Breaking Rules to Be Compassionate: The 'Skillful Means' of Buddhist Relief after the Wenchuan Earthquake Disaster

March 2015 (VOL. 33, NO. 1)

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In the aftermath of the 2008 Great Wenchuan Earthquake, China, the ancient Buddhist Luohan Monastery became an important locus for disaster relief services. This included becoming a temporary maternity ward as the nearby hospital was badly damaged. This paper examines the monastery’s relief efforts as a case of socially engaged Buddhism. It pays particular attention to the ways in which the head monk of the monastery, Shi Suquan, negotiated tensions between responding to the desperate needs of nearby residents and long-standing religious rules and taboos which, on the surface at least, stood in opposition to certain forms of relief practices. The paper argues that he used Buddhist doctrines, particularly the Mahāyāna concept of ‘skillful means,’ to renegotiate the taboos by privileging the ethical imperative of compassionate action.