A conference report by Tan Yingxian (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
The international conference “From Jetavana to Jerusalem: Sacred Biography in Asian Perspectives and Beyond” took place between November 7–9, 2021 in honour of Professor Phyllis Granoff, who recently retired from Yale University. The conference was hosted by the Glorisun Global Network for Buddhist Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with the assistance of Glorisun Global Network for Buddhist Studies at Yale University and the University of British Columbia, and administrative support from Frogbear. The conference brought together scholars with expertise in diverse contexts and methodological approaches to reorient the studies of records of monastic lives. At the opening session, Eric Greene (Yale University), Mimi Yiengpruksawan (Yale University), Eviatar Shulman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and Chen Jinhua (University of British Columbia) said a few heart touching words on Phyllis Granoff’s remarkable academic achievements and also how, on a personal level, Granoff inspired their respect and gratitude. Then came a gathering of tributes to Phyllis Granoff for her retirement by her colleagues and students, which started with a poetically written speech by Chen Jinhua. The keynote speech given by David Shulman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) in honour of Phyllis Granoff is titled “The Malayali Brahmin who Buried his Gods: A Rare Eighteenth-century Autobiography from Kerala.” This autobiography, as Shulman showed, describes the conflicts and travails of its author in his attempt to survive and to save his family line in a hostile political environment. At its core lies an embedded prophecy uttered by Lord Śiva—a kind of history narrated in the future tense. Shulman’s study demonstrated many unique features of this eighteenth-century autobiography that give voice to a radically new sensibility against a backdrop of profound social and economic change.
The theme of session 2 was “Mad Monks, Bat Monks and Miraculous Monks” (Chair: Michael Nylan; Discussant: Chen Zhiyuan). Session 2 featured papers by James Robson (Harvard University), Li Wei (Henan University), and Ge Zhouzi (Shaanxi Normal University). James Robson’s paper is titled “The Ambivalent Bat: the place of Bat Monks within Buddhism.” He started by explaining how the hybrid and ambivalent image of bats made them a potent source for analogies. He then zeroed in on the use of the bat as an analogy in Buddhism to designate a category of monks, “the bat monks.” To address this category properly, Robson presented several East Asia Buddhist texts, which show not only the language used to describe the bat monks but also how pre-modern Buddhists found much in the bat ambivalence to think with. Li Wei made a presentation on the healing narratives in the Biography of Eminent Monks. His analysis suggested that the narratives associate the healing power of the monks more to their ability of fathoming the depth of karma than to their knowledge of the five sciences and medicine of India. The narratives also relate, as Li pointed out, the monks’ profound understanding of karma to the primary healing methods employed by them, namely, the use of spells (especially those connected with Avalokiteśvara) to exorcise the ghost from the patients.
Ge Zhouzi examined the authenticity and accuracy of the records on the prophecy gift of Yan Fahua 言法華 (?), a Northern Song Chan Master. He analyzed the records preserved both in the tablet inscription written by the early Song elites and in the Buddhist texts, with a special attention on Yan Fahua’s prophecy of Song Emperor Yingzong’s (宋英宗 r.1063-1067) succeeding to the throne. These records do not stand up to scrutiny according to Ge. By putting them into the historical and political context of Wang Anshi’s (王安石 1021-1086) reforms in the reign of Song Emperor Shenzong (宋神宗 1067-1085), which weakened the power of the local elites, Ge argued that the elites’ fabrication of Yan Fahua’s prophecy gift and his image as a sacred monk was associated with their attempt to improve their political situations affected by Wang Anshi’s reforms.
