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Reconsidering Traditional Teachings in Difficult Times

From the series What a Daoist Might Teach Us about Contextualizing Christianity

The gospel is a story of becoming new, of being born again. It is, at its core, a story of divine transformation. In the long history of Chinese religious thought, transformation is also a common motif. Whether grounded in Confucian ideas of moral self-cultivation, Daoist conceptions of immortality, or Buddhist principles of enlightenment, the Chinese are no strangers to being “born of the spirit.” 

Culture Shapes our Understanding

Questions of intercultural and inter-religious engagement are thus fundamentally important to the church’s mission. Comparative study is particularly common in the story of Chinese Christianity. From Matteo Ricci’s pioneering dialogues with Confucian thought to James Legge’s rigorous desire to translate and understand all manner of Chinese religious texts, those who have sought to serve God and China have often found themselves at such intersections.

It is no different today. As Jackson Wu so articulately presented in the 2018 spring issue of ChinaSource Quarterly on the contextualization of the gospel, “Effective contextualization is not primarily about methodology and strategy; rather, it concerns perspective. How do our cultural experiences cause us to read the Bible in fresh ways? How does a robust biblical perspective shed light on the needs and values of the culture?” In other words, one cannot simply ask how the gospel might transform a culture. One must also consider in equal measure how culture shapes our understanding of the gospel. 

Buddhism’s Entrance into Chinese Thought

It is in this spirit that I humbly offer this series of posts focused on one of the most dramatic and powerful examples of religious contextualization ever to have taken place: Buddhism’s centuries-long rooting in Chinese soil. In specific, I focus on the teachings of Zhuangzi, a Daoist sage from the warring states period (475-221 BCE). Scholars of Chinese Buddhism generally agree that among the many contingencies that contributed to China’s embrace of Buddhism, Zhuangzi’s teachings are of the utmost importance. It is thus worth considering how Zhuangzi’s teachings, so influential to Chinese conceptions of transformation, might also resonate with the Christian gospel. 

This series of posts contains three parts. In this first part, I sketch the historical context in which Zhuangzi’s teachings came to bridge Buddhist and Chinese thought. In the second part to come, I will highlight a few key themes from Zhuangzi’s teaching that provided common ground for Buddhism to build upon. In the third and final part, I will tease out how these themes might resonate with Christian teachings today.

Buddhism arrived in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) when Indian monks arrived and began living in monasteries, a form of religious community life utterly foreign to the Chinese sensibilities of the time. Buddhist forms of meditation practice, however, attracted the Chinese elite because they paralleled many Daoist practices. In time, the Buddha was adopted by some rulers as one of the many gods sought to secure political authority and obtain personal divine transformation. Under their patronage, Buddhist scriptures were translated to better understand the ways this foreign faith might contribute to elite Chinese concerns of harmonious governance and personal immortality.

With the disintegration of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE and the subsequent social unrest of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 CE), Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE), and Northern/Southern Dynasties (420-588 CE) periods, many Han Chinese literati retreated to the south, a comparably more stable region. There they mulled over what may have caused such calamities to befall their great civilization. They began to reimagine their own traditions by mixing and matching Confucian and Daoist thought in a new intellectual movement known as “Xuan Xue 玄学,” what many scholars translate as “Dark/Mysterious Learning” or “Neo-Daoism.” 

A New Movement of Thought

At the height of this new movement was a renewed fascination with the teachings of Zhuangzi, a Daoist sage who rigorously rejected political power and social influence in favor of a life led by “free and easy” contemplation and simplicity. The meanings of Zhuangzi’s teachings and their implications for both individual and sociopolitical transformation were vigorously debated in a particular style of argumentation known aspure conversation,” “Qing Tan 清谈”. 

Somewhere in this complex tangle of philosophical openness and national soul-searching, a convergence took place between Confucian/Daoist thought and Buddhist teachings. As scholarly inquiry into Zhuangzi’s teachings continued to grow, so did interest in Buddhist teachings on similar subjects of the nature of humanity and society, the relationship between eternal forms and material realities, and on how to best cultivate the “ inward holiness and outward kingship,” “Nei Shen Wai Wang 内圣外王," of the ideal person. This meant an educated Chinese Buddhist monk or layperson, once relegated to the sideline of mainstream intellectual conversations as either a curiosity or a means to an end, suddenly found himself on equal cultural footing. At this time, many Buddhist sutras had also been translated into Chinese philosophical language. The educated Buddhist’s capacity to address the very questions Confucian/Daoist scholars were pondering thus became both possible and welcomed. These Buddhists became sought after guests for the “pure conversations” taking place. They shed new light on Zhuangzi from a Buddhist perspective that was both different enough to be novel and yet resonant enough to be familiar. 

In the centuries that followed, Zhuangzi’s particular pattern of personal cultivation would be woven and spun with Buddhist threads in so intimate a manner that Buddhism would eventually become embraced as a wholly Chinese form of religiosity. Today, Buddhism carries equal weight alongside Confucianism and Daoism as one of China’s three great teachings. 

Coming Next: What was it exactly that Zhuangzi taught that so captured the Chinese imagination of the time? How did Buddhism come to connect so deeply with these questions? What lessons can the Zhuangzi-Buddhist convergence provide us about the ways Christianity has and continues to engage Chinese culture? These questions will be addressed in the second and third parts of this series. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and questions.

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Easten Law

Easten Law

Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio

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