Buddhist ritual


Ritual only occupies a minor role within both Buddhist and Daoist studies. But more than in Daoist studies, Buddhist studies are dominated by institutions—the major temples.

As to folk ritual, scholars’ focus on household Daoists is natural, but where we can find household groups of Buddhist ritual specialists, they are of equal interest, and their ritual practice may be rather similar. From my In search of the folk Daoists (pp.5–6):

 Locally the distinction between Buddhist and Daoist temples may be rather academic; but for what it’s worth, Buddhist temples were far more common than Daoist ones, as shown in imperial and republican county gazetteers.
This, along with the fact that in most areas until the 1950s, Buddhists performed folk rituals just as much as Daoists, may make the far greater proportion of Daoist over Buddhist ritual specialists seem rather strange. But it’s not. The Buddhists worked mainly from their temples, and the 20th-century waves of laicization and temple destruction were certainly more of a blow to the Buddhists than to the Daoists. The Buddhists perhaps tended to cater more for elite patrons, and were less able to survive during times of economic recession; state policies of the 1950s came as a double blow to them, as apart from laicizations and temple destruction, their former patrons also vanished. Conversely, the Daoists had long lay and household traditions, alongside any institutional base; they were more adaptable to local religious life, more all-embracing. The difficulty of regulating them has always been their hidden strength.
Thus my scope of groups performing complex liturgical/ritual sequences notionally subsumes occupational groups of Buddhists. Though Daoists dominate the rural ritual scene, Buddhist ritual specialists may also perform similar rituals; below I mention groups in central Shanxi, south Shaanxi, and central Hebei—and for southeast China, we have some material for the Hokkien and Hakka areas.

Buddhist and Daoist rituals have been interacting for over 1,500 years. An obvious instance is the Flaming Mouth (yankou) ritual. The Li family ritual repertoire contains many Buddhist elements (Daoist priests of the Li family, index). The toolbox required to study the two is similar; we shouldn’t compartmentalise our studies.

Field reports on local ritual in south China do sometimes feature household Buddhist groups—notably in east Guangdong and Jiangxi—where the picture is complex, with “Buddhist Daoists” and “Daoist Buddhists” (see e.g. Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.109–16, 338–40). For north China, I mentioned in passing a Buddhist band in Daixian county near Wutaishan (further detail here). I’ll add the occasional page on other local Buddhist ritual traditions as I find material—such as Zuoyun county in north Shanxi, Yangxian in south Shaanxi, and Chengde in northeast Hebei.

And of course there is plenty of work on the rituals of Buddhist temple monks, notably for old Beijing, and around Xi’an. In both places, there was interaction between the temples and folk ritual specialists—notably on the Hebei plain, where there are still many amateur associations performing rituals transmitted from former temple monks. So that is a more common scenario than occupational groups of household Buddhist ritual specialists.

Note Buddhism tag.