Worship and Devotional Life: Buddhist Devotional Life in East Asia

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Buddhist practice in East Asia extends across almost two millennia and several different religious cultures and languages. This means that there is a rich and complex set of practices to considerfar too many to attempt a comprehensive presentation within the scope of this article. The character of East Asian Buddhist practice differs both from that of the Western traditions, which have informed the way in which ritual and practice are understood in religious studies, and from many of the popular representations of Buddhism. These differences constitute a series of theoretical issues, which include the relation between the categories of ritual and meditation, the relation between local and translocal traditions of practice, the complex relation between practice and ideology, the social dimensions of East Asian Buddhist practice, the multivalence of practices, and the emic categories for types and structures of ritual practice. The following will discuss specific instances of East Asian Buddhist practice in relation to these issues.

Ritual and Meditation

Contemporary Western religious discourse frequently differentiates between ritual and meditation as mutually exclusive categories, often implicitly valuing meditation and dismissing ritual. However, the cultic practices of East Asian Buddhism cannot be so clearly distinguished, as they have both ritual and meditative aspects. For example, the most familiar Buddhist practice is doubtless sitting meditation as found in the Zen (Chin., Chan; Kor., Sŏn) tradition. Often considered the epitome of meditation, upon examination one finds such meditation to be a highly ritualized practice. All aspects of behavior during Zen meditation are prescribed, from bodily posture while sitting to the manner of walking while circumambulating the temple between sitting sessions and the manner in which one enters the meditation hall and takes one's seat. Even outside of the meditation period, the manner of one's behavior in all activitiesparticularly during meals, and excepting only break periodsis carefully prescribed.

Conversely, the rituals of the Japanese Tantric tradition of Shingon are filled with meditative elements. For example, the Full Moon Visualization practice (Jpn., gachirin kan ), which is one of the introductory practices in the training of a Shingon priest (Skt., ācārya ; Jpn., ajari ), includes gazing at a white circle until one is able to see the image mentally, without the support of the visual object. One then imagines this white circle expanding to fill the entirety of the universe and shrinking to a tiny spot at the very center of one's visual field. The Full Moon Visualization practice also exemplifies the continuity between Indian and East Asian Buddhist practices. The practice matches the kasia practice recorded for example in Buddhaghosa's Path of Purification (Pali, Viśudhimagga ). The kasias are a set of ten visualizations of a circular device made of a variety of substances and colors (Skt., rūpa ), one of which is a white circle. Thus, it forms part of a tradition of practice that, while originating in a specific historical and cultural location, was relocated across China to Japan, becoming thereby translocal.

Local and Translocal

All religion is local. Some practices, however, are portable, and being carried across linguistic and cultural boundaries become translocal. Frequently, this process of movement between religious cultures leads to confrontation, interaction, and appropriation of practices, symbols, and ideas. In East Asia many practices are shared by Buddhist, Daoist, neo-Confucian, Shintō, and Shugendō traditions. Despite this long history of religious interaction, Buddhist practices do demonstrate a high level of continuity between their Indian origins and their East Asian instantiations. This continuity, however, should neither be interpreted as providing a basis for claims of authority or authenticity, nor taken as grounds for claims that some practices are pure while others are syncretic. It is simply the case that Buddhist practitioners both maintained practices originating in India and integrated East Asian religious elements into Buddhism.

One example of the interaction between local and translocal traditions of practice is the Ghost Festival (Skt., Avalambana or Ullambana; Chin., Yu lan pen; Jpn., Urabon or Obon). While drawing on Indian antecedents, the Ghost Festival originated in medieval China and continues in present-day Japan and in Japanese Buddhist temples in the United States. The founding story for the Ghost Festival is that of the monk Maudgalyāyana (Chin., Mulien), who saves his mother from her current birth as a hungry ghost (Skt., preta ; Jpn., gaki ) by making offerings to monks coming out of their summer retreat (Skt., varā ; Chin., anju )a three month period of reclusion and intensified practice. The rainy-season retreat dates from the time of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, and was in fact common to other groups of wandering ascetics in fourth century bce India.

