Analysis Of Buddhism And Taoism Face To Face

While ‘competition’ is not the first word to come to mind when considering either Taoism or Buddhism, in Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face: Scripture, Ritual, and Iconographic Exchange in Medieval China, it is revealed that competition was at the very core of the exchange that took place between these two traditions in medieval China. Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face is a compilation of case studies by Christine Mollier reflecting on the relationship between Buddhism and Taoism in medieval China. The link between the two religions has long been established with many having studied the cross-cultural influence that they had on one another. Mollier presents, here, a new facet of this relationship. One that puts Buddhism and Taoism in contest with one another, and creates a theme of theft, plagiarism, pirating, and appropriation on each side. The text explores a wide variety of Taoist and Buddhist rituals and spiritual objects, their similarities suggesting a tremendous degree of ideological cross-pollination between the two traditions. Among other practices, Mollier details protective talismans, chants to stave off evil spirits, and the rituals called “Heavenly Kitchens,” which grant monks divine sustenance. Additionally, she examines at length a few stories of theological importance, among them the story of Jiuku Tianzun, whose Taoist fable is heavily inspired by the Buddhist figure Guan Yin. In doing so, she effectively highlights the deeply syncretic nature of Taoist and Buddhist medieval theology and the extent to which each appropriated the others’ traditions in an effort to win converts and gain influence. She describes the ways in which the two religions worked to expand their spiritual reach by claiming to alleviate endemic societal concerns of the era — war, famine, evil magic, and so on. Mollier also makes note of the similar methodology employed by both groups when transmuting the works of the other tradition. 

Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face is intended to communicate the complex nature of the connection between Buddhism and Taoism. Mollier, in her case studies, is making the argument that religious and cultural traits weren’t merely passively transmitted between the two religions, but were, in fact, intentionally taken from one tradition and modified to fit the other. She skillfully demonstrates that Taoism and Buddhism were explicitly combative. The contest for scriptural hegemony was at the heart of this duel, “and to win by sheer numbers seems to have been part of the strategy”. The precision with which Mollier ties together comparative scriptures and her extensive background in the subject being explored, aided by the first-class translations she provides, makes her argument impervious to assault. Her use of secondary sources by acclaimed people in the field such as Makita Tairyou make her argument that much stronger. Mollier, in her exploration of the interplay between Taoism and Buddhism, uses both primary and secondary sources to great effect. She utilizes a variety of sources that include liturgies, canonical texts, hagiography, medieval manuscripts, and more. Included in the text, also, are illustrations and diagrams from the manuscripts themselves — with annotations to illuminate their significance — as well as images of artifacts from related periods. She pays special attention to sources from the Dunhuang caves and monastic libraries of Japan. Each chapter, barring the “Introduction” and “Conclusion”, compares a primary source from either the Buddhist or Taoist tradition and its counterpart in the other. She also employs a vast number of secondary sources to contribute to her textual analyses. These secondary sources come from Buddhist and Taoist religious scholars and also from Sinologists. Her deft interweaving of source material and personal analysis create an eloquent and effective argument. It is clear she chose her sources with great care, as their high quality lend weight and validity to her already strong arguments. 

Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face is an elegant and insightful work. Mollier’s book offers abundant original insight, synthesizing material from a diverse wealth of original sources. That being said, the book seems geared towards those with an expert knowledge of the subject matter. For a more general audience, the vast amounts of data can end up obscuring her actual argument. Though, if one is able to parse that data, it is immensely rewarding reading. The book is a little one-sided, mostly portraying Buddhist theft of Taoist scriptures, as is the case with the Sutra of the Three Kitchens and with the Sutra to Increase the Account. However, the last chapter is dedicated to the incorporation of the Buddhist deity, Guan Yin, into Taoism. Altogether, the scope and the depth of the text make it highly suggested reading for anyone interested in medieval East Asian religions and, particularly, the historical battle at the heart of Chinese theology. The shared influences, intersecting histories, and appropriative interchange between Taoism and Buddhism have all been well studied, but Mollier sheds a unique light on the competitive, often adversarial relationship between the two religions in medieval China. She finds among the many manuscripts numerous examples of Taoist and Buddhist religious scholars prescribing similar religious practices— astrology, spells, effigies — to alleviate worldly ailments. She brings together an inspiring assortment of source material, both primary and secondary and crafts a compelling image of Buddhism and Taoism both vying for supremacy. 

In sum, Mollier illustrates a battle for hegemonic status between the two competing ideologies of Buddhism and Taoism, rather than merely describing their theological similarities, and in so doing draws us into the religious landscape of medieval China. 

16 August 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now