Christine Mollier. Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face: Scripture, Ritual, and Iconographic Exchange in Medieval China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008. xi + 241 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3169-1.
Reviewed by Ryan Overbey (Harvard University)
Published on H-Buddhism (July, 2008)
In _Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face_, Christine Mollier undertakes five detailed case studies, each one illuminating a different dimension of the ritual, iconographic, and scriptural interactions of Buddhists and Taoists in medieval China. Mollier does not simply assert that these traditions influenced one another; she reveals in breathtaking detail the wide array of techniques used by Buddhists and Taoists as they appropriated and transformed the texts and icons of their rivals. Mollier's thorough study of the "concrete and practical aspects" of Buddhist-Taoist interaction allows her to see these traditions in a
new light: "What we find in these examples is not mere hybridization or passive borrowing, but a unique type of scriptural production, whereby the two traditions mirrored one another" (p. 10).
In chapter 1, "The Heavenly Kitchens," Mollier examines "an unmistakable case of Buddhist plagiarism" (p. 25), a Buddhist apocryphon entitled the _Sūtra of the Three Kitchens, Preached by the Buddha_(_Foshuo sanchu jing_ 佛說三廚經). This sūtra, found in various recensions at Dunhuang and also in manuscripts from Mount Kōya, was forged on the basis of a Taoist text, which survives today as the _Scripture, with Commentary, of the Five Kitchens Revealed by Laozi_ (_Laozi shuo wuchu jingzhu_ 老子說五廚經註). The Buddhist _Sūtra of the Three Kitchens_ is rife with Taoist terminology, and centers on five abstruse rhymed incantations. These incantations also formed the core of the Taoist text. Mollier shows that the Five Kitchens became the Three Kitchens in the Buddhist text, clumsily emphasizing the Three Jewels, but the five rhymed incantations remained, leaving the reader no doubt about who was doing the forgery. In addition to describing the history
of the Chinese tradition of "heavenly kitchens" and "mobile kitchens," Mollier also gives examples of early Chinese Buddhist texts that emphasized the miraculous appearance of divine food. This was a topic particularly suitable for our Buddhist forger: a tradition with a long and venerable history in China, for which some affinities already existed in Buddhist scripture. Mollier shows not only how this text was forged, she cleverly points out that without the relatively lucid exposition in the Buddhist text, the Taoist rites of the Kitchens would be impenetrable to us. The Taoist text consists entirely of verses so esoteric that Mollier does not even attempt a translation, but the Buddhist version may preserve information about Taoist practice that would otherwise be lost (p. 52). These forgeries not only show us how Buddhism borrowed from Taoism; by mirroring the Taoist scriptures they help the historian to reconstruct a more detailed vision of Taoist
In chapter 2, "In Pursuit of the Sorcerers," Mollier explores _gu_ 蠱 sorcery, a black magic that harnessed the venomous powers of murderous snakes and insects to attack one's enemies. Mollier again studies two texts, the _Sūtra for the Conjuration of Bewitchments, Preached by the Buddha_ (_Foshuo zhoumei jing_ 佛說咒媚經) and the _Scripture for Unbinding Curses, Revealed by the Most High Lord Lao_ (_Taishang Laojun shuo jieshi zhouzu jing_ 太上老君說解釋咒詛). This is no simple case of plagiarism, but rather "a more subtle sort of textual exchange between the two religions, in fact an instance of delayed response in the relation of Taoist scripture to the Buddhist sūtra" (p. 57). Mollier convincingly argues that the Taoist text "is a Tang-dynasty, _huahu_-genre 化胡 response to the Buddhist anti-sorcery sūtra, whose relative ancestry is confirmed and which had drawn some of its earlier materials from still earlier medieval Taoist sources" (pp. 80"81). The remainder of the chapter explores, in a rather broad sweep, the Chinese Buddhist and Taoist approaches to exorcism, their use of effigies and ritual weapons, their embrace of talismans (_fu_ 符), and their shared tendency to privilege the power of the spoken word or
incantation. These sections of the chapter are illuminating, and are useful as thematic collections of examples, but they lack the specificity and focus that typify the rest of Mollier's work.
Chapter 3, "Augmenting the Life Account," explores the Buddhist _Sūtra to Increase the Account_ (_Yisuan jing_ 益算經). This, according to Mollier, is no mere apocryphon. It is "an appropriation, even an outright copy of a Taoist work" (p. 100). Mollier briefly describes the concept of _suan_, or "life account," a celestial granary that predetermines a person's lifespan. Like any bureaucratic system, this one could be gamed, and practitioners
could bribe or cajole the bureaucrats to increase their account and extend their lifespan. Mollier surveys the two closely related Taoist versions of the _Yisuan jing_ and the extant Buddhist copies, and conclusively demonstrates that the Buddhist text is indeed a blatant copy, using what Mollier calls the "cut-and-paste" method of scriptural production. Taoist
technical terms are simply replaced by Buddhist terms, and the Taoist introduction is simply excised. Otherwise, the texts are identical (p. 112). Mollier gives a brief and effective demonstration of this "cut-and-paste" technique when she compares a segment of these scriptures, line by line, in a dual-column translation (pp. 130-131). The chapter also investigates the conceptual background of the scripture, including its invocation of the
Generals of the Six Jia (_liu jia_ 六甲), its invocation of stars and planets, and its use of fifteen talismans to increase one's life account.