While based on Indian monastic antecedents, the Ghost Festival complex was adapted to local values and local practices. Developed in response to the Chinese emphasis on filial devotion (xiao ), the Ghost Festival was promoted to high levels of popularity. Additionally, the involvement of laity and the emphasis on the agricultural cycle with its symbolism of renewal are aspects of the Chinese Ghost Festival that distinguish it from the Indian precedents. In China the schedule of the Ghost Festival correlates strongly with the agricultural cycle. There, the monastic summer retreat began in the middle of the fourth lunar month and ended in the middle of the seventh lunar month, while in India and Central Asia there was much more variation in the monastic schedule.

One of the specific rites that frequently forms part of the Ghost Festival in some contemporary Japanese Buddhist traditions is the feeding of the hungry ghosts. The dead are conceived under two categories: those who have a relation with a living family and those who do not (Jpn., muenbotoke ). The former can proceed through a cycle of rituals over a period of thirty-three years and become a member of the anonymous collectivity of the ancestors. In the contemporary Japanese Shingon tradition of Tantric Buddhism, these memorial rites proceed through an increasingly extended cycle and are associated with a group known as the Thirteen Buddhas (though technically not all are buddhas): first seventh day, Acala (Fudō); second seventh day, Śākyamuni (Shaka); third seventh day, Mañjuśrī (Monju); fourth seventh day, Samantabhadra (Fugen); fifth seventh day, Kitigarbha (Jizō); sixth seventh day, Maitreya (Miroku); seventh seven day, Bhaiajyaguru (Yakushi); hundredth day, Avalokiteśvara (Kannon); first anniversary, Mahās-thāmaprāpta (Seishi); third anniversary, Amitābha (Amida); seventh anniversary, Akobhya (Ashuku); thirteenth anniversary, Mahāvairocana (Dainichi); and thirty-third anniversary, Ākāśagarbha (Kokūzō).

However, those who do not have family relations who can insure that this process is completed are in danger of becoming hungry ghostsdangerous and dissatisfiedwandering the human realm at the time of the Ghost Festival. During the Ghost Festival in contemporary Japan one can see offerings to hungry ghosts placed outside the homes of those who also have offerings to their own ancestors on their family altar.

Hungry ghosts are described as having huge bellies, indicative of their hunger, at the same time they have exceedingly slender necks, blocking them from taking in as much as their hunger drives them to desire. In another description, whenever they do take food their mouths burst into flames, giving them their alternate name of "flaming mouths." By the power of the ritual, the throats of the hungry ghosts are opened and they are able to consume the offerings made to them. Indeed, after consuming the offerings, their evil karma is extinguished and they are reborn in a Pure Land.

Another practice that combines local and translocal religious forms, and also continues into the present, is pilgrimage. Classic Chinese pilgrimage sites for Buddhists were Mount Tiantai and Mount Wutai. The former was important as the location in which Zhiyi (538597) established the Tiantai tradition (Jpn., Tendai). Consequently, monastic pilgrims, even from Japan, were drawn to Mount Tiantai. For example, Ennin (794864) of the Japanese Tendai tradition centered on Mount Hiei outside Kyoto spent nine years in China and recorded his travels in a historically important journal. Of more popular appeal was Mount Wutai, widely considered to be the residence of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom. So popular was Mount Wutai that it drew pilgrims not only from within China itself, but also from Mongolia, Inner Asia, and Tibet.

In Japan, Mount Kōya is an important pilgrimage site, particularly the tomb of Kūkai (774835; posthumous title, Kōbō Daishi, founder of the Japanese Tantric Shingon tradition), where he is said to remain in perpetual meditation. Although the most important center of Shingon Buddhism, because of Kūkai's wide appeal, Mount Kōya serves as a pan-Buddhist pilgrimage site. Also associated with Kūkai is the pilgrimage route encircling the island of Shikoku. Beginning and ending on Mount Kōya, the route comprises eighty-eight temples. Despite the association with Shingon, specific temples along the route are affiliated with a variety of Japanese Buddhist sects, and have an equally wide variety of chief deities (Jpn., honzon ). Specific sites along the route mark events in Kūkai's life, and thus the entire route is often asserted to have been established by him. However, the route only became a pilgrimage circuit much later, becoming most popular in the first half of the nineteenth century. The circuit character of the Shikoku pilgrimage is shared with many South and East Asian pilgrimages, and distinguish these from Western pilgrimages, which tend to be linear.