The subject of session 3 was “Between and Beyond Secular and Sacred” (Chair: Alexandra Kaloyanides; Discussant: Zhao You). Four scholars presented their papers in this session, namely, Eli Franco (Leipzig University), Michael Nylan (University of California, Berkeley), Marty Verhoeven (Dharma Realm Buddhist University), and Albert Welter (University of Arizona). Eli Franco presented two approaches to read Dharmakirti’s biographies within the Buddhist tradition. One is advocated by the modern Buddhologist, Erich Frauwallner (1898-1974) and another is by Yamāri, an eleventh-century Indian Buddhist commentator. Franco observed that both Yamāri and Frauwallner were trying to conceptualize the biological features of Dharmakīrti directly out of his work, Pramāṇa-vārttika, which is supposed to be a commentary on Pramāṇa-samuccaya and yet follows the order of the chapters of the latter only partly. Regarding the odd structure of Pramāṇa-vārttika, as presented by Franco, Yamāri and Frauwallner reached diametrically opposed conclusions. While Frauwallner tried to make sense of the strange chapter order of Dharmakīrti’s work in line with a regular and respectful reading of the prominent Buddhist figures, Yamāri’s view on Dharmakīrti was less sacred and more realistic, in which Dharmakīrti is regarded as weak, lazy and not being able to take care of the commentary on the Pramāṇa-samuccaya. The presentation by Michael Nylan and Marty Verhoeven asked how, if ever, we are to know that we understand the intended significance of a set of biographies, given many early historians’ preoccupations with measuring human greatness in terms of events leading to massive disturbances to natural and human life forms, rather than with the long-term endeavors that contribute to developmental processes.
Albert Welter examined a secular figure’s account of a Buddhist monk in his paper “Secularizing the Sacred? Wang Yucheng’s 王禹偁 (954-1001) biography of Buddhist Master Zanning 贊寧 (919-1001)”. The focus of his presentation is the genre shifting nature of biographical writing in traditional China. First, Welter demonstrated that secular Confucianism could exhibit sacred dimensions as exemplified by He Xun’s (何珣 ca. fl. 1464-1486) Shengji tu 聖蹟圖 produced in 1497, in which Confucius is presented as a recipient of heaven’s will. It was widely disseminated among different social strata. Second, by distinction, Wang Yucheng’s biography of Buddhist monk Zanning, according to Welter, is almost devoid of religious or sacred elements. Instead, it is a tribute to Zanning as a secular figure and a renowned intellectual, putting emphasis on Zanning’s engagement in critical debates of his day. And unlike Shengji tu which had a wide audience, Wang’s biography of Zanning was aimed primarily at the literati in the Song court. Welter’s paper reminded us to exercise caution in reading the content relating to Confucius and Confucianism as indelibly secular and that associated with religions like Buddhism as inevitably sacred. He also called our attention to the expectations of intended audiences and the medium of presentation, two factors that affect the variances of biographical depictions.
The topic of session 4 is “The Buddha’s Lives, Told and Retold” (Chair: Ann Heirman; Discussant: Liu Cuilan). Three scholars, Robert Brown (University of California, Los Angeles), Susan Andrews (Mount Alison University), and Margarita Delgado Creamer (University of Pittsburgh), presented their study in this session. Robert Brown sketched how the use of metal and stone as artistic materials during the beginning centuries of Buddhist art in India affected the nature of the representations of the Buddha. He started his paper arguing that the Buddhist art might have come before the Buddhist stories, as opposed to a general assumption that the stories come first and the art comes second. By analyzing the Buddhist stone relief carvings from Stupa 2 at Sanchi and Bhaja Vihara 19 (ca. second-first centuries BCE), Brown pointed out that no specific Buddhist iconography is present in these reliefs, despite the Buddhist structures they show. In other words, it was not at the instigation of any Buddhist textual or inscriptional sources that these reliefs were created. Brown observes that the use of stone as artistic materials actually allowed the visual imagery to be carved in great detail and in permanence, hence the development of Buddhist art. Therefore, he suggested that the Buddhist imagery might have inspired the Buddhist narratives or iconography rather than simply following the spoken and textual versions. He then mentioned the development of the Buddha icon in metal that happened very late in the Indian context in the fourth and fifth centuries. His study relates the use of metal icons to enabling the icons to be carried and used in individual homes. He concluded that the use of stone and metal as artistic materials was constantly affecting the form of the Buddha image.
