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  • Out of the Cloister: Literati Perspectives on Buddhism in Sung China, 960-1279
  • Robert Foster (bio)
Mark Halperin . Out of the Cloister: Literati Perspectives on Buddhism in Sung China, 960-1279. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 272. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. vi, 364 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN: 978-0-674-02265-2.

Out of the Cloister contributes to the growing body of literature on the Song dynasty by examining the interaction of literati with Buddhist institutions from the Tang through the Song. Through analyzing literati commemorations (ji 記) for Buddhist institutions, Halperin argues that there is a clear shift in the way literati viewed the role of Buddhist institutions during this period. The Tang vision is characterized as "devotional" (p. 28) and "doctrinal" (p. 35), with Tang writers serving as "lay preachers" (p. 32) promoting Buddhism. This is contrasted with the new Song view of "worldly devotion" (p. 4) or "worldly piety" (p. 25), characterized by a "multifocal" vision that brings the sacred, political, and social together in commemorations. This worldly piety of Song meant literati "appropriated the hermeneutical authority once reposed in the sangha as they saw fit . . . ; [and piety] did not preclude a very functional view that Buddhism ought to be employed in ruling the empire" (p. 25). In other words, Song literati used commemorations as vehicles for social and political critiques on issues that Tang writers did not associate with the "sacred" nature of writing that would become part of the historical record of the institution.

The work adds to our understanding of the Song as a transitional moment when the foundations of later imperial China were being laid. Our current view of this transition includes the shift toward localism, the rise of the literati due to their classical education, the revival of Confucianism, the solidification of an imperial bureaucracy ideologically based upon Confucianism, and the concomitant development of Neo-Confucianism. Though fading, the traditional view of the relationship [End Page 179] of Buddhism and Confucianism during this period understood the Song as the moment when Neo-Confucianism ascended, while Buddhism stagnated and declined after its brilliant golden age during the Tang. Following upon the work of John McRae and others,1 Halperin notes that "far from being pushed to the margins of Chinese culture, [Buddhism] became even more a part of everyday elite Chinese life" (p. 26).

After establishing his main arguments in the introduction and developing his interpretation of Tang commemorations in the first chapter, entitled "Views from the T'ang," the second chapter, "Protecting the Dharma," brings us into the Song. The dominant theme of this chapter is the rising influence of Chan in the Song, which Halperin credits with shifting the literati attitude toward Buddhism in two major ways. First, Chan challenged previously held assumptions about the efficacy of traditional charitable works. This is well encapsulated in the story of Bodhidharma's confrontation with Emperor Liang Wudi, who had a penchant for building temples and making lavish donations to Buddhist institutions to promote his good karma. Bodhidharma told him this was for naught. Chan stressed the pursuit of individual enlightenment here and now, rather than the pursuit of good karma leading to higher and higher rebirths. Chan basically argued that Buddha's original message of individual spiritual enlightenment had been corrupted and lost over the centuries. Rather than perceiving a linear progression of Buddhism over time, the history of Buddhism became one of disruption (pp. 72, 75). This fits well with Peter Bol's characterization of the shift in Confucian cultural understanding between the Tang and Song. In This Culture of Ours and in Neo-Confucianism in History,2 Bol argues that prior to the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, Tang literati saw themselves contributing to the development of "culture" (wen 文). After the rebellion and into the Song, literati associated with the "ancient prose" (guwen 古文) movement spoke of a rupture with the ideals of the classics, Confucius, and Mencius. However, rather than evoking despair, this rupture liberated literati from the intervening centuries of cultural tradition. Instead, Song literati spoke with confidence of being able to interpret directly the classical texts and perceive the mind of the sages. One of...


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