[Blog] Reflection on Dr. Stuart Young’s lecture “Constructing Indian Identity in Medieval China”

By H. S. Sum Cheuk Shing

Marking the inaugural event of the University of Toronto/McMaster University Numata Buddhist Studies Program 2015-2016, Professor Stuart Young from Bucknell University delivered the lecture entitled “Constructing Indian Identity in Medieval China” at the Department of the Study of Religion, University of Toronto on December 3, 2015. Speaking to a group of audience members that included professors, students, Ph.D candidates, a postdoctoral fellow and the general public, Young spoke engagingly about how Chinese Buddhists in the medieval era imagined and constructed Indian identity through three Indian Buddhist patriarchs, namely Aśvaghoșa (Maming 馬鳴), Nāgārjuna (Longshu 龍樹), and Āryadeva (Tipo 提婆).

Using three case studies, (1) Kumārajīva’s (344-413 or 350-409) Chinese associates, (2) the fifth- or sixth- century Dharma-Treasury Transmission (Fu fazing yinyuan zhuan 付法藏因緣傳) and the sixth-century Cave of Great Perduring Saints (Dazhusheng ku 大住聖窟), and (3) Aśvaghoșa as the Chinese silkworm god, Young presented the intriguing soteriological and socio-political concerns of Chinese Buddhists as they sought to reshape ancient Indian models of religious history and sainthood to suit local norms and needs. First turning to the works of Kumārajīva’s Chinese associates such as Sengrui 僧睿 (ca. 352-436), Sengzhao 僧肇 (ca. 374-414) and Huiyuan 慧遠 (ca. 334-416), Young posited that these monks faced the same question as the aforementioned “post-parinirvāṇa” (post Shakyamuni Buddha’s death) patriarchs, specifically “How does one be Buddhist in an era of Dharma decline so long after the Buddha’s death?” In response, these Chinese monks depicted Aśvaghoșa, Nāgārjuna, and Āryadeva in a similar vein as elite scholar-monks in early medieval China, who aimed to revive the teachings of Buddha in “dark times” after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha and near the end of True Dharma.

In his next case study, Young introduced Dharma-Treasury Transmission and the visually striking images of sculptures and carvings from the Cave of Great Perduring Saints. With respect to the former, Young argued that Chinese writers were attempting to issue a cautionary tale in the form of a transmission line of twenty-three generations being severed by imperial persecution through the execution of the monk Siṃha (Shizi 獅子) by an anti-Buddhist king in Kashmir. As for the latter, Young demonstrated the benefits of studying non-textual sources and sparked a lively discussion as he scrutinised the visual details of the cave at Lingquan monastery 靈泉寺 near the modern city of Anyang 安陽 (Henan province), and revealed that this site contains the first known iconographic representation of the Indian Buddhist patriarchate in China and also possibly the earliest existing citation from the Dharma-Treasury Transmission.

Professor Young responding to a question from Professor Frances Garrett about carvings in the Cave of Great Perduring Saints.

Finally, Young examined Aśvaghoșa as the Chinese silkworm god and traced the links between this figure, horses (both his Sanskrit and Chinese name mean “Horse-Cry”) and silkworms in the medieval Chinese context. He analysed sources such as Gan Bao’s 干寶 fourth-century Record of the Search for the Supernatural (Soushenji 搜神記) and the Chan Buddhist hagiographical early ninth-century Tradition of the Baolin Temple (Baolin zhuan 寶林傳) to identify the textual origins of Aśvaghoșa’s place in Chinese sericulture and Buddhism. A dynamic question and answer session brought the day’s proceedings to an end and only further accentuated Young’s stimulating and thoroughly accessible research.

Professor Amanda Goodman elucidating the significance of Professor Young’s research in the context of medieval Chinese Buddhism.

Professor Young’s recent publications:

Young, Stuart. 2013. “For a Compassionate Killing: Chinese Buddhism, Sericulture, and the Silkworm God Aśvaghoṣa.” Journal of Chinese Religions 41 (1): 25–58.

———. 2015. Conceiving the Indian Buddhist Patriarchs in China. Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism series, University of Hawaii Press.

A synopsis of Professor Young’s book Conceiving the Indian Buddhist Patriarchs in China and an accompanying interview:


By H.S. Sum Cheuk Shing

Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.