Lecture Report: Reimagining East Asian Buddhism: Wuyue Foundations of Song Dynasty Buddhism and Beyond

Lecture Report: Reimagining East Asian Buddhism: Wuyue Foundations of Song Dynasty Buddhism and Beyond

“Reimagining East Asian Buddhism: Wuyue Foundations of Song Dynasty Buddhism and Beyond,” a Talk by Professor Albert Welter

by Jisi Fu and Jing Le

On September 20th 2018, Professor Albert Welter from University of Arizona delivered a talk on “Reimagining East Asian Buddhism: Wuyue Foundations of Song Dynasty Buddhism and Beyond” to students and faculty members at the University of British Columbia. Professor Welter specializes in Chinese Buddhism. His research interests include the study of Buddhist texts in the transition from the late Tang (9th century) to the Song dynasty (10th-13th centuries), Buddhist interactions with Neo-Confucianism and literati culture, and Chinese administrative policies towards religion.

Professor Welter began his talk by recounting how almost everything he has written about is related to people from Hangzhou, and how the idea of creating a Hangzhou Buddhist culture centre was developed in conferences and related projects hosted in the city. While much has been said about Dunhuang’s contribution to Buddhist studies, little has been discussed regarding the role of Hangzhou in the development of Buddhism. As such, Hangzhou deserves more scholarly attention.

Professor Welter continued to review the modern academic origins of Buddhist studies. He explained that although there were notions regarding Buddhism that reach the West since antiquity, they had relatively little influence. Even explorers like Marco Polo and Catholic missionaries had slight influence on Buddhism in the West. By introducing some notable authors and works such as Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia and Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series, Professor Welter pointed out that these English language books reintroduced the life of Buddha to its land of origin, India.

With all transitional moments in the history of ideas, the so-called discovery of Buddhism came with a particular world view that emanated from its European province. The term “Protestant Buddhism” was articulated to capture the form of Buddhism compatible with science and western values. Professor Welter introduced Gregory Schopen who developed and expanded the notion of “Protestant Buddhism.” In his article, “Archaeology and Protestant Presupposition in the study of Indian Buddhism,” Schopen traced how our characterization of the history of Indian Buddhism was conditioned by and, thus, reflected Protestant history and values rather than Indian Buddhist history and values. Professor Welter also introduced David L. Snellgrove’s critique and response to a famous nineteenth-century German Indologist, Hermann Oldenberg, who produced a widely read work Buddhism, the Buddha, His Life, His Doctrine is order (published in German edition in 1881 and English translation in 1882). Professor Welter then tied the relationships between Buddhism and Christianity, indicating how the quest for the authentic teachings of the historical Buddha was framed against the background of the Protestant quest for the historical Jesus. The “true” Christianity of Protestantism became the model for the “true” Buddhism of Śākyamuni.

Professor Welter then moved on to the spread of Buddhism. He regarded the transmission of Buddhism across Asia, which was finished by the eighth century, as part one. After that, East Asian Buddhism came into its own. He stressed that what comes after is actually more important to the story of East Asian Buddhism. The Song dynasty signaled the end of Indian influence and the beginning of indigenous forms of East Asian Buddhism.

Professor Welter then shifted his focus to Hangzhou, the capital of the Wu Yue kingdom (907-978). He argued that Hangzhou represented a region that not only initiated important developments for Chinese Buddhism, but also formed a triangular network with Japan and Korea to create the nexus of East Asian Buddhism. Hangzhou was a peaceful and prosperous place that fostered a cultural revival and attracted Buddhists from the rest of China and throughout East Asia.

