Dr. Huaiyu Chen, Associate Professor, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies

Buddhist Monumentality and Its Paradox: The Rise and Fall of Stone Lanterns in Medieval China

Stone lanterns are crucial ritual architectures of the monastic compounds in medieval Chinese Buddhism and Daoism. They became flourishing in the Tang dynasty, and both declined afterward. It is interesting to compare their historical origins, doctrinal foundations, and ritual functions in medieval political, religious, and cultural contexts. Historically, Daoism first developed its sophisticated lantern altar rituals in its series of retreats in the fifth century, while Buddhism introduced votive lamp offering ritual. In light of the popular thought of the Final Dharma in the sixth century, Buddhist monastic community first monumentalized its lamp rituals in the form of stone lanterns. Later Daoist monastic community also began to build its own stone lanterns, following the Buddhist format and fashion. A comparative perspective will shed new light on how Buddhist and Daoist monasticism in medieval China competed for their religious power by constructing their stone lanterns for linking their historical traditions, honoring their gods and deities, reaching their soteriological goals, and serving worldly needs of their practitioners. In analyzing extant inscriptions of stone lanterns, this study attempts to reveal the literary structure, doctrinal ideas, and ritual practices in Buddhist and Daoist liturgical rituals centered on these stone lanterns and their roles in medieval religious life. Current sources seem to suggest that Daoist stone lanterns are less common than Buddhist stone lanterns. A comparative study might reveal the different regional popularity of Buddhist and Daoist lantern rituals. Their social and cultural contexts should be explored.