Departmental Seminar

The Many Faces of Shilian Dashan: Buddhism and Its Transoceanic Effects

Asia/Hong_KongThe Many Faces of Shilian Dashan: Buddhism and Its Transoceanic Effects
    Asia/Hong_KongThe Many Faces of Shilian Dashan: Buddhism and Its Transoceanic Effects


      The Many Faces of Shilian Dashan: Buddhism and Its Transoceanic Effects


      Dr. Charles Wheeler (Research Assistant Professor, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong)


      April 25, 2012


      4:00 pm


      Reading Room, G/F, Tang Chi Ngong Building, The University of Hong Kong




      (Tel) (852) 2219-4640


      One morning in 1695, a Zen abbot named Dashan left his monastery in the western suburbs of Guangzhou to board a merchant vessel bound for a Vietnamese kingdom across the sea. Celebration surrounded his departure, just as it greeted his return a year and a half later. Yet, only a few years after his voyage, the monk died in exile under a cloud of shame. Why?

      Sources give starkly different answers, depending upon where you stand. Chinese sources depict a corrupt monk — a liar, drunkard, pornographer, forger, plagiarist, and racketeer, who traveled overseas to increase his profits from the lucrative smuggling trade with Vietnam that he helped to oversee. Sail across the sea, however, and the picture changes. Vietnamese hagiographies praise the abbot as a great Zen master, sage and sorcerer, who braved the seas to introduce Vietnamese to one of their most popular forms of Buddhist practice today. One biography sees a sinner; the other a saint. Who was the real Dashan? Why did he sail overseas?

      A third set of sources from a customs office in Japan points to a different way of understanding the controversial abbot and his voyage. This lecture discusses how the stories about Dashan — whether fiction or fact — compose a picture of a society at sea when Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese sources come together into three-point perspective. Whatever his moral character, a more important historical phenomenon emerges.

      The mission, rise, voyage, and fall of Dashan were part of an important moment of religious expansion and its transoceanic effects. In the late 1600s, monks from monasteries near China’s southern seaboard circulated throughout the East Asian maritime, with the support of Vietnamese princes, Three Feudatories, Guangzhou literati, Qing officials, Ming Loyalists, Japanese shoguns, and Fujianese sea traders. In the process, they introduced a key religious institution in Chinese society overseas and transformed social practices and changed political equations in sea trading kingdoms like Vietnam. Through Dashan, we see Buddhism behave similarly to other world religions in contributing to the foundations of the modern world.

      About the Speaker

      Charles Wheeler is Research Assistant Professor at the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of Hong Kong. He researches early modern Vietnam, maritime China, and the South China Sea. His publications address the role of the sea in Vietnamese history; Sino-Vietnamese merchant elites; littoral society, political ecology, and piracy in the South China Sea; ethnohistory and political identity in Vietnam’s Cham regions; and the role of Buddhism in Chinese merchant diaspora.