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date: 22 July 2018

Buddhist Religious Practice in Imperial China

Summary and Keywords

Buddhist practice transformed the religious landscape in China, introducing new forms of mental cultivation and new ritual technologies within an altered cosmology of spiritual goals. Buddhist practice was carried out by individuals, but was equally as often a communal activity. A basic unit of religious practice was the family; Buddhist cultivation was also carried out by communities of practice at monasteries, which were also sites of large-scale rituals. Forms of religious practice included meditation, oral recitation, ritual performances including confession and vow making, and merit-making activities. Meditation encompassed following breath and exercises that recreated Buddhist images in the practitioner’s mind. Meditation could be carried out while sitting, or while walking, and might also incorporate recitation of scriptures, names of the Buddhas, and dhāraṇī. Indeed, meditation practices were most often embedded in liturgical sequences that included confession, vows, and merit dedication. The goal of these religious practices might be personal spiritual development; through the concept of merit transference, religious activities also worked to benefit others, especially the dead. The fundamental of components of Buddhist practice were present very early in the tradition’s history in China, and over time these elements were combined in new ways, and with reference to changing objects of devotion. The four major bodhisattvas of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊), Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢), Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏), and Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音) were especially important as objects of devotion, and also were emplaced in the Chinese landscape, where they were incorporated into pilgrimages.

Keywords: practice, Buddhism, ritual, meditation, recitation, visualization, devotion, merit, pilgrimage, mantra, imperial China


Any discussion of Buddhist practice must begin with the term “practice” itself. “Practice” is a frequent translation for xiu 修‎, xing 行‎, or the compound xiuxing 修行‎. These Chinese terms (and other related terms) appear so frequently in primary texts as to seem coterminous with Buddhism itself. “Religious practice” is a distinctly modern locution, and the current usage of “practice” as it relates to various religious traditions has been shaped by a modern interest in contrasting “belief” with “practice.” As commonly understood, religious practice refers to what people do, routinely and repeatedly, rather than what they believe. Yet these ideas are not so easily separated, as can be seen in the traditional division of Buddhist training into morality (jie 戒‎), meditative concentration (ding 定‎), and discernment (hui 慧‎). Cultivating moral precepts entails an understanding of what the precepts are and the reasoning behind them; meditation is guided by epistemology, and discernment necessarily has a process and object. How much doctrinal learning is necessary varies by audience and practice; although not all monks were learned or engaged in intensive religious cultivation, their opportunities for religious education and practice were indeed far greater than for lay people. Many types of Buddhist cultivation were intended to shape and improve the individual practitioner; collective cultivation would also aid communities of different scales, from one’s own family to all sentient beings. Undergirding all practices were basic moral precepts shared across Buddhism.

Another way of thinking about religious practice in Chinese Buddhism reflects the importance of the three types of karmic activities: sanye 三業‎ of body, speech, and mind (shen, kou, yi 身口意‎), suggesting that we might divide practices into those of the body, like the performance of ritual; those that entail the use of the mind (namely meditation); and speech acts such as recitation. Here we might keep in mind that some religious practices are intended to be carried out by the individual, and others involve the participation of many people. The following treatment of practice will proceed from practices centered on the individual to those that are carried out in group settings, treating each set of practices in roughly chronological order. The scope of religious practice is too broad to cover adequately within the length of an encyclopedia article, and many religious practices have not received here the attention they deserve.

Early Models of Meditation

Meditation is the perhaps the practice most closely identified with Buddhism in Western scholarship, and indeed meditation practices were central to all parts of Buddhist history in China. The Scripture in Forty-Two Sections (Sishierzhang jing 四十二章經‎, T 17, no. 784), one of the earliest Buddhist sūtras to circulate in China, asserts that that the proper measure of man’s life is a single breath, suggesting the importance of moment-to-moment mental focus. Other early Buddhist guides that were translated into Chinese, such as the recently-discovered Scripture on the Twelve Gates (Shier men jing 十二門經‎) attributed to An Shigao 安世高‎ (d.u.), reflect Indic practices such as the contemplation of the impurity of the body and the impermanence of all things.1 This, combined with contemplation of the breath, seems to have been representative of early Chinese Buddhist meditation.

The Chinese term behind “contemplation” in these texts is guan 觀‎, and this term is central to many descriptions of mediation. What guan means, however, has to be determined by consideration of the textual context: it some instances guan could refer to the mental construction of an eidetic image, most commonly of a buddha or bodhisattva. Guan could also refer to different, progressive ways of discerning the world.2 Although both indicate mental activities, they are quite different—one is visual, and one is analytical. That the processes are covered by the same verb points to the difficulty of mapping Chinese concepts on to those used in Western discourse, and of the problems in translating Buddhist terms.3

Beyond scriptures or other texts describing meditation, biographies of monks also provide information on the practice of meditation in early Chinese Buddhism. In the Gaoseng zhuan (Biographies of Eminent Monks, T 50, no. 2059), practitioners of meditation (xichan 習禪‎) are the fourth of ten categories. (The other categories are translators, exegetes, thaumaturges, explicators of monastic discipline, self-immolators, sūtra reciters, fundraisers, hymnodists, and proselytizers.) In the biographies of practitioners of meditation, very little information is given about their methods of meditation. Rather meditation is what makes these monks extraordinary and worth commemorating, and so it is the tenacity of their practice that is noted, as well as the spiritual power possessed by long-term meditators. Meditating monks often engaged in complementary practices as well, such as begging for food and chanting scriptures. Long experience allowed monks and nuns to develop powers of concentration sufficient to endure extreme ascetic practices such as self-immolation.4