Susan Andrews investigated picture book presentations of Śākyamuni’s life. The first observation of her study was that there is enormous suppleness and flexibility in the genre of hagiography. Śākyamuni’s final life is imagined in different ways to meet the needs of changing audiences. In contrast, Andrew’s second observation showed relative limitedness of the roles assigned to women. They are mostly presented as parent or partner of Śākyamuni. Readers also encounter far fewer references to women actors. By comparing representations of the Buddha’s lives in more than fifty picture books published in English this century, Andrews reflected on the diversity of their audiences. Margarita Delgado Creamer talked about the transmission of Buddhism to Latin-America and the writer Jorge Luis Borges’s (1899-1986) role in that transmission. Creamer raised three important questions. First, what did Borges expect to accomplish in his lectures on Buddhism? According to Creamer, Borges aimed at breathing life into the Buddha’s life story so that the people could rediscover Buddhism as a way of salvation rather than merely seeing it as a piece of museum. Second, why did Borges give Buddha’s biography such a major role in the spread of Buddhism in Latin-America? The answer lies in the fact that the Buddha’s life story had become a powerhouse of artistic creation and religious inspiration as Creamer observed. In other words, Borges found the Buddhist legend more illuminating than the historical truth of the legend, which had been the concern of many seminal orientalists at the beginning of the twentieth century. Third, how did Borges retell the Buddha’s life story? By analyzing Borges’s recorded lectures, Creamer perceived that Borges appealed to the aesthetic value of the hagiographical accounts to collapse the gap between truth and falsity and he tempered the exoticism of Buddha’s life story to make it relevant and real.
The subject covered in session 5 was “Monks in Motion” (Chair: Wang Bangwei; Co-Discussants: Kirill Solonin and James Robson). The session featured papers by Peter Flügel (SOAS, University of London), Liu Cuilan (University of Pittsburg), Jeffrey Kotyk (University of British Columbia), Hou Haoran (Tsinghua University), and Chen Ming (Peking University). Flügel focused on the articulation of the social and the karmic implications of the framed peregrinations, patterns of social interaction, and monastic career path of a Jaina mendicant. The argument of the paper is twofold. On the one hand it argues that, like money, Jaina mendicants function as generalized media of social communication in Jaina social systems. On the other hand, it argues that the Jaina theory of karmic matter offers conceptual means for an individual to reflect on.
Liu Cuilan’s paper is on the legal aspects of an illegal travel to India by the Tang Buddhist monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (602?-664). She discussed in detail the legal risks Xuanzang undertook to leave Tang in 629 and also the consequences he might face upon his return in 645. Several careful observations made by Liu’s paper are as follows. First, the fact that the eminent Buddhist monks during the Tang Dynasty had to repeatedly petition directly to the Tang rulers indicates that the states policy toward ordained Buddhist offenders was unstable. The exemption to prosecute them from one emperor could be changed or rescinded by the succeeding emperor. Second, the legal problem could have contributed reluctance of a disciple of Xuanzang in publicizing a biography of his master. Third, the leniency Xuanzang received from the emperor showed that although the Tang policy to treat ordained Buddhist monks who had committed crimes differed in 645, the implications were more complicated. At the least, the discrepancy between the legal theory and its practice reflected in Xuanzang’s case informs us that the implementation of the state law was constantly amended by imperial edicts which represented the most updated legal opinions from the emperors.
Jeffrey Kotyk talked about the accounts of Japanese monks in the late Tang Dynasty. He looked at the records of Japanese monks Saichō 最澄 (767–822) and Ryōsen 靈仙 (759-827) in the travelogue written by the Japanese monk Ennin 圓仁 (794–864), which is known as the Nittō guhō junrei kōki 入唐求法巡禮行記 (Record of Travel to the Tang in Search of the Dharma). Ennin visited China a few decades later than Saichō and Ryōsen. Based on what Ennin recorded, both Saichō and Ryōsen were venerated in the late Tang and the Chinese sangha had a very positive perception of Japanese monks. Kotyk also suggested that as an important document that records firsthand experiences in the late Tang Dynasty, Ennin’s travelogue definitely has its value. However, given that Ennin’s records are not based on textual sources or any sort of systematic study but mostly on what other people said about the previous generation of visiting Japanese monks to China, we have to recognize the limitations of this travelogue in our own attempts to reconstruct the history of Sino-Japanese Buddhist relations. Hou Haoran presented the life story of a twelfth-century Tibetan Buddhist master named rGwa Lotsāba gZhon nu dpal. He paid special attention to his experiences in India and Eastern Tibet and the role he played in the formation of the Mahākāla literature from Kharakhoto.
Chen Ming presented a biography of a Chinese monk who visited and lived in modern India. This monk is known as “Meditation Master Bird Nest” 鳥巢禪師 (ca. fl. 1910-1959). Unlike the elite monks who have received much scholarly attention, Master Bird Nest belongs to a group of ordinary monks. Chen Ming’s study is based on a group of modern hagiographies where the records of Master Bird Nest are maintained. Some of notable records are his ability to communicate with animals, his interaction with Indian people, and especially his confrontation with the British Indian court which was the key message of his self-narrative. All these hagiographical accounts end up making an ordinary Chinese monk a reincarnation of the Hinduist deity—Rāma. Chen Ming pointed out that by studying non-elite monks such as Master Bird Nest and the creation of his hagiography, we can expand our view of Buddhist biographies and deepen our understanding of the modern cultural and religious exchanges between India and China.
