Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings

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While popular religious movements have left their marks in the Chinese historical record since the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 c.e.), a new type of syncretic sectarianism emerged from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) onwards. Continuing trends begun under the preceding Song dynasty (960–1279), this age was characterized by expanding commerce, the spread of literacy, a flourishing printing and publishing industry, improved communication and transport systems throughout the empire, and increasing social and geographical mobility of the population. All of these factors facilitated the flow of religious ideas across regions, denominational boundaries, and classes, and thereby stimulated the emergence of new religious movements. The resulting syncretic proclivities of the age are part of a long history of negotiating the relationship of China's two major indigenous traditions (Confucianism and Daoism) with the foreign newcomer, Buddhism. Harmonizing tendencies constituted a strong intellectual undercurrent among the literati elite, while striking even deeper roots in popular religion, where a focus on family and the local community did not require exclusive affiliation with a particular teaching. Instead, each was seen to have its role to play in the life cycles of families and communities, and thus the concepts and religious specialists associated with each could be drawn upon as needed. This general outlook conditioned the efforts of popular religious virtuosi, creative individuals who possessed enough literacy to benefit from the burgeoning supply of printed texts, but lacked the formal education needed to gain access to literati circles. Many founders of popular sects from the Yuan dynasty onwards came from the ranks of these "folk intellectuals," who received inspiration from many sources and combined their ideas into new religious systems. These systems become visible to the historian of religion primarily in the texts composed by sectarian founders, texts that are treasure troves of information on the religious life of China throughout the Late Imperial period up into modern times.

This entry will focus on the contributions of Buddhism to the colorful world of Chinese popular sectarianism. The impact of Buddhist thought varied from sect to sect, with some movements being so strongly Buddhist in orientation that they have been regarded by outside observers as "lay" or "folk Buddhist" movements, while the teachings of others were more influenced by Daoism. Lin Zhao'en (1517–1598), for example, founded the Sanyi Jiao (Three-in-One sect), which sought to combine the Three Teachings, but in doing so emphasized Confucianism and the internal alchemy of Quanzhen (Complete Realization) Daoism over Buddhism. On the other hand, Luo Qing (1442–1527), founder of the Wuwei (Non-Action) sect, was a major figure in Buddhist-inspired sectarianism. Originally a soldier by profession, he set out on a quest for salvation, studied with various masters, and drew inspiration from a large number of texts, the majority of which were Buddhist in nature. Among these, the Jin'gang keyi (Ritual Amplification of the Diamond Sūtra) touched him particularly; he devoted three years of study to this text and frequently referred to it in his writings. His teachings show a strong influence of Chan Buddhism, with an emphasis on the individual's recovery of his or her innate buddha-nature, or tathĀgatagarbha. For Luo Qing, the concept of ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness) collapsed all distinctions, including those between men and women, and clergy and laity, opening up release from saṂsȦra for all living beings. His writings were gathered in a collection called the Wubu liuce (Five Books in Six Volumes), which still enjoys the status of sacred scripture among present-day sects such as the Longhua Pai (Dragon Flower Sect) of southeastern China.

Alongside the "popular Chan" of Luo Qing, there developed a separate sectarian tradition of a millenarian nature. The first text to formulate this approach is, in fact, the earliest surviving sectarian scripture, dated to 1430: the Foshuo huangji jieguo baojuan (Precious Volume Expounded by the Buddha on the [Karmic] Results of the [Teaching of the] Imperial Ultimate [Period]). Here we find a Buddhist inspired view of the world as moving through three cycles: First there was the Ultimateless (wuji) period reigned over by the Lamplighter (Dīpaṇkara) Buddha (Randeng Fo); the present age is that of the Great Ultimate (taiji), governed by ḍākyamuni Buddha; and now the world is about to enter the Imperial Ultimate (huangji) period of the Buddha Maitreya. This three-stage cosmology with its eschatological expectation of a savior ushering in a new and better world became a powerful motif among later popular sects. It was modified somewhat by the introduction of a mother goddess, the Eternal Mother (Wusheng Laomu), who dispatched the various buddhas to the world so that her human children might return to their original home at their Mother's side. This return is becoming urgent as the world enters its final period and is on an inexorable course toward apocalyptic destruction. Sometimes, sectarian leaders themselves claimed to be Maitreya, sent by the Eternal Mother to gather in her children; occasionally, millenarian fervor initiated political action, as sects rebelled in an attempt to usher in the new age. The bestknown modern representative of this millenarian tradition is the Yiguan Dao (Way of Unity), an influential religious movement in Taiwan and Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese, which was founded in the 1920s by a patriarch who claimed to be the Living Buddha Jigong, dispatched by the Eternal Mother to open up a path of salvation in this final age.

Thus, Buddhism historically served as an important source of inspiration for Chinese popular sects. Buddhist concepts and themes were integrated with Confucian and Daoist elements, as well as with elements of popular origin (such as mediumistic practices), to produce a variegated array of religious movements. The creativity of popular sectarianism has not ebbed in the modern age, as new sects keep emerging. Some of these draw on older sectarian traditions, while others make a fresh start by taking a new look at China's Three Teachings. A modern example of a sect that draws strongly on (in this case, tantric) Buddhist material is the Zhenfo Zong (True Buddha movement), founded by Lu Shengyan (1945–) in the 1980s. Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, it is particularly active among overseas Chinese. While usually eyed with some suspicion by the mainline saṄgha, the Buddhist borrowings of such syncretic sects are a testimony to the successful integration of Buddhism into Chinese popular culture and to its power to inspire religious innovation.

See also:Confucianism and Buddhism; Daoism and Buddhism; Folk Religion, China; Millenarianism and Millenarian Movements


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Philip Clart