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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 167-189

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An Interfaith Dialogue between the Chinese Buddhist Leader Taixu and Christians

Darui Long
Harvard University 1


On June 21, 1938, a Buddhist monk, the Venerable Taixu (1889-1947), delivered a speech at West China Union University. The interesting title of this speech, which was delivered at the request of University President Dr. Zhang Linggao 2 and Vice President Dryden Phelps, was "China needs Christianity and Europe and America need Buddhism." 3 It might seem surprising that the Venerable Taixu, a Chinese Buddhist leader, would give a speech calling for the propagation of Christianity in China. More plausible, perhaps, would have been for him to insist on the spread of his own religion. This paper will explore the background behind this apparent contradiction.

Taixu was one of the most important Buddhist figures in the history of modern China. As a pained and sympathetic witness to the untold sufferings of the Chinese people, he advocated reform of Buddhism as a response to imperialist invasions and the widespread corruption that existed not only among contemporary government officials, but also among Chinese Buddhists themselves. As part of his plan, he outlined the reorganization of the Sangha 4 system in China, seeking to bring Buddhism up to date by making it scientific and socially conscious, thereby eliciting respect from intellectuals and youth alike. This worthy goal could, in his view, only be achieved if the monastic system was cleansed of commercialism and superstition. His forty-year crusade failed, however, as much because of strong resistance from Chinese Buddhists themselves as from the incessant warfare and resulting social disorder. Exhausted from his many labors, he died in 1947, by which time he had barely succeeded in winning control of the Chinese Buddhist Association.

After his death, Buddhist scholars and practitioners alike began to heap praises on him for his life-long, but unsuccessful, efforts to reform and reorganize the Chinese Buddhist Sangha system. His disciples published Taixu dashi quanshu (the Complete Works of the Venerable Taixu) in 1950. These authors, owing to their close association with Taixu, recorded his activities quite uncritically. One of Taixu's followers even referred to him as the Martin Luther of modern Chinese Buddhism. 5 [End Page 167]

In recent years, scholars in the People's Republic of China have published books on the development of modern Chinese Buddhism and its relationship to society. Most of them describe positively Taixu's contributions and thoughts in this area. At least six books about modern Chinese Buddhism have come out since 1989. 6 For some reason, these scholars have shown little disagreement in the way they have recorded his life and activities, his thoughts, and his role in the development of modern Chinese Buddhism. There are other aspects to the story, however, generally neglected, that deal with negative comments, criticism, and unfavorable views of his personal shortcomings.

In light of the generally favorable treatment he has received, it is difficult to find records that support alternative interpretations of the Venerable Taixu's legacy. Chinese scholars have ignored the negative responses from participants at the gathering where Taixu delivered his speech. The late Professor Holmes Welch, though, has made both positive and negative comments in his book The Revival of Chinese Buddhism which was published in 1968. 7

More than sixty years have elapsed since Taixu's speech. It seems unlikely that--at the time of its delivery--Taixu realized that he was calling for a kind of interfaith dialogue between Chinese Buddhism and Christianity. The term "interfaith dialogue" refers to a discussion that occurs between persons or groups belonging to different religions. In the theological climate of the 1960s and 1970s, this type of dialogue was quite frequent. Taixu, it now appears, seemed to realize the importance of adopting some elements from Christianity into Chinese Buddhism. For example, he fully intended to introduce Christian pastoral training into his program of Chinese Buddhist reform. 8 Today, we still have many questions. To what extent did Taixu succeed in his reforms? What were his most significant...