The TLKY International Conference 2021 Interview Series – Prof. Albert Welter

Welcome to our series of conversations with participating speakers at this year’s Tung Lin Kok Yuen International Conference – Buddhist Canons: In Search of a Theoretical Foundation for a Wisdom-oriented Education (27–28 November 2021). In each blog post, I speak with keynote speakers and paper presenters about their subject at this conference.

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Retrieving the Dharma Wheel: Searching for Meaning in the Sino-East Asian Buddhist Canon

Albert Welter is head of the Department of East Asian Studies at The University of Arizona. His research focuses on the study of Chinese Buddhism, particularly on the transition from the late Tang (9th century) to the Song dynasty (10th–13th centuries). He also has a broader interest in Chinese administrative policies toward Buddhism, including Chinese notions of secularism and their impact on religious beliefs and practices. His work also covers Buddhist interactions with Neo-Confucianism and literati culture. His publications include: Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism (Oxford, 2006), The Linji lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy (Oxford, 2008), and Yongming Yanshou’s Conception of Chan in the Zongjing lu (Oxford, 2011), The Administration of Buddhism in China: A Study and Translation of Zanning and his Topical Compendium of the Buddhist Order in China (Cambria, 2018), and a co-edited volume titled Religion, Culture and the Public Sphere in China and Japan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). 

He is currently involved in the Hangzhou Region Buddhist Culture Project, supported by the Khyentse Foundation, in conjunction with Zhejiang University, the Hangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hangzhou Buddhist Academy. His monograph, A Tale of Two Stūpas: Histories of Hangzhou relic veneration through two of its most enduring monuments, is currently in press (Oxford). Another volume, The Future of China’s Past: Reflections on the Meaning of China’s Rise is under review.

Buddhistdoor Global (BDG): How did pre-modern “end-users” of the Buddhist canon make meaning of the vast corpus of scriptures?

Albert Welter (AW): To my mind, this is the key question. Unlike the Christian Bible or the Muslim Quran, the Buddhist canon comprised a vast corpus of scriptures collected and composed in different times and places. The East Asian Buddhist canon, in particular with its corpus of translations of Indian texts as well as writings and commentaries by Chinese and East Asian Buddhist writers, formed an even more intractable problem. How do Buddhists come to terms with what Buddhism is when the canon presents multiple perspectives on the answer to this question? Unless believers come up with a way to answer this question, they run the risk of drowning in the deluge of texts the canon contains. (For example, the Taisho print version of the Sino-Japanese Buddhist canon compiled in 1922–33, the basis for modern digital versions like CBETA, contain nearly 3,000 texts). The gargantuan effort of reading through the entire canon is sometimes noted in biographies of monks, but this is perhaps more of a rhetorical assertion underscoring their vast knowledge than a statement of actual fact.

My presentation includes a summary of how Buddhists historically dealt with this question. Because of its enormity, the Buddhist faithful looked to creative ways to manage and use the canon’s contents in keeping with their own religious and spiritual aspirations. One such means was to select and rally around a certain body of philosophically and doctrinally consistent scriptures such as was done with the Sanlun school 三論宗 or the Weishi school 唯識宗. Another means evolved in accordance with the well-known panjiao 判教 system of classification that effectively dissected the canon into a hierarchical doctrinal taxonomy, providing a sectarian guide from the perspective of the most elevated (and thus most important) teachings, as, for example, in the Tiantai 天台 (Fahua jing 法華經) and Huayan 華嚴 (Huayan jing 華嚴經) schools. This taxonomy was devised around the supposition that the historical Buddha preached all the sutras in the canon and that they represent developmental stages in his explication of Dharma. The key became the “final” or ultimate teaching, representing the Buddha’s penultimate message. 

Prof. Albert Welter.

Thus, the canon was reduced, so to speak, to a single text or texts through which the entire canon could be framed and understood. There were also those who, upon surveying the massive output represented in the canon, constructed abridged versions that aspired to provide a digest of the entire corpus. A major representation of this is Yongming Yanshou’s 永明延壽 Zongjing lu 宗鏡錄 (Records of the Source Mirror), which excerpts hundreds of Buddhist sutras and commentaries as mirroring the central teaching of Buddhism (zong 宗) in terms of universal mind (yixin 一心).

In addition, there were others in the Chan school who proposed dispensing with the traditional canon altogether, criticizing it as a derivative and inferior representation of Buddhist teachings, and posited the yulu 語錄 dialogue records of Chan masters as a new and more direct and authentic expression of the enlightened mind, in effect creating a new canon of Chan master’s teachings to displace the traditional one. Finally, we can point to a different type of critique of canonical scriptures suggested in the use of dharani as a mnemonic device whose recitation represents a section or chapter of a sutra, but ultimately provides a kind of mysterious access to the truth implicit in the entire canon itself. The Heart Sūtra, literally the heart of the perfection of wisdom (Prajñāpāramitāhdaya or Bore boluomiduo xinjing般若波羅蜜多心經) offers a well-known case in point. After going through a philosophical deconstruction of Hinayana dharma-theory as atomistic and therefore essentialistic, it concludes with a simple dhāraṇī, gate gate pāragate pārasagate bodhi svāhā (jiē dì jiē dì, bō luó jiē dì, bō luó sēng jiē dì, pútí sà pó hē 揭諦揭諦,波羅揭諦,波羅僧揭諦,菩提薩婆訶), meaning “gone, gone, everyone gone to the other shore, awakening,” the recitation of which provides a mystical Mahayana realization accessible to all.

