The Chinese Buddhist Canon and Comparative Religion

A Conversation with Gregory E. Wilkinson

Gregory E. Wilkinson ( is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

Interview by Leah Welker

Leah Welker ( is a senior in English language at BYU.

On April 9–10, 2015, Brigham Young University hosted the Third International Conference on the Chinese Buddhist Canon. One of the main organizers of the conference was Greg Wilkinson, assistant professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, who partnered with Jiang Wu from the University of Arizona. The conference was supported by various entities within BYU, including the Religious Studies Center, the Kennedy Center, the Richard L. Evans Chair, the Colleges of Humanities and Family, Home, and Social Sciences, and the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages.

Q: To start out, do you want to describe the primary purpose of the conference?

A: In 2011, we had the first-ever dedicated conference toward the Buddhist canon, especially the Chinese Buddhist canon, and its evolution, formation, social issues, and what have you. We’ve gone through three different conferences, and they’ve moved forward in almost a historical fashion. In the first conference, we looked at more manuscript editions, more early formations of the Buddhist canon. And then we went to more print editions, looking at the way the Buddhist canon was used in early modern times. Then in this last conference we tried to focus most heavily on the Buddhist canon in the modern age, looking at the way the Buddhist canon has been both created or recreated, interpreted, evolved, and used.

Maybe if I hadn’t come to BYU, this conference may not have been held here, but it just seemed to be the right fit. And all the people that came to the conference were absolutely delighted with the selection of location. I don’t think there was anybody who came to the conference, as far as participants, that saw any sort of inconsistency or saw BYU as being an illogical choice. They all thought it was a great setting for the conference. I think everybody that comes to BYU is in some way impressed by what they encounter, both in the individuals and in the natural environment of BYU. Many people left saying, “We should do this every year here.” In that way, it was a great success.

Q: What sparked your original interest in Buddhism and comparative religion?

A: I went on a mission to Tokyo (south mission) from 1993 to 1995, and that was a special time for new religions in Japan. In 1995 there was a religious group called Aum Shinri-kyo that released a WWII, Nazi-era nerve agent in the Tokyo subway and killed between thirteen and twenty people, but they sickened and certainly medically damaged thousands of people in the subway.

That changed the environment for new religions in Japan. Since WWII, religions were kind of seen as an intrinsic good—organizations that deserved the benefit of the doubt, organizations that provided important and essential benefits to society. After Aum Shinri-kyo, all of those assumptions were questioned. It was questioned whether these religions should even have a place in society and how that place in society should be—if necessary—restricted and controlled. For someone who was serving as an evangelical, to see that kind of paradigm shift within society was absolutely fascinating. I came back from my mission wanting to study religion.

Q: I believe the trend in our religion in the past was more isolationist. Did you want to elaborate on that and the reason for changing that trend to more outreach?

A: I think that’s a trend in almost all religions. We have this advancement, in the last hundred years or so, in transportation and communication that has made the world much smaller.

For the LDS Church, there is a historical context to it, in which isolationism was probably a necessary aspect of precaution and perpetuation as the Church tried to respond to persecution of the nineteenth century. I think that those things are natural, and that’s kind of what we saw until probably the later part of the twentieth century. I don’t think that’s anything intrinsic in Mormon doctrine or theology. I think curiosity about other religions is a natural characteristic of not only Mormon theology but also Mormons in general; they’re interested in other people, they’re interested in what they believe, they’re interested in finding commonalities and even appreciating differences.

Q: What are the benefits you usually bring up to your students of studying other religions?

A: There’s a lot. One of the things is this: I think that the development of testimony is sometimes working through what you do believe, but also working through what you don’t believe. And sometimes those demarcations are better said through the comparison of other belief systems. You start to formulate what the boundaries are of your testimony, and once you start formulating those boundaries, then you can start to flesh out what your testimony really means.

The other thing is that sometimes we realize that we understand the principles of our belief by looking at similar principles of belief in other cultural constructs. So, sometimes what we believe is simply just defined and formulated by the situation. There’s a nugget of truth within it, but we don’t really understand what that nugget of truth is until we unpack it from its cultural context and see it in a different context. We may believe in prayer, but we don’t really understand what the absolute, essential principle of prayer is until we look at prayer in several different contexts.

You can say, “Oh well, you know, the canon isn’t as important in Buddhism because people don’t study it the way that we may study our standard works.” Then you have to ask yourself, “Well, do we really have a definition of scripture?” It could be that not only do we have this one volume of scripture that includes the four standard works, but we take our understanding of living prophets to its natural conclusion and say, “Well, no. Really, Conference Reports from 1840 all the way up to 2015—this is our canon, and it’s important for people to know it.” Well, then we’d have Latter-day Saints who’d say, “Well, yeah, I’m not going to read that.” Even if it is accessible to me now through digitization, it’s just too long. So how do I engage it? Do I engage it through a selection of specific parts of it? Or do I engage it as a whole through some sort of liturgical engagement because I believe it to be holy writ? Do I put it in some sort of ritual system? Then we have to start looking at what the actual, universal principles of scripture are and not just the ones that come out because of the characteristics of our current canon.

Another benefit is that I really do think that it makes us just more generally and innately human, that we basically understand that people yearn for religion in possibly similar ways. Once we start looking at a society of fellow believers, then we start to, in a more genuine way, appreciate the benefits that religion brings to us in general and not just in our own tradition. And that’s becoming more and more important. This year a new report has come out that the religious divide is no longer sectarian. It’s between a group of fellow believers that believe that religion is an essential part of life and of society and those that just don’t. I think that comparative religion could create those kind of ties in those kinds of situations in which we can be closer to a family of fellow believers. That might be the safety that we need in order to perpetuate not only our own religious beliefs but the idea of the importance of religion in society in general. Those are just a few.

Q: Do you have anything else you would like to remark on?

A: I would certainly like to mention the book that we have coming out through Columbia University Press this year and say that that’s kind of the goal for the conference: publishing these things in a reputable UP. I always would want to give full credit and my thanks to the people that sponsored it. It wouldn’t be possible without Brent Top, Bob Millet, Thom Wayment, the RSC, Alex Baugh, and we can go on and on. But these individuals take this type of research seriously—not only take it seriously but are enthusiastic about supporting it. They’re the real story here.