The monks classified as meditators in the Gaoseng zhuan likely had varying approaches to meditation. How different meditation practices related to each other is addressed in Zhiyi’s description of four kinds of samādhi. Zhiyi 智顗‎ (b. 538–d. 597) was a key figure in the Tiantai 天台‎ school, known for its elevation of the Lotus Sutra above other scriptures. Zhiyi authored commentaries on the Lotus Sutra—which itself can be understood as a type of Buddhist practice—but his contributions in theorizing meditation are equally important. His Mohe zhiguan 摩訶止觀‎ discusses the key Buddhist division of meditation into the stilling of thought (Skt. śamatha; Chi. zhi 止‎) and contemplation (Skt. vipaśyanā; Chi. guan 觀‎). In this text he also laid out four types of meditative concentration (Skt. samādhi; Chi. sanmei 三昧‎): constant sitting, constant walking, part walking part sitting, and neither walking nor sitting. The first two types of samādhi—constantly sitting and constantly walking—are pursued over the course of ninety-day meditation retreats, spent either sitting in the cross-legged lotus position, or circumambulating an altar to Amitābha. When sitting, the meditator has the option to directly contemplate the Dharma-realm (Dharmadhātu), understood to be the underlying reality of the world, and beyond discursive thought. Should this prove too advanced, sitting meditators might instead focus on the name and image of a buddha. The part-walking, part-sitting samādhi could be carried out through two different sets of practices. Both extended over multiple days and involved a mixture of meditation, recitation, and repentance.5 The samādhi of neither walking nor sitting could take the form of any ritual practice that did not fall into the three previous categories, or could be carried out by “following one’s thoughts” (suiziyi 隨自意‎). Rather than rely on rituals or other forms of cultivation, this samādhi instead directs meditators to analyze the different stages of mental activity, which can be done no matter what one is doing.6 Zhiyi’s fourfold samādhi shows the variation of Buddhist practices in the 6th century, and how they might be combined into a coherent, yet flexible, program. His classification system endured, and Tiantai figures of the Song dyansty such as Zunshi 尊式‎ (b. 964–d. 1032) and Zhili 知禮‎ (b. 960–d. 1028) also promoted repentance rites and other forms of the cultivation of samādhi, at times expanding Zhiyi’s manuals, but also adding new repentances focused on Guanyin and Amitābha, figures who had grown in devotional popularity in the Song dynasty. Zhili also emphasized meditating on mind as the creator of all dharmas.7 In both the Tang and Song dynasty, the length of the practices make clear that these were intensive periods of cultivation; these were carried out by committed individuals who might require outside support and assistance, as in the constantly walking samādhi. These practices also range from those that were devotional to those that focused on the analysis of mental processes, and were thus more abstract in their orientation.

Chan Meditation

Elements of the practices included by Zhiyi were also pursued independently. Seated meditation, common to all Buddhist traditions, became a particular hallmark of the Chan 禪‎ lineage (chan is the transliteration of dhyāna, or concentration). Within Chan, seated meditation relied on a specific understanding of an individual’s ontological status and the function of Buddhist practice: namely, the individual was inherently awakened or in possession of buddha-nature, but it was necessary to get beyond human habits of cognition—especially erroneous notions of the self—in order to perceive one’s nature and the fundamental emptiness of all things, and to recognize the role of the mind in creating one’s view of the world. Indeed, correcting misapprehensions about the nature of the world is as important as instructions about specific bodily practices. A verse in a text attributed to Bodhidharma 波提達磨‎ (c. 6th century), the purported transmitter of Chan to China, asserts that seated meditation will lead to seeing “Original Nature,” and the realization that all dharmas (things in the world) are impermanent, transient entities. A longer text also attributed to Bodhidharma, the Discourse on the Two Entrances and Four Practices (Erru sixing lun 二入四行論‎), asserts that awakening may be reached through principle—direct perception into the nature of the mind and reality—or through practice. The entrance of practice is further subdivided into four approaches. In the first, requiting grievances (baoyuan 報怨‎) the practitioner is told that any suffering encountered in the course of cultivation is a result of past misdeeds, and should be born without resentment. The second, according with conditions, (suiyuan 隨緣‎) teaches the practitioner that positive experiences are also merely transient effects of prior deeds. The third practice is to be without craving, recognizing that it causes suffering. The fourth practice is to accord with Dharma, or the insight that all phenomena are void of enduring, individuating characteristics; this fourth practice approaches that of the first entrance. In short, if one is unable to have a direct perception into the true nature of all things, then a series of intermediary practices will allow for the dissolution of the mental habits that prevent this perception.8 In this 6th-century Chan teaching there are clear parallels with Zhiyi: practitioners are offered both a direct approach and also a more graduated path to awakening.

Another early Chan text, the Discourse on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind (Xiuxin yao lun 修心要論‎), contains more specific discussions of the mental content of meditation. This text was compiled by followers of Hongren 弘忍‎ (b. 602–d. 675), the fifth patriarch of the Chan tradition. The text takes the orthodox position that the mind is inherently pure, likening it to the sun, the brightness of which can never be diminished by the clouds that might cover over it. Beginning practitioners are also advised to create an image of the sun in their minds, and to hold on to it as they regulate their breathings. This initial practice is drawn from the Sūtra on the Contemplation of Limitless Life (Foshuo guan wuliangshou jing 佛說無量壽觀經‎, T 12, no. 365), a core text for practice in the Pure Land tradition, further illustrating the cross-fertilization of what are often presented as distinct Buddhist schools. Alternatively, meditators are told to calm their mind and regulate their breathing while seated with upright posture, following the flow of thoughts until the flow ceases on its own, along with any remaining obstructions.9 Returning to the metaphor of the sun, this state can be likened to the appearance of the radiant sun after the clouds have dispersed.10

