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Xifang Helun 西方合論, also known as “Comprehensive Treatise on the West” Jones, Charles


The Xifang Helun 西方合論 is a text published in 1599 by Yuan Hongdao 袁宏道 (1568-1610). In it, he exhorts readers to adopt the practices of Pure Land Buddhism, desist from antinomian Chan (Zen) 禪 practices, and engage in moral self-reform. In addition, he answers criticisms of Pure Land Buddhism with reasoned arguments and scriptural citations. Yuan himself was widely known in his own day. Despite his short life, he accomplished almost everything that a member of the literati élite aspired to. He passed the highest levels of the civil service examination at an early age, got a prestigious position in the imperial bureaucracy, gained fame as a poet and literary theorist, and participated in high-level conversations about the intellectual topics of the day, including Chan Buddhism. One of his most influential friends was the iconoclastic Buddhist layman and social critic Li Zhi 李贄(1527-1602), widely associated with the movement known as “Crazy Chan” (Ch.: kuang chan 狂禪). However, their relationship soured after ten years, and it was partly in response to the antinomian tendencies that Li represented that Yuan composed the Xifang helun. Many of Yuan’s peers looked down upon Pure Land practice as a mere devotional exercise fit only for the peasant classes. Within the ten chapters of this work, Yuan sought to show that Pure Land had wide scriptural support in the most esteemed Buddhist scriptures, that great Buddhist intellectuals of the past such as Nagarjuna had supported it, and that it was consistent with the highest expressions of Buddhist philosophy. He also threw challenges back at Pure Land’s detractors: were they really as enlightened as they claimed? For example, to those who said Pure Land displayed a false dualism between purity and impurity, Yuan caustically asked: if you understand that the two are ultimately the same, can you jump into a latrine and swim around? If not, then maybe you need Pure Land practice. Finally, he advises adherence to all the moral practices of Buddhism such as a vegetarian diet and keeping the Five Lay Precepts. The book was widely popular. Editors of the Jiaxing Buddhist Canon included it, the influential Pure Land monk Ouyi Zhixu 蕅益智旭 (1599-1655) included it in his Jingtu shi yao 淨土十要 (Ten Essential [Texts] of Pure Land). Decades later, a patron commissioned the painter Chen Hongshou陳洪綬 (1598-1652) to portray the initial public presentation of the Xifang helun in a painting called Elegant Gathering (yaji tu 雅集圖), completed in 1646 or 1647. It remains a classic outlay of Pure Land thought at its most highly-developed stage.

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