Han Chinese lay Buddhists in major PRC cities can now often be seen adopting elements from Tibetan Buddhism into their practices. This trend has increased over the past two decades but has received relatively little attention in the scholarly literature. This chapter aims to address this gap by focusing on two questions: how do ordinary Han Chinese lay Buddhists in eastern cities come to adopt Tibetan Buddhist elements into their practices, and what does it look like when they do? Based on in-depth interviews and participant-observation with lay Buddhists in Nanjing, this chapter investigates common processes of encounter and adoption of Tibetan Buddhist elements. Through fine-grained profiles of three urban lay Buddhists and their activities, it also provides the first detailed illustration of what it looks like when these are incorporated into lay Buddhists’ practices and outlook. I argue that the majority of Han Chinese lay Buddhists who incorporate Tibetan Buddhism into their practice are “Accidental Esoterics.” That is, they did not intentionally seek out esoteric or Tibetan forms of Buddhism, and they adopted Tibetan Buddhism into their toolkits primarily based on availability and effectiveness, not because of a preference for Tibetan Buddhism over Chinese Buddhism. Specifically, I contend that we should understand the incorporation of Tibetan Buddhist elements into Han Chinese toolkits as (1) accidental in the majority of cases, (2) driven by availability rather than preference, (3) eclectic rather than exclusivist, and (4) surprisingly ubiquitous. This study thus suggests that previous research has missed two key points by focusing on the tiny minority of Han Chinese Buddhists who seek out Tibetan Buddhism, and by asking why people choose Tibetan Buddhism, rather than how people encounter and adopt it. First, that Tibetan Buddhist elements are found in the toolkits of a significant percentage of Han Chinese lay Buddhists in eastern cities. Second, that this trend, however large, may matter less than we suppose, as these Tibetan Buddhist elements are absorbed into people’s toolkits in a way that reduces their distinctiveness or impact on the worldviews of Han Chinese people.
This chapter examines the translation and interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist commentaries in the early twentieth century in order to explore Chinese Buddhists’ reception of Tibetan Buddhism, focusing on Nenghai’s representation of Ornament of Realization, a treatise central to the Tibetan Buddhist scholarly tradition. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Nenghai translated several commentaries and used them to interpret the Ornament. He used these Tibetan commentaries to clarify doctrinal understanding and address the tensions that he perceived within the Chinese Buddhist community. This chapter analyzes Nenghai’s interpretations, thereby examining his strategy for promoting Tibetan Buddhism to Chinese Buddhists. By comparing the Ornament with other Chinese commentary works, Nenghai argued that Tibetan commentaries would offer a new lens with which to approach the Perfection of Wisdom literature in the Chinese Buddhist canon. He also believed they would help to deepen readers’ understanding of bodhicitta and other important Mahāyāna Buddhist ideas. Nenghai presented the treatise by drawing attention to its revelation of the bodhisattva practice, arguing that it provides useful guides for any person on their spiritual journey toward ultimate enlightenment and further suggesting that Tibetan commentaries serve to illuminate a systematic scheme by which the bodhicitta could be gradually and intentionally nurtured and developed toward the ultimate attainment of full enlightenment. This chapter shows that the translation of Tibetan commentaries did more than fill a gap in the Chinese Buddhist canon. Nenghai’s representation of the standpoints of the Indo-Tibetan masters reflected his understanding of the needs of the Chinese Buddhist community. Nenghai emphasized the efficacy of the perspectives brought by the treatise to the study and understanding of Buddhist teachings. Highlighting the bodhisattva path as a gradual process of learning and cultivation, Nenghai suggested ways to integrate a variety of scriptures into one’s study in order to better guide one’s cultivation.
When it comes to the two attendants Dharmatāla and Hva shang, who were added into the Sixteenfold Arhat cycle by Tibetan practitioners, scholars have devoted much of their attention to the figures’ identities and iconographies, their sources of inspiration from China, and the historical circumstances in which they were first received by the Tibetans. However, information regarding how these two Sinitic icons ended up in the Tibetan pantheon and what religious and cultural impulses stimulated these additions remains vague. This chapter first sketches the multiple strands of religious impulse embedded within the imagery, sādhana practice, and scriptural sources of the Chinese and Tibetan Sixteen Arhats ritual traditions, respectively. It traces early visual representations of the cult in China, and its densely ritualized context in Tibet. Then, it turns to an evaluation of the two attendants added to the Tibetan roster, concluding that these Tibetan recruitments represent an appropriation of pre-existinent Sinitic iconic identities for ritual ends—a conclusion that presents profound implications for further research on possible Sinitic influences on Tibetan Buddhist ritual practice enacted through the medium of the Hexi religious landscape.