The sudden and gradual methods presented in the Discourse on the Two Entrances and Four Practices represent a distinction that became a significant issue in early Chan. In texts like the Platform Sūtra, the idea of a gradual path was a criticized as a failure to understand basic teachings: If the mind is inherently pure, than gradual exercises cannot be effective. The climactic passage in the Platform Sūtra, centers on poems by Shenxiu 神秀‎ (b. c. 606–d. 706) and Huineng 慧能‎ (b. 638–d. 713). Shenxiu’s poem asserts that one must assiduously keep the mirror of the mind free of dust. Huineng’s poem focuses on the inherent luminosity of the mirror rather than the dust motes that ultimately have no reality. Characterizing their respective positions as “gradual” and “sudden” may be an oversimplification, but one that reflects a real tension in Chan attitudes toward religious practice. If the mind was inherently pure, and all that was necessary was a sudden realization of this truth, then the role of practice was diminished or significantly altered. In a famous anecdote about Mazu Daoyi 馬祖道一‎ (b. 709–d. 788) and his teacher Huairang 懷讓‎ (b. 677–d. 744), the elder monk sees Mazu sitting in meditation. Huairang then picks up a tile and starts polishing it, prompting Mazu to ask what he was doing. Huairang answered that he was making a mirror, and Mazu replied that this was impossible. At this point, Huairang makes his point clear, telling Mazu that he can no more become a buddha through seated meditation than a brick can be polished into a mirror.11 For Huairang, and many other Chan teachers, there is a real danger that students will become attached to the form of sitting. Any such attachment would be an obstruction to realization, and Chan discourse often warned of the dangers of such attachments, even as monks continued to sit in meditation.

Although seated meditation and the regulation of breath were mentioned in various Chan texts, the Procedures of Seated Meditation (Zuochan yi 坐禪儀‎), attributed to Changlu Zongze 長蘆宗賾‎ (d. c. 1107), is usually believed to be the earliest guide to the practice. Rather than simply indicating that a practitioner should sit in meditation, Zongze specifies how one should sit, explaining the lotus position (right foot on left thigh, left foot on right thigh) in enough detail that a neophyte could easily understand. He follows this with instructions on how to position the hands and how to stretch the body into the correct posture, which should resemble a stūpa. Zongze tells that practitioner where to place the tongue, and explains the importance of keeping one’s eyes open. Following instructions to regulate breathing with abdomen relaxed, the meditator is told not to think, instead simply remaining aware of thoughts as they arise. Zongze also addresses the potential for demonic occurrences in the course of meditation, and how one should emerge from a state of concentration. The text may have circulated separately, but it was also appended to Zongze’s Chanyuan qinggui 禪苑清規‎ (X 63, no. 1245), his monastic regulations. Monastic codes govern everyday behavior, routine administration, and institutional transitions; many aspects of monastic life, from daily meals to the funeral of an abbot, were ritualized and so too should be understood as practice—that is, Zongze’s instructions for seated meditation may have reflected a core practice for the Chan tradition, but not all monks were engaged in long-term meditation, and this meditation took place within a monastic setting that itself might be understood as a form of practice.

The exchange between Huairang and Mazu discussed above points to two later developments in Chan practice. The first is the promotion of seated meditation as a manifestation of one’s original awakening accessible to a wide range of practitioners. This approach to meditation is closely associated with Hongzhi 宏智‎ (b. 1091–d. 1157), expressed in his “Inscription on Silent Illumination” (Mozhao ming 默照銘‎) and in his exhortations to practice.12 The second significant later development in the Chan tradition was the use of phrases from Chan cases in the context of meditation. Anecdotes about Chan masters were recorded, circulated, and collected into anthologies; these were called gong’an 公案‎ (public cases). As with the idea of sitting itself, Chan masters also recognized that the words of the cases could become obstructions, however valuable it might be for students to read tales of past masters and their cultivation. Song dynasty Chan master Dahui Zonggao 大慧宗杲‎ (b. 1089–d. 1163) promoted the use of huatou 話頭‎ (critical phrase), a key word or phrase drawn from popular cases in the Chan tradition. One popular example is wu 無‎ (no or does not), the answer Zhaozhou 趙州‎ gave when asked whether a dog has buddha-nature: although there is a doctrinal way of understanding the exchange, in kahua Chan wu is separated from that discussion. Practitioners were to focus on the phrase during meditation, but not with the aim of understanding intellectually; this kind of contemplation was called “observing the phrase” (kanhua 看話‎). Dahui, and those that followed this tradition, believed that realizing one’s inherently awakened nature required a sudden change in perspective. Simply engaging in seated meditation, or reading about Chan figures of the past, was unlikely to lead to such a change in perspective. Focusing on the huatou facilitated the development of great doubt (yi 疑‎), which could serve as the catalyst for awakening.13 This particular form of practice not only was widespread among Chan monks in China, but was also popular among lay students of Chan. For both types of students, contemplating the huatou did not require sitting in meditation but could be carried out simultaneously with other types of activities, such as the recitation of the names of Amitābha.

Invocation and Evocation

Oral recitation was another key Buddhist practice in China, most commonly in the form of the recitation of sūtras, the invocation of the names of buddhas, and the chanting of mantras or dhāraṇī. All of these rely on the power of words, but may also serve to demonstrate mastery, earn merit, or summon suprahuman forces. The importance of reciting scriptures was emphasized within Mahāyāna sūtras themselves, as these texts often include descriptions of the merit that will accrue to those who recite, copy, uphold, or otherwise transmit the scriptures. Recitation and copying were key modes of the spread and popularization of Buddhism, and anecdotes about these acts attest to their efficacy. As the contents of the Gaoseng zhuan show, monks who were expert in recitation were singled out for this quality, their biographies grouped in a category entitled “sūtra reciters” (songjing 誦經‎). Many of these biographies attest to the ascetic endurance of monks dedicated to recitation or relate the salvific power of recitation in the face of dangers. In biographies, the power of recitation is reflected through the person of the practitioner. Individual practitioners might focus on one or two scriptures, and miracle tales centered on a particular text were collected to attest to its power; the practice of recitation was religiously efficacious but so was the text itself, as a kind of emanation of the Buddha. Scriptures with associated miracle tales include the Lotus Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, and the Flower Ornament Sūtra (Huayan jing 華嚴經‎).

