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October 2013

Over 1500 years, Chinese Buddhists developed a distinctive way of writing about the past, informed on the one hand by Buddhist doctrine, and on the other by a strong indigenous tradition of Chinese historiography. In the twentieth century, however, many of the core assumptions of Chinese Buddhist historiography became increasingly difficult to maintain. A new awareness of the history of Buddhism in India, Ceylon and elsewhere suggested that long held Chinese views about, for instance, the dates of the Buddha, were wrong, and the primacy of Mahayana as the last word of the Buddha began to look suspect. At the same time, Chinese academics, under the influence of the latest trends in Germany, Japan and America, championed radical changes in the writing of history — calling for greater rigor in the use of sources and an iconoclastic suspicion of the veracity of texts and events of cherished national history — that had profound implications for the history of Buddhism. In this lecture, I trace the changes in Buddhist historiography, primarily in the writings of Taixu 太虛 (1890-1947) and Yinshun 印順 (1906-2005). The story of their struggles to narrate the Buddhist past in the modern era reveal the exciting opportunities provided by the new ideas that flooded China in the twentieth century, the dangers of a harsh and fickle political environment, and the limitations of their unique social circumstances as erudite monks from humble family backgrounds.

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