Justin R. Ritzinger, "Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism" (Oxford UP, 2017)


In his recent monograph, Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2017), Justin R. Ritzinger examines the cult of Maitreya as developed during the Republican period by the Chinese monk Taixu (1890-1947) and his circle. Drawing on previously unexamined sources, including contemporaneous anarchist periodicals, Ritzinger begins the book by arguing that Taixu was deeply involved in radical political circles during his formative years, far more so than has previously been appreciated. Here we learn not only about the tumult of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also about the salient features of those radical and utopian social visions that the young Taixu found so attractive. These features included a progressive view of history, utopianism, and a rejection of social hierarchy. In the second part of the book Ritzinger turns his attention to Taixu's beliefs about Maitreya and to the history of the Maitreya school, which Taixu founded in 1924. The central argument here is that the values and ideas that Taixu developed during his previous years as a politically active radical profoundly influenced both his attraction to Maitreya as well as his interpretation of key Maitreya-centered texts and Yogacara writings. Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, Ritzinger argues that Taixu's theories about Maitreya were born from a tension between two moral frameworks and two concomitant visions of the good: the radical framework with its ultimate good of the perfect, utopian society, and the Buddhist framework with its highest good being buddhahood. In Taixu's Maitreya devotion we find a monk guided by two stars, a pious man discovering new possibilities in the Buddhist tradition by reading it in light of the new values that he had come to so cherish during his previous involvement with anarchism and socialism. In the final part of the book Ritzinger addresses the reasons for the Maitreya School's decline after the end of the Second World War and discusses its lasting legacy in contemporary Taiwan and China. In the interview we barely scratch the surface, and the book includes fascinating forays into the Maitreya School's sometimes antagonistic relationship with proponents of Pure Land Buddhism, into Taixu's incorporation of Tibetan Buddhist elements into his own thought and practice, and into much, much more. Listeners will have to go and read the book for themselves to appreciate it in all its detail. But our brief conversation will make it clear that this work will be of great value to those interested in modern Chinese Buddhism, Buddhist reform movements, the Maitreya cult and Yōgacāra in late Qing and Republican China, and the relationship between socialist theory and religion.

Your Host

Luke Thompson

Luke Thompson's research focuses on medieval Japanese Buddhist intellectual history, though he has interests in Buddhism beyond Japan, and particularly in anthropological approaches to Buddhism.

View Profile