A Study of the Thoughts of the Song dynasty Huayan School

Wang Song 王頌. A Study of the Thoughts of the Song-dynasty Huayan School (宋代華嚴思想研究). Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe 宗教文化出版社, 2008. 

Reviewed by Yang Xiaodong 楊曉東 (PhD candidate, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

The Song dynasty (960-1279) has long been stereotyped as a major watershed in the longue durée of Chinese Buddhism. This period, in the writings of many Buddhologists, is depicted as in a state of decline, adumbrating the deterioration of Chinese Buddhism that extended down through the remainder of the imperial era. Such a stereotypical image, however, has become increasingly questionable in recent decades. The very basis on which this judgment is made, namely the evolutionary narrative of Chinese Buddhist history, need no longer be taken seriously due to the recent scholarship on the prosperity of Song Buddhism in both quantitative and qualitative terms.[1] Quantitatively speaking, the scale of the saṃgha and the patronage of monasteries were rather considerable under the Song, comparable to the “pinnacle” achieved by Buddhism in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Qualitatively speaking, the process whereby the pre-Song Buddhist schools constructed themselves continued to evolve throughout the tenth through thirteenth centuries, despite that no new sects of Buddhism emerged during this time. Thus the Song dynasty, in any strict sense, was not a period of decline in Buddhism at all. In the felicitous words of Peter N. Gregory. “if any period deserves the epithet of the ‘gold age’ of Buddhism, the Song is the most likely candidate.”[2]

The monograph being reviewed here, authored by Wang Song 王頌 and titled A Study of the Thoughts of the Song-dynasty Huayan School (C. Songdai huayan sixiang yanjiu 宋代華嚴思想研究), is a historiographic work that showcases the vitality of Song-dynasty Buddhism. Instead of dealing with the two most influential Buddhist sects under the Song, viz. Chan 禪 and Tiantai 天台, Wang directs his attention to the so-called Huayan zong 華嚴宗, or the “Flower Garland School.” The eastern Asian Huayan School takes its name from the Chinese translation of the title of the Avatamsakasūtra. It is also sometimes referred to as Xianshou 賢首, after the sobriquet of the Tang Buddhist monk Fazang 法藏 (643-712), the main architect of its sophisticated doctrinal system. The doctrinal system of the Huayan School is mainly derived from the tenets of the Avatamsakasūtra, but recast in a distinctively East Asian fashion. It is a systematization of the canonical teachings concerning ontology, cosmology, and soteriology, “offering a version of an infinite number of interconnected world systems, interfused in an all-encompassing realm of reality.”[3] For a long time, scholars have been wont to label the Song as a “slump” for the Huayan tradition, since it was supposedly weakened severely in China after the nationwide persecution taking place during the Huichang 會昌 reign (843-844). Yet in Wang Song’s work, he demonstrates that the Song Huayan tradition, featuring a penchant for philosophical sophistication and epistemological all-inclusiveness, still enjoyed the considerable support of not only monastic but also lay Buddhist elites after the end of the tenth century.

Compositionally, Wang’s monograph is septuple. It begins with a seemingly déclassée but rather intriguing question: What do we mean by Huayan School? In the Chinese Buddhist context, the term for school does not imply an institutionally independent sect that had autonomous ecclesiastical structures. Instead, it can be used to denote “the essential purport of a particular doctrine, a tradition of canonical exegesis or philosophical reflection, a systematization of particular doctrines or practices, or a grouping of practitioners that adhere to a set of teachings or ideals.”[4] In Wang’s eyes, the term school involves a combination of several of these interpretative possibilities. It implies a conscious religious movement that had the doctrinal moorings setting them apart from other Buddhist traditions. In his study of the Song-dynasty Huayan School, therefore, Wang dedicates the first two chapters to the biographical and genealogical accounts of the eminent monks who were self-proclaimed successors to Fazang. Some of these monks, such as Zixuan 子璇 (965-1038), Jingyuan 靜源 (1011-1088), and Yihe 義和 (d.u.; fl. c. early twelfth century), are accredited with being the chief architects of the Song-dynasty revival of the Huayan School. By examining the religious careers of these monks, Wang reveals the existence of distinct group identities and fractional divisions that separated Huayan from other Buddhist sects. Since there was a clear identificatory line, this is enough in itself to constitute a self-consciously “Huayan School.”

