Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Flag of Zhenyan Flies Again: The Taiwanese Resurrection of Esoteric Buddhism through Wuguang’s Appropriation of Imperially Imported Shingon

This study elucidates a critical facet of modern global Buddhism that has escaped the attention of the scholarly community by exploring the life, teachings and influence of Master Wuguang 悟光上師 (1918-2000).

Wuguang was a Taiwanese Chan monk, folk healer and exorcist who studied Daoist Alchemy, Western Occultism, Yoga, Tibetan and Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, biology physics and psychology. In East Asia, he is best known for ushering in a worldwide Buddhist revival movement which I refer to as Contemporary Chinese Zhenyan 現代漢傳真言宗. This movement—which is the direct descendant of the Tantric Revival that took place in China during the late Qing-Early Republican Periods—is defined by its appropriation of Japanese Shingon as a means of resurrecting Tang Dynasty Chinese Zhenyan. This movement began in 1972 when Wuguang founded a new Buddhist sect—the Mantra School Bright Lineage 真言宗光明流. Since its founding, this lineage has spawned offshoots, rivals and directly inspired the creation of other new Buddhist movements throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and even the United States of America.

Except for my own writing, the only academic treatments of this global Buddhist phenomenon are two MA theses in Chinese. This lack of awareness greatly limits our understanding of the current status and evolution of modern Buddhism. My research advances our understandings of each by closely analyzing Wuguang’s life, writings and influence as well as the orthopraxis of the sect he founded. I pay special attention to the ways in which he wove the various traditions he studied into a single religious system. Of special interest is how his particular form of Buddhist modernism which is embodied in how he reinterpreted Buddhism in light of modern science dramatically different from other Chinese Buddhist reformers such as Taixu, Yinshun, Shengyen and Hsing Yun. These more well-known figures attempted to rationalize and demythologize the esoteric, superstitious and magical aspects of Buddhism. In contrast, Wuguang utilized concepts from biology, physics and psychology to explain the mechanics behind supernatural powers such as spirit communication, religious healing and performing wonders.

Data is being ascertained through closely reading the writings of Wuguang, his students and his rivals as well as long-term, onsite fieldwork at relevant religious communities throughout Taiwan.

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