A Late Sixteenth-Century Chinese Buddhist Fellowship: Spiritual Ambitions, Intellectual Debates, and Epistolary Connections. By JENNIFER ElCHMAN. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 127. Boston: BRILL, 2016. Pp. xvi + 422. [euro]139, $180.
This book makes a valuable contribution to the study of late imperial Chinese Buddhism by examining a network of monks and lay practitioners connected by relationships rather than geography. Drawing primarily on epistolary sources, it seeks to ground late Ming intellectual, social, and religious history in a particular group of elite men concerned about how they might best cultivate their heart-mind. Eichman uses "mind cultivation" as a bridge concept in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Buddhist and Confucian discourse, especially the work of the Buddhist monk Lianchi Zhuhong [phrase omitted] (1535-1615) and the Yangming-Confucian Zhou Rudeng [phrase omitted] (1547-1629).
Eichman challenges the notion that Confucians set the terms of the debate and predominated over Buddhist monastics in the late Ming dynasty, arguing that Yangming-Confucians instead opened up a discursive space that allowed Buddhists to shape their tradition and influence others (pp. 24-25, 114). By providing a focused study of seventy elite men active during the Wanli period (1573-1620), she seeks to inspire similar localized studies that might give a better sense of the contours of Buddhist networks and associations in the sixteenth century (pp. 22, 357). She acknowledges the constraints of her study, namely that the group consists of elite men who met through introductions during examination periods or while in government office and thereby lacks any differentiation of gender, ethnicity, educational attainment, or economic and social status. However, she emphasizes their breadth of intellectual aptitude and spiritual progress, and she includes a brief discussion of wives, concubines, and servants in her discussion of Pure Land practices (pp. 226-41).
Eichman presents her arguments carefully and meticulously, and she provides ample footnotes for specialists in late imperial Chinese Buddhism. Not only does she list all of the epistolary sources consulted and analyzed, but she discusses how such letters were produced, their extant woodblock form, and their reliability, as well as how they were circulated among a select group of friends in a quasi-private form of communication (p. 43). This degree of thoroughness becomes particularly...