Session 6’s theme was “Monks and Monarchs” (Chair: Jacqueline Stone; Discussant: Jeffrey Kotyk). Three scholars talked about their study, Yang Qilin (Shanghai University), Wang Qiyuan (Fudan University), and Yagi (Yaara) Morris (University of Wisconsin–Madison). Yang Qilin’s paper is about the textual sources for the biography of Jebtsundamba II. He argued that in view of the elaborate procedure of identifying the second Jebtsundamba, his biography is more than a hagiographical record. Rather, it is connected to the historical archives in the Qing court. His study on the biography of Jebtsundamba contributed to the understanding of the religious and political interactions between the Qing Empire under emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝 1678-1735) and the Mongol-Tibetan Buddhism. The paper by Wang Qiyuan focuses on Zibo Zhenke’s (紫柏真可 1543-1603) involvement in the new legal cases of “Evil Books” and his so-called “Three Great Aspirations” (Ch. sandafu 三大負). Wang showed that Zibo Zhenke became a legendary figure emulated by Buddhists in late Ming dynasty thanks to both his own active Buddhist engagement and his friend Hanshan Deqing’s (憨山德清 1546-1623) biographical writing of him. In particular, Hanshan Deqing incorporated Zibo Zhenke’s imprisonment into the famous narrative about Zibo Zhenke’s “Three Great Aspirations.” On the account of Hanshan Deqing’s own involvement in the court affairs during the revival of Buddhism in late Ming, as Wang suggested, Hanshan Deqing’s writing deliberately highlights and omits certain elements, which reflects his complex attitude towards the collective endeavors of himself and Zibo Zhenke in this period of Buddhist revival.
Yagi (Yaara) Morris explored the role of local hagiographies and their intertwining with narratives of the Buddha in the construction of sacred landscapes and imperial authority in a medieval Japanese esoteric Buddhist text, which is known as Kinpusen himitsuden 金峯山秘密伝 (The Secret Transmission of the Golden Peak). Morris argued that the text was to invest the tutelary deity of Kinpusen with the potency of the Buddha, and to transform the mountain into a palace and an emperor on the run into an enlightened Buddhist king.
The topic of session 7 was “Techniques, Media and Sacred Biography” (Chair: Ulrike Roesler; Co-Discussants: Diego Loukota Sanclamente and Eugene Wang). The session featured papers by five scholars, Haiyan Hu-von Hinüber (University of Freiburg), Marko Geslani (University of South Carolina), Pia Brancaccio (Drexel University), Sahaj Patel (Vanderbilt University), and Li Can (Beijing Foreign Studies University). Haiyan Hu-von Hinüber discussed the divination of the Jain Vajhara and its impact on Xuanzang’s decision on returning to China in 642. Vajhara informed Xuanzang that he would definitely reach his homeland, although staying in India should be the better choice. This passage is recorded in Huili’s biography of Xuanzang. The paper shows that Buddhist monks like Xuanzang highly valued the Jain’s divination and even wanted to rely on it despite Jainism’s status as one of the Indian “heretics” (waidao 外道) to Buddhists’ eyes. Another example of Jain fortune-teller’s influence on Xuanzang is shown in Song Gaoseng Zhuan 宋高僧傳 (Biographies of Eminent Monks [compiled] in the Song Dynasty), which considers the conversion of Kuiji, Xuanzang’s most famous disciple, in the context of the Jain divination. This paper thus shed new light on Xuanzang’s relationship with the Indian “heretics” especially with members of the Jain community.
Marko Geslani addressed the problem of the cultural history of astral science (jyotiṣa) as shown in Rājasekharasuri’s fourteeth-century Prabandhakośa. Geslani explained that the story is simultaneously a hagiography of the Jain master Bhadrabāhu and a demonology of the brahmin Varāhamihira. He pointed out that while Rājasekharasuri’s account is of meager historical value having been written some eight hundred years after Varāhamihira, it nonetheless illustrates what may be a perennial predicament in the authorization of astral sciences at the level of political and cultural elite. An important point Geslani made is that there may be a difference between the sanction of a popular ritual practice from the perspective of religious group and its approval as a part of state ideology. The historical Varāhamihira was certainly aware that prediction was no guarantee of his political success. So whereas the fictitious Varāhamihira in Rājasekharasuri’s story takes on the desperation of a gambler caught in a high stakes contest of prediction, the historical Varāhamihira proves in his work that even without mathematical calculation by observing omens the astrologer can become famous and beloved by kings.
