narratives. In contrast to the Tibetan Kangyur and Tengyur that mostly comprise translated texts, the Chinese Buddhist canons incorporate many texts written originally in the Chinese language. The formation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon, therefore, is another key part of the process of Sinification.

Chinese Buddhists were also deeply affected by indigenous popular religious beliefs. Many secular followers were understandably more concerned with worshipping deities than with obscure doctrinal formulations. On this non-elite level, we find intriguing connections between Indian Buddhist and indigenous Chinese practices such as those techniques preached in the Huang-Lao school, and particularly the goal of spiritual immortality and the worship of ghosts and gods. Meanwhile, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and especially the Buddhas of the Three Ages and the four Bodhisattvas, emerged as central objects of worship in Buddhist rituals.  After the Tang Dynasty, Bodhisattva cults acquired their own theoretical and institutional bases, and even absorbed the practices of mountain worship to produce a uniquely Chinese sacred geography that attracted not only Chinese pilgrims, but also pilgrims from across East and Southeast Asia and as far as the cradle of Buddhism itself in India. Within the context of this transformation, it seems that the axis-mundi of Buddhism gradually shifted from India to China.

The process of Sinification can be equally applied to the study of Buddhist institutions.  Indigenous Chinese religions did not conceive of any system of monastics, which only came into being during the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) when Vinaya texts were translated and, with them, the Indian Buddhist institutional rules and regulations were transplanted to Chinese soil. But this relocated system experienced countless problems, of varying severity, within a new cultural milieu, especially when we consider conflicts with the dominant Chinese state.  For instance, should monks dine while crouching or should they sit down? Should monastics eat with their hands or with chopsticks? Should they kneel before the ruler? Even trivial habits, such as washing one’s hands, brushing one’s teeth, and relieving oneself generated considerable debates. These examples attest to the drastic differences between the Indic and Chinese cultural environments. But Chinese Buddhists eventually dictated their own terms for monastic life. In Chan Buddhism, for instance, agrarian-influences upon Buddhism can be seen in teachings such as “one day without labouring, one day without eating”, which is at odds with Indian monastic codes that explicitly preclude any agricultural work. Though not without controversies and occasional reversals of fortune, the Sinification of Buddhism proved to be inexorable over time.

The reason that Buddhism was able to establish such deep roots in China–when China was the source of the teachings of the religion after the seventh century in neighbouring kingdoms–has to do with a mutual attraction that bound the teachings of Indian Buddhism and Chinese culture together. The latter shaped the former in accordance with its philosophy, culture, and institutions, creating a form of Buddhism instilled with myriad Chinese features.

With this conference we are not only inclined to address our contemporary inquisitiveness by returning to the well-trodden path concerning the topic of the Sinification of Buddhism; we will address the process of Sinification against the backdrop of global history. We will also, therefore, reassess the potential uses of the term ‘Sinification’ to serve as a historical precedent that may be able to teach us new lessons relevant to our own time. Today, we are witnessing the trend of globalization being forestalled. Given this challenge, can we draw any contemporary implications from this crucial event in the earlier history of globalization, the Sinification of Buddhism? For these reasons, we propose, though not exclusively, the following themes for discussion:

  • Sinification of Buddhism and Chinese Buddhist Philosophy
  • Sinification of Buddhism and Cults of Sacred Mountains;
  • Sinification of Buddhism and Bodhisattva Cults;
  • Sinification of Buddhism and (the history of) Buddhist Institutions;
  • Sinification of Buddhism and the formation of Chinese Buddhist Traditions;
  • Sinification of Buddhism under the Perspective of World History and globalization;
  • Sinification of Buddhism and Important Buddhist Figures;
  • Sinification of Buddhism and Neighboring Countries/Regions.

The organizing committee welcomes all paper proposals related to the Sinification of Buddhism through the Perspective of World History and Globalization. All conference-related costs, including local transportation, meals and accommodation during the conference period, will be covered by the conference organizers, who—depending on availability of funding—may also provide a travel subsidy to selected panelists who are in need of funding. Please email proposals and CVs to frogbear.project@ubc.ca by February 1, 2020.

A conference volume will collect all the papers in English, plus English translations of several papers written in languages other than English; a volume in Chinese, to be published in Taiwan or mainland China, will include Chinese versions for all papers not written in Chinese in addition to those papers contributed by our colleagues based in China. Only scholars who are confident in finishing their draft papers by May 10 and publishable papers by the end of 2020 are encouraged to apply.