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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 1.1 (2018): 248–277;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhism in the West)

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Reception History and Limits of Interpretation: The Belgian Étienne Lamotte, Japanese Buddhologists, the Chinese monk Yinshun 印順 and the Formation of a Global ‘Da zhidu lun 大智度論 Scholarship’

University of Groningen

Abstract: One of the most well-known accomplishments of Étienne Lamotte (1903–1983) was the unfinished French translation of Da zhidu lun 大智度論. Da zhidu lun is also a very popular text in East Asia, because it is attributed to Nāgārjuna, the so-called ‘patriarch of the eight schools’ (bazong zhi zu 八宗之祖) in East Asian Buddhism. Lamotte, however, claimed that Nāgārjuna might not have written Da zhidu lun.

Lamotte’s argument led to various debates that gave rise to a wide array of hypotheses on who the author of Da zhidu lun could have been. The theory that Da zhidu lun could have been a text not (or not only) written by Nāgārjuna reached Chinese Buddhist monks and scholars as well, including the monk Yinshun 印順 (1906–2005).

This paper will show the impact of Western scholarship on East Asian Buddhism, highlight the (pluri)directionality of knowledge transfer, and demonstrate relevance and potentiality of the dialogue between East and West for the advancement of Buddhist learning. Finally, Umberto Eco’s concepts of ‘empirical reader’ and ‘model reader’ will serve to understand this Buddhist textual debate from the wider perspective of textual interpretation and reception history.

Keywords: Da zhidu lun 大智度論, Étienne Lamotte, Yinshun, Nāgārjuna, Japanese Buddhology, textual study, Umberto Eco


About the Author: Stefania Travagnin is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Culture in Asia at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Travagnin obtained a B.A. and M.A. in Chinese Studies at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice (2000), and a Ph.D. in the Study of Religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (2009). She has been a visiting scholar in several institutions in mainland China and Taiwan, including Academia Sinica (2005) and Sichuan University (2015). Her research explores Buddhism and Buddhists in mainland China and Taiwan from the late Qing up to the present time, concerning religion and media in China, and concepts and methods for the study of Chinese religions. Her recent edited volumes include Religion and Media in China: Insights and Case Studies from the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong (2016), Concepts and Methods for the Study of Chinese Religions I: State of the Field and Disciplinary Approaches (co-edited with André Laliberté, 2019), Concepts and Methods for the Study of Chinese Religions II: Intellectual History of Key Concepts (co-edited with Gregory Adam Scott, 2019), and Concepts and Methods for the Study of Chinese Religions III: Key Concepts in Practice (co-edited with Paul R. Katz, 2019). Her monograph Yinshun and his Exposition of Madhyamaka: New Studies of the Da Zhidu Lun in Twentieth-century China and Taiwan is forthcoming with Equinox. She was a researcher in the three-year project ‘Vinaya Revival in Twentieth-century China and Taiwan’, funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (2015–2018), and is director of the three-year project ‘Mapping Religious Diversity in Modern Sichuan’, also funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (2017–2020), with Elena Valussi as co-director.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.