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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Religious Pluralism in Traditional China: Historical Models in a Contemporary Perspective

Mario Poceski.

The paper analyzes responses to religious pluralism in traditional Chinese society, and explores ways in which such historical models of interreligious interaction can be used to deal with current tensions in the religious and cultural spheres, which are increasingly brought to the fore by the forces of globalization. The first part of the paper provides a historical overview of Chinese religions, which are usually discussed in terms of the three teachings: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. China's religious history during the last two millennia was to a large extent shaped by the complex patterns of interaction among the three main traditions, which by and large were characterized by ecumenical spirit and broad acceptance of pluralistic outlook. A prevalent view was that the three traditions were complimentary rather than antithetical. Buddhism and Daoism were primarily concerned with the spiritual world and centered on the private sphere, whereas Confucianism was responsible for the social realm and focused on managing the affairs of the state. Such open-mindedness and acceptance of religious pluralism remained the norm throughout most of Chinese history, in contrast to the different circumstances that prevail in present-day China. In the second part of the paper I explore ways in which such traditional patterns of interaction among religious traditions, and their joint participation in the construction of shared social and cultural spaces, provide a potent model that can serve as an alternative to relations shaped by exclusivist sentiments and rigid adherence to intractable dogmas. That also suggest new ways of constructing personal and communal religious identities that are not based on exclusive identification with a particular tradition, which as recent events have shown can lead to narrow-minded exultation of one's own group and marginalization (or worse) of others.


Mario Poceski  (United States)
Assistant Professor
Religion Dept.
University of Florida

Mario Poceski received his Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles. He also spent two years as a researcher at Komazawa University, Japan, and for a number of years he was engaged in extensive field study of Buddhist monasticism and religious practice in monasteries and religious centers in South Asia, East Asia, and Europe. His publications include Manifestation of the Tathagata: Buddhahood According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, Sun-Face Buddha: The Teachings of Ma-tsu and the Hung-chou School of Ch'an, and "Mazu yulu and the Creation of the Chan Records of Sayings," in Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., The Zen Canon (forthcoming from Oxford UP). Currently he is finishing a book on the Hongzhou school of Chan, and working on a companion volume that will include study and translation of the records of Mazu Daoyi (709–788). Poceski's research focuses on the history of Buddhism in late medieval China. His other research and teaching interests include the history of Chinese religions, monastic culture and institutions, and religious biographical narratives.

  • China
  • Religious Pluralism
  • Religious Identities

(30 min Conference Paper, English)