Pia Brancaccio discussed a region of the Indian subcontinent that is often overlooked in the geography of Buddhism. She focused on the coastal region of Konkan and the site Sopara in particular, which played a very important role in the history of early Buddhism and attested to a longstanding local tradition of asceticism practice both within Buddhist and non-Buddhist circles. Sahaj Patel examined the innovations incorporated in the production of a multi-volume sacred biography of a Hindu guru named Pramukh Swami Maharaj (1921-2016), who was the leader of the BAPS Swaminarayan community. He showed how the Quick Response (QR) codes embedded in the texts affect people’s engagement with the text. He considered these technologies’ role as para-textual, which allow us to trace larger theological and effective networks connected with hagiography. He also argued that relationship between text and para-text can potentially explain how hagiographies become operative and how authors and readers can negotiate meaning and emotion toward objects of value.
Li Can explored the chronology of Akṣobhyavajra, his disciple Le Bu, and the Rite for Feeding the Hungry Ghosts. By examining Akṣobhyvajra’s biography in the Xinxu Gaoseng zhuan (New Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks) and analyzing recently discovered materials, Li reached the following conclusions. First, Akṣobhyavajra probably lived in the late thirteenth century or the fourteenth century rather than the Western Xia period. Second, the origin of liturgy for feeding the searching mouths dates to the Ming ang Qing dynasties. Third, Yankou and Kagyuoa lineages were combined into one by Le Bu. Fourth, with the decline of Da Huguo Renwang monastery, Yankou liturgy became increasingly popular and developed into one of the most important Chinese Buddhist rituals from the time of Ming and Qing till today.
Session 8 discussed the topic of “Biographies Bringing Beliefs” (Chair: Haiyan Hu-von Hinüber; Co-Discussants: Kate Crosby and Susan Andrews). Alexsander Uskokov (Yale University), Gérard Colas (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, CNRS), Max Deeg (Cardiff University), and Chen Jinhua (University of British Columbia) presented their papers. Aleksander Uskokov’s paper is titled “When Bhakti meets the Mahā-vākya: Jīva Gosvāmī and the Devotional Reinterpretation of the Experience of Non-Duality.” Since late medieval times, Advaita (non-duality) ascetics receive Mahāvākyas as liberation mantras at their initiation into renunciation. Uskokov showed how Jīva Gosvāmī (1571-1608) who is a follower of Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533), also known as Krisna Chaitanya, reinterpreted the Advaita doctrine of monism tied to the Upaniṣadic Mahāvākyas under a new soteriology of devotion to the personal deity Krishna. Gérard Colas’s paper is titled “Belief beyond Affiliation: An example from the Divyasūricarita, a Sanskrit Hagioraphy of Tamil Saints.” First, he explained to what extent Divyasūricarita can be referred to as a hagiography and its function. Then he discussed certain episodes in Parakāla’s (Tirumaṅkai-ālvār, 8th c.?) life, especially his theft of a Buddhist icon from Nāgapattanam to finance the construction of an enclosure wall and other buildings in the Shrirangam Vaiṣṇava in south India. His paper explores the precedence of devotion over ethical norms, and how the belief in the presence of consciousness in all icons, Buddhist or Vaiṣṇava, overrides religious affiliations.
Max Deeg’s paper is titled “Naked Heretics: On the Representation of Jains in Chinese Buddhist Texts.” It is well known that Jains are the most prominent heretics recorded in the Buddhist canonical texts. In the Indian context, as Deeg pointed out, Jains were the most obvious and direct competitors of Buddhists. The question he raised is that why Chinese Buddhists cared about Jainism exemplified by nijianzi 尼犍子 (nigraṇṭha) at all? To answer this question, he looked at the Chinese terms for Jains and their outer markers described in the Chinese texts, namely, nakedness, white-clad heretics, deliberately starving themselves to death, plucking out the hair and begging for food with their hands. Deeg examined the descriptions of Jains in Chinese canonical texts from the fourth century to mid-Tang and Xuanzang’s writing on Jains in the Northwest of India and concluded that the references to Jains are because they are exotic enough to be used in the polemic discourse of Chinese Buddhism.
