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Karma Tuners: Historical Transformations of Envisioning the Future in Buddhist Traditions

A126
Panel Chair: Esther-Maria Guggenmos | Friday, August 28, 9-11 a.m.

This panel emerged from joint research trajectories at the Research Consortium in Erlangen (Germany) that deals with “Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication”. Chinese, Tibetan, and Theravada Buddhist traditions explored and established distinct ways of coping with personal and shared futures. We intend to shed light on single historical transformations and innovations across Buddhist traditions. Caring for one’s karma through sūtra recitation and, in consequence, bettering one’s outlook upon future liberation is discussed in the context of Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese Buddhist tradition developed concepts of time in which future Buddhist liberation is endangered by the age of the degenerate dharma, in which divinatory tools receive legitimation as appropriate for freeing adherents from dwelling in the “web of doubts”. At the end of the 19th century, this perception of future decline is met by Burmese Buddhist reformatory efforts through a new focus on meditation techniques. The last contribution leads us to the popular Buddhist tradition of Zhaijiao ("Vegetarian Sects") in late imperial China and discusses how sectarians envisioned alternative readings of Buddhist practice that, in many respects, anticipate the so-called "modern Buddhisms".

Nikolas Broy

Modern Buddhism Without Modernity: The Case of Zhaijiao ("Vegetarian Sects") in Late Imperial China

This paper takes up the evolution of religious practice among the popular Buddhist tradition of Zhaijiao ("Vegetarian Sects") in late imperial China. It will discuss how and why sectarians in 16th and 17th century southern China envisioned an alternative to the conventional readings offered by monastic Buddhism. Their iconoclastic and ritual-critical program helped to create a consequent inner-worldly "religious conduct of life" (Weber) that rejected traditional practices of coping with one's future. Furthermore, this interpretation is characterized by the rejection of various other popular habits, such as the consumption of meat, smoking, or gambling. Only by observing this rigid "inner-worldly asceticism" proscribed by the sect can salvation be attained. I will show that this "fundamentalist" approach to Buddhism, that came into being well before the arrival of Western modernity, may very well be considered an original Asian contribution to what has been variously labeled "modern", "Protestant", or "Humanistic Buddhism".

Esther-Maria Guggenmos

Tracing the Concept of ‘Dispelling the Web of Doubts’ in the Chinese Buddhist Tradition

This paper takes its start from the observation that the argument to “dispel the web of doubts” (jueyi) is repeatedly occurring as a legitimatory argument to justify divinatory practices in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. Firstly, the term is located in its cultural context and traced back to classical Chinese sources such as the passage from the oft-quoted Zuozhuan: “One is divining in order to dispel doubts. If one has no doubts, why should one divine?” (Zuozhuan, Huangong, 11th year). Secondly, the term is identified in the context of Chinese Buddhist sources and analysed in the context of time concepts that envision the future as the age of the degenerate dharma. Thirdly, it is shown how the idea of “dispelling one’s doubts” functions as a legitimatory bridge to connect divinatory interests with Buddhist concepts of future and respective practices.

Rolf Scheuermann

Purifying Karma by Reciting Sūtras? A Tibetan Perspective

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is particularly rich in practices dedicated to purifying one’s karma, that aim at both bettering this and future lifetimes as well as improving one’s development towards Buddhahood. A popular one from among these methods is the recitation of sūtras. This paper questions whether it is sufficient merely to recite texts in order to make these practices successful or if there are further aspects that need to be incorporated, thereby aiming at producing a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms and concepts. The study focusses on a hitherto little-researched section of the ’Phags pa rtogs pa chen po yongs su rgyas pa'i mdo, which only partially survived in its Tibetan translation within the Tibetan canon, and seems to have been instrumentalized by the influential Indian master, Atiśa Dīpaṃkāra Śrījñāna (980-1054), to propagate the Bodhisattva-conduct in Tibet.

Andreas Nehring

Prognoses of Decline: Coping with the Future. Reforms in 19th Century Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar

Since the early 20th century, mindfulness has become gradually accepted as a philosophical concept or meditation exercise in the west to such an extent that, without exaggeration, it can now be called the most popular buzzword when it comes to the education of consciousness. How this modern phenomenon occurred is, however, only explored to a certain extent. This paper analyses how Vipassanā-meditation first spread among laypeople in Myanmar. In Burma, Buddhist modernization, associated with the introduction of the meditation of laypeople, is to be considered as a collective expression of a new awareness of the “fear of influence” and of new strategies for coping with contingencies. Predictions that Buddhism would decline, which had become virulent under colonialism, facilitated the establishment of a meditation practice as a mass movement in Myanmar which was then transferred to other countries of South Asia and finally to the west at the beginning of the 20th century.

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