In the popular imagination, the meeting of Buddhism and Islam is often conceptualized as one of violence; namely, Muslims destroying the Dharma. Of course, in more recent years this narrative has been problematized by the reality of Buddhist ethnic cleansing and the genocide of Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Yet, what needs to be recognized is that the meeting between Buddhists and Muslims has never simply been one of confrontation. Rather, the interaction of these two religions—which has been going on for more than one thousand years across the length and breadth of Asia (from Iran to China and Indonesia to Siberia)—has also involved much else, including artistic, cultural, economic, and intellectual exchanges.
Buddhist practice transformed the religious landscape in China, introducing new forms of mental cultivation and new ritual technologies within an altered cosmology of spiritual goals. Buddhist practice was carried out by individuals, but was equally as often a communal activity. A basic unit of religious practice was the family; Buddhist cultivation was also carried out by communities of practice at monasteries, which were also sites of large-scale rituals. Forms of religious practice included meditation, oral recitation, ritual performances including confession and vow making, and merit-making activities. Meditation encompassed following breath and exercises that recreated Buddhist images in the practitioner’s mind. Meditation could be carried out while sitting, or while walking, and might also incorporate recitation of scriptures, names of the Buddhas, and dhāraṇī. Indeed, meditation practices were most often embedded in liturgical sequences that included confession, vows, and merit dedication. The goal of these religious practices might be personal spiritual development; through the concept of merit transference, religious activities also worked to benefit others, especially the dead. The fundamental of components of Buddhist practice were present very early in the tradition’s history in China, and over time these elements were combined in new ways, and with reference to changing objects of devotion. The four major bodhisattvas of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊), Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢), Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏), and Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音) were especially important as objects of devotion, and also were emplaced in the Chinese landscape, where they were incorporated into pilgrimages.
The three principal religious denominations of China, referred to in English as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, all share a concern with self-cultivation. Of these so-called “Three Teachings” (Sanjiao), Confucianism situates the self hierarchically within a social order, Daoism attempts to free the self from society and realign it with the more fundamental natural order, and Buddhism ultimately strives to liberate the self by dissolving any and all order. The two indigenous traditions of Confucianism and Daoism have roots in the same cultural environment from which the residual category of Popular Religion also emerged, and the two have long existed in a symbiotic relationship with local cults of worship. After the introduction of Buddhism to China, it too became deeply immersed in this interactive dynamic between more unified denominations and the locally diverse forms of worship of spirits, saints, and sages. Though Popular Religion does not represent a unified ideology or a consistent corpus of self-cultivation practices, its ubiquitous rites of spirit possession similarly relate to the self: by allowing the presence of certain gods to displace individual selves, these rites play with the need to suspend socio-individual identity from time to time, instead allowing the sacred embodiment of lineages, villages, or even entire regions to take precedence.
Throughout the course of premodern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. These offerings of bloody victuals, drink, and, later, incense to gods and ancestors seek to ensure the ongoing vitality and prosperity of the living and the peaceful security and well-being of the ancestral dead. Sacrifices were understood as food, sustenance for the occupants of the other world, who would, in return, imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu福), which the sacrificer and family could share by consuming the food. This sacrificial ritual is at the heart of a diffuse, indigenous religion that encompasses people of all social classes, from the poorest peasant to the ruler and his representatives. It was never named, but scholars sometimes isolate segments and discuss them as “folk religion,” “state religion,” “Confucianism,” or “Daoism.” C. K. Yang dubbed the complex “shenism” based on the Chinese word for god (shen神), but this ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here we will use the term Chinese popular religion to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.
Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to stand for several distinct terms in Chinese. Here it will refer to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142