[Blog] Reflection on Professor James Robson’s Talk “Buddhism and Daoism in Medieval China”

By Shuyue He and Jingjing Li

On March 15, 2018, McGill University’s “Buddha and the Other” lunch lecture series continued with a talk “Buddhism and Daoism in Medieval China” delivered by Professor James Robson from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Throughout the presentation, Prof. Robson inquired into the relationship between Buddhism and Daoism, further proposing an alternative to perceive the interplay of these two religious traditions in China. Students and faculty members from McGill’s East Asian Studies, History, Philosophy, and Religious studies attended the talk.

Prof. Robson began with a review of the recent scholarship on the same subject matter. Most scholars tended to interpret the interaction between Buddhism and Daoism through the syncretic model. Securitizing this model, Prof. Robson revealed the underlying assumption of syncretism; that is, each religious tradition in China persisted as an entity in-it-self and as a sui generis pure category, only to be fused together later in Chinese history. In his reflection upon this presumption, Prof. Robson pinpointed how such categorical purity was nothing but a scholarly invention. As an alternative, the pluralist model was put forward by Prof. Robson. By nature, this model was not defensive, namely, not to defend the interconnectedness of the two religions, but rather served as an approach to specific religious landscape in China.

As per Prof. Robson, this pluralistic view of Chinese religiosity could be illustrated by several images in Buddhist art. For instance, a sixth-century stele with carved images of Laozi and Shakyamuni Buddha back to back was unearthed in Sichuan. Besides, at the bottom of many excavated money trees, one could find images similar to the Buddha. According to Prof. Robson, these visual representations, especially the stele of Laozi and Buddha, as side to side and back to back, perfectly encapsulated the complementarity and tensions between Buddhism and Daoism.

As an approach, the pluralist model could advance one’s understanding of at least three types of phenomena. First, drawing on his previous research on Mout Hengshang (衡山), widely known as the Southern Sacred Peak (nanyue 南嶽), [1]  Prof. Robson explored the way in which one could deepen the comprehension of the mutual constitution between Buddhism and Daoism. Recognized as an ideal place for religious practice, Mout Hengshang attracted both Buddhist and Daoist clergy. The Record of the collected highlights of Nanyue (南嶽總勝集), for instance, preserved stories about the Master Huisi (515-577), the third patriarch of Tiantai Buddhism, who employed Daoist longevity techniques to attain immortality. Aside from the complementarity, there existed tensions as well, between Buddhists and Daoists, which can be inferred from the story of the flying stone. As related in this story, several monks were penalized for not revering the Daoist deity.

Prof. Robson talking about the story of the flying stone (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)
Prof. Robson talking about the story of the flying stone (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

This dynamic relationship between Buddhism and Daoism subtly influenced the distribution of Buddhist and Daoist temples in pre-modern Nanyue. A map in Li Yuandu’s 李元度 (1821-87) Nanyue zhi 南嶽志 (Gazetteer of Nanyue) published in 1883 showed that while Daoist and Buddhist temples occupied the northern and southern side of the mountain respectively. As such the pluralist model enabled one to enrich the knowledge of the eclectic religious landscape of this sacred mountain in medieval China.

Prof. Robson talking about talismanic writing (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)
Prof. Robson talking about talismanic writing (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

The second phenomenon that could be approached through the pluralist model is talismanic writing, which has been presented in a wide range of Buddhist and Daoist writings. For a long time, scholars tended to attribute talismanic writings appeared in Buddhist texts to Daoist influence, insofar as Daoists were considered as the first to compose talisman as the characters written by Daoist deities. [2]  Nonetheless, Prof. Robson cast doubt on this interpretation. As a matter of fact, talisman in Buddhist texts predated those in Daoism. Through the pluralist model, Prof. Robson proposed to view talismanic writing as a ritual stemming from local religious practices, subsequently being refined by Buddhist and Daoist clergy.

Towards the end of his talk, Prof. Robson brought to the forefront the last phenomenon which can be approached by the pluralist model; that is, the translation of Buddhist texts. He focused his attention to the Forty-Two Chapter Sutra, the scripture which was identified as the first sutra available in the Chinese language. Currently, this sutra was preserved in both the Buddhist canon and the Daoist one. Many scholars proclaimed that this sutra was a Chinese fabrication, since the original Sanskrit version of the text was yet to be found. Nevertheless, Prof. Robson intended to approach this text differently. It was not hard to discern Confucian and Daoist ideas in the Chinese versions of the sutra. After comparing several difference translations, Prof. Robson highlighted how the version in the Daoist canon referred to the Buddha’s first five followers as the followers of the great Dao. As such, the pluralist model facilitated one’s comprehension of how in premodern China, the mixture of Buddhism and Daoism was a commonplace of people’s daily life.

In conclusion, Prof. Robson related back to the stele of Laozi and Buddha back to back, which, according to him, perfectly epitomized the correlation between Buddhiam and Daoism. Prof. Robson’s talk will be succeeded by a talk on “Buddhism and Compasion” by Ms. Julia Stenzel from the School of Religious Studies at McGill University.

[1] James Robson, Power of place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak (Nanyue) in Medieval China (Cambridge: Harvard, 2009).

[2] James Robson, “Signs of Power: Talismanic Writing in Chinese Buddhism,” History of Religions, 48 (2008): 132-4.


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