In chapter 4, "Under Stellar Protection," Mollier makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the cult of the Northern Dipper (_Beidou_ 北斗). This constellation, which presides over the cycle of gestation and imbues the embryo with its celestial souls, was the subject of a much-studied Buddhist text, the _Sūtra on Prolonging Life through Worship of the Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper, Preached by the Buddha_ (_Foshuo beidou qixing yanming jing_ 佛說北斗七星延命經). This text, extant in Chinese, Uighur, Mongolian, and Tibetan versions, has been studied in detail by Herbert Franke, who showed that it was written on the basis of a Taoist prototype. But Mollier finds three
additional contributions to make to the study of this cult: she explores links between the _Beidou jing_ and esoteric Buddhist adepts like Yixing 一行; she is the first to explore early medieval Taoist sources for the cult; and she brings to bear her expansive knowledge of Dunhuang materials. Mollier's exploration of these Dunhuang materials is most
illuminating. She shows that the Beidou cult manifested at Dunhuang as a form of "parareligious medicine," a product not of vulgar folklore but of elite, government sanctioned religio-medical techniques (pp. 147-149, 152). Mollier's conclusion (pp. 172-173) gives the reader a good sense of both the breadth of her erudition and of the complexity of the interactions she studies. She traces the Beidou cult from its origins in the Eastern Han, through the Shangqing Taoist movement, through the esoteric Buddhist masters of the Tang, and into the various ritual manuals of Dunhuang, whose influence can be seen in the Yuan dynasty _Beidou jing_.
Chapter 5, "Guanyin in a Taoist Guise," Mollier traces the career of Jiuku tianzun 救苦天尊, the Heavenly Venerable Savior from Suffering, a Taoist reflection of Guanyin. Jiuku tianzun is described in the _Marvelous Scripture of the Great Unity, the Savior from Suffering and Protector of Life_ (_Taiyi jiuku hushen miaojing_ 太一救苦護身妙經),
which Mollier dates to the Tang on iconographic grounds (p. 184). Mollier argues that the structure of this text, and the characteristics of Jiuku tianzun as a universal savior, suggest that the Taoist scripture is modeled on the _Pumen pin_ 普門品 of the _Lotus Sūtra_. But this is not a direct borrowing or blatant copying; it is "a literary transposition, a Taoist 'apocryphon' inspired by the _Lotus Sūtra_'s _Pumen pin_" (pp. 207-208). Mollier also demonstrates the remarkable iconographical continuity of Jiuku tianzun, showing how
iconographical details recorded in the writings of Taoist savant Du Guangting (850-933) comport with modern Taoist representations of Jiuku tianzun. Mollier's work inspires the reader to rethink the story of Avalokiteśvara's "sinicization" in China, as we see here how the bodhisattva generated a new Chinese deity to play the role of universal
Mollier concludes with some reflections on the role of popular religion in China. She attacks Erik Zürcher's notion of elite Taoists and Buddhists at the top of a pyramid, with a blurry muddle of unsophisticated popular religion comprising the base. Surely, Mollier
argues, even the most uneducated person would detect some differences between a Buddhist discourse and a Taoist discourse, given the former's emphasis on taking refuge in the Three Jewels? Even so, Mollier asserts a "third party animating the religious marketplace in medieval China. This third class of specialists in recipes, working on the
margins of the Taoist and Buddhist organizations, belonged to the milieu of astrologers, diviners, medicine men, and other experts in parareligious techniques. Permanent actors on the Chinese cultural stage and often custodians of the ancestral patrimony, they are certainly not to be relegated to the amorphous category of 'popular' religion" (p. 210). Mollier has shown that in many of her case studies, the ritual practices remained stable, while technical terms, frame stories, and venerable characters were altered. This suggests a common fount of available technical practices, all which could be integrated into
competing religious frameworks and narratives.
Mollier's work in this volume is brilliant. She deftly navigates through manuscripts, canonical texts, archaeological remains, and art-historical evidence. By focusing on five very different instances of religious interaction, Mollier shows us how details matter, how narratives of Buddhist-Taoist "influence" or "appropriation" should not be carelessly
invoked without first doing the hard work of philology, intellectual history, and art history.
Occasionally, Mollier slips into vagueness or overconfident guesswork when describing the motivations of the Buddhist and Taoist forgers. Her language here is startlingly mercantile: Buddhists and Taoists struggle to make their texts "marketable" (p. 13), they wanted to "win by sheer numbers" (p. 15), and they wanted to "maintain liturgical and evangelical monopolies" (p. 19). The intention of the Taoist adaptation of the _Pumen pin_ "is obvious: to appropriate the Buddhist 'bestseller' for their own ends, and, by so doing, to steal the thunder from the illustrious bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara while promoting their own
protagonist" (p. 208). To this reader, at least, such claims are not at all obvious. One might just as credibly guess that a Buddhist forger is motivated by a sincere desire to correct the record, to _write true things_. An effective ritual technique or a particularly powerful sacred narrative simply cannot have been uttered by Laozi. The record must be set straight. If a thing works, if a thing is true, then it was most certainly uttered by a Tathāgata. Like any ascription of motivation, this too is a mere guess, but it may be a more generous guess than Mollier's vision of Buddhists and Taoists as Madison Avenue marketeers.
This is, of course, a minor quibble. _Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face_ is an exhilarating display of Sinological erudition. Mollier's work serves as a helpful reminder that religious appropriations take place through a variety of media and through a multitude of complex
interactions. She has shown us that as the Buddhist and Taoist traditions mirrored one another, we cannot be content to simply study one tradition or the other. The competent Sinologist must be catholic in her approach, knowing that these traditions constructed themselves and their opponents through intricate sequences of contestation and appropriation.
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Ryan Overbey. Review of Mollier, Christine, Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face: Scripture, Ritual, and Iconographic Exchange in Medieval China.
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