Taking a new approach to the history of Buddhism, this book describes how Buddhist authors reorganized family values in China. Close readings of more than twenty Buddhist texts written in China from the fifth to the thirteenth century demonstrate that Buddhist authors crafted new models for family reproduction based on a mother-son style of filial piety, in contrast to the traditional father-son model.
Building on itself century after century, Buddhist propaganda sought to produce three elemental responses: (1) guilt and a sense of indebtedness to one's mother, (2) suspicion regarding the mother's sexual and sinful nature, and (3) faith that the Buddhist monastic institution could, if correctly patronized, cancel the debts and expiate the sins that it so painstakingly promulgated. Emerging at the end of this arc of Buddhist ideology is something resembling "original sin", or, better, the "sin of birth", in which all mothers are threatened with infernal punishment simply for their role in procreation.
The author draws on modern critical and psychoanalytic perspectives to argue that by reorienting family values, the Buddhists succeeded in bridging the gap between the private world of the Chinese family and the public presence of monastic Buddhism, thereby working Buddhism into Chinese society on several levels: sexual, familial, monetary, and political. Surprisingly, Buddhist family values, despite their intrusive nature and unprecedented focus on the mother, remained committed to supporting the traditional patrilineal family. The book thus demonstrates that the personal and intimate mother-son complex provided engaging desires and fears that were gradually shaped and directed by apropaganda effort seeking reliable support for both professional Buddhists and the patriarchal family.