Throughout its history in East Asia, Buddhist practice interacted with other religious traditions, with borrowing being done in both directions. In Japan the rise of distinct, self-identified Shintō traditions in the fifteenth century saw the adaptation of Buddhist practices into Shintō forms. For example, Yuiitsu and other Shintō lineages developed their own rituals of fire offerings (Skt., homa ; Jpn., goma ), clearly modeled on Tantric Buddhist practices. Practice of the homa seems to have been entirely exterminated from the Shintō tradition by the suppression of Buddhism (Jpn., shinbutsu bunri ) in the second half of the nineteenth century, which involved the enforced "purification" of Shintō. Shugendō, the way of mountain ascetics, also developed a homa, this one being performed out of doors (Jpn., saitō goma ). Shugendō saitō gomas continue to be performed in contemporary Japan, sometimes on the grounds of Buddhist temples or Shintō shrines, and they have also become part of the Japanese new religions (Jpn., shin shūkyō ). Conversely, in interaction with Chinese religious culture, within which the Northern (Big) Dipper was a key elementBuddhist practitioners created a homa with that constellation as the chief deity.

Understanding the relation between local and translocal practices requires an examination not only of the textual record but also of the artistic record. While sometimes appearing to be normative, textual sources may in fact only represent one local version of a practice. Like other visualization practices, visualization of the Land of Bliss (Skt., Sukhāvatī; Jpn., Gokuraku) originated in India, was practiced in Central Asia, and was subsequently transmitted to East Asia. The artistic record found in Central Asian cave temples at Turfan show great variety in the visualization sequence and in the elements to be visualized. As Pure Land visualization was transmitted further eastto Dunhuang, China, and Japanthe practice became much more standardized, closely matching the version found in the Contemplation Sūtra (Skt., Amitāyur dhyāna sūtra ; Chin., Kuan wu liang shou ching ; Jpn., Kammuryōju kyō ).

Practice and Ideology

The relation between practice and ideology, or doctrine, is complex. Both practice and ideology influence one another. For example, practices are molded by conceptions of the path to awakening, while cosmological conceptions reflect states of mind created through meditative practice. Likewise, practices appropriated from another religious tradition or relocated into a new religious milieu may be reinterpreted in order to fit into their new setting. An emphasis on the integrity of practice and ideology is found within Buddhist conceptions of the path to awakening. One of the traditional Buddhist ways of talking about the path is to organize it under the three categories of precepts, meditation, and wisdom (Skt., śīla, samādhi, and prajñā ). These are known as the three learnings (Skt., trīiśikāi ; Jpn., sangaku ). Contrary to the idea propagated by some that meditation alone is adequate, the three learnings are understood to form an integrated whole and to all be equally necessary.

The Contemplation Sūtra provides a doctrinal justification for both recitation of the name of Buddha Amitāyus (Amitābha) and visualization of his image. Both kinds of practices are forms of "keeping the Buddha in mind" (Skt., buddhānusmti ; Chin., nianfo ; Jpn., nembutsu ), and as such are considered to imbue the practitioner's mind with the qualities of the Buddha. This is very similar to the idea of "becoming a buddha in this body" (Jpn., soku shin jo butsu ), which informs Tantric Buddhist practice in East Asia. This idea is reflected in the identification of the practitioner's body, speech, and mind with the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha, which is key to many East Asian Tantric Buddhist rituals.

Social Dimensions

An additional consideration is the common conception of Buddhist practice as primarily being a matter of a solitary practitioner seeking awakening. The vast majority of Buddhist practices in East Asia are social activities, either involving the monastic community or the larger community. Even the practice of seated meditation as found in the Zen lineages, often considered paradigmatic of Buddhist practice, is rarely performed as an individual practice in East Asia the way it is in the contemporary West. Rather, it is performed as part of a larger, monastic context, meaning that it is performed both communally and as part of a larger set of monastic practices. What has formed the popular image of the solitary practitioner is the noteworthy exception that becomes legendary for that very reason.

