The Making of Buddhism as a World Religion


A review of Acculturation as Seen Through Buddha’s Birthday Parades in Northern Wei Luoyang: A Micro Perspective on the Making of Buddhism as a World Religion, by Poh Yee Wong (Dharma name: Shi Jue Wei 釋覺瑋).

In her dissertation, Poh Yee Wong (Dharma name: Shi Jue Wei 釋覺瑋) presents a study of the large-scale processions attending celebration of the Buddha’s birthday in Northern Wei China (386-535 CE) as an avenue for considering broader issues concerning the creation of Chinese Buddhism as a particular regional variety of the pan-Asian tradition. Methodologically inspired by the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination, according to which all phenomena are linked through a vast web of causality and mutual conditioning, the author assumes a transdisciplinary approach, drawing evidence from textual, epigraphic, and archeological materials. This inspiration is also reflected in her conviction that consideration of the establishment of Buddhism in China should not be approached reductively, essentializing this complex process by focusing on a single source-type or contributory factor. Long constructed in terms of “encounter” or “conquest”, Ven. Jue Wei’s dissertation moves away from unidirectional models describing the emergence of Chinese Buddhism. Rather than presenting the creation of Chinese Buddhism as either a transformation of Chinese culture by Buddhism or the mutation of Buddhism according to Sinitic cultural norms, Ven. Jue Wei argues for a more complex, bi-directional model of mutual exchange and transformation. With this theoretical model, the author argues that the relatively understudied Northern Wei dynasty was instrumental in the establishment and dissemination of many elements considered to be hallmarks of Sinitic Buddhism: the establishment of the Buddha’s birthday on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, models of Sinitic Buddhist imperial authority, and Sinitic conceptions of Buddhist merit, to name a few.

Laying out her methodological and theoretical frameworks in the introductory first chapter, chapter two addresses the observance of festivals as a paradigm common in both traditional Sinitic culture and among the Xianbei peoples who established the Northern Wei kingdom. As such, the author approaches festival performances as an event mediating the dynamic interactions of pre-Buddhist Sinitic culture, Xianbei traditions, and the emerging Buddhist movement in East Asia. This chapter provides a detailed breakdown of both indigenous Chinese ritual observation and those of the imported Buddhist tradition while arguing that the processions and festivals staged by the Northern Wei functioned to communicate and enforce the legitimacy of Xianbei rule through hybridized festivals displaying Imperial might and largess according to prevailing cultural forms.

Drawing heavily from Yang Xuanzhi’s Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang [洛陽伽藍記, T. 51.2092], chapter three moves from considering processions and festivals as a general practice to a study of the parades staged in commemoration of the Buddha’s birthday. Demonstrating that the performance of processions was a long-established practice in China, the author maintains that the incorporation of images such as in the birthday processions staged by the Northern Wei was derived from foreign sources. Accordingly, the Ven. Jue Wei argues that the performance of the Buddha’s birthday parade was indicative of the Northern Wei sinification program, not simply as a unidirectional assimilation of or to Han Chinese culture, but rather a blending of both indigenous and foreign elements to produce a new form of display.

The third and fourth chapters turn to the practical rationale and function of the large-scale processions staged by the Northern Wei. Chapter three addresses the political function of these processions while chapter four concerns the popular, religious dimension. Providing a study of the multiple articulations of imperial legitimacy that had developed in China by the Northern Wei – theories proposed by writers in the Mohist, Legalist, Daoist, and Buddhist traditions – the narrative of the Buddha’s birth was appealing to the non-Han Northern Wei rulers, the author argues, because it provided a model of political authority resting on meritorious deeds rather than lineal descent from the Yellow Emperor. But again the author resists a unidirectional model of assimilation, arguing instead that through the merging of a traditional Sinitic model of imperial authority – that of the sage-king (shengwang 聖王) – with a Buddhist import – the image of the wheel-turning monarch administering his empire with the help of a trusted Buddhist advisor based on the Aśoka legend – non-Han rulers created a hybridized model in which both roles were combined in the person of the ruling monarch. This model, which was effectively inherited from other non-Han rulers in the period of disunity, was expanded on a massive scale by Northern Wei kings. This expansion is indicated by the massive expansion of the Yungang 雲崗 and Longmen 龍門 grottoes, depicting the emperor in the guise of a bodhisattva, and in the staging of enormous Buddha’s Birthday processions. Accordingly, the author argues that the radically expanded scale of the Buddha’s birthday procession served to legitimize Northern Wei rule in accordance with a hybridized Sinitic Buddhist model of imperial authority.

Speaking to the popular, religious dimension, in the fifth chapter the author makes use of the recently developed BlueDots project to analyze the frequency of terms appearing in the Korean Buddhist canon in order to track the development of translation terminology and the dissemination of ideas concerning the generation of merit. Based on this analysis in conjunction with a study of classical Sinitic ritual observations, the author argues that rather than a reciprocal relation with divine powers as was observed in classical Sinitic worship of the Lord on High (Shangdi 上帝) or of Heaven (Tian 天) or, alternately, an Indic model of the impersonal operation of karma as determinative of one’s good or bad fortune, there developed in China a model according to which the vast stores of merit created by Buddhas and bodhisattvas could be acquired by devotees principally through encounter with a Buddha or bodhisattva image. Through the staging of large-scale processions in which such images were transported through the imperial capital, Northern Wei rulers effectively combined pre-Buddhist models of fude and gongde, the good fortune acquired through observation of ritual propriety and the boons and emoluments distributed by the ruler to worthy subject respectively, with the Sinitic Buddhist connotations of these terms as translations of punya, “merits” or “blessings.”

By moving away from uni-directional models of assimilation, Ven. Jue Wei’s work presents a new paradigm for understanding the development of Chinese Buddhism as a complex, multifaceted, and multidirectional event. Her focus on the Northern Wei and her close attention to historical detail and multiple sources of data presents a much more nuanced picture of non-Han Buddhist rule during the Northern and Southern Dynasties than the established image of unsophisticated foreign rulers interested primarily in the magical charisma of Buddhism and Buddhist practitioners. Rather, the picture that emerges from Ven. Jue Wei’s work is one of complex and sophisticated appropriations, assimilations, and adaptations within a web of competing interests, pressures, influences and sources.

Geoffrey Goble
Department of Religious Studies
DePauw University

Primary Sources

Taisho Canon [CBETA digitized version]
Chang, Jianhua 常建华. Chinese Festivals 歲時節日裡的中國. Gu Dai She Hui Sheng Huo Tu Ji. 古代社会生活圖記. Beijing 北京市: Zhonghua shu ju 中華書局, 2006.
Chapman, Ian D. “Carnival Canons: Calendars, Genealogy, and the Search for Ritual Cohesion in Medieval China.” Princeton University, 2007.
Gu, Zheng-mei. From Heavenly Kingship to Tathāgata Kingship: A Study of Medieval Chinese Buddhist Political Ideology 從天王傳統到佛王傳統 : 中國中世佛教治國意識形態研究. Taipei 台北市: Shang zhou chu ban 商周出版, 2003

Dissertation Information

University of the West. 2012. 372 pp. Primary Advisor: Darui Long.


Image: Original painting by Nancy Cowardin, with permission of the artist.