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Why Does the High Tang Continue to Cast a Shadow over Chinese Buddhists?

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The Vairocana statue at the Longmen Grottoes, modeled after the central Buddha of the <i>Avatamsaka Sutra</i>, which honors Wu Zetian in its donative inscription. From wikimedia.org
The Vairocana statue at the Longmen Grottoes, modeled after the central Buddha of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which honors Wu Zetian in its donative inscription. From wikimedia.org

Is there a difference between nostalgia and sentimentality? Perhaps sentimentality is more personal and associated with keepsakes and time capsules from childhood? Nostalgia is a feeling that can be more broadly felt. It can be projected at the level of an entire community, and is often deployed in narratives about nationhood and “peoples.” We see certain periods of our nations’ histories as “golden ages” because we see certain trends that we would like to be reflected in our society and in ourselves. Our fascination with those bygone, exalted periods and the grip they have over our imaginations say more about our present condition than anything about our past.

In Sinology and popular discourse about Chinese Buddhism, it is commonly held that a fundamental rupture in Chinese Buddhist history occurred in the form of the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of 845 carried out by Emperor Wuzong (r. 840–46), during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Whether he was truly anti-Buddhist or simply keen to seize the considerable, tax-exempt assets of the landed Buddhist monasteries of the time, the results are clear in his edict: 4,600 private temples demolished, 26,500 monks and nuns forcibly returned to lay life, 150,000 slaves serving the clergy thrown off estate grounds, and top-grade fertile land released back to public hands.

But far more damaging, according to this narrative, was Buddhism’s fall from grace as an imperial religion and the destruction of multiple schools, including the Esoteric School (mizong), which survived in Japan, and the displacement of Tang preceptor Master Shandao’s lineage of Pure Land Buddhism, which wouldn’t be rediscovered until the 20th century.

It is absolutely true that Wuzong’s persecutions did real damage. However, there is a burgeoning scholarly body that is countering the narrative that Chinese Buddhism underwent a terminal decline after his death. Among such works is Benjamin Brose’s Patrons and Patriarchs, an excellent study on flourishing of Buddhism in the period right after the Tang. Buddhism also had ascended to an imperially patronized religion during the Yuan (1271–1368) and Qing (1644–1911) periods.

But if Wuzong’s actions did not destroy Buddhism’s spirit, why do we keep on returning to the Tang to explain the contemporary zeitgeist of Chinese Buddhism? Several major events during the Tang did indeed end some long-established institutions, from Wuzong’s ending of imperial patronage for Buddhists to the demise of the imperial aristocracy during the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–84). It was also during this dynasty that Chinese Buddhism found itself bound to one of the most controversial figures of the time.

A depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published circa 1690. From Wikipedia
A depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou,
published c. 1690. From wikipedia.org

One of the most celebrated—and reviled—figures in Chinese history was Wu Zetian (624–705), who was daring enough to believe that a woman should be China’s emperor for once: not just empress or consort, but the real thing, the Son (daughter?) of Heaven (tianzi). In my opinion, she has been unfairly maligned: historians condemned her for being ruthless and killing family members, but she was no crueler or keen on survival than any of her male counterparts.

I believe that the Confucian Tang elites’ antagonism or resentment toward the Buddhist institution was incubated well before the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, during Wu Zetian’s reign in the Zhou Dynasty (690–795). The die was cast when an apocryphal commentary, the Dayun jing Shenhuang shoujiyishu, which was presented to the Tang court two months before it was overthrown by Wu Zetian, implied that she was an emanation or incarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya, binding her temporal authority to Buddhism’s transcendent authority. Yet this spiritual-political act was in blatant opposition to established Confucian ideology, and placed Buddhism in one of its most significant dilemmas in the Chinese context. Anti-Wu sentiment (along with a corresponding increase in Confucian tracts condemning the idea of women in power) spilled over into anti-Buddhist sentiment among warring factions in the imperial court, for Wu Zetian was buttressed and blessed by one of Buddhism’s most powerful representatives, Master Fazang (643–712), the third patriarch of the Avatamsaka or Huayan School.

I see the reign of Wu Zetian as one during which Fazang, himself of Sogdian ancestry (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and therefore sympathetic to the “foreign” perspective—whether it be interpreted as a cultural, gendered, or spiritual foreignness, agonized over whether to throw his lot in with this audacious and brave woman challenging years of Confucian, male orthodoxy. Or whether he should align himself with the Confucians who were, at best, ambivalent to Buddhism at the time? Would Wu Zetian outlast the House of Li, an imperial clan that drew its spiritual authority by claiming descent from Lao Zi, the founder of Daoism?

Historical events seem to suggest that he supported her for as long as he could, serving as her imperial preceptor and revealing teachings to her that would become core rubrics of the Avatamsaka school. Nevertheless, I think his eventual “betrayal,” by giving his tacit support to the pro-Li coup that deposed her, has had unexpected reverberations through how Chinese Buddhists understand themselves, particularly in relation to women and Confucianism. An alliance was formed, but then it was sundered. I continue to wonder what could have been had Wu Zetian not been overthrown, and if Fazang did not support the pro-Tang faction. What would an alternative history have been like, for Buddhism and for women?

The 'Uncharactered Stele' built to commemorate Wu Zetian at Qianling Mausoleum, Xi'an. From visitourchina.com
The Uncharactered Stele built to commemorate Wu Zetian at Qianling  Mausoleum in Xi’an. From visitourchina.com

There was one final cataclysm that changed the fabric of Chinese society forever: the Huang Chao Rebellion, which destroyed the aristocratic system that had existed since at least the Han dynasty. Across the great metropolitan heartlands of the central plains and northern China, the noble families that had served the government for generation,  patronized the highest forms of art and religion, and shaped the destiny of dynasties, were annihilated. The survivors driven south, toward the Yangtze, where the future economic, cultural, and literary flourishing of China would take place over the next few dynasties.

But the old world was gone—the Chinese aristocracy was replaced by an even more intensely meritocratic, neo-Confucian bureaucracy. Buddhism had, depending on who you ask, lost or given up its chance to rule behind the throne, and no longer would Mahayana Chinese Buddhism wield the same kind of political, landholding power as it did in preceding centuries.

I do not know if we can or really even wish to escape our nostalgia for the Tang. If anything, I am delighted by glimpses of its piecemeal resurrection in the Belt and Road Initiative and in how China, after titanic struggles, returned to a global presence somewhat reminiscent of its influence during the High Tang, after the 1980s. Nevertheless, Wuzong, Master Fazang, and Huang Chao, constitute the shadow that continues to preoccupy the Chinese Buddhist consciousness. How does Chinese Buddhism position itself today, in relation to the state, in relation to women, or in relation to Confucianism?

Even today, Wu Zetian’s memorial at Qianling Mausoleum is a haunting, faceless stele, an eerily blank cenotaph that was either defaced by angry courtiers after her fall, or, if the legends are true, was intentionally made so. A faceless stele could mean a defaced epitaph, but it could also mean an ongoing story, an unconcluded reality.

What role will Buddhism play in China’s journey as we move further into the 21st century?

See more

Selection from Emperor Wuzong’s Edict on the Suppression of Buddhism: The Edict of the Eighth Month (Asia for Educators, Columbia University)

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