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A Chinese Monk under a “Barbarian” Mask?

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Zhihuilun (?-876) and Late Tang Esoteric Buddhism

image of T'oung Pao

Zhihuilun (?-876) was not only a major advocate of Esoteric Buddhism in ninth-century China, he also played a crucial role in transmitting Esotericism to the rest of East Asia. Details of the life of this important figure have remained lost in the mists of uncertainty due to the lack of reliable data. Relying on long-hidden evidence, this article shows that almost all of the remarks made about Zhihuilun by Zanning (919-1001) in the Song gaoseng zhuan are contradicted by this body of new evidence and must be modified or simply rejected. In addition to reconstructing more accurately the life of a principal esoteric promoter, this article aims at exposing certain fundamental flaws inherent in monastic biographies. It also suggests that the nature and functions of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism might need to be reassessed in view of the newly revealed Chinese origin of this key promoter of that tradition.
 Zhihuilun (?-876) n’a pas seulement été l’un des grands représentants du bouddhisme ésotérique en Chine au ixe siècle, il a également joué un rôle crucial dans la transmission de l’ésotérisme vers le reste de l’Asie orientale. Les détails de la vie de cette importante personnalité restaient enveloppés de mystère en raison de l’absence de sources fiables. La présente étude s’appuie sur des données restées longtemps cachées pour montrer que presque toutes les indications données par Zanning (919-1001) sur Zhihuilun dans le Song gaoseng zhuan sont contredites par ces nouvelles données, et qu’elles doivent par conséquent être soit modifiées, soit rejetées purement et simplement. Outre qu’il propose une reconstruction plus exacte de la vie d’un des grands promoteurs de l’ésotérisme, l’article s’attache à exposer certains des problèmes fondamentaux soulevés par les biographies de moines. Il est également suggéré que la nature même et les fonctions du bouddhisme ésotérique chinois méritent peut-être d’être réévaluées à la lumière de l’origine chinoise, telle qu’elle est révélée ici, d’un des personnages clés de cette tradition.

Affiliations: 1: University of British Columbia


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