"I don't call myself a Buddhist, but I have some resonance with a lot of the Buddhist ideals. Just being exposed to those teachings is a valuable thing in one's life."

Buddhists in medieval China faced a sticky issue. Traditional Buddhist teachings prohibited the killing of living beings, and yet the ubiquitous silk industry depended on killing millions of silkworms. Because silk is made by unwinding the single silken thread that each caterpillar spins to make its cocoon, the worms must be destroyed before they chew through their cocoons to emerge and become moths.

"In China, silk production was everywhere for a long time — long before Buddhism arrived in China — and crossed all social strata and all geographical regions," says Assistant Professor of Religion Stuart Young. "And Buddhists were trying to relate their religion to the locals, to their culture."

While some Buddhists maintained that silk producers should repent, others employed a common Buddhist doctrine of expedient means. Essentially, the end - enlightenment for people who see the truth of Buddhism - justifies the means. Some claimed that Buddha only intended that monks and nuns could not be personally involved in killing, while others claimed that the worms were great Bodhisattvas, beings on their way to becoming Buddhas who give their own lives for the benefit of others.

In a case that Young uncovered, some Buddhists constructed a god named Asvaghosa specifically for silk producers. "He once in a past life donated his body as a silkworm for the benefit of other beings, and so now he has become this god that you can make offerings to and he will help better your trade," Young says "He'll make your silkworms healthy and he'll make your silk abundant if you make offerings. That brings Buddhism more concretely into the industry. It gives the Buddhists patronage."

The moral conundrum presented by the silk industry is one aspect that Young studies in his work on the interaction of Buddhism and indigenous religions. He is also looking more broadly at how medieval Chinese Buddhists understood the Indian roots of their religion. For instance, Asvaghosa was an Indian poet, philosopher and man who had lived several centuries earlier.

Young first encountered Buddhism in college. "As an idealistic undergrad, I was looking for the right philosophy," he says. "I don't call myself a Buddhist, but I have some resonance with a lot of the Buddhist ideals." He looks forward to introducing Bucknell students to those ideals. "Just being exposed to those teachings is a valuable thing in one's life."

Posted Sept. 22, 2009

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