[Blog] Thoughts on UofT’s Department for the Study of Religion Buddhist Studies Numata Reading Group with Dr. Costantino Moretti

By Daigengna Duoer, M.A. Student, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto

On February 11, 2016, the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto welcomed our second Numata Reading Group guest and scholar of the 2015/2016 year, Dr. Costantino Moretti of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, in a reading and discussion of his recent work: “Preta Categories in a 6th Century Buddhist Summa Theologica.”

In this paper, Dr. Moretti discusses the thirty-six categories of preta, or “hungry ghosts” in a sixth century Chinese translation of the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra (Sutra of the Foundation of Mindfulness of the True Law), or the Zhengfa nianchu jing (正法念處經), provided by Gautama Prajñaruci (瞿曇般若流支,fl.ca. 538-543). Containing one of the most detailed descriptions of the rebirth path transmitted by the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Zhengfa ninachu jing not only provides a comprehensive list of preta categories, but is also one the few texts that that go into great detail on their specific nature and “karmic origin,” elements which often prove to be more complex and subtle than expected. Dr. Moretti reminds us that despite the integration into the Buddhist cosmological scheme, the concept of preta is in fact inherited from much older speculations linking this condition of existence to notions at times far removed from those found in Buddhist texts. Basically, before the “hungry ghosts” were assimilated into the systematizations of Buddhist scholastics, they were first and foremost “the one who proceeds,” as literally translated from the Sanskrti term preta, and as the “migrant” that travels between the material world and the world of the ancestors, or the pitṛ-s.

In the Pali Buddhist canon, one of the most important texts concerning the “hungry ghosts,” or the Petavatthu, emphasized the role of monks as intermediaries between the lay believers and the preta in the transmission of merits. As pointed out by Dr. Moretti, the origins of this practice go back to the Hindu ritual of śrāddha, which facilitates the “transformation” of the preta into that of pitṛ. Interestingly, in this Chinese translation of the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra, any notion of “merit transfer” and the possibility of human intervention to better the conditions of the “hungry ghosts” are not mentioned. In fact, the Zhengfa nianchu jing cites practices or cults intended for “hungry ghosts” as negative and as “heretical” offerings made by “ignorant” men. On this matter, Dr. Moretti writes that “… the offerings some men made to the ‘hungry ghosts’ gave these beings a specific role in a religious world possibly uncodified or placed outside the ‘canonical’ channels of the religious establishment, with the term ‘canonical’ not referring exclusively to the Buddhist tradition.”

An invaluable addition to the growing momentum in the study of the Buddhist scriptural tradition, Dr. Moretti’s recent work on the Zhengfa nianchu jing provides an in-depth analysis of the nuances of preta categories as presented in a sixth century Chinese text and offers a resourceful point of departure for further studies in the Zhengfa nianchu jing and the existence of different versions or recensions of the text. The fact that there are various translations (in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian) of the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra now known to us aside from the Sanskrit version also leads us to the possibility of future studies into philological problems such as its transmission and localization.

Aside from looking into the “hellish realms” in Buddhist texts, Dr. Moretti is also working on and participating in a wide array of exciting projects in the field of Buddhist studies such as studies on Northern Wei apocryphal texts to look at the scriptural rebuilds that were produced following the persecution of Buddhism (fifth century) in order to reestablish the sangha. As one of the experts in the field of Buddhist manuscript studies, Dr. Moretti has collaborated with other leading scholars and with the Center for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the Hamburg University in the compilation of Encyclopedia of Manuscript Culture of Asia and Africa (forthcoming). Moreover, Dr. Moretti has worked together with a team of scholars under Professor Jean-Pierre Drége, the Professor Emiritus at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, in a codicological project on the various material aspects of Buddhist manuscript production. They have recently published a volume of their combined research efforts in 2014, titled La fabrique du lisible (The Factory of Readables), which serves as a sort of manual on medieval Chinese manuscripts. On top of these projects, Dr. Moretti is also interested in looking at the Buddhist economy in medieval Central Asia and at Dunhuang based on newly found materials.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Moretti and everybody who participated in this amazing Numata event.

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