Between the fifth and seventh centuries a new type of religious community appeared in districts near the ancient capital Chang’an. Composed of both Buddhists and Daoists, these communities dotted the landscape with dozens of stelae carved with Buddhist and Daoist figures and inscribed with dedicatory texts that mix Buddhist and Daoist terminology, motivations, and aspirations. As the first examples of Daoist iconic imagery, these stelae mark a major shift in Daoist ritual practice and theological discourse. They also include possibly the earliest imagery of hell in central China. None of the Buddhist or Daoist canonic texts produced before the late 5th century advocates the production of images, nor do they ascribe equal rank to Buddha and Laozi. The joint religious affiliation of these communities was conscious and explicit, and we can not therefore label these communities as simply syncretic or hybrid. Defying our standard analytical categories for religious affiliation and interaction, the stelae were clearly erected by communities that consciously amalgamated ideas, rhetoric, and practices from Buddhist and Daoist sources to create local communities of practice that recognized the teachings of Dao and Buddha as equally valid, and viewed their deities as their twin saviors. In this presentation, rather than argue for particular Daoist or Buddhist affiliation for the stelae and communities, I explore the stelae as expressions of the lived religion of local Dao-Buddhist communities in the capital district.
Photo credit: Tian Liangkuan stele 田良寬, dating 512-517, currently housed in Xi’an Beilin. Photo by Gil Raz.