Wu Reviews Makeham, ed., Buddhist Roots of Zhu Xi

Jiang WU has reviewed John Makeham, ed., The Buddhist Roots of Zhu Xi’s Philosophical Thought (Oxford, 2018) in the latest Journal of Chinese Religions; see here. One excerpt:

The current volume under review is thus a welcome step towards reevaluating the Buddhist influence on the formation of Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian philosophy. Not only will it rekindle interest in philosophical issues among China specialists, it also helps to correct the previous tendency, or even bias, to overemphasize the social, intellectual, and historical aspects. This dominant approach tends to reduce philosophical arguments to a set of ideological dogmas conditioned by their social and cultural contexts, such as the competition for literati patronage. (p. 304)

14 thoughts on “Wu Reviews Makeham, ed., Buddhist Roots of Zhu Xi

  1. Although I haven’t yet read the volume (which I definitely should and will), I dislike the title of the book. “Roots” means key aspects of Zhu Xi’s thought are originally Buddhist. Per my best knowledge of both the original writings and current Sinophone scholarship on this topic, this is by no means the case.

  2. Hi Bin — Thanks for this comment! I think you’re over-reading the title, though, for two reasons. First, the book by no means presents a single perspective on the question of the ways in which Buddhism (of varying kinds) has influenced (varying aspects of) Zhu’s thought. Second and relatedly, to say that there are “Buddhist roots” is not necessarily to say that (some aspects of) Zhu’s thought “are originally Buddhist”; it can rather mean that there are Buddhist sources playing some kind of role in the evolution/development of Zhu’s thought. To be more specific, here is another quote from the review, this time discussing my chapter:

    “Instead of attributing the Buddhist influence on Zhu Xi to his “borrowing” from Buddhist doctrine, Angle argues that Zhu Xi consciously “repurposed” Buddhist ideas to develop his own thought. Steven [sic] Angle’s suggestion is very interesting and revealing because, according to him, it is the deeply rooted culture imbued with Buddhist ideas that had influenced Zhu Xi rather than a direct borrowing from Buddhism. Following this line of thinking, he identifies “four layers” crucial to tackling the issue of Zhu Xi’s Buddhist roots: the formation of major Buddhist ideas and concepts such as Buddha-nature, heartmind, etc.; the “graduate articulation of a shared Confucian-Buddhist-Daoist intellectual discourse in the Tang dynasty” (p. 159); Cheng Yi 程頤 and his followers’ relationship to Buddhism; and last, “Zhu Xi’s own experience with Buddhism” (p. 164). For Angle, the resemblance between Zhu Xi and Buddhism became rather “superficial than real” in light of these four layers (p. 158).” (p. 305 of the review)

    The only qualification I would make is that I did not mean to make a blanket statement that resemblances between Zhu Xi and Buddhism are “superficial rather than real”; I think this is something that needs to be worked out on a case-by-case basis with respect to different areas of his thought. For what I am in this essay calling “epistemology,” I think the resemblance is superficial.

    • Dear Steve, Thanks for the response as well!

      I believe chapters are fairly diverse and rigorous, as indicated by your quote and your chapter. However, to give a book a title without a question mark implies a conclusion. This is like the incumbent president of U.S’s tweet feed; as long as it captures the audience’s attention, no one would bother about its attachment, repost, proof, etc. I have a great suspicion towards the general narrative of “influence”that Daoism and Buddhism exerted towards Ruism because 1) Buddhist ideas were translated to Chinese under the influence of Daoist and Ruist ideas; if there are ‘Roots’ of Buddhism in Zhu Xi’s thought, where is the root of those roots? Mahayana Buddhism flourishes outside India and in the greater Sinophone area; isn’t this a proof that there are roots of Ruism in Buddhist thought as well? If roots are everywhere, shall we be more careful about our use of “roots”? 2) Daoism and Ruism debated each other from the very first beginning of the classical period of Chinese philosophy on almost all issues; therefore, no way to affirm the one-dimensional influence of “Daoism” upon Ruism particularly in the area of metaphysics.

      I also doubt whether this sort of “roots” title perpetuated a pre-established conclusion in some portion of the academia that Ruism has no unique contribution to metaphysics and spirituality, and everything on this topic in Ruism just derive from an outside influence. This is one reason we still call it “neo-Confucianism,” to which no traditional Chinese phrase corresponds. I may indeed over-read too much on this doubt, but I am glad to be corrected once I read carefully the chapters. However, based upon the aforementioned reasons, I still dislike the title.

  3. Steve and Bin above are both reading the title to mean “Those of Zhu Xi’s roots that are Buddhist.” But I think it’s predictable that many readers would take the title to mean “The roots of Zhu Xi, which in fact are Buddhist”—i.e. taking the modifier as nonrestrictive: implying that all his roots are Buddhist. I think that reading is one of the natural initial readings, given that we’re talking about a title. And I think the naturalness of this reading makes the title more likely to mislead in the ways Bin is worried about.

    One could require the nonrestrictive reading by using parentheses: “The (Buddhist) Roots of Zhu Xi.” But that signal is awkward in a title (as would be maybe any other definite signal of nonrestrictiveness), so its absence from a title doesn’t conclusively signal that the modifier is restrictive.

    • Thanks for the response, Bill! Yes, “The roots of Zhu Xi, which in fact are Buddhist” is what we should be more cautious about. But Thanks to Steve’s and Justin’s contributions there, I do not think readers will continue to worry about that after reading the chapters.