The names of the buddhas were also recited, as part of the daily services in late imperial China, for example. In the Pure Land tradition, recitation was tied together with calling Amitābha Buddha to mind. The fundamentals of Pure Land practice derive from the Sūtra on the Contemplation of Limitless Life, the core narrative of which concerns the Queen Vaidehi being given instructions by the Buddha on how to imagine Amitābha and his Buddha-land to the west in all its spectacular majesty. Further, the last section of the scripture outlines the different grades of people who are reborn in Amitābha’s Pure Land. Those on the highest levels have been dedicated in their practice and have a thoroughgoing understanding of Buddhist teachings. Significantly, key among the practices listed is the keeping of precepts for lay people. Maintained for varying lengths of time, these are: not to kill; not to steal; not to engage in improper sexual relations; not to lie; not to drink alcohol; not to ornament the body, dance, or sing; not to sleep on high beds; not to eat after noon. Keeping the precepts, oftentimes just the first five restrictions, was an important preparatory or background practice to many other kinds of practice; as a kind of bodily and behavioral modification, it was a necessary step for rituals and an expression of religious commitment.

Yet in the Sūtra on the Contemplation of Limitless Life, salvation is possible even for those who do not keep the precepts, or even basic morals. For these people, bearing in mind an image of Amitābha or reciting Amitābha’s name are sufficient to gain rebirth in the western Pure Land. In the eyes of this scripture, the power of practice rests in its ability to call forth the aid of Amitābha Buddha. Its appeal to people with a wide variety in the depth of their religious commitments meant that the Pure Land tradition was especially attractive to lay Buddhists who might not be able to carry out practices that entailed greater commitments of time. Buddhist clergy remained active in this movement, often organizing societies of lay believers for the purpose of supporting devotion to Amitābha. The earliest example of such a society was that formed by Huiyuan 慧遠‎ (b. 334–d. 416) at Mount Lu 廬山‎. In 402, Huiyuan gathered with 123 followers and made a vow to be born together in the Pure Land.14 One of his lay followers, Liu Yimin 劉遺民‎ (or Liu Chengzhi 劉程之‎, b. 354–d. 410), composed the vow, and was also the author of anthology of poems on the meditative state arising from the recollection of the Buddha (nianfo sanmei 念佛三昧‎);15 this points to the importance of lay Buddhists in the formation of Pure Land as a distinct strand of practice.

As the Pure Land scriptures indicate, creating a mental image of Amitābha and his Pure Land was the basic form of Pure Land contemplation, with the invocation of the name reserved for those of lower abilities. Over time, the importance of visualizing Amitābha began to shift. Tanluan 曇鸞‎ (b. 476–d. 542) makes clear that recollecting (nian 念‎) Amitābha included his characteristics along with his spiritual qualities and vow.16 Daochuo 道綽‎ (b. 562–d. 645), however, places special emphasis on reciting Amitābha’s name as an appropriate practice for an age in which people may not have the spiritual ability for other types of practices. Daochuo’s disciple Shandao 善導‎ (b. 613–d. 681) describes a seven-day ritual in which practitioners are told to create a ritual space in which they can focus on both mental recollection of Amitābha and the vocal recitation of his name. Shandao also advocated that on their deathbed practitioners should call to mind an image of Amitābha while also reciting his name.17 These practices were available to both clergy and laity, often with the support of images of the Pure Land or Amitābha, or of the sixteen meditations taught to Queen Vaidehi in the Sūtra on the Contemplation of Limitless Life. During the Song dynasty, lay societies were formed to promote and support this practice.18 As the oral recitation of Amitābha’s name came to be the popular understanding of nianfo 念佛‎, counting recitations also became important. Daochuo, for example, is said to have moved sesame seeds to track his recitations, but more commonly rosaries were used.

Recollection of Amitābha, whether through the mental construction of his image or the invocation of his name, was most often connected with other practices. For Pure Land retreats, this meant adhering to additional precepts and constructing ritual space. Recitation might also be accompanied by vows that would dedicate the merit so earned. Prominent monks like Yongming Yanshou 永明延壽‎ (b. 905–d. 975) and Yunqi Zhuhong 雲棲祩宏‎ also recommended the combined practice of Chan meditation and Pure Land recitation, with the invocation of Amitābha’s name and the contemplation of the different elements of that act providing a means to realize the true nature of the mind.

In late imperial China, nianfo might have been the most common invocation, but Buddhists also commonly recited the Great Compassion dhāraṇī (Dabei zhou 大悲咒‎), from the Dhāraṇī Sūtra of the Vast, Complete, Unobstructed Great Compassionate Heart [taught by] the Thousand-Armed Thousand-Eyed Bodhisattva Guanyin (Qianshou qianyan Guanshiyin pusa guangda yuanman wuai dabeixin tuoluoni jing 千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經‎), translated by Bhaghavadharma in the 7th century. This particular dhāraṇī was recited to elicit the protection or favor of the bodhisattva Guanyin (Skt. Avalokiteśvara), probably the most popular object of Buddhist devotion in late imperial China. The Great Compassion dhāraṇī was also incorporated into a repentance ritual first formulated by Zhili, later revised and simplified in the Qing dynasty, and still in use in the modern era.19 The Great Compassion dhāraṇī is one example of the various uses of mantras and dhāraṇī in Buddhist practice; many of these incantations derive from scriptures translated during the Tang dynasty.

Mantras and dhāraṇī reflect terms that were often translated into Chinese as zhou 咒‎ and related compound terms; these in turn have been translated into English as “spell” or “incantation.” Dhāraṇī are sequences of Sanskrit syllables transliterated through the use of Chinese characters that reflect their sound. Although there are commentaries on their meaning, the zhou themselves cannot be translated. Rather, the value of dhāraṇī is understood to rest in the potency of their sounds, which contain all Buddhist teachings. Dhāraṇī appear toward the end of many sūtras, offered as a means to protect those who recite and practice the scripture; one example is the twenty-sixth chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, entitled simply “Dhāraṇī.” Beginning as early as the 3rd century, scriptures that have dhāraṇī at their core also appear; these relatively shorter scriptures have minimal narrative and setting, with dhāraṇī occupying a higher proportion of the text. Given that they represent sounds, various dhāraṇī were recited as a part of regular practice by clergy and laity. The potency of dhāraṇī could be accessed through other practices as well. Like sūtras, they were copied, and also like sūtras, such copies could be deposited in stūpas where they functioned as equivalents to relics of the Buddha.20 Installed within stūpas, dhāraṇī then became part of devotional practices. Dhāraṇī were also used for healing and protection, either in their spoken form directed at a particular part of the body, or through material media consecrated by them.21 In this way dhāraṇī are akin to amulets and talismans, used in other religious contexts.

