There are a number of reasons for wanting to explore the complexities of Buddhist East Asia. Perhaps the most compelling of these is that any account of East Asian histories and their relevance today would be incomplete without accurately and comprehensively taking into account the emergence and spread of Buddhism throughout the region.
By the 7th century, Buddhist philosophy provided thinkers across Asia with a shared conceptual framework and a flexible toolkit of critical resources. Buddhist monastic colleges were the largest institutions of learning in the world with “international” student bodies studying, not just Buddhist teachings, but also linguistics, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. When the Chinese pilgrim, Yijing (635-713), visited Nālandā, the most renowned of these monastic universities in north India, had a student body of 10,000 and a faculty of more than 2,000. Universalist Buddhist ideals of good governance played crucial roles in the 6th century reunification of China, in the cultural boom that took place on the Korean peninsula from the 4th to 7th centuries, and in the founding of imperial Japan. Moreover, Buddhism was first referred to in China as the “teaching of the images” and would eventually transform both art practice and aesthetic theory. Buddhist texts and narratives similarly transformed the literary imagination, and Buddhist cosmology and mythology were interfused into both popular and elite culture. Finally, Buddhist rituals and institutions led to new forms of material culture and to “economies of liberation” that were key drivers of trade and diplomacy among East, Central, South and Southeast Asia for almost a thousand years.
Standing Buddha, 8th century, Korea; In sum, understanding East Asian histories without a robust
appreciation of the complex roles played
Photo Credit: www.metmuseum.org therein by Buddhist traditions would
be akin to understanding the histories of Europe or the Americas
without a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christianity and how it significantly and dynamically shaped political, economic, literary and artistic ideals and realities, as well as such fundamental social institutions as the family and the school.
Yet, a second, equally important reason for investigating the historical dynamics of Buddhist East Asia is that it has the potential for helping to answer such contemporary questions as how global circulations of ideas and ideals enhance local creativity, how value systems cross or bridge cultural boundaries, and how global circuits of exchange and interdependence can be compatible with the resurgence of traditional religious identities. Indeed, it can be argued that the pan-Asian spread of Buddhism was inseparable from needs to address what anthropologist James Clifford terms the “predicament of culture”: a sense of being off-center in a world of competing meaning systems—a predicament that is today perhaps deeper and more troubling than at any prior point in human history.
Finally, exploring East Asian Buddhist traditions and their encounters with Western intellectual traditions, colonialisms and modernities is—to make use of Francois Jullien’s terms—a perhaps unexpectedly effective “detour” for gaining “access” to new perspectives on our own histories and traditions, and for evaluating the merits of currently dominant “total care” systems in the face of such 21st century global predicaments as climate change and increasingly inequitable development.