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In September 2016, nearly fifty members of the Harvard community came to hear Dr. Greene speak on this very subject in his talk, “The ‘Religion of Images’?—Buddhist Image Worship in the Early Medieval Chinese Imagination.” In this exciting lecture, Dr. Greene took the audience through his extensive research on literary uses of the term xiangjiao to show how the term actually arose as part of later anti-Buddhist polemics. In fact, the term was originally grounded in practices unrelated to the use of icons. Moreover, early medieval Buddhists’ use of images was seen as unremarkable in relation to indigenous Chinese religious practices. We invite you to enjoy the opening remarks of this thought-provoking evening, a sneak peek of Dr. Greene’s forthcoming publication on Buddhism as the “Religion of Images.”

On September 15, Harvard Visual China was proud to spend an evening with Dr. Eric Greene of Yale University as part of the Graduate Student Lecture Series of the History of Art and Architecture Department. Dr. Greene is a specialist in early medieval Chinese religions with an emphasis on the ritual manuals of early Chinese Buddhism. His work is constantly challenging scholarly assumptions about the practices of early Chinese Buddhists. In particular, he has focused on Buddhist meditative practices and what exactly they constituted during the early period.


Greene’s dissertation, “Meditation, Repentance, and Visionary Experience in Early Medieval Chinese Buddhism” (University of California, Berkeley, 2012) was a widely praised critical reevaluation of early Buddhist meditative practices based on a thorough analysis of the earliest surviving manuals on meditation. Moving away from modern notions of meditation as a primarily metaphysical experience, Dr. Greene brought to light the manner in which early meditation practices were firmly grounded in rituals of repentance designed to identify and absolve individuals of the karmic sins of their lives. He has continued to question our ideas about Buddhist meditation, and his numerous recent articles include a reevaluation of the term “visualization” as it relates to Buddhist meditation, noting that the term was largely born out of 19th century metaphysics (“Visions and Visualizations: In Fifth-century China and 19th-century Experimental Psychology,” History of Religions, 2015).


Remarkably, Dr. Greene’s work also frequently crosses disciplinary boundaries. He has published on the visual evidence of Buddhist meditative practices involving corpses and skeletons, as well as their relationship to Buddhist deathbed rituals. Among his recent research projects, Greene has once again set out to reevaluate our understanding of another long-held idea concerning early Chinese Buddhism. In this case, it is the belief that Buddhism was seen as unique and different in early medieval China because of its use of icons and images as part of ritual practice. Thus, Buddhism was deemed the “religion of images” or xiangjiao 象教 by early medieval Chinese commentators, and the use of images was seen as part of Buddhism’s non-Chinese heritage.

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