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Theorizing Social Consciousness: Lü Cheng (1896–1989) and the Rise of Buddhist Idealism in Modern China

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Theorizing Social Consciousness: Lü Cheng (1896–1989) and the Rise of Buddhist Idealism in Modern China

Jessica Zu, September 2019

Abstract: Why did many modern Chinese intellectuals turn to an extreme form of Buddhist idealism—Yogācāra (the school of consciousness-only)— at a time when science, realism, and social Darwinism were dominating early twentieth-century China? To understand this apparent paradox, this dissertation traces the intellectual journey of the renowned advocate of Buddhist idealism, Lü Cheng. In the 1920s, Lü called for an aesthetic revolution. He soon turned to consciousness-only philosophy as the prime resource for renewing society.

This study reveals that Buddhist idealism appealed to many modern Chinese intellectuals for its powerful social critique. Consciousness-only doctrines proved effective in counterbalancing scientific materialism, remedying the ills of modern capitalism, and redefining social evolution as spiritual progress. This dissertation argues that Lü’s philosophy repurposed Buddhist spiritual exercises to build an egalitarian, democratic society. Lü was one of the most interesting figures trying to reorient the Buddhist path of liberation for social reform. His endeavor reveals to us that, to understand the social transformation of modern China, we must take seriously the Buddhist vision for societal renewal. Lü’s theorization of Buddhist social consciousness also illuminates the transnational trend of integrating Buddhism and activism, which later contributed to the rise of engaged Buddhism.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Social Turn of Buddhist Path of Liberation

Part I. Social Darwinism and the Rise of Buddhist Idealism

2. Aesthetic Revolution and Selfless Society 3. Buddhist Learning and Global Dharma 4. Comparative Hermeneutics and An Ideal Buddhist Community


Part II. Intersubjectivity, Social Consciousness, and Activism

5. A New Buddhist Canon: Ouyang Jingwu’s Vision—the Heart of a Nation 6. A New Buddhist Canon: Lü Cheng’s Vision—Intersubjectivity and Social Consciousness 7. Cultivating Empathy and Skepticism for Collective Renewal 8. Establishing Rules for an Engaged Buddhist Community

9. Conclusion: A Pre-History of Socially Engaged Buddhism



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