By Shyamal Sinha
Chinese Buddhism has shaped Chinese culture in a wide variety of areas including art, politics, literature, philosophy, medicine, and material culture.
A grant has sent a university researcher along with six graduate students from the University of Arizona to China to study the rise of a unique form of Buddhism with its heart in Hangzhou, situated to the southeast of Shanghai.
While Buddhism began in India and had several key points of spread and development before it arrived in Hangzhou, the forms of Chan that have developed here from the 10th century onward became highly influential for the Buddhism that spread to Korea and Japan. Albert Welter, who heads UA’s Department of East Asian Studies and is a long-time specialist in Chinese texts, will lead the study—called the Hangzhou Project.
“This project looks at the Hangzhou region as a second homeland for Buddhism subsequent to India,” he said. “Usually the history of Buddhism is told from an Indian perspective, with little emphasis on East Asia, but that was just the first phase. From an East Asian perspective, phase two begins when Buddhism recedes in India and is no longer active. At that point, Hangzhou comes into its own.” (UA News)
A key aspect of the study will be shifting the focus of Buddhist history away from India and toward China as a new center for regional developments. This is a break with the long-standing Euro-American traditions of religious studies, which focus on the founder as the holder of the truest message, which is then changed and perhaps corrupted in different cultures and times.
“The current project aims to systematically reorient the study of East Asian Buddhism as an indigenous form, and not as part of an Indian trajectory,” said Welter. “The Hangzhou region became a kind of a ‘homeland’ for many Buddhists throughout the East Asian region who traced their lineages, doctrines, and teachings directly to Hangzhou regional Buddhist institutions.” The East Asian Buddhism that followed, according to Welter, “was largely independent and only tangentially related to its Indian forebears.” (UA News)
The project began with a US$28,500 International Research and Program Development, or IRPD, seed grant, co-funded by the UA’s offices of Research, Discovery & Innovation and Global Initiatives, and has secured a second, larger grant of US$173,292 going to fund three years from the Khyentse Foundation.
Additionally, Welter has received a fellowship grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, supported by the Taiwan-based Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. With in-kind contributions from partner institutions in Hangzhou, US$550,000 has been committed to the project. The Khyentse Foundation grant also will support the continuation of UA’s Buddhist Studies Lecture Series and initiate a Khyentse Foundation Outstanding Student Award. (UA News)
A major factor of the project is partnerships with universities in China, including Zhejiang and Jiliang universities in Hangzhou, and Hangzhou Buddhist Academy. Students from UA will spend several weeks each year doing fieldwork in Hangzhou, and will collaborate with scholars from China as their research progresses.
“The combined effort of many people can produce something I could never dream of,” Said Welter. “That’s the model that this project and future Center for Buddhist Studies projects can offer down the road.” (UA News)