AAR 2020 Emerging Voices Roundtable -Abstracts

Joel D. Daniels, American University.

“Does the Wind Bend or Break the Grass? A Comparative Study of Pentecostal Spirituality and Chinese Religious Thought”

The first Pentecostal missionaries arrived in China in 1907, bringing an affective, emotional, and experiential spirituality with them. This small, Holy Spirit focused Christian movement quickly grew into an indigenous Christianity, leading some scholars to suggest that Chinese Christianity is inherently Pentecostal. Pentecostalism appears to have its largest community within China today, claiming as many as one hundred million followers. How can this be?

I argue that two of the primary reasons why is that Pentecostalism (1) affirmed central values found in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, while (2) harmonizing with Chinese “popular” religion practices. The Pentecostal spirituality propogated by missionaries, though unintentional, supported values embedded in China’s religious heritage.

These shared values, however, only tell half the story––Pentecostal spiritual practice, which is Spirit (靈/灵) centered, accorded with Chinese religious practice. The congruence is particularly pronounced because Pentecostal missionaries weren’t educated on a normative Pentecostal spirituality, largely because there is no normative Pentecostalism; thus, they included many Spirit-centered practices as “Pentecostal.” Consequently, the Chinese people did not have to abandon their values or religious practices but rather simply reframe and bend them to a “new” source––the Holy Spirit (聖靈/圣灵).

Jue Liang, Denison University

“Trading Western Suits for Monastic Robes:' Remaking Tibetan Buddhism in the Chinese Religious Revival”

As arguably the largest center of Buddhist learning in the world, Larung Gar has drawn in hundreds of thousands of Buddhists from all over the world, and is particularly successful in attracting Han Chinese disciples as a Tibetan Buddhist institution. This projects sets out to ask what makes the success story of Larung Gar, what explains its massive appeal, and what this story tells us about Buddhism and the religion revival in China. Using a hitherto unstudied collection of 125 first-person accounts of Han Chinese disciples who have studied and practiced at Larung, I examine the reason for their conversion as presented in the collection and query the purpose behind compiling their life stories. I argue that by advocating for and propagating an inclusive and intellectual vision, Larung Gar establishes itself as a modern institution and Tibetan Buddhism a universal religion. Tibetan Buddhism (and Buddhism in general) is depicted as scientific (not superstitious), transcending ethnic and national boundaries (not confined to one place or one time), and deeply rooted in Chinese civilization (as opposed to a foreign belief). For the Tibetan Buddhist leaders of our age, the survival of Buddhism requires a skillful adaption (upāya) to the changing social and political reality of its time.

Jakub Otčenášek, University of Economics, Prague and University of Pardubice, Czech Republic.

"Tianshidao and the problem of (Chinese) millennialism."


Interpretations of the early Tianshidao scriptures have widely employed the concept of "millennialism" (or "millenarianism", "messianism" etc). At the same time, these scriptures were used for constructing the concept of specifically "Daoist" or "Chinese millennialism".  This was based on the notion of taiping (Great Peace) as similar yet different from Millennium, and on the cyclical time contrasted to the linear time. Rereading the Tianshidao material challenges both aspects - not only the taiping takes on various forms but the millennialist rhetoric can be found in other concepts too. Not only the cyclical / linear dichotomy is an oversimplification but the various texts construct the time in different ways. More recently, several sociologists of religion made attempts to define millennialism transculturally. However, the application of such definitions on Tianshidao material shows their inherent reductionism. Not only they reproduce Christian ideas but also fail to present millennialism without its implicit diminution. Therefore the author presents a new definition of millennialism that can be applied in various contexts, together with the tools for distinguishing its variable aspects.

Kai Shmushko Tel Aviv University, Kaishmusko@mail.tau.ac.il

Title: Enchanted Commodities or Cultural Elements? 

Exploring Lay Tibetan Buddhism in China through the “Living Hall” (Shenghuo guan 生活馆) model

Groups of Lay Buddhists in China are situated in the center of intersecting power relationships between politics and religion. This study explores how Lay Buddhists operate to facilitate their practice against the backdrop of the Chinese state's attitude towards Religious Groups. Through a case study on a Tibetan Buddhist group in Shanghai, the article explores the phenomenon of “Living Hall” (Shenghuo guan 生活馆), a business model employed by the devotees for structuring an urban Buddhist community. The model reflects the trajectory of Tibetan Buddhism in Han China and the place of merit economy and materialism in it. The study also explores how, along the lines of the PRC’s current efforts to restrict and re-define religion, Tibetan Buddhism is fused into Chinese material culture. The activities of lay Tibetan Buddhists can be interpreted as accepting the molding of the Xi Jinping regime of "Buddhism as Culture”. The author argues that some “Living Halls” and the material exchanges related to them are used to assimilate and nuance religious practice. However, at the same time, the power spaces and objects hold in the dynamics of Enchantment also works as a subversive power within Chinese society.

Dessi Vendova, Postdoctoral Fellow in East Asian Art and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley

“Chinese Vinaya texts in aid to the study of early Buddhist monuments and image practices”  

Vinaya texts by early Buddhist schools preserved in Chinese translation contain valuable wealth of information that remains largely unknown to and underutilized by scholars of early Buddhist art and architecture. With very few exceptions, these useful texts have not received much notice by scholars. In this presentation I will give several examples where early Vinaya texts can be very useful in the study of early Buddhist monuments such as stupas and cave temples. I will also touch upon what Vinaya texts can tell us about the image of the “Pensive Crown Prince” (siwei taizi思維太子), an image especially popular in Central Asia and China and related to the cult of Buddha Shakyamuni. Several passages from Vinaya texts of the Sarvastivadinsand the Mūlasarvāstivādinsshed important light for the more accurate understanding of this iconographic phenomenon, and explain the reasons for its lasting and transregional popularity.

Minhao Zhai, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion, Princeton University

"Rethinking Talisman in the Study of Medieval Chinese Buddhism"

Talisman is a topic that receives substantial attention from students of Chinese religions. Alongside the enduring interests in talismans from scholars of Daoist studies, nowadays, their Buddhist counterparts also mention talismans more in their studies. However, an important question remains to be asked is what we talk about when we talk about talismans. More precisely, what are the differences and similarities of the objects that are discussed by the two camps?  If the objects in question do look quite different on the physical appearances, then what is the rationale for us to put them all under the same rubric? In this talk, I argue that we should have a new and broader conceptual framework of talismans rather than solely focus on their original names or physical features. The new category, which focuses more on how invisible efficacy is generated and then channelled onto an object, will even shed some new light on the study of how consecrated objects are made, utilized, and understood beyond the scope of medieval Chinese Buddhism.