Inscribed Couplets in the Wutai Temples: Their Role in Sustaining Buddhism
Scholars tend to agree that Buddhism has survived and thrived for over two thousand years largely because of its ability to reach out far and wide to the masses. While its holly scriptures are mostly recited by only those who have dedicated their entire lives to Buddhism, its doctrines are often spread through a variety of methods. One such method is the thousand-year old, age-tested couplets inscribed or carved on pillars and posts of Buddhist temples.
I would like to undertake a study of these couplets. The site for my study will be Mount Wutai in northern China at the foot of the Great Wall in Shanxi Province. One of the four “sacred mountains” to today’s tourists from home and abroad, Mount Wutai attracts millions of people each year to its gallery of Buddhist temples, over three hundred in all. In each and every temple, highly stylized couplets can be found at every entrance or door, whether to the main hall or to a side sacrificial chamber.
My focus will be on the rhetorical implications of such couplets and their rope in helping sustain the Buddhist doctrines. By “rhetorical implications,” I mean three things. The first one is the texts themselves: What are the messages and to what extent are they religious in conveying the values of Buddhism and at the same time how, and how often, do they become intertwined with values of the Chinese culture in general? The second is the contextualization of the texts: when were they written and inscribed? Where were they displayed? And who were the people behind them: calligraphers, inscribers, and patrons? The third one is the effectiveness of the texts in relation to their goal of spreading the Buddhist teachings to the broad masses: Who read them? Who respond to them? How successful are they interpreted, critically judged, appreciated and/or believed in?
Keywords: Religion, Buddhism, Rhetoric, Sustainability, Couplets
Dr. Heping Zhao
Associate Professor, Department of English, California State University, Fullerton