Nenghai 能海 (1886–1967) was both a renowned Chinese Gelugpa tantric master and a vinaya expert, who advocated the “simultaneous practice of vinaya and tantra” (lümi jian xiu 律密兼修). He conceived the relationship between vinaya and tantra within an “exoteric and esoteric combined practice” (xianmi shuangxiu 顯密雙修), an approach drawn from the Gelugpa model. However, Nenghai integrated it with a reconnection to the Chinese vinaya lineage and with a modernist approach to vinaya and Buddhism. In so doing, he also advanced the fascinating idea that tantra and vinaya share the very same esoteric nature. Nenghai’s choice of the vinaya lineage of the Dharmaguptaka and the striking predominance of Chinese Buddhist monastic conventions placed his communities at the heart of the Chinese monastic tradition. Moreover, his textual-oriented approach to vinaya, and his interest in the Āgamas—two genres that he regarded as remnants of an alleged “original” and “primordial” Buddhism—reveal a modernist perspective, which had already made its way into South Asia, South-East Asia, Japan, and China but not so much into Tibet. In a nutshell, in acknowledging that Nenghai’s system of combining vinaya and tantra is based on the Gelugpa system—which promotes the practice of tantric Buddhism together with monasticism—this study highlights the peculiarities of Nenghai’s vision when compared with the standard Gelugpa practice, a vision which reflects a Chinese Buddhist identity as well as a modernist approach to vinaya.
This chapter studies Qing imperial formation and Tibet’s integration into the Qing empire in the late eighteenth century by investigating the multilingual stone steles at Lhasa. These stone steles were mostly erected by Qing officials, generals, and emperors. Most of them recorded official edicts regarding issues of epidemic, war, and reform in the late eighteenth century. This chapter first analyzes and compares the semiotic translation and mistranslation between the steles’ Chinese and Tibetan inscriptions, applying the concept of “super-sign,” which refers to a hetero-cultural signifying chain that crisscrosses the semiotic fields of two or more languages simultaneously—such as “manmo 蠻貊/lho bal (barbarian)” in the Smallpox Stele and “Wenshu huangdi 文殊皇帝/’jam dpal byangs gong ma bdag po chen po (Mañjuśrī-emperor)” in the Kundeling Stele. Through an analysis of these super-signs, this chapter endeavors to show how a new world order and new form of emperorship gradually emerged alongside political, military, and religious processes. It then extends the semiotic analysis to an analysis of the materiality of the stone steles and the local practices surrounding them, such as the deformation of the stone steles into powders and ashes as medicine and the transformation of the powerful Mañjuśrī-emperor into a powerless husband in local gossip, and thereby unpacking the process by which the concept of imperial sovereignty from afar and above was taken onto or inside local bodies and minds. In studying these stone steles as signs in various forms, this chapter illustrates how a sense of imperial integrity and cultural multiplicity was developed through the nuanced linguistic mistranslation, ambiguous ideological superscription, insinuative material deformation, and negotiated interpretation of super-signs.
Cultural exchanges between the Chinese and Tibetans stemmed from a time when Tibetan civilization was still in a very primitive stage. To learn from Chinese and absorb Chinese cultural elements was one of the most important driving forces behind the rapid development of Tibet, both as a nation and as a cultural entity. For a time, Chinese Chan Buddhism was very popular among Tibetan Buddhists. However, it eventually provoked serious philosophical questioning on the various paths towards enlightenment and intense intellectual confrontation between different Buddhist traditions, and it led ultimately to the famed bSam yas debate between the Chinese Chan Master Hva shang Mahāyāna and the Indian Madhymakanist Kamalaśīla. A close scrutiny of contemporary Chinese and Tibetan sources reveals that the bSam yas debate was actually a series of internal and rational dialogues and arguments between two major Buddhist traditions. Judged even by today’s standards, it can be considered a sophisticated intercultural dialogue between Chinese and Indian Buddhists. Unfortunately, the bSam yas debate evolved into a life-or-death struggle in late Tibetan historical and religious literature, in which it was claimed that justice vanquished evil and orthodoxy excluded heterodoxy. Hva shang Mahāyāna and the Chinese Buddhist tradition was continuously demonized as a synonym for all heretical beliefs and often used as a tool of vicious attacks among different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This study aims at further clarifying the real face of the Chinese Chan doctrine propagated by Hva shang Mahāyāna in Tibet, analyzing Tibetans’ understandings and misunderstandings of Hva shang Mahāyāna’s teaching and exploring why and how Hva shang Mahāyāna and his teaching became demonized in Tibetan literature through the scrutinizing of numerous accounts of Hva shang Mahāyāna’s life and teaching in Tibetan historical and religious texts. This chapter concludes that the long-established tradition of Hva shang Mahāyāna and his teachings in Tibetan literature was artificially invented and manipulated.
