Kwan-yin as a sea Goddess [Public Domain Image]
by Joseph Edkins
I first visited a Chinese Buddhist temple in Shanghai. As a Californian, I was much more familiar with Zen Buddhism, so this was something entirely new to me. Instead of an aesthetics of austerity and clean lines, this was Baroque and mysterious. The temple was filled with statues of Buddhas, gods, goddesses and demons. I was reminded of the Hindu temples of India, or the cathedrals of Mexico.
As I transcribed this book, that first collision with Chinese Buddhism came back to me. Edkins' book is a comprehensive survey of Chinese Buddhism. He gives the historical background of the introduction of Buddhism into China, and its subsequent evolution, including biographies of the Buddhist Patriarchs. There are extensive descriptions of Chinese Buddhist geography and cosmology, the calendar of festivals, temple architecture, and the vast array of entities which are represented in sacred spaces. Of interest is his discussion of Kwan-yin, the Chinese Madonna, who began as a male Buddha and evolved into a goddess figure. There is a critical essay on Feng-shui, with details of this form of Chinese geomancy and how it developed. He enumerates dozens of Chinese Buddhist sacred texts, and provides translations of some excerpts. Edkins was a skilled linguist and explains how Sanskrit terms were transferred into Chinese. He also discusses Confucian, Taoist and other Chinese belief systems.
Edkins was a Christian missionary, and his primary concern at times appears to be how to convert Chinese Buddhists. But the sheer amount of facts which he includes here far outweigh the occasional polemic sidebar. This volume, which is still in print over a century later, is a valuable reference work for anyone studying Chinese Buddhism, as well as a snapshot of China in the late 19th century.
—J.B. Hare, February 27, 2007
Chapter V. The Patriarchs of the Northern Buddhists
Alphabetical Index of Titles of Books Mentioned in this Work