As the fountainheads of various Chinese Buddhist traditions, the formation of Chinese patriarch temples marked the foundation of the Chinese Buddhism’s independence in contrast to Indian Buddhism. The pressure India imposed on neighboring countries was not exclusively generated by its status as the birthplace of the Buddha. The political, cultural, economic and military advantage Indian maintained over other Asian countries also contributed to its preeminent status. The situation changed considerably in the seventh and eighth centuries. During this period, Tang China began to surpass India both in terms of aggregate economic output and GDP per capita, becoming the most powerful country in the world. Scholars ascribe the success of Tang China to the high efficiency of her political institutions, the multiplication of her cultures and the globalization of her commercial networks. Buddhism appears to have played a key role in the latter two developments. The emergence of Tang China as key political, cultural, and commercial center created a new world order. The arrival of south and central Asian Buddhist clerics in Tang China reflected this reshuffling of power. These south and central Buddhist missionaries enhanced the sense that Tang China constituted the new world center. This was a pleasant collaboration between Chinese monastics and their South and Central Asian counterparts.
Following the establishment of the new order in the religious world during the Sui-Tang period, patriarch temples started to played increasingly important roles both within the monastic world and beyond. By studying two Sui-Tang Chan patriarchal temples both named “Chanding” (meditation), this article is aimed at the immense roles, both religious and non-religious, played by these two homonymous temples.
The monasteries were, for example, established by successive Sui period emperors: Sui founder Wendi 隋文帝 (r. 581-604) and his son Yangdi 隋炀帝 (r. 604-618). They stood side by side in two adjacent wards (fang 坊) of Chang’an. The structures were established a mere three years apart. As their names (chanding禅定 [meditation]) suggest, the twin monasteries were sites of meditation practice. Perhaps most interestingly, they were built for very similar or even identical political and religious purposes. Both Chanding Monasteries, as I will discuss here, were constructed for the posthumous benefit of their sponsors’ primary relatives, Wendi’s wife and Yangdi’s father.
By examining various roles played by the twin Chanding Monasteries under the Sui and Tang dynasties, this article underscores the necessity of studying religious temples and shrines from multiple perspectives, taking into account the plethora of non-religious factors that scholars of the religious history are wont to ignore or neglect. Oftentimes understood as boundary markers dividing the secular/mundane world from its sacred/pure counterpart, religious temples and shrines have in many contexts been celebrated as sites free from the polluting influences of everyday life and “arenas for practice” (daochang 道场) within which religious activities could be executed. Yet ample evidence suggests that, despite claims to be other-worldly, places of religious practice in East Asia (and around the world) remain entangled to a greater or lesser extent in the affairs of the ordinary world, facilitating the formation of bonds of all types. As the case of the Chanding Monasteries illustrates, scholars need to attend more closely to the roles temples have played in building social, political, economic-commercial, educational or even diplomatic and strategic ties and networks in East Asia.