  4. I am not sure what to make of this discussion. In the Western tradition, most philosophers have been influenced by predecessors, so it quite common to find monographs which underline the influence Aristotle had on Hegel or Nietzsche on Foucault. Nobody would then assume that Hegel’s or Foucault’s philosophy was simply derivative. Zhu Xi has clearly been influenced by Buddhist thinking, and I entirely agree with John Makeham’s point that we need to understand Chinese thinking as in many respects “hybrid”. It is sad that, in the present, many scholars overly emphasize the “Chineseness” of thinkers like Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, or even Confucius. We should not forget that Chinese nationalism is a rather recent phenomenon. Few serious contemporary scholars would emphasize the “Greekness” of thinkers like Aristotle or Plato and connect their interpretations to the self-understanding of the modern Greek nation.

  5. My last sentence should be stronger: “No serious contemporary scholar would emphasize the ‘Greekness’ of thinkers like Aristotle or Plato and connect their interpretations to the self-understanding of the modern Greek nation.”

  6. Amen.

    I gather that it used to be a big deal in the Western academy that Greek culture and thought was quite European, and I gather it may still be a big deal in the National of Islam that Greek philosophy came mainly from Egypt. But of course both concerns are misplaced.

    What might not be misplaced is a worry about the idea that China is incapable of innovation (at least since the Qin). Is that idea still kicking around?

    But I wonder whether a better parallel for Bin’s concern would be the still-controversial and sensitive idea that the idea of Mary as the Mother of God is an outgrowth of the eclectic Great Mother tradition that was popular around the Eastern Mediterranean for 800 years before Constantine?

    My own worry is that concern for how Ru or Chinese philosophy is seen by non-specialists has become a major drag on interpretive work in the field.

  7. Dear Kai, I agree with you 100%. My question is not about “Chineseness” at all. Actually, in my review to Li Zehou’s “A History of Classical Chinese Thought”, I iterated the point you so gracefully highlighted. (https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/a-history-of-classical-chinese-thought/). However, “roots” really means differently from “influences”; in particular, given the debate between Buddhism, Ruism and Daoism is a historically and currently real thing, its “non-religious” (“religion” understood in the Abrahamic sence) nature cannot undermine our philosophical understanding about what is at stake in the debate. Philosophically, it is worth asking whether Buddhist ideas function as a “root” or a “catalyst” of Zhu Xi’s thought. if the whole book is still debating it, then, it is inappropriate to use a conclusive, yet misleading title (as Bill clearly indicated above). So, I do not play any “identity” card here, since I do not think any authentic Ru would like to play it. But in any case, thanks for the discussion!

  8. By the way, dear colleagues, I am working in the cross disciplines of philosophy , religion and theology. This may be the reason I am sensitive to words suggestive of origins and identities. Right now, I am using ideas similar to Kai’s to argue people should take different senses of ‘religious identity’ ‘community’ or ‘tradition’ in AAR groups such as ‘theology without walls’ and ‘comparative theology’. Regarding the non-Chinese emphasis of doing Chinese philosophy, I am in the same boat. [A fuller disclosure: I am a born Chinese.]

  9. Dear Bin Song, dear Bill, many thanks for your thoughtful comments on my intervention! I am glad to hear from you. I realize that my remark could be misinterpreted, as if I its second half was specifically referring to one of you. It was not; it rather was meant as a general remark about our field. So I am happy to hear from you, Bin Song, and I am happy to know that you share my worries (I will have a look at your review of Li Zehou’s book). I should have put more emphasis on the first half of my remark, in particular the idea that if one points out the fact that an individual thinker has been influenced by another thinker, this does in no way imply that this individual thinker’s thinking is considered to be simply derivative. The case of Buddhism is rather peculiar, though, since there in fact has been a strong tendency in the Chinese-speaking scholarship (especially among those who most strongly identify with the Confucian tradition) to dismiss the Buddhist influence on Neo-Confucianism as irrelevant. And this tendency does in fact mirror something like an “anxiety of influence” shared by many earlier Neo-Confucians in the Song and Ming dynasties, I would argue. And, as far as the present is concerned, this is indeed often due to a nationalist or culturalist mindset, as John Makeham, Jason Clower, and others have demonstrated so convincingly. The root-metaphor may indeed be misleading, and here Bill has a point. But maybe we are also simply too sensitive to single words. This volume is addressed to a specialist audience, and specialists are less likely to misunderstand it, I believe.

    • Dear Kai, high five. Thanks for the response. I find there is an equal amount of anxiety particularly in some English-writing East Asian Studies (not philosophy) scholars to be anxious about the originality of Confucian metaphysics and spirituality. I guess this may derive from May Fourth movement or else. Some of my friends purchased the book because of the title, and they are outside the academia. 🙂

  10. I think people have different senses of the metaphor of “roots.”

    Some see roots as many tendrils, each drawing different nutrients into the central stalk.

    Some see the root as the foundation of the plant, which might draw upon various nutrients in the soil but is itself the primary source and identity of the plant.

    Also, the importance of the roots-and-branches framework in Chinese might be at work in the different reactions. This notion of roots makes it hard to see a Buddhist root that is parallel to his Confucian branches.

    How about “The Buddhist Pollination of Zhuxi’s Ru Trees”?

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