Meir Shahar: "Buddhism and Chinese Rural Religion"
To what extent did Buddhism influence the worldview of the traditional Chinese
peasant? Did Buddhist soteriology inform the religious practice of Chinese villagers?
In this lecture, I address this question by a survey of gods and rituals that, prevalent in
late-imperial rural China, are traceable to medieval Buddhist antecedents. The focus
is upon two prominent members of the rural pantheon, the Horse King (divine
protector of horses, donkeys and mules) and the Ox King (tutelary deity of oxen and
buffaloes). The former is a descendent of a Tantric Buddhist deity, the Horse-Headed
Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, whereas the latter inherited his very name from the
Buddha Śākyamuni, whose Sanskrit title narārṣabha (“Bull of a Man”) was rendered
into Chinese as Niuwang (Ox King). The lecture draws upon ritual manuscripts and
household icons that were collected in Southern-Chinese villages.
Meir Shahar is the Shoul N. Eisenberg Chair for East Asian Affairs at Tel Aviv
University. He is the author of Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Literature
(1998); Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and his Indian Origins (2015); and The
Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (2008), which
has been translated into numerous languages. Meir Shahar’s co-edited volumes
include: Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (1996); India in the Chinese
Imagination (2014); Chinese and Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism (2017); and Animals and
Human Society in Asia: Historical, Cultural and Ethical Perspectives (2019).
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