Buddhism Between Tibet and China - Preface



480 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715817

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During the spring of 1996, as I was leaving my apartment in new York’s Morningside Heights to buy bagels one Sunday morning, I came across a group of Chinese university students, all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the characteristic lotus, book, and sword emblem of the Tibetan Sakyapa order. I stopped to chat with them and learned that they were from many different places in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, but were in the States to pursue graduate studies, mostly in the sciences and engineering. They gathered to meditate together on Sundays in the apartment of a fellow student who was connected with the Sakyapa center in Singapore. In fact, they had no idea that Buddhism was a subject taught at Columbia university, where I was then teaching, or that any member of the faculty would have heard of the Sakyapa, in their terms the “white sect” of Tibetan Buddhism. Their bemused expressions as they answered my questions betrayed evident puzzlement about my interest.

As a frequent visitor to Nepal, where Tibetan monastic development has been much assisted by donors from Singapore and Taipei, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, it had become clear to me during the 1970s and 80s that there was very considerable ethnic Chinese involvement in Tibetan religious activity. I was therefore aware that prosperous Chinese had emerged among the major contemporary patrons of Tibetan Buddhist institutions and teachers, no doubt surpassing in this regard the contributions of either Hollywood heroes or Microsoft moguls. Nevertheless, my chance meeting with the overseas Chinese students that morning underscored for me the degree to which religious relationships between Tibet and China had remained invisible even to those of us who were engaged in the academic study of Tibetan or Chinese Buddhism. Was recent Chinese participation in Tibetan Buddhism, I found myself wondering, the fruit of cultural relations developed over centuries, or the product of uniquely contemporary circumstances?

Certainly, the painful political reality of the modern Tibet-China relation has skewed our perspectives and inhibited inquiry in this area. Though several pioneering scholars in Chinese and Tibetan studies did contribute to our knowledge of Chinese Buddhism in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in China—one thinks above all here of Berthold Laufer, Ferdinand Lessing, Paul Demiéville, Rolf Stein, and Herbert Franke—further research along these lines has languished until very recently, particularly in the united States. Scholars involved in East Asian Buddhist studies tended to see Tibet as a world apart, while those of us working on Tibetan Buddhist materials have often had our professional homes in departments of South Asian studies and have therefore encouraged our students to focus on something called “Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.” As a result, the sustained religious contact between Tibet and China throughout the past thirteen hundred years has remained obscure.

Nevertheless, in a few areas Tibeto-Chinese religious relations have aroused recent scholarly interest. The best example, no doubt, is the story of Tibet’s contact with China’s Chan Buddhist traditions during the Tang dynasty. Following the lead of Paul Demiéville’s path-breaking investigations of documents found at Dunhuang, there has been intensive research on this topic during the past few decades, above all by Buddhist scholars in Japan. Mention, too, must be made of recent art historical scholarship, which has shed new light on the cross-pollination of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist styles and techniques. The works that have aroused the greatest attention in this context were executed in Chinese imperial ateliers during the Ming and Qing dynasties, or by Tibetan painters during the same epoch, notably in far eastern Tibet, where the use of diaphanous washes inspired by Chinese brushwork served to convey the sense of aetherial luminosity cultivated in Tibetan tantric meditation. As the present book seeks to demonstrate, however, the interrelationship of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist traditions was more widely ramified, and has proven more enduring, than even these two very rich areas of study reflect by themselves.

In the introductory chapter I provide a brief historical overview of the religious connections between Tibet and China, surveying the contents of the volume as a whole. The eleven chapters that follow offer case-studies spanning more than a millennium, beginning with the study of a Sino-Tibetan cave temple in Gansu created under the Tibetan empire during the early ninth century and continuing down to H.H. the Dalai Lama’s 1997 visit to Taiwan. In between, pertinent examples of the intersections of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism during the Yuan (or Mongol), Ming, Qing (or Manchu), and Republican periods are considered in depth. These studies are all based on extensive original research and field work, presented here for the first time. Together they demonstrate that Buddhism not only served to mediate relations between Tibetan ecclesiastical powers and the Chinese imperial court, as has often been assumed to be the overarching concern that defined the relationship, but that it also provided what was in effect a cultural lingua franca, through which Chinese, Tibetans, and frequently others as well might, despite their many differences, interact on common, sanctified ground.

As mentioned above, Tibeto-Chinese religious relations have been in large measure neglected by scholars formed after the Second World War. This reflects in part practical limitations on research due to political restrictions, for, from the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978, it was generally impossible for scholars from abroad to pursue Tibetan studies in China. Those interested in Tibet necessarily turned their attention to the Himalayan regions and to Tibetan refugee communities in South Asia. It was only during the 1980s that renewed prospects for Tibetological research in China gradually began to emerge. Hence, recent advances in the study of Tibeto-Chinese relations have been largely due to researchers who have entered the field during the past quarter century. This generational transition is reflected in the composition of the present volume: whereas a few of the contributors are senior figures in Tibetan studies, most belong to the post–Cultural Revolution generation of Tibetanists. Some in fact completed—and several of them published—their dissertations while this book was in preparation. The gradual opening of China to Tibetological research has been in these cases a fundamental, enabling condition, essential to the development of their scholarship, so that their work reflects a new interrogation of Tibeto-Chinese cultural relations, as well as access to newly available materials and sources.

The present volume had its genesis in the meetings of the Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Group of the American Academy of Religion that I organized in 2000. The contributions of the particpants on that occasion— Karl Debreczeny, Rob Linrothe, Paul Nietupski, Gray Tuttle, Zhihua Yao, Abraham Zablocki, and myself—became the point of departure from which the book grew. I wish to thank Professors Janet Gyatso and Georges Dreyfus, then the chairs of the Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Group of the AAR, and the entire Steering Committee of the Group, for their encouragements, and in particular Professor Robert Gimello, who thoughtfully offered the response to the original presentations. I am grateful, too, to Ester Bianchi, Fabienne Jagou, Carmen Meinert, and Elliot Sperling, who graciously consented to join this project after it was already in progress.

The painting that adorns the cover of this volume, generously made available for reproduction here by the Margot and Thomas J. Pritzker Foundation, depicts the Buddha Dīpaṃkara poised literally between Tibetan and Chinese worlds. Probably of Xi Xia provenance, it reflects the unique station of the Xi Xia kingdom of the eleventh-twelfth centuries as a cultural crossroads, where Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan Buddhists contributed to the protection and edification of the realm. In the cartouche to the Buddha’s upper right, we read Dīpaṃkara’s name in Tibetan, while the same is inscribed in Chinese in the cartouche to his left. As realised here, the Buddha mediates between opposing worlds, a role that he will assume throughout the pages that follow as well.

For their invaluable assistance at the university of Chicago with the preparation of this work for publication, I am grateful to Rachel Lindner and Susan Zakin for their careful editing of the text, and to You Hong for her help with the Chinese glossary. I acknowledge, too, the contribution that the China Committee of the university’s Center for East Asian Studies has made over the years to my ongoing research concerning Tibetan affairs in China. Tim Mcneill and MacDuff Stewart at Wisdom Publications, together with the editors of the series Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, have my profound thanks for the characteristic enthusiasm with which they welcomed this project. And kudos are due to Laura Cunningham and Tony Lulek for the expertise and efficiency with which they shepherded the work through the final stages of its production.


Matthew T. Kapstein
Vaishakh, 2008


How to cite this document:
© Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism Between Tibet and China (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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