The Spread of Southern Buddhism’s Networks in Modern Sichuan

Relating Theravāda-inspired Practices to Chinese Buddhism:  The Spread of Southern Buddhism’s Networks in Modern Sichuan

Ester Bianchi

The presence of Theravāda-inspired forms of practice within Chinese Buddhism has become increasingly visible nowadays, particularly in the field of monastic discipline and meditation. It includes Theravāda meditation communities headed by South-East Asian masters, and Chinese Buddhist communities employing Theravāda meditation techniques inside main-stream Chinese Buddhism. I believe that understanding this presence necessitates inquiring into the very origins of the phenomenon, which can be traced back to Republican China. At that time, the emergence of a Pan-Asian conception of Buddhism led to new modes of Buddhism’s transfer throughout Asia. This resulted in the development of a dialogue between representatives of the different forms of Buddhism in various regions of Asia, including Chinese Buddhists and the representatives of the so-called Southern Buddhism. Chinese Buddhists began to travel to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, India and Indochina, on pilgrimage, for re-ordination, or in order to study abroad, while Theravāda Buddhists began to visit China.

In my project I will try to trace the spread of the Theravāda model of Buddhism in Sichuan throughout the twentieth century. The interactions of the foreign masters to their Chinese followers and mainstream Buddhist communities will be considered. Other than on networks, I will also probe into forms of hybridization (e.g. vipassanā practiced alongside with chan or other Mahāyāna meditation techniques, use of Theravāda-inspired vinaya standards within the Chinese vinaya tradition, etc.).

In order to study transnational networks of the Republican era, I will carry out archival research (historical documents, temples’ and academies’ archives, private correspondences, etc.), consult Republican journals and works, visit sites, and interview witnesses and modern Theravāda practitioners. As for the legacy left behind by this movement, I will focus on different examples of monastic communities located in Sichuan and practicing Theravāda forms of meditation: e.g. Shengshuisi 聖水寺, where Theravāda vipassanā is practiced alongside with Tibetan lamrim; Shifosi 石佛寺, a nunnery related to Luangpor Teean from Thailand and practicing mahasati meditation within Chinese Buddhist practices; and Boresi Neiguan zhongxin 般若寺内观中心, a vipassanā center affiliated to the Burmese master Goenka.