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Thomas Newhall, ‘Partially in Accord with the Greater Vehicle: Reading the Four-Part Vinaya as a Mahāyāna text in Daoxuan's Commentaries’

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Duration: 0:30:17 | Added: 30 Mar 2022
Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021

Thomas Newhall
PhD candidate in Buddhist Studies, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, UCLA

‘Partially in Accord with the Greater Vehicle: Reading the Four-Part Vinaya as a Mahāyāna text in Daoxuan's Commentaries’

This presentation will show how the Tang-dynasty Chinese scholar-monk Daoxuan 道宣 (596-667) attempted to explain that the Four-part Vinaya (Sifen lü 四分律), normally understood to be a non-Mahāyāna text, was “partially in accord with the greater vehicle” (fentong dacheng 分通大乘). In Chinese Buddhism, where the Mahāyāna was, with few exceptions, considered superior and “orthodox,” the role of Buddhist monastic codes—the Vinaya—was often contested. Seen as necessary to those wanted a rule-based regulation of Buddhist monastic life, but unnecessary to those who preferred the Mahāyāna position of a principle based morality, Daoxuan strove to resolve these discrepancies through detailed explanation and theorization about the contents of these various translated Vinaya texts. I will argue that through “strong reading”—reading that reinterprets a text despite evidence to the contrary—and through connecting his idea to other aspects of monastic practice, Daoxuan was attempting to make the Four-part Vinaya, in contrast to the other Vinaya texts translated into Chinese in his time, the appropriate choice for Chinese Buddhists of his day, who by-and-large saw the Mahāyāna as a superior form of Buddhism. This will not only serve to illustrate some of the hermeneutical moves used in Daoxuan’s Vinaya commentaries, but also show how Daoxuan’s understanding of the “essence of the precepts” (jieti 戒體) was also used to help warrant this reading of these texts. I will show how Daoxuan also used this reading of being “partially in accord with the great vehicle” to help give an answer to the question of whether or not the precepts and monastic status continues after death, and why receiving the precepts in a precept ceremony is important for the maintenance of the monastic vows. As a way of illustrating how Daoxuan and other Buddhists may have seen the import of the “essence of the precepts,” I will argue that the “essence of the precepts” can be thought of as a kind of conscience, which is thought to help one to uphold the precepts and reinforce the moral attitude found in the rules of the Vinaya. In this sense, reading Vinaya text as Mahāyāna texts went far beyond the words on the page to connect to fundamental principles of Buddhist practice and morality.

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