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date: 29 January 2023

Humanistic Buddhism (Rensheng Fojiao 人生佛教‎ / Renjian Fojiao 人間佛教‎)locked

Humanistic Buddhism (Rensheng Fojiao 人生佛教‎ / Renjian Fojiao 人間佛教‎)locked

  • Stefania TravagninStefania TravagninSchool of History, Religions, and Philosophies, SOAS


Humanistic Buddhism is a rather vague term used to label a variety of Buddhist practices and outreach that focus on the present world and challenges of everyday existence. This idiom has been applied interchangeably with expressions like “(socially) engaged Buddhism” and became associated with forms of social activism and political involvement that commenced in Asia in the early 20th century and later expanded to other regions; nonetheless, Humanistic Buddhism and (socially) engaged Buddhism are two types of reform movements that remain quite distant in many of their modus operandi and objectives. Western scholarship has also interpreted Humanistic Buddhism as “Protestant Buddhism,” a label that is questionable as it reads Buddhism through Western (Weberian) categories, and it may even be misleading in specific contexts. Humanistic Buddhism is not an exact synonym of modernization and modern Buddhism either, as they intersect only in certain domains and to a certain extent. Finally, the overlapping between Humanistic Buddhism and Humanitarian Buddhism is also partial, with the latter incorporating only some of the core ideas of the former.

Within the Chinese and Taiwanese contexts, Humanistic Buddhism has been used as official translation of the local movements rensheng fojiao人生佛教 (commonly rendered in English as “Human Life Buddhism”) and renjian fojiao人間佛教 (otherwise known in English as “Human Realm Buddhism”) that were theorized, performed, and institutionalized in the early 20th century. Rensheng fojiao and renjian fojiao are not monolithic and static phenomena either; they form a discursive narrative characterized by a shared vocabulary and ideas. For instance, since their inception, rensheng fojiao and renjian fojiao are said to aim at a chushi出世 approach (i.e., a spiritual and otherworldly attitude) to a rushi入世 practice (i.e., a practice focused on problems and questions of the contemporary and actual human world). They also claim to transform according to the situation (qiji契機) while still preserving its core principles (qili契理). These movements of reforms were initiated by Buddhist voices as a reaction (and response) to new social, political, and religious circumstances of the late Qing; at the same time, the affirmation to represent not merely an innovation but also the recovery and revival of the core of the Buddhadharma added a form of doctrinal legitimacy.

The genealogy of Humanistic Buddhism in China and Taiwan includes different protagonists not only competing but also influencing each other; some conceived Humanistic Buddhism as the restatement of the classical Mahāyāna Bodhisattva practice, and some turned it into social activism and humanitarian action, while others gave it a political connotation. Scholars have explained Humanistic Buddhism in terms of a practice (xiuxing修行), a Dharma gate (famen法門), and a tradition whose proponents are grouped into distinct lineages (famai法脈) or schools (xuepai學派). The formation of regional and transregional Sangha networks made it possible to export some from the Chinese and Taiwanese forms of Humanistic Buddhism to the rest of Asia and later to other regions, where it merged with local movements and undertook new paths.


  • Buddhism

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