Chen Jinhua’s paper discusses Yan Zhenqing 顏真卿 (709-785), a renowned Tang bureaucrat, general and calligrapher, and Yan’s record for the precept-platform in the vinaya-treasure cloister at the Baoying monastery 寶應寺 in Fuzhou 撫州. To start with, Chen showed that despite Yan’s manifold association with Buddhist monks and institutions, Yan did not see himself as a Buddhist. Chen went on to discuss Yan’s extensive contact with the eminent monks. In particular, he called our attention to monk Zhengyi 正義 (?), who is Yan’s brother-in-law, and to Yan’s composition of the first genealogy of the Vinaya school in China, in which Zhengyi is shown as the seventh-generation disciple. Then Chen examined in detail Yan’s writing of Baoyingsi lüzangyuan jietai ji 寶應律藏院戒壇 (Record of the Ordination Platform at the Vinaya treasure Cloister of the Baoying Monastery in Fuzhou). The recording of the revival of monastic discipline in Baoying monastery, as Chen showed, was completed by Yan in 771, four years after his serving as the prefecture governor of Fuzhou ended. Chen’s paper reminded us to consider the close connection between an individual’s identity and his social interaction as well as how this connection can impact the writing process of a Buddhist biography.
The subject of session 9 was “Biographies Built and Rebuilt” (Chair: Zhang Xing; Discussant: Lu Yang). The session had five scholars presenting their study, Zhao You (Peking University), Wang Bangwei (Peking University), Yang Jianxiao (Nanjing Normal University), Kirill Solonin (Renmin University of China), and Qi Guanxiong (Florida State University). Zhao You’s paper is titled “Becoming Vimalakīrti in his Chamber.” She showed the difference between the reception of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa in Indic and in Chinese context. Chinese readers, as Zhao argued, transformed Vimalakīrti from a Bodhisattva who embodies paradox, to “Weimo” 維摩, a sage located in his own chamber. Zhao’s paper shows how the process of taking the scripture as a hagiographical writing and thus recreating the image of Vimalakīrti took shape and how such process remains dynamic in modern eras. Wang Bangwei discussed the differences between two important sources of Xuanzang’s biography, Da Ci’en si sangzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳 (A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery) and Daoxuan’s 道宣 (596-667) writing of Xuanzang in his Xu Gaoseng zhuan 續高僧傳 (Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks). The paper presented by Yang Jianxiao explores the production of Xuanzang’s historical image and the establishment of Weishi Buddhism, the Chinese Yogācāra tradition. Yang related the portrayal of Xuanzang as the first patriarch of the Chinese Yogācāra tradition to the attempt at forming the sectarian identity by Kuiji 窺基 (632-682). Yang also pointed to two opposing groups of Xuanzang’s disciples and their different attitudes toward Chengwei shilun 成唯識論 (Discourse on the Perfection of Consciousness-Only).
The paper presented by Kirill Solonin introduces a fragment of the Tangut version of the biography of the Tripiṭaka master Kumārajīva (344-413). The Tangut version of the biography, according to Solonin, displays peculiar features of how Tangut Buddhist community understood the importance of Kumārajīva, despite of its historical incorrectness. Solonin showed that Kumārajīva’s image was mythologized by the Tanguts to epitomize the totality of Tangut Buddhism as a combination of the Sinitic doctrinal scriptures and Tibetan esoteric practices. Qi Guanxiong compared the differences between two biographical sources of Fayu Foshi 法雨佛石 (1569-1636), a charismatic religious leader and hardcore ascetic in the Late Ming dynasty. The conventional hagiographies portray Foshi as either a typical Chan master or a Pure Land practitioner. By distinction, as Qi explained, the tribute poems written by Foshi’s literati disciples praise Foshi for his extreme asceticism. Qi argued that the idiosyncratic tribute poems received by Foshi deviate from the typical Buddhist tropes and discourses, directly reflect Foshi’s charisma perceived by his followers, and better explain his cultic followings.