Buddhist practitioners and institutions have also long been deeply involved with the state, being institutionally dependent on the court for approval of monks and for economic support. As a consequence, there are many rituals directed toward the protection of the state, from the alleviation of droughts to protecting the state from invaders. Sometimes called "national protection" (Chin., hu guo ) Buddhism, this meant providing ritual services for the benefit of the court. Perhaps the most important ritual for national protection is the Humane Kings ritual, such as that created by Amoghavajra (Chin., Bukong) when he reworked the Scripture for Humane Kings in eighth-century China. The scripture is classed as one of the perfection of wisdom (Skt., prajñāpāramitā ) sūtras, though it is apparently unique in promoting not wisdom (Skt., prajñā ) as key to movement along the path to awakening, but rather forbearance (Skt., kānti ; Chin., ren ) as most important. This plays on the homophone with the Confucian virtue of humaneness (also ren ). The equation of these two virtues allowed for the promotion of Buddhism in fifth-century China, when the first version of the Scripture for Humane Kings (traditionally considered a translation by Kumārajīva) appeareda time when Buddhism was struggling for legitimacy in a Confucian world.

For most of East Asian Buddhism, the Pure Land practice of reciting the name of the Buddha Amitābha serves to advance the search for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Both in China and Japan, mixed groups of monastic and lay adherents were formed to support their members in this practice, in some instances meeting monthly for extended periods of recitation. Some groups combined lectures on the Lotus Sūtra with recitation practice. Of particular importance was supporting dying members so they could pass away either reciting the name Amitābha or at least hearing the name recited. The earliest of these groups is thought to have been established in 402 ce by the monk Huiyuan on Mount Lu. Comprising 123 adherents, both lay and monastic, it is known by its later appellation, White Lotus Society. Half a millennium later in Japan a similar group was formed on Mount Hiei. Known as the Samādhi Society of Twenty-Five (Jpn., Nijūgozanmai-e), this group was founded in 986 and reorganized in 988 by the monk Genshin.

Multivalence of Practices

Some of the most common categories for the discussion of religious practices are based on distinctions between elite and popular (social status) or between monastic and lay (institutional affiliation) forms of practice. These categories, however, are often misleading in the case of East Asian Buddhism, whereas we have seen with the Pure Land recitation societies described abovethe same practices were commonly engaged in by both monks and laity. Geoffrey Samuel has proposed a more nuanced three-part division based on goal or motivation. Of course, all category systems are provisional. The limiting factor in this case is that motivations may differ between different people, and the same practice may be engaged in with different goals in mind. Thus, rather than utilizing Samuel's three-fold division as a means of categorizing ritual practices per se, it provides us with a means of acknowledging the multivalence of ritual practices. The strength of this categorization is that it is based on Buddhist categories themselves, rather than being imposed from outside.

Samuel's three categories are: pragmatic, karma -oriented, and bodhi -oriented. Pragmatic practices are directed toward providing immediate benefits in this life. Karma -oriented practices deal with the issues of death and rebirth, such as past and future lives. Bodhi -oriented practices are those in which the goal is awakening. Understanding East Asian Buddhist practices as having these three dimensions is important because it demonstrates the breadth of religious practices and concerns in Buddhism, a breadth often obscured by the typical representation of Buddhism in contemporary Western religious culture, which focuses solely on an individualized quest for awakening. Some of the practical concerns include healing, exorcism of demonic possessions, and apotropaic protection from demonic attack and possession.

Healing has been a primary human concern in Buddhism, as in other religious traditions. In medieval Chinese Buddhism, for example, there are many stories of recitation of mantras and sūtras healing the practitioner, either lay or monastic, from illness or demonic possession. Common among these recitative practices are recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitābha (Chin., Amitou; Jpn., Amida) and the Diamond Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā hdaya sūtra ). Like constructing roads and bridges, and providing economic support for monks and monasteries, such recitative practices were understood to generate merit that could benefit the practitioner either in this life or the next.

