Buddhism and Taoism face to face looks at the exchange of scripture, ritual and deities in Medieval China. Mollier covers nearly all of my favourite concepts of Chinese religion, talismans, witchcraft, ghosts, exorcism and possession, astrology and Guan Yin. She makes tremendous use of the Dunhuang manuscripts, contrasting Buddhist and Taoists texts which have previously been studied separately. Her knowledge of both Taoism and Buddhism is remarkable and as such is able to look at similarities others have missed. The book starts talking in the introduction about other works on early Chinese religion, I was very happy to see some of my favourite books and scholars in this list. If you've not studied medieval Chinese religion in great depth I would recommend reading those books first before starting this one as this book does require a fairly extensive background knowledge on the subject.
The first item discussed is the method of the Heavenly Kitchens. Mollier examines the Taoist and Buddhist scripture referring to the Heavenly Kitchens, as well as works by Du Guangting, who accused the Buddhists of stealing this scripture from the Taoists, which Mollier makes fairly evident that they did. However, rather than simply trying to look at what idea was stolen from where, Mollier looks at why these ideas became popular, and why it was that both religions were focusing on these areas.
Unlike Ter Haar who sees sorcery as mostly just a result of rumours, Mollier talks about how it has always been very prevalent in Chinese society, (55) with examples from Mawangdui in the 3rd century BCE, and the official histories. She talks about the "gu" poison which
"involves filling a jar with insects, serpents, and other vermin and letting them devour one another. The last survivor, which presumably has concentrated within itself all the venom of the other pests is called "gu". This diabolic creature, subject to its master, enables him to apply its sorcery against enemies, notably by drugging their food" (55)
There were examples from 8th century and modern China that showed victims of this poison throwing up while talking to the exorcists.
One thing that was quite interesting to learn was the strong Buddhist belief in black magic and the fact that Taoism had very little belief in black magic. For the Buddhists the proliferation of sorcery was seen as one of the signs of the final years of the Dharma (58-59). Buddhist literature talks about sorceress and witches who make pacts with demons and cause a wide variety of demonic dementia (similar to demonic possession in European witchcraft cases). Buddhist monks and the laity can both be victims of these attacks and the laity would often die from such attacks. (64) As such a treat was considered so severe it was ok for the Buddhists to use the sorcerers tricks against them and in this case it was sanctioned by the Buddha for the lives of the sorcerers to be taken (by means of magic).
While not considered so important in Taoism, they did have their own scriptures and rituals for dealing "talismans and spells which can neutralise and destroy evil people who perform witchcraft" (67). The Scripture for Unbinding Curses Revealed by the Most High Lord Lao, is unique in medieval Taoism for dealing with these issues. Mollier compares this with the Sutra for the Conjuration of bewitchments, preached by the Buddha, a very popular Buddhist text of which several copies survived at Dunhuang. Mollier translates this sutra (70-76) which talks about the acts of evil witches, "there was an old woman who, at the entrance of a fox's den, burnt animal fat in the middle of the night under the stars and so prepared betwichments. She thus constrained the celestial divinities above and the Five Emperors below as well as the gods of the mountains, the general of the River and the god of the five ways, while imploring all the spirits to put her machinations into action. She made dolls of straw, human effigies, and talismans [prepared] imprecations and curses, usurped the names and patronyms of people; and armed herself with pins, needles and clods of yellow ear…" (71) The text goes on and is a great description of what witches were believed to do, as well as how they were able to bewitch people. Mollier then goes on to look at the similarities in phrasing between the two scriptures. It is also important to note that in medieval China the sorcerer is always a woman (81) this is not true of later Imperial China, when males were often accused of sorcery.
Chapter 3 looked at different Buddhist and Taoist ways for increasing longevity. Taoist practices for increased longevity are well known, and this chapter looked at some of the ways these texts and rituals were adapted by Buddhism. In particular she discusses the Yisuan jing which was drawn from Heavenly Master Taoism, and was later used as a form of divination in Dunhuang in 900, 2-300 years after it had been adopted by Buddhism (132).
Chapter 4 looks at the importance of astrology and how ideas on the constellations seeped into both Taoism and Buddhism, in particular the importance of the Great Dipper. There are included lots of talismans and Mollier discusses the Talismanic tradition of the Great dipper and how this tradition originated in medieval Taoism and by the 8th century had been incorporated into Buddhism. (172-73)
The last chapter looks at the adoption of Guan Yin by Taoists, the deity Jiuku tianzun, who was also said to offer salvation through the calling of his name. It is worth mentioning that this deity was androgynous, but pictured as a handsome young man and did not go through Guan Yin's sex change. There are only a few statues left of this deity, and he did not manage to get the widespread popularity of Guan Yin, one could almost look at this as a failed attempt by the Taoists to appropriate a Buddhist idea.
This was altogether a fantastic book, one I hope will become released in paperback so that I can keep a copy for reference, as I had to borrow the hardback from SOAS. Unfortunately as it is such a specialised area I think the chances of this happening are fairly small. But I am very glad to be able to read it as it was such an interesting perspective and fresh insight into Chinese religion....Continua