Individual Studies

Divine Monks (shenyi seng 神異僧) and Popular Religions in the Fu River Basin

Zhu Mingchuan

The term ‘divine monks’ (shenyi seng神異僧) is used to define Buddhist monastics with alleged supernatural powers; these monks have received considerable devotion by local believers, and influenced local history of Buddhism.

‘Divine monks’ have been found in premodern and modern China; my research will focus on the worship of divine monks in the modern age. In this way I aim to contribute to the study of Han Buddhism in modern China by adding new research on this form of ‘popular Buddhism’ that is still understudied.

The Fu river涪江 flows across central Sichuan, passing through the areas of Mianyang 綿陽 and Suining 遂寧. According to my preliminary investigation, several ‘divine monks’ were well known in every county along the Fujiang River, at least since the mid-Qing period; and their presence affected the religious landscape of the area in many ways. For example, Chan Master Simo 思摩禪師 (alleged 1719–1939) in Lezhi 樂至 county and Master Benkong 本空禪師 (?–1937) in Shehong 射洪 county became abbots of large Buddhist monasteries. The Old Buddha Qinglie 清烈古佛, also known as Chan Master Qingxin 清心禪師 (1796–1871), became the leader of popular religious groups in Suining 遂寧. Master Xiang 向師爺 played an important role as spirit-medium in Santai 三台county. Some ‘divine monks’ even became patriarchs of Taoist groups, see for instance the Chan Master Mingxin 明心禪師 (alleged 1555–1901) on Mt. Gaofeng 高峰山 in Pengxi 蓬溪 county.

My research will focus on the devotion around the Old Buddha Qinglie. Master Qingxin used to be a monk in Guangde Monastery 廣德寺 and Pilu Monastery 毗盧寺 in Suining. Local legends say that he had supernatural abilities and an eccentric character, reasons for which he was estranged from other monks. Qingxin was involved in a popular religious movement and was finally arrested by the government. After his death, his disciples announced that he had become an Old Buddha in heaven and regarded him as the first patriarch of a new branch of the Xiantiandao 先天道. They established 48 altars at that time, and some of these altars are still active now. Furthermore, the scriptures that record his life and teachings have been so influential to even spread his devotion outside the Suining area. One of these texts, an internal alchemy guidebook, was even reprinted by a famous Taoist temple in Chengdu.

My fieldwork in the Fu river basin will provide a better understanding of the interaction between the Buddhist ‘divine monks’ and other religions. Then, based on textual analysis of scriptures, precious scrolls, and ritual texts, my research will reveal the origin of the devotion to Qinglie in the late Qing Dynasty. Fortunately, I found several extant altars and adepts of the cult of Qinglie, and I could then collect oral material. Through a critical analysis of these resources, my research will discover how the identity of this figure was constructed, received, and understood by different religious groups.

This case study will present the hybrid character of Chinese religions in Sichuan, and it will also reveal the diversity of Han Buddhist groups in modern China.

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