Albert Welt 1

Photo courtesy of Jing Le

Professor Welter also explained the four different parts of the Wu Yue foundations of Song dynasty in Chinese and East Asian Buddhism: he regarded Wuyue monarchs as cakracartin (real turning dharma kings) and discussed three figures and their texts, including Yongming Yanshou 永明延壽 and the Zongjing lu (宗鏡錄 Records of the Source Mirror), Daoyuan 道原 and the Jingde Chuandeng lu (景德傳燈錄 The Jingde Record of the Transmission of the Lamp),Zanning 贊寧 and the Da Song Sengshilue (大宋僧史略  Topical Compendium of the Buddhist Clergy in Song Dynasty). Professor Welter further suggested that these three texts reformulated the three pillars of classical Buddhist teaching: Prajñā as wisdom in Yongming Yanshou’s teaching in the Zongjing luSamādhi as meditation in Daoyuan’s Jingde Chuandeng lu; and Śila as vinaya or sangha administration in Zanning’s Da Song Sengshilue. Together, they functioned as supplemental pillars in a reconstructed model of East Asian Buddhism. Afterwards, Professor Welter detailed the strong connection between Buddhism and the state in the Yue and Song dynasties. For instance, the ruler of Wu Yue wrote a preface for Yongming Yanshou’s text, emphasizing the harmony of the three teachings. It confirmed Yanshou’s position as the spiritual leader of the Wu Yue kingdom. At the Song court, Zanning was asked by the emperor to compile an introductory guide book for administering Buddhism, and Zanning used this occasion to suggest a new role for Buddhism that is integrated into the administrative structure of the imperial bureaucracy. He even suggested forming five ranks for Buddhist Junzi which let monks gain official rank through clergy selection. Daoyuan’s Jingde Chuandeng Lu was the first imperial-authorized Chan text admitted into Buddhist canon. In addition, the following Denglu text, the Tiansheng Guangdeng lu (天聖廣燈錄 Tiansheng-era Records of the Extensive Transmission), furthered the idea of a special transmission outside the teaching that the Jingde Chuandeng Lu pioneered.

Professor Welter then shifted focus to the two transmissions of Buddhist teaching to Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa, one representing the textual transmission and the other representing secret mind-to-mind transmission. The latter one was considered superior according to Chan Buddhism, which supposedly encapsulated the essence of enlightenment, usurping the Indian textual tradition. It had a profound effect on the formation of an authentic Buddhist tradition in East Asian. This important transformation was effected in the Song dynasty, especially in the Hangzhou region.

Professor Welter then discussed the transmission of Chan Buddhism from China to Japan by the monk Eisai 明菴栄西 (1141-1215). Eisai was the First Patriarch of Rinzai Zen in Japan. When his plan of going to India failed, he discovered the reimagined Buddhism of the Hangzhou region. He travelled to Wan’nian si 萬年寺, a Chan center on Mt. Tiantai, visited sacred sites in the region, and received Dharma transmission from Xu’an Huaichang 虛庵懷敞 (c.1125-1195) at Jingde si 景德寺. In other words, the Hangzhou region had created a new Buddhist homeland that inspired Eisai. Professor Welter pointed out the importance of Hangzhou region as the new centre of East Asian Buddhism. There were countless examples of Japanese monks who came after Eisai and commuted back and forth between China and Japan. For example, Myōzen 明全 (1184-1225) and Dōgen 道元 (1200-1253) received transmission from Rujing 如淨 (1163-1228) of Tiantong si 天童寺. Enni Ben’en 圓爾辨圓 (1202-1280), who founded Tōfuku ji 東福寺, received transmission from Wuzhun Shifan 無準師範 (1179-1249) of Jingshan si 徑山寺.


Professor Welter concluded his talk by discussing the narrative discourses and battles over ideas. He emphasized the need to create a new narrative which articulates the agency of East Asian Buddhism as intrinsic and dynamic onto itself, and not as subsidiary to the nineteenth-century master narrative that emphasizes Indian Buddhism. Moreover, to resist the temptation to view archaeological and non-canonical sources as “original truth,” it is important to recognize that they may subvert canonical and received narratives and are therefore useful correctives, but archaeological and non-canonical sources are also products of their own narrative. The people who created the archaeological evidence or the non-canonical sources were also operating within a narrative framework.

Albert Welt 2

Photo courtesy of Jing Le

[report originally posted on CJBS News Blog May 20, 2019. To see the original post, please click here.]