Modulating Mahāyāna

Encountering Theravāda and Contesting Chinese Buddhist Tradition and Orthodoxy in the Southern Sinosphere
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room 4

  • Organised by Jens Reinke
  • Chaired by Ann Heirman
  • Jens Reinke, “(Re)inventing the Past: Ven. Suifo 隨佛 and His Original Buddhism Society (Zhonghua yuanshi fojiao hui 中華原始佛教會)”
  • Melody Tzu-Lung Chiu, “Transnational Networks, Localisation, and Hybridisation: The Practice and Influence of Chinese Buddhism in Contemporary Myanmar”
  • Ester Bianchi, “Theravāda Practices within Contemporary Chinese Buddhism: The Case of mahasati Meditation in Sichuan Shifosi 石佛寺”

Buddhism is often portrait as a religion that is subdivided into distinct traditions, schools and lineages, each of them separated by impermeable boundaries. However, on the ground the situation is often more ambiguous. This panel considers the issue by examining three case studies situated within the southern sinosphere, a transnational space linking southern China, Taiwan, and the ethnic Chinese diaspora communities in Southeast Asia. The southern sinosphere is marked by a high degree of Buddhist cross-traditional diversity, encounter, and interaction. To explore these dynamics, the contributors to the panel investigate how a Taiwanese Buddhist organization (re)invents the “original Buddhism” of the historical Buddha by merging Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and modernist Chinese renjian Buddhist elements, they examine how Theravāda meditation is integrated into a Chinese Mahāyāna monastery in Sichuan, as well as look at how Chinese Buddhists in Myanmar negotiate the Theravāda mainstream society. The panel problematizes oversimplifying notions of Buddhist traditions as clearly separated entities. It approaches the issue through a sample of historical and ethnographic case studies. By looking at how Chinese Buddhists navigate notions of tradition and orthodoxy, the panel brings attention to the ways modern and contemporary Buddhist transnationalism shapes and reconstructs the religious identity of Chinese Buddhists today. It thereby creates new insights into the dynamics that inform the development of contemporary Chinese Buddhist religiosities under today’s global condition.

Jens Reinke: (Re)inventing the Past: Ven. Suifo (隨佛) and His Original Buddhism Society (Zhonghua yuanshi fojiao hui 中華原始佛教會)

Contemporary Taiwanese Buddhism in Western language scholarship is primarily represented by studies on Taiwanese renjian Buddhist mega organizations such as Fo Guang Shan, Tzu Chi, and Dharma Drum Mountain. However, these groups are not the only representatives of contemporary Taiwanese Buddhism. This presentation examines the endeavours of the monastic Suifo 隨佛 (Bhikkhu Vūpasama Thera). Suifo is an ethnic Chinese who is originally from Myanmar/Burma. He is ordained in the Theravāda lineage of the Burmese monastic Ledi Sayadaw U Ñaṇadhaja (1846–1923) and is the founder of the transnational “Original Buddhism Society” (Zhonghua yuanshi fojiao hui 中華原始佛教會) with branches in Taiwan, USA, Australia, and Malaysia. Suifo claims to have restored the original Buddhism of the First Buddhist Council convened in the same year as the historical Buddha passed away. His “original Buddhism” links elements from the Theravāda tradition, Chinese Mahāyāna, as well as modernist Chinese renjian Buddhism. This presentation will examine how Suifo and his organization negotiate the Mahāyāna/Theravāda divide in terms of doctrine, religious practice, and monastic regulations. It thereby aims at problematising conventional understandings of affiliations to Buddhist tradition but also shows the diversity of developments within contemporary Taiwanese Buddhism.

Melody Tzu-Lung Chiu: Transnational Networks, Localisation, and Hybridisation: The Practice and Influence of Chinese Buddhism in Contemporary Myanmar

Mahāyāna and Theravāda are the two major traditions of Buddhism in contemporary Asia. Although both traditions share many similar teachings, there are long-term disputes between the two, touching on doctrine, ritual, religious practices, and the ultimate goal, among other matters. Mahāyāna Buddhists have often termed Theravāda Buddhism as the “vehicle of the hearers,” reflecting the role of the Buddha’s early followers who sought to become Arhats through hearing and practising his teachings. On the other hand, Theravāda Buddhists typically hold strong views of their religious identity, taking their own traditions to be Orthodox Buddhism while criticising various aspects of the Mahāyāna tradition which they claimed lack doctrinal basis. The study explores the position of Chinese Mahāyāna monastics in current socio-cultural contexts of Thailand where the Theravāda lineage has been historically dominant. It is thus worth examining present-day Chinese Buddhist monks’ and nuns’ religious life, precept observance, and/or ritual practice via the multiple-case qualitative study in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar. This research significantly provides an overview of how the local Theravada ethos inevitably affects Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhists’ experiences of the religious minority in the host country. Another issue arising from this study involves localisation, assimilation, and hybridisation. It is worth noting that the indigenous Theravāda ethos inevitably affects the descendants of immigrants/overseas Chinese monks and nuns. Therefore, careful attention to cross-traditional interaction and adaptation (both Theravāda vs. Mahāyāna and Chinese vs. Burmese) is crucial to contextualising my study.

Ester Bianchi: Theravāda Practices within Contemporary Chinese Buddhism. The Case of mahasati Meditation in Sichuan Shifosi 石佛寺

In the last decade, a true fever for Theravāda meditation has arisen in China. In some cases, Theravāda meditation is being practised regularly in Chinese Buddhist monasteries, thus attempting to compromise with Chinese Buddhism rather than opposing it. In this paper, I will present the case study of the Shifosi 石佛寺, a Chinese nunnery located in Deyang Guanghan (Sichuan) and inhabited by a small community of Han Chinese nuns. Headed by Xuzhi 续智 (b. 1969), the nunnery has become the stable meditation centre of the mahasati meditation (zhengnian yunzhong chan 正念動中禪) in China since 2016. Mahasati is a modern form of dynamic vipassanā which was conceived by Luangpor Teean Jittasubho (1911–1988) from Thailand. Luangpor Thong (1939–), one of the two principal heirs of Luangpor Teean and Xuzhi’s personal master, devoted himself to the spread of the tradition abroad, also addressing the Sinitic world (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and eventually Mainland China). Inside the Shifo nunnery, mahasati is practised in a Chinese Buddhist context and within other Chinese Buddhist practices, insofar that the religious calendar, ordination, and Vinaya lineages, morning chanting services and ritual meals etc. are all taken from the Chinese Mahāyāna tradition. The aim of this study is to analyse and evaluate these practices which are developing in many Chinese Buddhist monasteries, thus favouring forms of hybridity in an ecumenical Pan-Asian perspective.

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Room 4
Encountering Theravāda and Contesting Chinese Buddhist Tradition and Orthodoxy in the Southern Sinosphere