Recitative practices also served karmic functions, and their efficacy was not considered to be limited to Buddhist settings, but rather extended across the Chinese cosmology. An anecdote tells of a man of good standing who, upon entering a Daoist temple while drunk, playfully pulled the writing brush from the hand of the statue of the judge of evil. Later he is met by a messenger who has been ordered by the judge to bring him before the otherworldly court. Reciting the Diamond Sūtra in secret, he is reprimanded severely by the judge of evil, but eventually forgiven when he promises to recite the Diamond Sūtra seven times a day for the rest of his life. Many other texts, including the Lotus Sūtra and its "Guanshiyin" chapter, which itself circulated as an independent text, were the object of recitation practice.

This recitation of sūtras is one part of what has been called the "cult of the book," in which texts were given religious significance in ways other than being read for their didactic content. Both hagiographic collections, such as the Lives of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng zhuan ) by Huijiao (496554), and miracle tales written by laypersons record a variety of devotional practices directed toward sūtra texts. Sūtra texts were collected, preserved, and displayed, which seems to continue the equation made between the Buddha and his teachingssūtra texts themselves were treated as comparable to relics; that is, as vehicles for the presence of buddhas and bodhisattvas. The physical presence of a sūtra text also provided protection when worn on the body like an amulet, and miraculous punishments were said to follow on acts of desecration against sūtra texts.

Similar to healing, exorcistic, and apotropaic rites are practices related to personal hygiene, which are found throughout East Asian monastic Buddhism. One particular set of these practices is focused on avoiding the polluting and demonic forces of the toilet. A sixteenth-century Korean Sŏn manual reflects beliefs and practices inherited from China, which are still found in some Japanese temples as well. Before entering the latrine, a monk is to snap his fingers three times to warn the demons dwelling there. This is followed by a series of five mantras for entering the latrine, for purification, for cleansing the hand, for getting rid of filth, and for a pure body.

Illness and demonic possession do not seem to have been clearly distinguished, as illness was often understood as a sign of demonic possessionseen, for example, in the Japanese Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari ), written by Murasaki Shikibu at the very beginning of the eleventh century. Exorcistic rituals date back much further in China, however. Compiled in the middle of the fifth century ce, the Buddhist Book of Consecration employs a practice of impressing a seal empowered with the names of powerful spirits. Despite the text's use of the Sanskrit term mudrā, which literally means "seal," the Buddhist form of this ritual draws on earlier Chinese practices. Seals were used as the symbol of authority and power, and by carving seals with the names of powerful spiritual entities, such as the Yellow God, Monarch of Heaven, and impressing these either directly on buildings or on pieces of paper hung on a house, one could be protected from demonic forces. Such apotropaic uses clearly match exorcistic uses in which the seal is applied to the body of the afflicted person.

Types and Structures

Buddhist practitioners have categorized ritual practices according to their purposes. These native taxonomies demonstrate the continuity of Buddhist thought, which originated in Indian Buddhism and is found in Tibet as well as East Asia. These categories are applied, for example, to the homa, which has its origins in pre-Buddhist Vedic votive rituals employing fire as a means by which the offering is transferred from the officiant to the deities evoked. In the esoteric Buddhist traditions, there are five purposes for which the homa may be performed: for pacification (Skt., śāntika ; Jpn., soku sai ); for increase (Skt., pauika ; Jpn., zō yaku ); for subjugation (Skt., ābhicāruka ; Jpn., gō buku or jō buku ); for subordination (Skt., vaśikaraa ; Jpn., kei ai ); and for acquisition (Skt., akuśa ; Jpn., kō shō ). The use of the same ritual for differing purposes is evidenced by this practice. Each of these five kinds of homa are interpreted as having both a practical purpose and as conducive to awakening. For example, the homa of pacification functions practically to protect the practitioneror the ritual sponsorfrom accidents, disasters, and misfortunes. The esoteric interpretation is that the ritual extinguishes obscurations (Skt., kleśa ; Jpn., bonnō ). Indeed, the ideology of esoteric Buddhism presents a view in which there is no real difference between these two effects, based on the equation of sasāra and nirvāa found in the Madhyamaka tradition. An instance of the practical application of the homa of pacification is found at the Shin Daibutsu temple in Mie prefecture, where the ritual is performed for the protection of truck drivers who work in the logging industry.