The theme of session 10 was “History and His Stories” (Chair: Gérard Colas; Co-Discussants: Marko Geslani and Robert Sharf). This session featured papers by Ellen Gough (Emory University), Lilian Handlin (Harvard University CAMlab), Jack Hawley (Barnard College, Columbia University), and Jacqueline Stone (Princeton University). Ellen Gough’s paper is titled “The Jain Monk Viṣṇukumāra and the History of Rakṣābandhana.” He looked at how the story of Viṣṇukumāra, the monk who defeated the evil king Bali, became linked to Rakṣābandhana, the festival differently celebrated by Hindu communities and Digambara Jain communities. The former celebrated the festival as a bond between brothers and sisters whereas the latter treated it as a commemoration of the monk Viṣṇukumāra’s defeat of the evil king Bali, who was torturing seven hundred mendicants in Ujjain. Gough shed light on forgotten histories of the Brahminical Rakṣābandhana festival by looking at the narratives of Jain monk Viṣṇukumāra. Lilian Handlin’s paper is written in honour of Professor Phyllis Granoff’s path-breaking publications that among much else recovered biographical practices associated with cultures situated in the Indian subcontinent. The title of her paper is “A late 11th Century Selfie: King Kyanzittha’s Carte de visite.” Her paper flags an issue ignored in Burmese historiography—the perception of the king’s self, as verbalized in an astonishing personal reveal. That reveal considerably broadened the parameters of first millennium royal self-glorification.
Jack Hawley’s paper is titled “In-Between Biography: Rāmacarana’s Saṅkaradeva and Amar Singh’s Surdas.” In the reign of Maharana Amar Singh II of Mewar (1698-1710) poems attributed to the Brajbhasha poet Surdas were for the first time subjected to a process of selection that caused them to represent the childhood of Krishna alone—apart from any other aspects of the deity’s life story. After that point in time the poet came increasingly to be thought of as a specialist in Krishna’s childhood. With substantial help from Phyllis Granoff’s study of the influential biography of Saṅkaradeva attributed to Rāmacaraṇa, Hawley approached the questions such as what in effect the poet’s life was and whether his biography was leveraged onto the life-story of the deity he cherished most.
Jacqueline Stone’s paper is titled “The Tale of Nichiren’s Miraculous Escape from Death and Its Modern Interpreters: History and Hagiography in a Japanese Buddhist Tradition.” Stone explored the interpretative shifts surrounding Nichiren’s (日蓮 1222-1282) dramatic escape from beheading at the hands of hostile shogunal officials, thanks to the sudden appearance of a luminous object that streaked across the night sky. Those eager to strip Nichiren’s biography of legendary elements since the late nineteenth century, as shown by Stone, invoke modern text-critical methods to question the authorship of the passages. Whereas defenders of the traditional hagiography argued that the terrifying “luminous object” was probably ball lightning or a meteor, thus illustrating how “supernatural” episodes in sacred biography may be recovered by—but at the cost of subordination to—science as a dominant legitimating discourse.
Session 11 is titled “Women Biographized” (Chair: Yagi Morris; Co-Discussants: Robert Sharf and Robert Brown). Four scholars, Eugene Wang (Harvard University), Naman Ahuja (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Alexandra Kaloynaides (University of North Carolina, Charlotte), and James Benn (McMaster University), presented their papers.
Eugene Wang talked about the pictorial treatment of the Sumagadha matter. He began by saying that the narrative of Buddhist art is not to be reduced to its source texts. He went on to briefly explain three stories depicted in Mogao cave 257, namely, a novice monk committing suicide, Sumagadha avadāna and Ruru jātaka. He then moved to Kizil Cave 224, explaining the connection with the first one and what can be gleaned from the resonance between the two caves. He ended by wonderfully tying the three stories together, explaining they are but building blocks that can now be understood as the care for the transmutation spirit, as it migrates through various individual bodies.
Naman Ahuja discussed a scene of a large yaksha abducting a female while her ornaments are shown falling to the ground. Ahuja explained that this scene is repeatedly shown in the terracotta and ivory objects made in Bengal between the first century BC to the third century AD. Many scholars believed this is a depiction of Sita from the Hindu Ramayana, but Ahuja suggested this scene is more likely to be a Buddhist jātaka. For one thing, as he pointed out, the objects are found in archaeological sites with many Buddhist structures like stupas and monasteries with other artwork that bear identifiable Buddha stories and that cannot be ignored and so to that extent these early depictions must be studied also from Buddhist perspective. In addition, Ahuja argued that narratives moved along with objects without necessarily belonging to any literary canon.
