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The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography

by John Kieschnick
Reviewed by: Robert Ford Campany
© Journal of the American Oriental Society  
New Haven :  Oct-Dec 2001 . Vol. 121, Iss. 4;  pg. 656

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During Buddhism's first millennium in China, scholar-monks produced three voluminous, wide-ranging compilations on the lives of notable monks: Huijiao's (d. 554) Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng zhuan), Daoxuan's (d. 667) Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (Xu gaoseng zhuan), and Zanning's (d. 1001) Song Biographies of Eminent Monks (Song gaoseng zhuan). Each work is a trove of historical material; taken together, they surely constitute one of the largest and most significant bodies of material on the history of any religion. We do not yet have in a Western language a comprehensive textual and interpretive study of any of them taken singly, but John Kieschnick has here boldly attempted a thematic study of all three, and the result is an illuminating overview of key themes in these texts, one that is sensitive to hermeneutical problems and judicious in its conclusions.

book coverKieschnick aims, as he explains at the book's outset, neither to study these texts as literary artifacts unrelated to actual religious, cultural, and social life, nor to winnow out their fabulous elements so as to recover bare historical "realities"--thus differentiating his approach from the two heretofore dominant ones--but to do something more interesting: to read these accounts "as representations of the image of the monk, of what monks were supposed to be" (p. 1). The work, then, as its subtitle indicates, is a study of selected Chinese Buddhist monastic ideals. This is an astute way to approach hagiographic texts, circumventing tired debates about the historicity of reported events. My only reservation is that I believe it is too simple to read hagiographies as always portraying the ideals of their traditions; while they often do that, they may also at times assume certain ideals (that is, assume readers' familiarity with and acceptance of ideals) in order to play off of them. Kieschnick's view that hagiographies portray how monks were ideally supposed to behave leaves him puzzled by accounts of drunken monastics, for example, whereas it seems quite plausible to me that texts' accounts of drinking do not aim to commend it but to do something more complicated.

The "Introduction" states the bare facts concerning the dates of compilation of the three works, the number of figures eulogized in each, the structure of each work, the possible motivations of the hagiographers, the reception of these texts, and the sources from which they were compiled.

There follow three thematic chapters. The first, on asceticism, usefully surveys what the biographies tell us about how monks differentiated themselves from other social groups in their sexual, dietary, and sumptuary practices and, in extreme cases, in self-mutilation and ritual suicide. There is much useful information here on a broad range of actual religious practice, an aspect of Chinese Buddhism too often overlooked in favor of contextless doctrine. Kieschnick closes the chapter with a thoughtful section on the meanings and possible reasons for inclusion of the puzzling cases of blatant violation of monastic norms that one finds in these works-monks represented as having eaten meat and drunk liquor.

The second chapter, titled "Thaumaturgy," contains long sections on the forms of thaumaturgy evidenced in the hagiographies, on spells (including a subsection on the use of scriptures as spells), and on miracles. Regarding spells, Kieschnick believes it possible to use the hagiographies to trace a process of gradual sinicization in their use over several centuries (8490). Overall in this chapter, Kieschnick again approaches a tricky subject carefully, and ends up explaining the presence of so many thaumaturgical and miraculous elements in the narratives by reference to "a fascination with the marvelous," a "thirst for the exotic," and a "sense of wonder" (p. 68) shared by monastic and lay readers alike. At bottom, Kieschnick concludes, the message sent by the marvelous elements in the hagiographies was that monks mediate between this world and the other world, that they have access to realms and beings of cosmic power not directly accessible by most ordinary people (p. 109).

The third chapter, titled "Scholarship," should be read closely by those who focus on scholastic Buddhism in China, because it consists of rich gleanings from the hagiographies about what the course of study of learned monks consisted of, what the life of learning in Buddhist monastic contexts was like, the role of debate and commentary, and the estimation of scholarship relative to other types of monastic activity. We begin here to discern a lived institutional and social context for the composition of the technical and sectarian works often studied to the exclusion of other sources by modern scholars.

In his brief "Final Reflections," Kieschnick astutely notes that, although the hagiographies enshrine monastic values, they do not do so in pure or unmediated fashion; these texts were also self-consciously fashioned to wage battle in what the author terms an "image-war" (p. 143) between Buddhist and antiBuddhist writers.

Aside from the rich and colorful content of this book's three main chapters, one of its major contributions is to underline the process of these hagiographic texts' composition--a process on which the work of Koichi Shinohara has also thrown important light-and to draw what I regard as a correct conclusion from that process. That is, as Kieschnick phrases it upon first introducing the theme, "Very few of the accounts in the Biographies were composed by the compilers of the three collections; most are instead taken directly, word-for-word, or with additions and deletions, from sources available to them" (p. 10; cf. pp. 11, 50, 60). These were compilations of materials already circulating, perhaps quite widely, in society, materials less formal and much more dispersed-inscriptions, letters, records of various sorts. To be sure, by devices such as the selection of just these materials and not the countless others that are lost to us (some of which perhaps did not conform to the vision the hagiographers wanted to promote), the editing of the materials once selected, their arrangement and contextualization, and their textual framing, the hagiographers shaped the messages they hoped would be conveyed by these materials. Nevertheless, these texts must all be understood as rooted in widely held expectations and understanding, in oral sources and a variety of written texts already circulating (though these sources themselves were hardly pure, unmediated reports of events-we simply have no such documents), and not as the de novo or ex nihilo creations of the pious minds of three hagiographers working in splendid isolation. This conception of the nature of the texts is what validates Kieschnick's conclusion that they may be used "to describe generally held, slowly changing conceptions of how monks were supposed to behave" (p. 11, italics mine). I believe that his approach to these hagiographies is essentially correct and quite fruitful; it is one that I, too, employ in a forthcoming translation and study of a fourth-century hagiography often seen as "Daoist."

Finally, while it is mean-spirited to chide an author for not including a topic one would wish to see treated--especially when a book ranges over as vast a field of data as this one does--it is regrettable that Kieschnick does not attend more to images of nuns in comparison to or contrast with portrayals of monks. Here nuns--as depicted, for instance, in Baochang's sixth-century compilation, available in English translation--are mentioned almost exclusively in the discussion of chastity and sexuality.

The book also includes an extensive bibliography and a glossary of Chinese characters.

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