Tantrism (Ch. Mijiao 密教) is regarded by some as the alien element of magic, ritual, and worship that corrupted Buddhism in India. It is regarded by others as a highly sophisticated vehicle named Vajrayāna. Both views came into play as Tantrism became the focus of Chinese scholars during the Republican period (1912–1949), during which time such famous figures as Taixu 太虛 took a special interest in the tantric traditions of contemporary Tibet and Japan. However, the forms of Tantrism that once flourished in ancient India and China, and to which those of Tibet and Japan can be traced, also came under scrutiny. Prior to the First World War, Chinese scholars had not been drawn into the binary that viewed Tantrism in China, Japan, and Tibet as either an aberration of original Buddhism or as a separate and supreme vehicle that is its culmination. Between the world wars, however, and in the wake of what Holmes Welch has called the revival of Tantrism in China, the problem of Tibet’s Buddhism as a form of Tantrism, and of its historical relationship to the Tantrism of China and Japan, presented a dilemma to Chinese scholars. To understand what was at stake in this dilemma, this essay offers a genealogy of the term Xizang fojiao 西藏佛教, which is translated as “Tibetan Buddhism” in English. In so doing, it explores two elements that proved central to the study of Buddhism in China between the 1840s and the 1940s: (1) the changing names of Tibetan Buddhism, and (2) the changing meaning of Tantrism in relation to Tibetan Buddhism.
The co-founders of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), were among the very first Westerners to officially declare themselves Buddhists (1880) and to play a major role in the world-wide propagation of this religion. Blavatsky asserted having been instructed for a total of seven years in Tibet by the “Mahatmas” Koot Hoomi and Morya. Blavatsky and her Society based their claim to authority on her continuing contact with these instructors, whose missives from Tibet (“The Mahatma Letters”) reached her by occult means. Critics of Blavatsky claim that she never set foot in Tibet and wrote the Mahatma Letters herself, but her supporters reject graphological analyses to this effect and maintain that Madame had studied secret Tibetan sources, most importantly the “Book of Dzyan,” which forms the basis of her main work, The Secret Doctrine (1888). To clarify Madame Blavatsky’s connection with Tibet, this chapter takes a novel approach. It closely examines claims to Tibetan authority in two manuscripts from Madame’s hand that were found in her desk after her death. They contain information purportedly furnished by Tibetans, most importantly by the “Chohan-Lama of Rinch-cha-tze (Tibet), the Chief of the Archive-registrars of the secret Libraries of the Dalaï and Ta-shü-hlumpo-Lamas-Rimpoche” who is said to be both a member of the Theosophical Society and “a ‘Pan-chhen,’ or great teacher, one of the most learned theologians of Northern Buddhism and esoteric Lamaism.” The chapter traces the Tibetan expressions that appear in these texts (purportedly furnished by Madame’s Tibetan informants) to a hitherto unknown source, namely, the mimeographed Romanized Tibetan and English Dictionary (1866) by the Moravian missionary and Tibetologist Heinrich August Jäschke (1817–1883). This dictionary contains not only almost all of the “Tibetan” informants’ terms but also some of their explanations. In addition, it is shown to be the source for the hitherto mysterious name “Koot Hoomi.” Furthermore, close analysis proves that much of the rest of the information furnished by Blavatsky’s “Tibetan” informants stems not from Tibetan teachers or secret Tibetan Tantric manuscripts but rather from Western sources published in languages familiar to Madame.
This chapter investigates the architecture, icons, and activities of two Buddhist monasteries of the Old City of Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China: the (Tibeto-)Mongol Yeke juu (Ch. Dazhao[si]) and the Chinese Buddhist Guanyinsi. In it, I present a global view of the Buddhist revival of the Mongol monasteries of Hohhot since the 1980s, with a focus on the material culture—architecture, cult objects, and “decoration”—of the sites. These monasteries survived in the 1980s and 1990s with many difficulties, and since the 2000s, while the old city was being destroyed, have benefited from an economic boom, the rise of ancient and new forms of religiosities, and the rapid development of tourism. Yet, under the constraints of bureaucratic control, monasteries have limited autonomy and face many difficulties such as isolation from the rest of the Buddhist world, especially that of Tibet and Mongolia, adaptation to modern life and the market economy, and folklorization. The main challenge, however, is sinicization: though monk communities are still ethnically divided, this is no longer the case of lay devotees, the majority of whom are Han Chinese. Considering the fact that the majority of their donors are Han Chinese, how does this affect the physical appearance of these monasteries? My aim is to analyze the competition between these two monasteries, the religious interactions, influences, and exchanges between Mongol and Chinese Buddhisms in Hohhot (including syncretic tendencies within the monasteries) and the impact that they have had on the city: to wit, how does the city change religion(s) and religion(s) in turn change the city?