- Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China
Stephen Bokenkamp in his recent work Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth of China offers a welcome addition to Chinese literary and religious history. His prior projects might lead one to expect to find him addressing questions concerning the early relations between Buddhism and Daoism as China's famously diverse religious scene developed. This new book makes such a contribution. Focusing on the earliest Chinese involvement with Buddhist elements, he argues for the need to reconsider how some authors have portrayed the early interactions between these two influential religious traditions, especially regarding the controversial issue of the particular forms of religious influence involved in the interaction. In this way, his recent book can be said to point, in harmony with his other works, toward broader implications for religious studies in general. For at least these reasons most readers of contemporary religious studies will be pleased with the book.
The distinctness of this study is also due to the fact that it focuses on non-Buddhist Chinese texts recently translated by Bokenkamp and others, texts that shed light on pre-Buddhist Chinese perspectives regarding Buddhist elements entering into the broader society. The most central text treated in the main chapters is the Declarations of the Perfected (Zhen'gao), collected by Tao Hongjing (456–536 c.e.) and based on the rituals and visions of the Celestial Master Daoist Yang Xi (330–386? c.e.), which includes what Bokenkamp describes as a compilation of "visionary transcripts and autograph materials," including "not only compelling descriptions of the fates of the dead individuals, but also high family drama" (p. 13). These materials allow for a distinct and informative glimpse into the interaction between daily social concerns and tales concerning the dead. Ancestors and Anxiety also includes an illuminating investigation into an imperially sponsored debate of 318 c.e. aiming to establish the forms of ritual that the emperor regarded as deviant, thus punishable, mortuary practices. After considering these sources in great detail, the book returns to a question central to Bokenkamp's other works, namely the implications that this study has for interpreting the much-debated Lingbao scriptures, Daoist religious texts some-times described as one of the earliest paradigmatic examples of Buddhist influence upon Chinese religion. Bokenkamp argues that reanalyzing the Lingbao texts in light of sources such as Declarations reveals a significantly new understanding of how Buddhism played a role in shaping Chinese religious life. [End Page 561]
The non-Buddhist perspectives on the early influx of Buddhism into Chinese religion are marshaled, according to Bokenkamp, in order to
provide evidence that Buddhist accounts of rebirth and the afterlife did not come to be accepted in China by default, or through ideological poverty, or by fiat. Instead, they were gradually adapted into preexisting Chinese conceptions of how to deal with the dead because they helped to solve particular problems among the living.(p. 10)
The early interaction between the developing Daoist religion and imported forms of Buddhism in China is portrayed as not primarily about deciding between lofty doctrines or competing styles of religious practice. Instead, the interaction is described in terms of a curious range of concerns about everyday problems surrounding the roles of family, religion, and ritual within third- to sixth-century Chinese societies. It is thereby in this secular sense that the theme of anxiety is invoked.
Anxieties concerning the status of the dead in the afterlife are the main focus. It may at first seem odd to a Western audience to approach this topic in terms of the affairs of the living, for, as Bokenkamp notes, Western religions tend to "emphasize commemoration of the dead rather than what the dead might recall" (p. 46). But, during this time in China, "anxieties projected onto the dead most often concern fears that descendants will fail to carry out the memorial services that would deliver the dead from purgatory" (p...