Avatamsaka ... Transnationalism in Modern Sinitic Buddhism

By Hammerstrom, Erik | Journal of Global Buddhism, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Avatamsaka ... Transnationalism in Modern Sinitic Buddhism


Hammerstrom, Erik, Journal of Global Buddhism


The first half of the twentieth century witnessed many changes in East Asian Buddhism. New epistemologies and technologies, along with changing social and political structures, formed much of the context for these changes. While the impetus for many of these changes was provided by Western ideas and Western colonialism, lively exchange between Asian nations was an important factor in the development of East Asian Buddhism in the twentieth century. This article traces a few of the threads that make up this web of intra-Asian Buddhist influence. It brings together observations made by contemporary scholars of China, Japan, and Korea that, when taken together, paint a picture of the influence of Avatamsaka thought within modern Sinitic Buddhism.1 It will show that from the nineteenth century to the 1930s, Avatamsaka thought became a transnational discourse that Buddhists across East Asia used to link their tradition with modern political and social issues.

Avatamsaka thought was transnational in two significant ways. First, the way in which thinkers from one country influenced those in another country around shared concerns are illustrative of the transnational links that existed between Buddhists in China, Japan, and Korea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Second, modern Avatamsaka thought was not merely the product of transnational collaboration; it was used as a resource for Sinitic Buddhists to create discourses of transnationalism. For example, the concept of ontological equality (Skt. sama, was adopted from Avatamsaka thought to deal with political concerns such as social class, national unity, and colonialism, which emerged in the context of colonialisms (Western and Japanese) and the widespread popularity of social evolutionism among East Asian thinkers. Some Chinese and Korean Buddhists used the central doctrines of interdependence and unity to envision stateless and radically egalitarian societies, while in Japan it was used to justify the one-state transnationalism of Japanese Imperial fascism.

Avatamsaka as a School of Thought

Scholars have rightly paid much attention to the roles played by certain schools of Buddhist thought in modern Sinitic Buddhism. Among these have been the philosophical uses of Zen in Japan and Korea, the revival of Yogacara studies in China and Japan, and the emergence of various forms of socially-engaged Buddhism in East Asia in the early twentieth century, such as China's "Humanistic Buddhism" (rensheng fojiao or renjian fojiao and Korea's "Buddhism of the Masses" (minjung pulgyo This paper aims to show that one can discover interesting and historically significant things by looking at how other schools of Buddhist thought were used. Here, the focus is Avatamsaka Buddhism, which is one of the main schools of Buddhist thought indigenous to East Asia. It developed primarily in China between the seventh and ninth centuries. Referred to as "Huáyán" in Mandarin, "Hawom" in Korean, and "Kegon" in Japanese,2 it derives its name from the Avatamsaka3 Sütra ^®^, a voluminous Mahayana text likely aggregated in China from smaller independently circulating sütras between the fourth and ninth centuries (Wei Daoru, 2011: ch. 1). Within much of Sinitic Buddhism, this text is generally considered to contain the Buddha's most profound teachings, and it served as the inspiration for a body of thought that is identified by the umbrella term of "Avatamsaka."

Starting from the sixth century C.E., a series of five putative patriarchs drew from the Indian Buddhist philosophical traditions of Madhyamaka, Tathagatagarbha, and Yogacara to craft and refine a series of conceptual tools for thinking about causality, and to articulate the interrelationship between various Buddhist teachings and between phenomena. As other Buddhists in China were doing at the time, they ranked the various Buddhist scriptures based on their level of truth, and they placed the Avatamsaka Sütra at the top. …

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