These are the major ways, I find, that pre-modern “end-users” of the Buddhist canon dealt with the issue and made the vast corpus of Buddhist scriptures meaningful.

BDG: You say that the “global present seems to have settled on a Protestant Buddhist fundamentalism privileging the historical Buddha and Pali canon.” Talk about some of the drawbacks of this conception.

AW: Where do I start? We stand on the shoulders of the 19th century European academics who “invented” the field of Buddhist Studies and are incredibly indebted to them. The modern Buddhist academy and modern Buddhism in a very real sense derives from them. Yet, we must recognize the provenance of their efforts and situate them in the context of 19th century intellectual history. This was the period that saw the birth of critical Biblical scholarship, the search for the historical Jesus and the philological approach to analyzing the Christian Bible. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, Protestant Christians sought the “truth” of their tradition in the historical origins of Jesus and his teachings, displacing the centuries old Catholic tradition which mediated this truth through broad apparatuses of Catholic doctrine and dogma. Through innovative philological analyses, academics came to believe they could reinvent a truth that had long been obliterated through the applications of well-meaning but essentially misguided interpreters.

The European academics who “discovered” Buddhism in India came with these Protestant notions about notions of origins and their determination of “truth.” Since India had been without a significant Buddhist presence for roughly a thousand years, it gave them further license, a “blank slate,” to create the world of the Buddha and his teachings, to essentially reimagine a lost world along the lines of a Protestant Christian framework. Shakyamuni became a Buddhist “Jesus”; the “original” teachings, the Pali canon, became an equivalent to the New Testament. Just as centuries of Catholic doctrine and commentary were displaced by Protestant Christianity, the traditions of contemporary Buddhist communities were dismissed as irrelevant repositories of superstition and spurious practice and assumptions. This was especially true when applied to Mahayana traditions, whose claims to truth were conveniently set aside, wholesale, in the framework dictated by origins.

To the extent that a Protestant Buddhist framework has held sway, and I would argue that it has to a considerable degree, it has imposed certain presuppositions about the answer to the question “What is Buddhism?” in the modern period. Through the advent of Zen and Zen Studies, Japanese Mahayana Buddhism managed to break through to assume relevance. The reduction of Chinese Buddhism was long associated with India, as a way to understand and trace elements relating to the Indian subcontinent, the land of “true” Buddhism. The problem with this approach is that the major indigenous developments in Chinese Buddhism that were particularly influential throughout East Asia occurred after the decline of Indian Buddhism, from around the 10th century onwards. These later developments are now starting to assume the importance they deserve. Having said this, they have not completely shed the shadow of Protestant Buddhist fundamentalism that privileges the historical Buddha and Pali canon.

BDG: There are now contemporary attempts to formulate new approaches to form “windows into wisdom” for the canon. Can you highlight some of them?

AW: I am less able to speak on this question with any authority. My research deals with the Buddhist past, not the present, and I have only general observations to make. Besides, the manifestations are so diverse, it is impossible to encapsulate them easily. On the one hand, we have the modern manifestation of traditions that span traditional Asian Buddhist worlds, from Sri Lanka and Southeasy Asia, Tibet, Tantric and Himalayan Buddhisms, not to mention the multiple forms of East Asian Buddhism in China, Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora, and Korea, and Japan. All the traditions that operate under these auspices continue to strive for relevant expressions of “windows into wisdom” for their constituents. There are so many, and they are so vast and diverse, it is hard to imagine finding consistency among them. So many voices in so many languages present a literal “tower of Babel,” to cite a Biblical reference.

Then you have Euro-American Buddhisms that are foundational to modern Buddhism. Many, if not all of these derive from some species of traditional Buddhism, but reformed to make them accessible, attractive, or palatable to a new breed of constituents. The members of this new breed who tend to attract most attention are Euro-American Caucasians (including Jews), who dominate and epitomize the new approach. Many fled the institutional frameworks of Western religions, seeking an unencumbered individual freedom in Buddhism. Too often they discover the institutional encumbrances embedded in their new traditions and strive to formulate “truer” versions. This smacks of the shadow cast by the Protestant mode of Buddhism, referred to above. Perhaps the best example of this trend is the “Buddhism without beliefs” mode of discourse, that eschews traditional concepts like karma and rebirth in favor of a stripped-down philosophical Buddhism attractive to modern Western or Western educated advocates.

BDG: How can we articulate a Buddhist wisdom in our present, tumultuous era of 2021?

AW: This is the question, isn’t it? I look forward to the conference in the hope of articulating an answer. While there are many species of Buddhist wisdom, it is hard to consider the question without reference to the tradition of Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom). However, even here, as attractive as the philosophical tradition of Prajñāpāramitā may be, I am reminded again of the example of the Hear Sūtra, which ends with the religious and very unphilosophical call to dharani practice. Without upaya, or skillful means, Buddhist wisdom will not meet the needs of the vast majority of practitioners.  

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