Mantras and dhāraṇī can also be situated within a Buddhist tradition usually called “esoteric.” In this tradition, certain dhāraṇī were part of a gradually complexifying ritual framework, in which images were added to the incantation of spells, and eventually developed into mandala initiation rituals.22 The use of images in this context might entail a material image, but also might mean the visualization of a deity, with a shift toward the latter.23 A complete mandala initiation rite was a complex, multiday event. To take the All-Gathering Mandala Ceremony from the Collected Dhāraṇī Sūtras (Tuoluoni jijing 陀羅尼集經‎, T. 901) as an example, these initiations began with the selection of ritual space and the purification of both the space and those who will participate in the rite. This is followed by the creation of the mandala, from the marking of its four corners to painting with mud to adornment with flags. Once this ritual space is established, the preceptor or ācārya invites the initiates, accompanied by a number of other rites involving incense, water, and circumambulation. Mudra are used to perform certain ritual actions. The rite culminates in abhiṣeka, consecration by pouring water over the initiate’s head, and finishes with homa, or a fire rite.24 Several elements here reflect its Indic origin, and the melding of Chinese and India traditions is apparent in many ritual traditions.25 The basic structure of the initiation rite, however, resembles other rituals, such as that outlined by Zhiyi. There are also parallels to Pure Land practice, in the use of spoken invocations and the evocation through mental images of buddhas and other deities in their appropriate settings. Both Pure Land practice and practice centered on dhāraṇī, although they might involve several people or larger groups, were in some sense focused on the individual. In the case of Pure Land, the practitioner sought his or her own rebirth in the western Pure Land, while in mandala rites it was the initiate undergoing a transformation that created a bond with a deity.

Communal Practice

When considering cultivation, because so much of it focuses on the mental activity and actions of individual practitioners, it can seem that group ritual performances had less of a role. However, from a very early point in Buddhist history in China, communal religious activities were important forces in creating communities and support for Buddhist institutions. For example, scriptures on bathing the Buddha (yu Fo 浴佛‎) were translated in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and the rite may have been practiced even before then.26 In this early medieval period, communities also gathered to make offerings to various Buddhist deities and circumambulate statues representing them. Indeed, the creation, consecration, and veneration of images can be understood as a core Buddhist practice, and one that is typically carried out with the participation of multiple people. To commission a statue or painting requires the donation of funds, and these could come from both lay Buddhists and the clergy. A skilled artisan created the image, and likely specialized in Buddhist or religious images. After completion, the image had to be brought to life through an eye-opening ceremony (kaiguang 開光‎, kaiyan 開眼‎, or kaiming 開明‎). The image then had a divine presence, and could receive offerings, be circumambulated, and even perform miracles. Images were central to Buddhist practice, and their creation was also a Buddhist practice, as donations for such a purpose were understood as merit-making activities. Merit accrued to an individual but was then also extended to family members, deceased ancestors, and all living beings. Indeed, much of Buddhist cave sculpting and painting, such as that Yungang 雲崗‎, Longmen 龍門‎, and Mogao 莫高‎, might be understood as providing opportunities for creating merit for the deceased.27 Merit-making also supplied the religious logic for donations in support of monastic construction and maintenance, for the sponsorship of ordinations and feasts, and for the reproduction of scriptures. In short, the physical objects that provided the place and material for rituals, cultivation, and other types of practice were themselves part of the Buddhist practice of giving (Skt. dāna, Chi. shi 施‎ or bushi 布施‎). Although donations were often made by an individual, most projects of any size required collective action, and monasteries or temples provided obvious focal points for giving.

Charitable activities also extended beyond Buddhist institutions, such as providing for the poor, and both lay Buddhists and clergy were involved in such activities.28 The two kinds of giving were combined in texts such as Zhuhong’s Record of Self-Knowledge (Zizhi lu 自知錄‎) part of the surge of morality books produced in the late Ming; Zhuhong has sections on compassionate deeds carried out within one’s family and community, but also on acts directed at the Three Treasures.29 Buddhist charity was part of the holistic cultivation of the individual through moral actions in all realms of life.

The family was another important setting for communal practice; it is clear from many biographical accounts that Buddhism was first learned at home, often through the imitation of parents (typically mothers). Devotion to the bodhisattva Guanyin was especially important to women of childbearing age, who sought her assistance in ensuring the healthy birth of children, especially sons. This devotion might be wedded to feminine skills, as in the case of hair embroidery of images of Guanyin.30 Attested to from the 14th century onward, the practice combines domestic artistry with bodily sacrifice, other forms of which in late imperial China included blood writing and burning parts of the body.31 Concern for fertility and offspring was not limited to women, and men also copied and had printed scriptures about Guanyin in the hope of eliciting a response from the bodhisattva.

Funerals and post-mortem rites were equally significant parts of the Buddhist care of the family. The living wanted to ensure that the deceased gained a good rebirth, and were not trapped in the underworld; these obligations were especially important for surviving spouses and children. Family members carried out the “seven sevens” (qiqi 七七‎) offerings that marked the first forty-nine days after death, and that provided the family with opportunities to make and dedicate merit to the deceased.32

