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Theses Doctoral

Inventing Chinese Buddhas: Identity, Authority, and Liberation in Song-Dynasty Chan Buddhism

Buckelew, Kevin

This dissertation explores how Chan Buddhists made the unprecedented claim to a level of religious authority on par with the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and, in the process, invented what it means to be a buddha in China. This claim helped propel the Chan tradition to dominance of elite monastic Buddhism during the Song dynasty (960-1279), licensed an outpouring of Chan literature treated as equivalent to scripture, and changed the way Chinese Buddhists understood their own capacity for religious authority in relation to the historical Buddha and the Indian homeland of Buddhism. But the claim itself was fraught with complication. After all, according to canonical Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha was easily recognizable by the “marks of the great man” that adorned his body, while the same could not be said for Chan masters in the Song. What, then, distinguished Chan masters from everyone else? What authorized their elite status and granted them the authority of buddhas? According to what normative ideals did Chan aspirants pursue liberation, and by what standards did Chan masters evaluate their students to determine who was worthy of admission into an elite Chan lineage? How, in short, could one recognize a buddha in Song-dynasty China? The Chan tradition never answered this question once and for all; instead, the question broadly animated Chan rituals, institutional norms, literary practices, and visual cultures. My dissertation takes a performative approach to the analysis of Chan hagiographies, discourse records, commentarial collections, and visual materials, mobilizing the tradition’s rich archive to measure how Chan interventions in Buddhist tradition changed the landscape of elite Chinese Buddhism and participated in the epochal changes attending China’s Tang-to-Song transition.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Faure, Bernard
Yang, Zhaohua
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 26, 2018
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