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Reenchanting Buddhism via Modernizing Magic: Guru Wuguang of Taiwan’s Philosophy and Science of ‘Superstition’

Cody Bahir defended his thesis on 1 June 2017.

Cody Bahir
01 June 2017
Leiden Repository

This study focuses on the life, exploits and ideology of Guru Wuguang (1818-2000), a dizzyingly eclectic and extremely influential Taiwanese Buddhist figure who studied Daoist alchemy, multiple forms of Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as biology, thermodynamics, philosophy, theology, and occulture. This is done in order to understand what happens when tradition 'purified' from its 'mythical' elements reincorporates itself in the tension between its 'enchanted' past and 'scientific' present. Wuguang is famous throughout the Chinese-speaking Buddhist world for resurrecting Zhenyan, a school of esoteric Buddhism said to have flourished in China during the Tang Dynasty. The academic community has largely ignored Wuguang, making this the first in-depth exploratuon of this figure, whose influence is truly global. Building upon David McMahan's work on Buddhist modernism, Jason Josephson's secular-religious-superstitious trinary, scholarly discourse concerning Weberian disenchantment, and employing the Religious Economy Model, I argue that Wuguang's teachings represent an intentionally reenchanted form of Buddhist modernism aimed at harmonizing magic with modern science and philosophy. While scholarly discourse on Asian magic in the modern world has been confined to popular religion, this study additionally focuses on 'High-Church Buddhism' by analyzing Wuguang's magico-scientific interpretation of complex Buddhist doctrine. This was accomplished by identifying each facet of Wuguang's eclecticism, tracing its provenance, and illuminating Wuguang's inovative use thereof while exploring his influence. Primary data were collected through textual and historical research, as well as onsite fieldwork conducted from 2011 to 2016.

Supervisor: prof. dr. Jonathan Silk.

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