In the following two chapters, the focal points are the hermeneutic works concerning philosophy and soteriology subsumed under the Huayan tradition. Centering on the growth and profusion of such hermeneutic works, they reveal the richness and variety of sectarian expressions of Huayan religiosity. Chapter 3 discusses the Huayan hermeneutics on the practice termed guan 觀. It showcases the efforts made by Huayan monks to solidify a sense of identity for their monastic communities. Guan is the Chinese translation for vipaśyanā, a Sanskrit technical term for an understanding of reality at a level of contemplation. Since at least the seventh century, it has been closely associated with the Tiantai soteriology, at the core of which is Zhiyi’s 智顗 (538-597) exegesis on “concentration and contemplation” (S. śamatha-vipaśyanā; C. zhi guan 止觀). From a Tiantai perspective, the cultivation of concentration and contemplation represents the most comprehensive and effective model of religious practice for approaching the attainment of Buddhahood. It is evidence of not only the doctrinal sophistication of the Tiantai tradition but also its systematic nature and soteriological practicability. Inspired by the Tiantai exegesis of contemplation, many Song-dynasty Huayan monks also made concerted effort to come to terms with the practice of guan. Instead of simply appropriating their Tiantai counterpart, however, they formulated a special form of guan practice, noted for its extensive recourse to the nomenclature of the Avatamsakasūtra. In chapter 3, Wang provides a general orientation to the position and backgrounds of the guan practice in the Song-dynasty Huayan School. He moves this practice back into the realm of monastic life, highlighting the distinctiveness of Huayan monks’ doctrinal parlance on “concentration and contemplation.”

The reinterpretation by Song-dynasty Huayan monks of the treatises authored by Sengzhao 僧肇 (374-414), one of Kumārajīva’s (334-413) leading disciples, is the focus of chapter 4. These interpretative texts are particularly noteworthy due to their sectarian characteristics. In the field of Chinese Buddhology, Sengzhao has been known for his crucial role in the popularization of the “Middle Way” (S. Madhyamaka; C. Zhognguan 中觀) thought. His most representative works, namely the Treatise on the Immutability of Things (C. Wubuqian lun 物不遷論), the Treatise on the Emptiness of the Unreal (C. Bu zhenkong lun 不真空論), and the Nescience of Prajñā Treatise (C. Bore wuzhi lun 般若無知論), offer various explanations of some important doctrinal matters of the “Middle Way” thought, such as the “dharma nature” (C. faxing 法性), the “original nothingness” (C. benwu 本無), and the “genuine marks of reality” (C. shixiang 實相). Under the Song, however, some Huayan scholar-monks sought to reinterpret Sengzhao’s treatises in light of the Avatamsakasūtra. Their interpretations are legion with deliberate “misreadings” that aim to show how Buddhist texts from two different traditions contradict each other only from a superficial standpoint. These attempts at harmonization are sometimes thought to have led to the rise of syncretism, but according to Wang, they actually indicate an overriding sectarian concern with showing the supremacy and comprehensiveness of the Huayan School’s doctrines.

Notwithstanding the emergence of an expansive array of sectarian hermeneutics, the Song-dynasty Huayan School was not immune to the development of syncretism from early on. It was open to many sorts of ecumenical gestures and syncretic amalgamations, featuring general rejection of dogmatism and a disinclination to present itself in overly restrictive terms. In chapter 5 and 6, Wang historicizes the ongoing interaction between the Huayan School and other religious traditions such as Pure Land Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. He reveals that many Song-dynasty Huayan monks were capable of accommodating several overlapping and contextual identities, despite their intention to construct the sectarian identity of Huayan as a canonical Buddhist school. In chapter 5, Wang’s focus is the concrete efforts made by some eminent Huayan clerics to establish an ecumenical approach to pure land practice, which combines the practices of meditation, recitation, and discipline. In chapter 6, he directs his attention to the Huayan exegeses written to demonstrate the compatibility of Buddhist thought in response to Confucian and Daoist challenges during the Song. Building on these analyses, it is clear that the Song-dynasty Huayan School was largely an inclusive and eclectic brand of the Mahayanic tradition. It is thus somehow pointless or misleading to characterize the Huayan monks at this time as an exclusive group in either the doctrinal or sociological sense.