Monasteries and temples were also the site of communal rituals, both those intended for the monastic audience, and those that invited the participation of a wider public. Some of these rituals were tied to the Chinese calendar—for example, those that marked the lunar new year—and some were tied to the liturgical calendar specific to Buddhism or even to a monastery. Such rituals might include those marking the beginning and end of the summer meditation retreat, or the death anniversary of a former abbot. Other rituals were not tethered to a calendar: rituals for releasing life (fangsheng 放生‎) and the ritual for the salvation of beings on water and land (known as shuilu 水陸‎ rites) are examples. Rituals shared a general structure that could be added to or elaborated as appropriate for specific rites, often building to multiday ritual events. As in examples from the Tiantai and esoteric traditions, rituals are always preceded by the preparation of a space sanctified for the performance. The ritual space is called the daochang 道場‎, and is equipped with items used in ritual, such as incense burners; musical instruments (bells, chimes, the wooden fish); lamps or candles; flowers; and vessels for making offerings of food and drink. The ritual proper begins with invocation of and offerings to the Three Treasures (of Buddha, dharma, and sangha), followed by the invitation of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other deities connected with the ritual, to whom offerings are then made. There is then a confession of sins, understood to encompass all the deeds and mistaken thoughts across many lifetimes, followed by vows and dedications of merit. The ritual concludes by again acknowledging the assembled buddhas and bodhisattvas and the three jewels. The words used in rituals—the litanies and liturgical language—are largely shared, and may have stabilized as early as the 6th or 7th century.33

This ritual format accommodated different devotional foci, and also could be expanded. In bodhisattva ordination rites, for example, local spirits and gods are included in the litanies, with the hope that they will provide for good harvests and seasonable weather.34 The shuilu hui 水陸會‎ (assembly for beings of the water and land) incorporated opening rites in which denizens of different realms, including ghosts, were summoned to the ritual space, purified, and converted to Buddhism. Like the shuilu rite, the Yulanpen 盂蘭盆‎ festival on the fifteen of the seventh lunar month (zhongyuan jie 中元節‎) was directed at sentient beings in need of salvation, providing a way to ritually feed and materially comfort ghost and deceased relatives. This ritual was based on scriptural sources describing the monk Mulian 目連‎ and his efforts to rescue his mother from hell, and these texts also offered Buddhist ways of expressing filial piety and repaying debts to one’s parents. Mulian’s story was both highly appealing and adaptable, as was retold in different forms in late imperial China.

Related to the rituals described above, the rite for feeding flaming mouths (fang yankou 放焰口‎) was used not only to aid the dead but also to deal with other problems facing a community. As an esoteric rite, it entails first the transformation of the chief ritualist into the bodhisattva Guanyin, which provides him with the power to aid those beings in need of salvation; the ritual also includes mudras and mantras of varying lengths.35

Grand performances of various rituals were sponsored by emperors and empresses; the Buddhist practice of the imperial court had implications for the entire realm. Emperor Wu 武‎ of the Liang 梁‎ received the bodhisattva precepts at a large rite intended to express his ideals as ruler, and then held ritual assemblies at monasteries in the capital, with purportedly hundreds of thousands of people participating.36 Empress Wu also sponsored Buddhist feasts, and commanded ritual veneration of relics as part of her efforts to legitimate her Buddhist rule.37 The esoteric master Bukong 不空‎ (Amoghavajra, b. 705–d. 744) created rituals for the imperial family and for the state based on the Sūtra for Humane Kings (Renwang jing 仁王經‎, T 8, no. 246).38 Emperor Taizu 太祖‎ of the Ming used shuilu rites as a means to placate the spirits of those who had died in the founding of the dynasty. The Qing imperial court also sponsored Buddhist rites, though many of these were in the Tibetan tradition. Assemblies for the Protection of the Country (huguo fahui 護國法會‎) were held from the late imperial period through the Republican period.

Pilgrimage is another example of communal practice, as Buddhists journeyed together to experience places sacred to their tradition. Over the course of several centuries, four mountains became popular destinations for pilgrimage in large part due to their connections with bodhisattvas: Mount Wutai 五台‎ was believed to be the dwelling place of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊‎); Mount Emei 峨嵋‎ came to be associated with Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢‎); Mount Jiuhua 九華‎ was connected to Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏‎); and Mount Putuo 普陀‎ was linked with Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音‎). Mount Wutai was the first to be established as a pilgrimage site, in the Tang dynasty, and Mount Putuo gained popularity especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties, aided by its location near the cities of south China and on the trade route to Japan. Lay Buddhists often traveled together to these mountains, where they would visit famous sites and monasteries, and participate in Buddhist feasts. Monks also went on pilgrimage, but were less likely to travel in groups. Their pilgrimages might take different forms, as members of the clergy also traveled to visit acclaimed teachers and famous monasteries.


Buddhism has been most closely associated with meditation, with the object of meditation ranging from the decaying human body to the splendors of Amitābha in his Pure Land. A person might follow the flow of thoughts in meditation, or use a phrase from a Chan anecdote as a focal point. Recitation was another key form of practice, and Buddhists intoned the names of the Buddhas, mantras, dhāraṇī, and scriptures. These verbal formulations were one way of evoking buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities; visualization was another. The mental construction of images was paralleled in the material world through the donation of money and goods for the creation of images and statues. The practice of giving could extend to temples and monasteries, but also to the practitioner’s body itself, in the case of self-immolation. The demarcation of sacred space in various ways provided settings for rituals and for pilgrimages; the former combined elements of individual meditation practice into communal ceremonies that involved all the senses and could last for days. In many of these practices, Buddhist clergy and laity saw themselves as earning merit, which could then be dedicated to the benefit of beings in the post mortem realm, especially ancestors. Buddhist practices thus addressed individual spiritual development, the care of the family, and creation of religious communities; they did so through mental concentration, spoken forms, and bodily action.

Although this article has focused on imperial China, many of these practices and rituals have persisted into the modern era. As with practices throughout Chinese history, they have been adapted to new needs and preferences, and through the use of new technologies. There is, however, a clear persistence in the forms of Buddhist practice found in China, Taiwan, and throughout the Chinese diaspora.

Discussion of the Literature

Given that the study of Buddhist practice overlaps so closely with scholarship on Buddhism generally, the history of Buddhist practice in China has been shaped by many of the scholarly trends in Buddhist studies more generally. Most significantly, the Japanese study of Chinese Buddhism, until the mid-20th century or even later, reflected the importance of distinct schools of doctrine and practice in Japan and imposed the same delineations on China. However, these lines were not so clearly drawn in China: there was no separate Pure Land “school” in China, and what might be termed Pure Land “practice” was promoted by monks affiliated with Tiantai and Chan.39 Scholarship on the esoteric tradition in China has also been influenced by that of the mikkyō 密教‎ tradition in Japan, with more recent works assessing Chinese esotericism on its own terms. Finally, the study of Buddhist practice has also been shaped by an older narrative of Chinese Buddhism that saw the Tang as the tradition’s apogee, followed by a long decline. Until fairly recently, this resulted in less research on the Song and post-Song period.

