Guan Gong and the Karmapa Lama: Superscribing New Meaning on a Chinese 'God of War' by Joshua Esler

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This paper examines the character of Guan Gong, the so called ChineseGod of War’, following his evolution from a valiant warrior of the Warring States period to his recent incorporation into Tibetan Buddhism under the current Karmapa Lama. In different dynasties throughout Chinese history, Guan Gong has assumed numerous roles, all of which reflect the beliefs and aspirations of different levels of Chinese society. For the common people, he was seen as both the embodiment of the rugged, ‘red neck’ swordsman, as well as a supernatural hero. For the Confucian elite, he embodied the qualities of a junzi (perfected gentleman), and by the Qing dynasty he was raised to the same position as Confucius. Within Chinese Buddhism Guan Gong was elevated to the position of protector of temples by Tiantai Master Zhiyi in the sixth century, and he is seen as both a protector and god of wealth within Daoist and Chinese folk traditions. Thus, the character of Guan Gong within Chinese society has been superscribed by numerous actors throughout history. This paper will especially examine the most recent roles superscribed upon this god by the current Karmapa Lama, and the way in which this superscription is reflective of the wider trends that are developing as Tibetan Buddhism takes root among Chinese Tibetan Buddhists in China. Various Chinese Tibetan Buddhists believe Guan Gong is a worldly protector; others that he is a bodhisattva; and others that he is a figment of the imagination and doesn’t exist at all. This paper will look at how such negotiations and contestations taking place within the current Chinese Tibetan Buddhist community reflect the wider negotiation and contestation over the ‘earthly’ or ‘transcendentnature of Tibetan Buddhism. To what extent does the employment of ‘skilful means’ by the Tibetan elite to convey the Buddhist message through Chinese religion solidify for Chinese practitioners the Tibetan tradition within the world, and to what extent does it elevate it above worldly concerns? Moreover, this paper will look at how the universalisation of Guan Gong by the Karmapa Lama is reflective of his wider hybridisation of the discourses of modernity with Tibetan Buddhism at both the global and transnational level, and how the message of Tibetan Buddhism is received within the Chinese community accordingly.

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