The contents and organization of many of the rituals of East Asian Buddhism were based on a common set of elements and structures. In China, one of the most widely practiced monastic rites was repentance. Repentance rituals were built up out of a set of common elements. The earliest set of these elements appears in the triskandha ritual found in the Ugra-paripcchā Sūtra, translated into Chinese in the last decades of the second century ce. Typically, the triskandha is a three-part ritual involving repentance, rejoicing in the merits of others, and requesting the buddhas to teach. This was not a fixed form, however. In some versions, rejoicing in the merits of others is replaced with committing oneself to changing one's future behavior. Requesting the buddhas to have pity on the practitioner replaces requesting the buddhas to teach. The formulaic character of repentance rites indicates that these are not confessions of particular sins that one has committed, but rather a ritualized repenting of all of the karmic offenses that one may have performednot only in this lifetime, but indeed in all previous lifetimes throughout beginningless time.

The ritual format of repentance rites expanded over time, coming to include from four to eleven ritual actions, known as "limbs." While there are eleven elements in both the Indian and Chinese forms, differences between the two traditions lead to a total of fourteen. These are making offerings (Skt., pūja, pūjanā ; Chin., gongyang ), going for refuge (Skt., śāraa-gamana ; Chin., sangui ), receiving the five precepts (Chin. only, shou wujie ), relying on the Buddha's path (Skt. only, mārgāśrayaa ), offering praise (Skt., vandanā ; Chin., zan fo ), performing veneration through prostrations (considered part of the offerings in Sanskrit; distinguished in Chinese, li fo ), confessing or repenting (Skt., pāpa-deśanā ; Chin., chanhui ), rejoicing in the merits of others (Skt., puyānumodanā ; Chin., suixi ), requesting the buddhas to teach (Skt., adhyeanā ; Chin., quanzhu, qing ), requesting the buddhas to remain in the world (Skt., yācanā, not distinguished from requesting the buddhas to teach in Chinese), sacrificing the self (Skt., atmatyāga, ātmabhāvananiryātana ; Chin., sheshen ), giving rise to the thought of awakening (Skt., bodhicittotpāda ; Chin., fa putixin ), transfering merit (Skt., pariāmanā ; Chin., huixiang ), and making vows (Skt., praidhāna ; Chin., fayuan ).

The structure of the homa ritual demonstrates another organizing structure. The fundamental ritual metaphor is that of feasting an honored guest, which originates in Vedic ritualism and was adopted into all Tantric traditions. The ritual proceeds through a regular sequence beginning with preparing the site and offerings, inviting the deities into the ritual space, making offerings and ritually identifying with the chief deity, separating from the chief deity and returning the deities to their place in the maala, and finally ending the ritual and opening the ritual space.


The range and variety of East Asian Buddhist practice can be exemplified by examination of a specific cult, such as that of Kitigarbha, the Earth Treasury Bodhisattva. There are three primary axes of this cult: devotional practices, repentance rituals, and funerary rituals. The devotional practices include recitation of the name of the bodhisattva, creation of different kinds of representations of the bodhisattva and their veneration, and recitation and copying of the Sūtra of the Bodhisattva Kitigarbha. Recitation of the name and veneration of the image of Kitigarbha seem to have been influenced by the Pure Land tradition's practices. The link between Pure Land and the cult of Kitigarbha is indicated by the changes to the standard Amitābha triad of Amitābha Buddha and his two attendant bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta. In some cases Mahāsthāmaprāpta is replaced by Kitigarbha. A variety of repentance rituals focusing on Kitigarbha were also written.

The diversity of East Asian Buddhist practices constitute a rich field of study, especially given the difference between these practices and both the intellectual heritage of Western religious studies and the popular representation of Buddhism in the West. The issues raised by the study of East Asian Buddhist practice include the integrity of ritual and meditation, the dynamics of local and translocal practices, the complex relation between practice and ideology, the social dimensions of practice, the multivalence of practice, and the emic categories for types and structures of practice.

See Also

Amitābha; Buddhist Meditation, article on East Asian Buddhist Meditation; Buddhist Religious Year; Nianfo; Priesthood, article on Buddhist Priesthood; Sūtra Literature; Temple, articles on Buddhist Temple Compounds.


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