Samgha-State Relations in Tenth-Century China

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A review of Buddhist Empires: Saṃgha-State Relations in Tenth-Century China, by BENJAMIN BROSE

Benjamin Brose’s dissertation is path-breaking in producing a history of Buddhism during the pivotal tenth century. Brose’s temporal focus is based on the premise that understanding the profound changes affecting China across the Tang-Song transition requires a better grasp of the interregnum between the two dynasties in question. His prosopographic approach (using collections of biographies of monks) allows him to place developments in Buddhism in a particular sociocultural context. As such, his work is important both to historians of religion and to social historians of Middle Period China.

The dissertation is divided into two sections. The first (“Migrations”) describes the rise of two particularly influential Chan lineages that “nearly monopolized the religious resources of southeastern China” (p.88). Eighty heirs of just two monks, Xuefeng Yicun 雪峰義存 (822-908) and Xuansha Shibei 玄沙師備 (935-908), secured the patronage of the rulers of several southern kingdoms. The lineages first emerged in the Min kingdom, site of modern-day Fujian (Chapter Two). After the demise of the Min state in 946, later generations of monks from these two lineages relocated to the Southern Tang (Chapter Three) and Wuyue (Chapter Four) capital cities, where they became enormously influential over religious life at the regional courts.

The second section of the dissertation (“Negotiations”) elaborates on reasons why the southern courts patronized Buddhism. By appointing monks to take charge of the royal ancestral cults and by placing royal portraits within Buddhist temples (Chapter 5), by collecting relics and redistributing them to provincial monasteries (Chapter 6), and by amassing libraries of Buddhist texts (Chapter 7), the rulers of the southern kingdoms accrued karmic merit that might benefit both their forebears and the state. Simultaneously, they legitimized their rule by creating sites of cultural efflorescence that rivaled the old Tang capitals. Chapters 7 and 8 conclude with fascinating discussions of the Tiantai revival in the Wuyue kingdom (and whether this revival was based on texts from Koryo or texts from Japan) and of eleventh-century critiques of court patronage of Buddhism (critiques that used language that resembled in remarkable ways Huichang-era anti-Buddhist rhetoric).

In recent decades, Peter Gregory, Robert Sharf, John McRae, Albert Welter, and others have helped to demolish older narratives that imagined that Buddhism in China never completely recovered from the Huichang Suppression and that Chan flourished in the post-Tang period because its iconoclasm and anti-establishment predilections freed its monks and monasteries from the vagaries of political patronage. We now know that the Song dynasty was a golden age of Buddhism and that the romantic vision of the Chan monk as an embodiment of spontaneity and freedom is largely a concoction of the twentieth century. Brose’s dissertation contributes to this new understanding of Buddhism by demonstrating that pre-Huichang traditions (e.g. Nanshan Vinaya) survived even after the fall of the Tang; that Buddhism remained prominent through the tenth century, as attested by the construction of new monasteries and temples and by state sponsorship of translation and exegetical projects; and that regional capital cities rather than rural monasteries constituted the battlegrounds where the new Chan lineages fought for supremacy over older Buddhist traditions.

Perhaps the greatest value of Brose’s work lies in its efforts to identify the mechanisms that account for the vitality of Buddhism in the Song and for Chan’s expanding influence in post-Tang China. Particularly interesting is the proposal that particular Chan lineages were catapulted into prominence when individual monks favored by a regional ruler succeeded in securing patronage for entire networks of their associates. The social historian might recognize ways in which the emergence of these networks of Chan monks paralleled developments in secular elite society. In my own dissertation, for example, I have argued that, like the disciples of Xuefeng Yicun and Xuansha Shibei, bureaucratic and military elites were extremely mobile, migrating from the courts of one autonomous kingdom to another. If one warlord succeeded in establishing a political regime, then—like the monks who succeeded in securing patronage at court—the warlord in question might bring with him to the capital a network of his supporters. Finally, capital cities of the tenth century served as magnets for secular elites and Chan monks alike. Brose’s ability to link the story of the rise of Chan to developments affecting society at large makes his argument particularly persuasive.

 

Primary Sources

Song gaoseng zhuan 宋高僧傳 (Song Biographies of Eminent Monks)

Zutang ji 祖堂集 (Patriarch’s Hall Collection)

Jingde chuan deng lu 景德傳燈錄 (Jingde era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp)

 

Dissertation Information

Stanford University, 2009. 404 pp. Primary Advisor: Carl Bielefeldt.