- Living Karma: The Religious Practices of Ouyi Zhixu by Beverley Foulks McGuire
Delve into the scholarship on late Ming-dynasty Buddhism, and you soon encounter the name of Ouyi Zhixu 蕅益智旭 (1599-1655), who figures as one of the four great monks of the period, along with Hanshan Deqing 憨山德清 (1546-1623), Yunqi Zhuhong 雲棲祩宏 (1535-1615), and Zibo Zhenke 紫柏真可 (1543-1603). Even though he appeared a generation after the other three, Ouyi Zhixu still wielded influence through his personal charisma, his wide-ranging publications, and his network of correspondents. The field of late imperial Chinese Buddhism has needed a monograph on him for quite some time.
To the scholar who undertakes this study, however, the sheer heft of his output presents a daunting challenge. His Collected Works takes up an entire shelf in my office with its 21 volumes and 14,285 pages. Its contents require close critical reading and often a great deal of contextualization. When I translated his anti-Jesuit tract Pixie ji 闢邪集 (Collected refutations of heterodoxy), it took two years and a lot of collateral reading of the Jesuits’ Chinese publications.1 In short, a study of Ouyi Zhixu can be the work of an entire career.
Dr. McGuire did not have that luxury; since this book began as her Harvard PhD dissertation and she needed to conclude the project in a reasonable amount of time, undertaking the research required for a magisterial overview was not practical. She wisely decided to concentrate on one aspect of Ouyi’s life and thought, and although the first instinct of most scholars might be to focus on some aspect of his doctrinal thinking, she chose to look at Ouyi as a religious practitioner. The result is a study that gets to the heart of Ouyi’s personal religious concerns. It was prudent for her to mark off a manageable research agenda in order to bring the project to completion, and wiser still [End Page 497] was her choice to mark off this territory. I will try to say why in what follows.
The lens through which McGuire examines Ouyi’s religion is karma—not karma as an abstract doctrinal category but karma as lived experience. As she explains, echoing the words of Charles Hallisey and Anne Hansen, her task is to see what, for one individual, it was like to “live in a world structured by karma” (p. 2).2 To get at this experience, she focuses her attention on personal narratives, ritual and votive texts, and bodily practices in which Ouyi describes his experience of karma and employs liturgical procedures to redirect it.
McGuire lays out her exposition in five chapters. Chapter 1 features a reading of Ouyi’s autobiography, entitled Babu daoren zhuan 八不道人傳 ([Auto]biography of the follower of eight negations). (A full translation of Ouyi’s autobiography appears as an appendix.) McGuire considers Western scholarly analyses of autobiography as a genre, but she concludes that such models have only limited utility in characterizing Ouyi’s text (p. 20). It is better to study it within the native Chinese genres of biography (zhuan 傳) and Buddhist hagiography writings that served as exempla for emulation (p. 22).
McGuire considers the eponym Babu daoren 八不道人 (Follower of eight negations) as emblematic of Ouyi’s determination to stand above sectarian distinctions in order to foster an inclusive Buddhist/ Confucian identity (pp. 23-33). She also draws on recorded dreams that presaged significant events in Ouyi’s birth and life, noting the use of karma as a connecting thread that renders the events meaningful. Several elements seem to point to the prospect of a remarkable life—for example, Ouyi’s birth in response to his father’s recitation of dhāraṇī (magical incantations) and his dream of meeting Confucius and Yan Hui 顏回. But Ouyi also expresses deep regret for his youthful anti-Buddhist writings, which troubled him to the extent that William James might have classed him among the “sick souls” in his Varieties of Religious Experience.3...