A slim volume translating anecdotes about Páng Yún 龐蘊 (also called "Layman Páng" 龐居士), an exemplary lay Buddhist of the late eighth/early ninth cen...moreA slim volume translating anecdotes about Páng Yún 龐蘊 (also called "Layman Páng" 龐居士), an exemplary lay Buddhist of the late eighth/early ninth century. Also includes a selection of 25 poems attributed to him (actually called poem-gāthās 詩偈 in the original), and an introduction to medieval Chinese Buddhism and the life of Layman Páng.
The tone of the book is scholarly without being academic: you'll find very little of the American-style Zennish philosophical speculation. One of the hands responsible for the volume, Iriya Yoshitaka 入矢義高 (1910-1999), was among the greatest Japanese sinologists of the 20th century, especially when it comes to medieval vernacular Chinese. Thus, A Man of Zen stays firmly grounded in the original sources, and aims to offer up the portrait of one man who witnessed the glory days of Zen.
But I have two problems with this book: 1. The translations are workmanlike, failing to capture the pizzazz of the originals. For all the faults of "popular" translations (such as those by Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Thomas Cleary), they usually read well as English. Not so with this volume.
2. The authors are way too trusting of their sources. The earliest records about Layman Páng come from the Collection of the Patriarchs' Hall 祖堂集, a very dubious 9th-century collection of pro-Buddhist gossip.
I'm a huge fan of Pynchon, read everything he's written, from short stories and essays to Gravity's Rainbow and Against the Day. His latest, Bleeding...moreI'm a huge fan of Pynchon, read everything he's written, from short stories and essays to Gravity's Rainbow and Against the Day. His latest, Bleeding Edge is a fun, techno-paranoid romp around NYC on the eve of 9/11, maybe halfway between the (hilarious) private-eye genre fiction of Inherent Vice and the sprawling conspiracies of Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon's prose narration always imitates the speaking style of his main characters, and this book's no exception: chatty, New Yorkish, peppered with early-aughts technobabble and pop culture references. Full of silly puns, song lyrics, shady dotcom moguls, and incisive critiques of Internet culture. A joy to read.(less)
A treasure-trove of information, compiled from a wide variety of sources. Copious translations of primary materials. More entertaining than your norma...moreA treasure-trove of information, compiled from a wide variety of sources. Copious translations of primary materials. More entertaining than your normal economic history because you have the constant underlying tension between monks' supposedly "austere" lifestyle and the very real fact that medieval Chinese Buddhism functioned much like a modern corporation: it had assets, made investments, lent money at interest to individuals, etc. Most monks didn't work in the fields their monastery owned - they had slaves to do that. Ordination certificates were sold. Many took refuge in the saṃgha to avoid paying taxes - they simply shaved their head, registered, then kept a wife and children on the side. Likewise, state persecution of Buddhist organizations were driven by economic factors as much as ideological ones.
A fine book, originally published in the '50s under the title Les aspects économiques du Bouddhisme dans la société chinoise du Ve au Xe siècle, translated admirably by Franciscus Verellen. I give only three stars because I personally find the genre of economic history rather tedious to read cover-to-cover, and because the theory underlying the study is way too determinative. Basically, it looks at medieval Chinese society through the lens of economics, and - what do you know? - it turns out economics is responsible for everything. The deck is stacked. Nonetheless, this is a landmark study, and the fact that it still feels fresh today, nearly 60 years later, demonstrate its enduring value.(less)
An excellent survey of current scholarship on Christianity in China, very nuanced and critical. Its stated goal is to summarize current human knowledg...moreAn excellent survey of current scholarship on Christianity in China, very nuanced and critical. Its stated goal is to summarize current human knowledge about the topic, and they seem to have done just that. (less)
Christianity found its way to China long before the first Jesuit missionaries, or even Marco Polo. It came sometime in the early Tang Dynasty, in the...moreChristianity found its way to China long before the first Jesuit missionaries, or even Marco Polo. It came sometime in the early Tang Dynasty, in the 7th century. The most spectacular evidence of this can be found in the "forest of steles" in modern day Xi'an 西安, originally erected in 781. A large stone tablet, topped by a cross resting in a flower (probably a lotus, maybe a lily), the head of which reads: "Stele [Commemorating] the Spread of the Great Qin's Religion of Light to the Central Kingdom" 大秦景教流行中國碑. The "Great Qin" was a sort of catchall term to refer to European and Middle-Eastern empires, and "Central Kingdom" refers to China. In short, this monument tells the story of 7th century missionaries from the Syriac church, and how they brought the gospel to China.
P. Y. Saeki's The Nestorian Monument in China consists of two parts: an introduction and a translation of the stele. The 161-page introduction provides a decent (if generalizing) overview of historical context: the culture of the Tang dynasty [618-907 CE], Euro-Chinese contacts before the modern era, etc. Unfortunately, Saeki doesn't stop there, and goes on to promote a number of outlandish theories, including:
1. The teachings of Vairocana Buddhism are essentially the same as Christianity 2. After the Chinese emperor's suppression of "foreign" religions in 845, the Nestorians were mostly absorbed by Muslims, and thus, the Chinese Muslim groups of the present are actually wayward Christians 3. The inscriber of the stele was none other than Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓 (a mythical Daoist immortal) 4. The Nestorians who didn't convent to Islam formed something called the "Golden Elixir Religion" 金丹教 (which, in actuality, is a 18th-20th century sect of Daoism).
None of the evidence Saeki offers on these matters is at all convincing, involving a lot of facile equations between various Buddhist and Christian doctrines, as well as willful (or inept) misreadings of technical religious terms from medieval Daoism and Buddhism.
It's really odd to see how a single inscription can be misread in so many ways. And this practice has not ceased. Martin Palmer's 2001 book The Jesus Sutras puts a whole new (and equally fallacaious) New Age spin on the Nestorian stele (see my detailed review here).
This is the danger of eisegesis, of reading into a text. In books like Saeki's and Palmer's, the stele's inscriptions are flattened away, and the stone once again becomes flat, sanded, polished, shimmering - sending back to us nothing but our own cold reflections.(less)
I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, as a literary-minded Christian, I very much sympathize with Wiman's project - the display of wrestl...moreI'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, as a literary-minded Christian, I very much sympathize with Wiman's project - the display of wrestling with faith, with meaning, with death, in a way that is both honest and lyrical. On the other hand, he seems to subscribe to a metaphorical form of Christianity that robs it of its power and promise, redefining central theological concepts so that they are palatable to liberal America. The result is a harrowing dance around the fringes of orthodoxy, without ever truly entering in. Ultimately, Wiman's craft and depth of vision win out, and even this reader, a skepticism skeptic, finds himself nodding along.(less)