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18th October, 2017

Saintly or Heretical? Legends about Buddhist Monks and Political Prophets

Presenter: Dr Wu Junqing, Leverhulme fellow in Asian Studies at Cambridge

In this seminar, Dr Wu first introduced her research on the changing images of monks as political prophets from Northern-Southern Dynasties onwards. Dr Wu categorized these monks into three types: Reincarnation of a Bodhisatva (e.g. Baozhi寶誌, a monk who was later portrayed as the reincarnation of Guanyin), Ruler’s sage assistant (e.g. Fotucheng 佛圖澄, a monk who served as an assistant to Shile石勒, a ruler of the Houzhao後趙 regime), and the fangshi方士 type (e.g. Li Chunfeng李淳風, an influential monk in Tang dynasty). Dr Wu drew attention to the prophecies made by the fangshi-type monks, which were straightforward and usually referred to the enthronement or death of an emperor and the result of a battle. This type of monks were favored by the rulers and survived, while the other two types of monks gradually disappeared, as time progressed.

Dr Wu later traced the tendencies in the portrayal of these monks in historical records. In general, the images of Buddhist monks declined from the Northern-Southern Dynasties. Dr Wu believed that the “heretics” enshrined in the prophets became intolerable to the rulers and caused this significant change. Also, the rehabilitation of Confucianism, which to a great extent inhibited the development of Buddhism in Tang and Song Dynasty, as well as the increasingly secularized views of political legitimation contributed to the decline in the portrayal of Buddhists generally.

During the post-talk discussion, one issue we debated was word choice. Words such as heretics, black magic, prophecy and messianism are derived from a Western tradition, but using them opened up new avenues for comparison and new topics for reflection. We debated contemporary meanings of terms such Buddhist and Daoist and the special place of the Yuan Dynasty in the chronology outlined by Dr Wu.