Meditation, especially that of the Chan school, attracted considerable early scholarly attention, as can be seen in the number of essay collections edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., Peter N. Gregory, and Robert M. Gimello. Themes taken up by these collections include the nature of the Buddhist path, and sudden and gradual approaches to practice. The volume on Song dynasty Buddhism, edited by Daniel Getz and Peter N. Gregory, contains several pieces addressing practice. More recently, the use of dhāraṇī and related traditions have been studied by Paul Copp and Koichi Shinohara. The work of Eric Greene has reexamined received notions about meditation during the early stage of Buddhism’s transmission to China, and has also problematized terms such as “visualization.” The study of ritual has received the least amount of scholarly attention, and the foremost scholar in this area of study is Daniel Stevenson. For lay Buddhist practice, and Buddhist practice that falls outside institutional boundaries, Barend ter Haar’s work on the White Lotus tradition and the Teaching of Non-Action (Wuwei jiao 無為教‎) is essential.

Looking to other traditions, Michel Strickmann, Charles B. Orzech, and others have noted the overlap between the yankou rite and the Daoist pudu 普渡‎ ceremony. Members of the neo-Confucian tradition engaged in “quiet sitting” (jingzuo 靜坐‎), which has similarities to Buddhist meditation. Parallels such as these between Buddhist practices and those of other traditions are important area of study, and one which merits continued research to better understand the ecology of religious practice in China.

Primary Sources

Practice appears so frequently in Buddhist sources that it is difficult to point to a narrow set of primary texts that would be representative. Most of the materials discussed in this article are found in the Buddhist canon; the cache of manuscripts discovered in the cave library at Dunhuang are another valuable source, especially as a reflection of how texts were integrated into practice. Many canonical texts could be described as normative or prescriptive. The writings of individual monks and pious lay followers often mention their practices, or commemorate more important ritual occasions, suggesting how practice functioned within the life of an individual or of a community. Although not solely Buddhist, the anecdotes and stories collected by Hong Mai 洪邁‎ (b. 1123–d. 1202) have provided invaluable in giving a sense of how people practiced the Song dynasty. Precious scroll (baojuan 寶卷‎) literature provides another window into religious life in late imperial China, showing how Buddhist topics might be treated in a performative context. Finally, visual and material culture supplements and at times complicated the presentation of practice in textual sources.

Many of these primary sources can be accessed online. The Chinese Buddhist canon has been digitized by:

CBETA (Zhonghua dianzi Fodian xiehui 中華電子佛典協會‎).

SAT Daizōkyō Text Database Committee of the Department of Indian Philosophy and Buddhist Studies at the University of Tokyo.

Additionally, a large number of high-quality images of texts from the Mogao cave library are available through the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library.

Further Reading

Benn, James A. Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Encylopedia of Buddhism. New York: Thomson Gale, 2004.Find this resource:

Copp, Paul. Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014Find this resource:

Donner, Neal, and Daniel B. Stevenson. The Great Calming and Contemplation: A Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Chih-i’s Mo-ho Chih-kuan. Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Getz, Daniel A., Jr. “T’ien-t’ai Pure Land Societies and the Creation of the Pure Land Patriarchate.” In Buddhism in the Sung. Edited by Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz Jr., 477–523. Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Gimello, Robert M. “Mārga and Culture: Learning, Letters, and Liberation in Northern Sung Ch’an.” In Paths to Liberation: The Mārga and its Transformations in Buddhist Thought. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Robert M. Gimello, 371–437. Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawaii Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Greene, Eric. “Healing Breaths and Rotting Bones: On the Relationship between Buddhist and Chinese Meditation Practices during the Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms.” Journal of Chinese Religions 42, no. 2 (2014): 145–184.Find this resource:

Greene, Eric. “Visions and Visualizations: In Fifth-Century Chinese Buddhism and Nineteenth-Century Experimental Psychology.” History of Religions 55, no. 3 (2016): 289–328.Find this resource:

Gregory, Peter N. Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

McGuire, Beverly Foulks. Living Karma: The Religious Practices of Ouyi Zhixu. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

McRae, John R. Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Orzech, Charles D. Politics and Transcendent Wisdom. University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Sharf, Robert. “Art in the Dark: The Ritual Context of Buddhist Caves in Western China.” In Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation. Edited by David Park, Kuenga Wangmo, and Sharon Cather, 38–65. London: Archetype, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2013.Find this resource:

Shinohara, Koichi. Spells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Ritual. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Stevenson, Daniel B. “Buddhist Ritual in the Song.” In Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960–1368 AD). Vol. 1. Edited by John Lagerwey and Pierre Marsone, 328–448. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.Find this resource:

Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Teiser, Stephen F. The Scripture of the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994.Find this resource:

ter Haar, Barend J. The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill (1992). Repr. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1999.Find this resource:

ter Haar, Barend J. “Buddhist-Inspired Options: Aspects of Lay Religious Life in the Lower Yangzi from 1100 until 1340.” T’oung Pao 87, no. 1–3 (2001): 92–152.Find this resource:

Welter, Albert. The Meaning of Myriad Good Deeds: A Study of Yung-ming Yen-shou and the Wan-shan t’ung-kuei chi. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.Find this resource:

Yifa [non-invertible], The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China: An Annotated Translation and Study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Yü, Chün-fang. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) Eric Greene, “Healing Breaths and Rotting Bones: On the Relationship between Buddhist and Chinese Meditation Practices during the Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms,” Journal of Chinese Religions 42, no. 2 (2014): 157.

(2.) Alan Sponberg, “Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism,” in Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, ed. Peter N. Gregory (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1986), 15–43.

