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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.2 (2023): 231–280;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Religion and Local Society)

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A Study on the Traditional Chinese Notion of Lama Jiao

Tsinghua University

Abstract: The name Lamaism has been used to describe Tibetan Buddhism for centuries, and probably came from the Chinese term lama jiao 喇嘛教. However, the origin of the Chinese term is still often shrouded in mystery. The Chinese term lama jiao is often assumed to carry the same meaning today as it did in imperial times and also to be similar to the western understanding of Lamaism. This paper argues that both the term lama jiao and its predecessor, the term fanjiao 番教 to designate Tibetan Buddhism as something separate from Chinese Buddhism, only appeared during the Ming dynasty. Furthermore, Chinese intellectuals in the late imperial era understood ‘Lamaism’ differently from Europeans, and only after the Qing dynasty did the Chinese understanding of lama jiao become more similar to the European and Japanese notions of Lamaism. Whereas the early Europeans understood Lamaism as a Tantric, impure form of Buddhism, Chinese intellectuals never thought orthodox ‘Lamaism’ was non-Buddhist and they often viewed it through the lens of Chinese Buddhism. These intellectuals used a similar rhetoric to either denounce or praise ‘Lamaism’ as they would Buddhism in general.

Keywords: Lamaism, lama jiao 喇嘛教, fanjiao 番教, Esoteric Buddhism, Chan Buddhism


About the Author: Bo Huang After receiving his M.A. from Columbia University’s East Asian Languages and Culture Department, he started taking an interest in Sino-Tibetan history. He then spent a year at the Northwest University for Nationalities to learn Tibetan. Afterwards, he studied Mongolia and Tibet at Indiana University’s Central Eurasian Studies department. While writing his Ph.D. dissertation, he also studied Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhism at Beita Falun Monastery at Shenyang, China. After receiving his Ph.D., he came to Tsinghua University to continue his post doctoral research on Tibetan Buddhism in China during the Qing dynasty.


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