UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From entertainment to enlightenment : a study on a cross-cultural religious board game with emphasis on the Table of Buddha Selection designed by Ouyi Zhixu of the late Ming Dynasty Ngai, May-Ying Mary


Based on textual sources and folk art works, this dissertation is an interdisciplinary investigation of three primary subject matters: the Chinese Buddhist device called the Xuanfo tu 選佛圖 (Table of Buddha Selection), its designer, Ouyi Zhixu 蕅益智旭 (1599-1655), who was a prominent patriarch of the Pure Land School, and a variety of similar religious devices found outside China. Since a religious device of this nature is rarely mentioned in any literature of Chinese Buddhism, one chapter is devoted to reconstructing the history of this device, including those embedded with terms of Buddhism as well as of other Chinese religions. For the same reason of lack of academic study, a historical survey of the game’s secular prototypes, the Shengguan tu 陞官圖 (Table of Bureaucratic Promotion), is also included. These surveys also contain cultural and political conditions under which this gambling-oriented prototype and its religious counterparts were created. Against these backgrounds, Xuanfo tu’s game board and its manual, the Xuanfo pu 選佛譜 (Manual of Buddha Selection), are analyzed contextually to help comprehend their contents and Zhixu’s intentions in creation and preaching. The later chapters continue to trace the cultural journey of the device to other Asian countries — Korea and Japan to the east of China and Tibet, Nepal, India, and Bhutan to the west. Similar religious devices are found to have been circulating in these areas for centuries. A comparative study of them yields fascinating insights that enrich our knowledge of the content and audiences of these games, how the game’s layouts help propagandize religious beliefs, and how these teachings relate to the religious practice of the times. This dissertation 1) demonstrates the roles of the device in spreading Zhixu’s teachings and reputation and generalizing Pure Land teachings during the Ming-Qing dynasties as an example of the Buddhist idea of upāya or expedient means, and 2) attempts to redraw attention to its basic function as a didactical tool and rediscover the otherwise unknown cross-border cultural phenomenon about the adoption of the game that have long been neglected by historians.

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