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The development of Buddhist repentance in early medieval China

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Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies


Capitanio, Joshua
Chu, William
Iwamura, Jane N.


This dissertation examines the development and legitimation of repentance rituals within the initial formative period of Chinese Buddhism in the early medieval period. Repentance can be considered as one of the many phases in the process of Sinicization of Buddhism. Repentance scriptures were initially developed, as a liturgy, for the purpose of eradicating unwholesome karma and attaining samādhi or Buddhahood by the individual. They gradually became part of the cultivation process in many Chinese Buddhist traditions as well as a dynamically living tradition of devotion among the Chinese Buddhists.

Out of the dozens of repentance scriptures dated up to the sixth century CE, the Sūtra Spoken by the Buddha on Manjuśrī's Teaching of Repentance 佛說文殊悔過經 T. 14, No. 459 (271 CE) prescribes one rather simple six-part repentance ritual involving prostrations in front of Buddha statues. By performing repentance, one would be able to purify one's transgressions and attain samādhi, the scripture claims. The major components in the repentance rituals, I argue, resemble the discourses of confession and punishment and prostrations in pre-Buddhist China along with the acts of grace and were subsequently accepted and integrated into daily Buddhist liturgy in Chinese religious life.

These early repentance rituals were later modified into many complex rituals for the living as well as on behalf of the deceased. By studying the repentance rituals, this dissertation attempts to determine if there are any changes in structures and contents over time. Such an examination allows us to see the development and transformation of a simple Indian confession practice into a genre of repentance rituals with different soteriological goals that are still in practice in East Asia and beyond today. This dissertation makes a valuable contribution to the field of religious studies in Chinese Buddhism by providing insights into an understanding of the development and acceptance of repentance rituals into Chinese religious life in the early medieval period.


Degree Granter

University of the West



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