A Reflection on McMaster’s Religious Studies Department’s First Yehan Numata Reading Group with Dr. Stuart Young

On Friday, December 4th 2015, McMaster University’s Religious Studies department was pleased to commence our 2015-2016 Numata Buddhist Studies Program. Dr. Stuart Young from Bucknell University (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania) joined the department for our first reading group of the school year. Dr. Young introduced his latest project “Bald-headed Destroyers of Living Things: Vinaya Jurisprudence, Mahayana Compassion, and Lay-Monastic Distinctions in Medieval China” to a very enthusiastic group.

Dr. Young’s project focuses on ethical issues (particularly that of killing silkworms), with respect to silk production among Buddhists in medieval China. Among his sources are sūtras, vinaya texts, Chinese myths and legends, Chinese classics, Confucian texts, hagiographies and vinaya commentaries. Our discussion group discovered the varying perspectives among monks and lay practitioners regarding silk production.

Before Buddhism’s arrival in China, sericulture was praised and silk represented prosperity. Unlike Chinese sources, Buddhist texts arriving in China from India did not exalt silk production. While some Indian Buddhist texts emphasized the suffering involved in sericulture, others highlighted the ways in which silkworms represented human self-delusion and continuity in saṃsāra. The vinaya texts and commentaries Dr. Young discusses in his study offer a variety of perspectives on monastic silk production and use. These texts, along with their commentaries, tend to share a concern with public perception of the monastic communities. In some cases, it was considered inappropriate for monks to participate in or benefit from the harming of living creatures.  In other cases, the vinaya commentaries and sub-commentaries express concerns over the laity’s perception of monks using such a luxurious material. The relationship between Buddhist monastics, lay Buddhists and the sericulture industry was therefore quite complex. Dr. Young’s intriguing and thorough study provided our reading group with an appreciation for this complexity, as well as an opportunity for engaging and productive discussion.

Several graduate students and faculty members attended the reading group with questions and suggestions in hand.  Enthusiastic, fruitful dialogue ensued for the duration of our meeting. We were most grateful to have Dr. Young as a guest in our department.

Our 2015-2016 Numata Buddhist Studies Program will resume on Friday February 12th, 2016. Dr. Costantino Moretti from the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne) will present a lecture entitled “Preventive Morality and ‘Last Resort’ Buddhist Devotion in Chinese Medieval Apocrypha.” All are welcome!

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