(3.) On this issue, see Greene, Eric. “Visions and Visualizations: In Fifth-Century Chinese Buddhism and Nineteenth-Century Experimental Psychology,” History of Religions 55, no. 3 (2016): 289–328.

(4.) See James A. Benn, Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), especially chapter 1. Self-immolation is often understood as the highest example of dāna or giving, discussed later; the practice is also connected to the recitation of texts.

(5.) Neal Donner and Daniel B. Stevenson, The Great Calming and Contemplation: A Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Chih-i’s Mo-ho Chih-kuan (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1993), 26–28, 248–284. Also discussed in Daniel B. Stevenson, “The Four Kinds of Samādhi in Early T’ien-t’ai Buddhism,” Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, ed. Peter N. Gregory (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press 1986), 61–67.

(6.) Stevenson, “The Four Kinds of Samādhi,” 79.

(7.) Stevenson, “Buddhist Ritual in the Song,” 362. For Zhili’s approach to meditation, see also Brook Ziporyn, “Mind and Its ‘Creation’ of All Phenomena in Tiantai Buddhism,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37, no. 2 (2010): 156–180.

(8.) Jeffrey L. Broughton, The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999), 9–11, 13. See also John R. McRae, Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).

(9.) McRae, Seeing Through Zen, 38-40.

(10.) John R. McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1986), 125.

(11.) Translated and discussed in Mario Poceski, Ordinary Mind as the Way (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 28–29.

(12.) See Morten Schlütter, How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), especially chapter 7.

(13.) Robert E. Buswell Jr., “The ‘Short-cut’ Approach of K’an-hua Meditation: The Evolution of a Practical Subitism in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism,” in Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, ed. Peter N. Gregory (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai‘i Press, 1987), 321–377; and Robert E. Buswell Jr., “The Transformation of Doubt (yíqíng 疑情‎) in Chinese Buddhist Meditation,” in Love and Emotions in Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Halvor Eifring (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004), 225–236.

(14.) Tsukamoto Zenryū, A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Hui-yüan, vol. 2, trans. Leon Hurvitz, (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1985), 844–860.

(15.) Charles B. Jones, “Was Lushan Huiyuan a Pure Land Buddhist? Evidence from His Correspondence with Kumārajīva About Nianfo Practice,” Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal 21 (2008): 187.

(16.) Heng-Ching Shih, The Syncretism of Ch’an and Pure Land Buddhism (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), 40

(17.) Daniel B. Stevenson, “Pure Land Worship and Meditation in China,” in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 377–378.

(18.) Daniel A. Getz Jr., “T’ien-t’ai Pure Land Societies and the Creation of the Pure Land Patriarchate,” in Buddhism in the Sung, eds. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz Jr. (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai’i Press, 1999), 477–523.

(19.) Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 263–264.

(20.) Paul Copp, Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 55.

(21.) Paul Copp, “Anointing Phrases and Narrative power: A Tang Buddhist Poetics of Incantation,” History of Religions 52, no. 2 (2012): 162.

(22.) Koichi Shinohara, Spells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Ritual (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 194.

(23.) Shinohara, Spells, Images, and Mandalas, 204.

(24.) Shinohara, Spells, Images, and Mandalas, 205–225.

(25.) George A. Keyworth, “The Esotericization of Chinese Buddhist Practices,” in Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, eds. Charles Orzech, Henrik Sørensen, and Richard Payne (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 515–519.

(26.) Shufen Liu, “Art, Ritual, and Society:Buddhist Practice in Rural China during the Northern Dynasties,” Asia Major, 3rd ser., 8, no. 1 (1995): 37.

(27.) Robert Sharf, “Art in the Dark: The Ritual Context of Buddhist Caves in Western China,” in Art of Merit: Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation, eds. David Park, Kuenga Wangmo, and Sharon Cather (London: Archetype, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2013), 38–65; and Amy McNair, Donors of Longmen: Faith, Politics, and Patronage in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007).

(28.) For charity in the late imperial period more generally, see Joanna Handlin Smith, The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).

(29.) Chün-fang Yü, The Renewal of Buddhism in China: Chu-hung and the Late Ming Synthesis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 233–259.

(30.) Yuhang Li, “Embroidering Guanyin: Constructions of the Divine through Hair,” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine 36 (2012): 131–166.

(31.) See Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and Self-Inflected Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially chapter 2.

(32.) Stephen F. Teiser, The Scripture of the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994), 152–162.

(33.) Stevenson, “Buddhist Ritual in the Song,” 380–392.

(34.) Daniel A. Getz, “Popular Religion and Pure Land in Song-Dynasty Tiantai Bodhisattva Precept Ordination Ceremonies,” in Going Forth: Visions of Buddhist Vinaya, ed. William Bodiford (Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), 168–177.

(35.) Manuals for its performance date back to the Yuan dynasty, and the continued production of revised liturgies in the Ming and Qing dynasties attests to the enduring importance of esoteric models for Buddhist rites. See Hun Y. Lye, “Yunqie Yankou in the Ming-Qing,” in Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, eds. Charles Orzech, Henrik Sørensen, and Richard Payne (Leiden, The Netherands: Brill, 2011); Charles D. Orzech, “Fang Yankou and Pudu: Translation, Metaphor, and Religious Identity,” in Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, eds. Livia Cohen and Harold D. Roth (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002), 213–234.

(36.) Andreas Janousch, “The Emperor as Bodhisattva: The Bodhisattva Ordination and Ritual Assemblies of Emperor Wu of the Liang,” in State and Court Ritual in China, ed. Joseph P. McDermott (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 140–141 and passim.

(37.) Jinhua Chen, “Śarīra and Scepter: Empress Wu’s Political Use of Buddhist Relics,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25, no. 1–2 (2002): 33–150; and N. Harry Rothschild, Emperor Wu Zhao and her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 192.

(38.) Charles D. Orzech, Politics and Transcendent Wisdom (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), especially chapter 6.

(39.) Robert H. Sharf, “On Pure Land Buddhism and Ch’an Pure Land Syncretism in Medieval China,” T’oung Pao 88 (2002): 282–331.