Alexandra Kaloynaides focused on an atypical section on women in Sāsanavaṃsa, the hallmark work that deals with the history of Buddhism in Burma. Kaloynaides started with the background of Sāsanavaṃsa and presented stories of smart women, such as a mother correcting her twelve-year old daughter’s Pāli declension paradigms and a young girl shaming a monk for incorrectly using first person pronoun with the third person verb termination. She observed that this text not only works to entertain male monastics with comical scenes of women being surprisingly smarter than the men around them but also functions to conjure a vision of Burma as supreme land of Buddhism, where Burmese kings and monks promote Buddhist education to the extent that even low-ranking women are masters of the linguistic complexities of sāsana’s canonical language.
James Benn placed the reading of Princess Miaoshan 妙善 legend in the larger context of self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism rather than considering the legend only as the elements of Indian literature. In particular, he placed the legend of Princess Miaoshan in conversation with that of Liu Benzun 柳本尊 (855-907), whose practice relied on the use of mantra and intensive somatic self-sacrificing practice known as the “Ten Refinings” for the welfare of others. He suggested that the logic, tropes and various modes of Buddhist self-immolation had made a deep impact on the Chinese religious imagination long before the composition of Princess Miaoshan’s legend. Princess Miaoshan’s bodily offerings thus did not defy common sense. Benn concluded that although the structure and contents of the legend are indebted to Indian literature such as Jātaka, the legend did not arrive in a religious world unprepared for the themes and messages of the self-immolation. There is no definite proof of the creator of the legend of Princess Miaoshan directly drawing on the traditions of Chinese Buddhist self-immolation, but as Benn suggested, the creator of the legend would have to work very hard to ignore the existing vernacular of self-immolation in Chinese religion and literature.
Session 12 theme concerned “Defense and Debate: Biography as Sectarian and Polemical Devices” (Chair: Jack Hawley; Discussant: Max Deeg). Zhao Shanshan (Alice) (McMaster University), Aleksandra (Sasha) Restifo (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and Gregory Schopen (University of California, Los Angeles) presented their papers. The focus of Zhao Shanshan (Alice)’s paper is on a category of Daoxuan’s continued biographies of eminent monks, namely, hufa 護法 (protecting the dharma). Zhao discussed the range of Buddhist activities contained in hufa category. She concluded that aside from the events aiming at defending Buddhism in the Buddhist-Daoist or Buddhist-court conflicts, many other types of activities are also contained in this category such as upholding Vinaya and transmitting precepts, and manifesting miraculous response. Regarding the manifestation of miraculous response, Zhao showed how this activity worked as proof of religious faith and achievement and how it functioned to spread Buddhism to the laity in the local society.
Aleksandra (Sasha) Restifo’s study is about an alternative telling of the story of Banārasī, a Jain layman who founded the Adhyātma, or spiritual, circle in Agra in ca. 1623. This telling is incorporated by Banārasī’s ideological opponent, Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjaka monk Meghavijaya (ca. 1653-1704), into his philosophical treatise titled the Yuktiprabodha-nāṭaka (Drama of Awakening through Logic). Yuktiprabodha-nāṭaka is an attack on a specific individual— Banārasī and his belief system, rather than on a set of ideas whose authors are only implied. Second, it is titled a play (nāṭaka) and contains dramatic elements. Because of these two reasons, Restifo argued that Yuktiprabodha-nāṭaka represents an unusual specimen of polemical literature. Restifo suggested that it is the genre of drama, which makes the presence of a protagonist necessary, enabled Banārasī’s opponent to use his biography to discredit him and consequently debunk his religious beliefs. The paper presented by Gregory Schopen is titled “The Monk Mūlaphalguna and the Nuns: Biography as Criticism.” His paper examines the biography of Mūlaphalguna, who appears to have been a literary device used to criticize the practices of nuns. According to Schopen, Mūlaphalguna’s biography seems to have no other purpose than to represent nuns in an unfavourable light, as head-strong and overwrought.
Tan Yingxian is currently a Ph.D. student in the department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) and is working on the state-saṃgha relation in late sixth and early seventh century China. In mid-December 2021 she held a photograph exhibition on Buddhism in modern China for the first time at HUJI, with special focus on monumental monasteries versus village hermitages.
Featured image: Jetavanaramaya Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Photo by A.Savin.
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