Buddhist Narrative Literature

Buddhist Narrative Literature


We are pleased to announce the open access release of Buddhist Narrative Literature, edited by Prof. Ru Zhan and Prof. Jinhua Chen, published by MDPI.


Book details:
Ru Zhang and Jinhua Chen, eds. Buddhist Narrative Literature. MDPI, forthcoming 2024. (This book is a reprint of the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature that was published in Religions).

Download special issue flyer

About the special issue:

Any oral and written text can be considered literature in the broadest sense of the word; and Buddhist texts are no exception. The literary quality of Buddhist texts is intimately integrated with Buddhist moral and religious teaching, and it ultimately serves soteriological goals. And the literary quality varies with genre: Pali Theravāda texts are simple and pure in style, whereas Mahāyāna texts are often magnificent and sumptuous. Among the most stylistically unique genres are jātaka and apadāna stories, the Buddha’s biographies, hagiographies, and various secular forms of literature influenced by Buddhism, including poetry, novels, theatres, admonitory tracks (quanshi wen 勸世文), folk songs, popular sermons (sujiang 俗講), and song-tales (baojuan 寶卷). Each of these genres possesses a unique charm in its narrative style. And if we further consider the narrative techniques, and literary tropes and styles employed by Buddhists in India, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Mongolia, and Tibet, then Buddhist literature would reveal an even more astonishing degree of stylistic diversity.

Buddhist influences in East and South Asian literature are first and foremost observable in the many Buddhist themes, motifs, and personalities that occupy the secular stories, while Buddhist philosophy also became seamlessly integrated with all kinds of literary genres. In terms of narrative style, Buddhism is at its most innovative in its interaction with the general population. Ever since it spread to China, Buddhism had already adopted many popular forms of communications, including sūtra-copying, singsong sermons (changdao 唱導), popular sermons, and transformation tableaus (bianwen 變文). These popular channels were being adopted by monks who wandered and preached in the countryside, or during feasts and dharma-assemblies, thus greatly facilitating Buddhism’s spread in China.

The Buddhist doctrine of ‘emptiness’ instilled in East Asian literati a penchant to view life as ephemeral and impermanent; and had been silently transforming East Asian aesthetics since medieval times. For instance, the Mādhyamika view on the mind-matter relationship, as well as the Chan/Zen view on nature which was influenced by the Mādhyamika philosophy, instigated the uniquely Chinese notion of jingjie 境界 (‘realm’). And the Buddhist emphasis on spiritual attainments also enriched the literary and aesthetic concept of shen 神 (lit. ‘spirit’; ‘mysterious,’ ‘unthinkable’) that had been developing since the Six Dynasties (222-589), while the idea of ‘sudden enlightenment’ and ‘inspiration’ espoused by the Chan tradition propelled the Chinese aesthetic emphasis on jingjie, and enticed many literati to pursue mystical experiences that are of a ‘taste beyond taste’ 味外味.

This special issue has as its goal the study of Buddhist narrative literature in the broad context of South and East Asian Buddhist traditions, and seeks to facilitate a thorough discussion on the following non-exhaustive issues:

  • Traditions of Buddhist narrative literature;
  • Narrative Literature and historiography in medieval East Asian society;
  • Comparative study on the narrative literature traditions;
  • Study on specific genres of narrative literature: poetry, (auto-)biography, hagiography, novel, and theatre, etc;
  • Buddhist narrative literature and Buddhist epistemology, historiography, politics, economics, arts, aesthetics, soteriology, or praxis.


About the special issue guest editors:

Zhan Ru is a professor in Peking University’s School of Foreign Languages. Additionally, he is Vice President of the Buddhist Association of China, and Vice President of the Peking University Orientalism Research Institute, Director of the Kuaijishan Institute for the Advanced Study of Buddhism, and the Director of the Central Steering Committee for the Glorisun Global Network for Buddhist Studies. His areas of research include: Buddhist and Buddhist literature, the Indian Ministry of Buddhism, Dunhuang Buddhism, Buddhist system. His Latest book, Encounter between Indian and Chinese Civilizations: Ximing Monastery of Tang Chang’an and the Silk Roads 西明東夏: 唐代長安西明寺與絲綢之路, has been newly selected as one of the “Top Ten Best Books” of 2023, by the esteemed Zhonghua Publishing House (Zhonghua shuju 中華書局).


Jinhua Chen is Professor of East Asian intellectual history (particularly religions) at the University of British Columbia, where he also served as the Canada Research Chair in East Asian Buddhism (2001-2011). He additionally held short-term teaching positions at other universities including the University of Virginia (2000-2001), the University of Tokyo (2003-04), and Stanford University (2012). He is a Royal Society of Canada (RSC) Fellow (2020) and recipient of multiple research grants and fellowships from different sources including Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program, Killam Foundation, Peter Wall Institute for the Advanced Studies, Society for the Promotion of Buddhism (Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai [BDK]), Japan Society for the Promotion of Social Sciences (JSPS), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Plank Institute, the Academy of Korean Studies, and the National Humanities Center (USA). He has engaged in research projects related to East Asian state-church relationships, monastic (hagio/)biographical literature, Buddhist sacred sites, relic veneration, Buddhism and technological innovation in medieval China, and Buddhist translations. In addition to publishing five monographs, including (1). Making and Remaking History (Tokyo, 1999), (2). Monks and Monarchs, Kinship and Kingship (Kyoto, 2002), (3). Philosopher, Practitioner, Politician: The Many Lives of Fazang [643-712] (Leiden, 2007), 4. Legend and Legitimation: The Formation of Tendai Esoteric Buddhism (Brussels, 2009), and (5). Crossfire: Shingon-Tendai strife as seen in two twelfth-century polemics (Tokyo, 2010), he has also co-edited five books. He is also the author of over fifty book chapters and journal articles, with major academic journals such as Asia Major,  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African StudiesHarvard Journal of Asiatic Studies,  History of Religions,  Journal AsiatiqueJournal of Asian HistoryJournal of Chinese ReligionsJournal of the American Oriental SocietyJournal of the International Association of Buddhist StudiesJournal of the Royal Asiatic Society, and T’oung P’ao: Revue internationale de sinologie. Several of his forthcoming books include one on medieval Chinese monastic warfare, another on Buddhism and Daoism’s politico-economical roles in early eighth century, and finally an annotated English translation (with an extended Introduction) of the complete works of the 9-10th century Korean literary luminary Choe Chiwon 崔致遠.