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Reviewed by:
  • The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography
  • John R. McRae (bio)
John Kieschnick . The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism, no. 10. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997. vii, 218 pp. Paperback $27.00, ISBN 0-8248-1841-5.

The circumstances of this review are a bit unusual. I received the request to prepare it in the fall of 2003, by which time several reviews of this 1997 publication had already appeared. Also, I am on the board of directors of the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Human Values, and, although T. Griffith Foulk and Daniel Stevenson evaluated the manuscript (p. vii), I was one of those who supported its selection for publication. In addition, I am also a good friend of the author—which is frequently the case in our small but geographically dispersed field. Therefore, in the following paragraphs I will comment not only on the book but on its earlier reviews, and I will report on e-mail exchanges I have had with the author in the context of preparing my own comments. By doing so I hope to contribute to, not only the appreciation of this single volume, but a better understanding of how the book review process works.

The Eminent Monk is a study of an important genre of Chinese Buddhist writing, the series of Gaoseng zhuan texts produced in the sixth, seventh, and tenth centuries. Other than its introduction and conclusion, the three major chapters of Kieschnick's book are devoted to the themes of asceticism, thaumaturgy, and scholarship. The book is very well produced, with very few typographical errors, and it includes excellent back matter: a glossary of Chinese characters, extensive bibliography, and well-done index. The book is gracefully written and if anything too brief, with only 145 pages of text (plus 38 pages of notes).

The earliest review of The Eminent Monk was by Eric Reinders, published on November 13, 1998, in the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics ( Along with introductory and concluding paragraphs, Reinders comments on each of the book's three major chapters, briefly describing the content, quoting a favorite passage, and pointing out some of the implications of Kieschnick's work. It is an entirely positive review, without any hint of criticism—the only irony being when he describes the author as "true to his Stanford [End Page 121] training" (p. 2) in not taking Chan or other types of Buddhist hagiographies at face value. Reinders concludes:

One strength of this book is its consciousness of difference, the juggling of diverse voices and implied audiences. Clearly Kieschnick is concerned throughout with the sitz im leben of these texts, concerned with the facts not of the events described but of the descriptions themselves. Yet, whenever possible, he generalizes cautiously about the real social practices that gave these stories meaning. He is also quite adept at highlighting Chinese Buddhism as a negotiation of Indian and Chinese elements. Another strength, which quickly persuaded me to order this book for use in a lower-division class on East Asian religion, is the readability of the prose, light in its theoretical touch and interspersed with some great stories.

(p. 2 )

We will return below to the distinction between Kieschnick's attention to both the descriptions of events and the social practices behind those descriptions. Reinders' decision to order the book for classroom use is also instructive regarding the tone and style of the book, which is readable and not theoretically heavy-handed.

In James A. Benn's review of The Eminent Monk in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (vol. 8, pt. 3 [November 1998]: 496-498), content summary is mixed with judicious praise and criticism. Benn opens by observing how remarkable it is that Kieschnick is the first scholar to present the biographies as the collections themselves do, "as mixtures of fact and legend" (p. 496). In his description of Kieschnick's chapter on asceticism, Benn observes that the analysis would have been improved by careful consideration of Indian precedents, by consulting such works as...


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