The last section of Wang’s study, rather brief in comparison with previous chapters, is dedicated to the practice of “confession of transgressions” (S. pāpadeśanā; C. chanhui 懺悔). In the Mahayanic context, it was designed for the people who were hindered by karmic obstructions but still wished for spiritual advancement. Throughout the history of Chinese Buddhism, particular importance has long been attached to the confession practice. And the Song-dynasty Huayan monks, like their predecessors and contemporaries, also placed a special emphasis on the soteriological efficacy of chanhui. In chapter 7, Wang sheds light on the doctrinal basis on which the Huayan practice of confession was built. He also examines the ritual manuals compiled by Song-dynasty Huayan clerics, especially those authored by Zixuan, Jingyuan, and Yihe. By analyzing these doctrinal and liturgical texts, Wang shows us a tendency to systematize the practice of chanhui in the Huayan School between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. This tendency, according to Wang, was to a large degree inspired by some eminent Tiantai clerics’ efforts to complicate and standardize the practice of confession.

Despite touching on many intriguing questions about the Song-dynasty Huayan School, Wang’s study is unfortunately devoid of a conclusive chapter. His cursory discussion on the practice of chanhui is an anticlimactic finish to his ambitious project on the intelligent trajectory of the Huayan sect between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Nevertheless, it seems that Wang’s book is still pregnant with some conclusive implications. The most important one, I think, is the duality that is observable in the religious life of the Song-dynasty Huayan monks. As demonstrated in Wang’s work, the Song-dynasty Huayan School was characterized by both distinct group identities and factional divisions. With the reinvention and reification of sectarian identity, many Huayan monks had strong interests in the hermeneutics and soteriology of their own lineage and tradition. On the other hand, however, this Buddhist school never existed in isolation or had fixed boundaries. Either doctrinally or institutionally, it was of the characteristics that transcended sectarian differences, as manifested in the individual and communal lives of those who believed or claimed to follow the Huayan teachings. Such kind of duality was definitely contributive to the Huayan School’s capacity to accommodate different kinds of doctrinal debates and factional disagreements. It is feasible to suggest that the flourish of the Huayan School under the Song is to a large degree attributable to the dualities of its doctrinal framework.

To be sure, there are some points in this book with which to quibble. For example, some readers will wonder about the necessity of discussing the Huayan reinterpretation of Sengzhao’s treatises. Others will question his characterization of the Huayan School under the Song period, arguing that he has placed too much faith in the writings by a very small and highly literate élite bearing clerical status. But no matter how partial its discussion might be, there is much in this book to commend. With an overall emphasis on textual study, it invites comparison with other cultural and historical studies concerning the Song intelligentsia, making possible that the sectarian history of a Buddhist school would shed light on the intellectual landscape from the tenth to thirteenth centuries. The text is stimulating and clearly written, quite understandable to anyone who is fascinated by medieval China. And given the profusion of historical and philological materials presented in this volume, I would predict that it will be appreciated by everyone seriously interested in the study of Chinese Buddhism.


[1] There is an increasing body of research aimed at such historical revisionism, but see, among others, Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz Jr eds., Buddhism in the Sung (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).

[2] Gregory, introduction to Buddhism in the Sung, 2.

[3] The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, comp. Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), s.v. “Huayan zong.”

[4] Mario Poceski, “Buddhism in Chinese History,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to East and Inner Asian Buddhism, ed. Mario Poceski (Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 51-2.