Laity and Lay Organizations in Chinese Religions: New Perspectives from Late Imperial and Modern China
4: Lay Buddhist Societies and the Rise of Esoteric Buddhism in Modern China
Sunday, March 27, 2022
9:00am – 10:30am EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Emory University, United States
This paper investigates the development of Chinese Buddhist lay societies, focusing on their roles in introducing Japanese and Tibetan esoteric Buddhism to the Chinese Buddhist communities in the early twentieth century. From the 1920s to the 1940s, many lay Buddhist societies were founded in Chinese cities to promote esoteric Buddhism. In terms of their missions, these societies can be classified into two types: those that advanced esoteric Buddhism as part of a broad range of programs and those that chiefly or solely highlighted the promulgation of esoteric Buddhism. A typical society of the first kind was the Beijing Lay Buddhist Society (Beijing jushilin). Headed by Hu Zihu, a lay disciple of the reformer Taixu, this society integrated esoteric activities into its on-going routine programs. In addition to advancing Buddhist education and social welfare, it also patronized Taixu’s building of the Tibetan College in Beijing in 1924 and some monks’ trips to Tibet. Lay societies of the second type were dedicated to esoteric teachings in a more exclusive way. A typical example was the Society of the Restoration of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism (Zhendan mijiao chongxing hui) in Chaozhou, in which the founder Wang Hongyuan and his adherents solely promoted Japanese Shingon esoteric Buddhism. By sponsoring ceremonies, offering translation, and providing explanations through publications, lay societies offered many opportunities for Chinese Buddhists to gain exposure to esoteric Buddhism. They provided an important platform for the public display of esoteric Buddhism, allowing esoteric teachers to articulate their teachings to a large audience.