AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 294

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Session 294: Crossing Boundaries: Esoteric Buddhist Art and Practice in Medieval Asia

Organizer: Jinah Kim, Harvard University, USA

Chair: Rob N. Linrothe, Northwestern University, USA

Discussant: Matthew Kapstein, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, USA

Papers in this panel locate the interplay among texts, images, and ritual practices in Esoteric Buddhism in the context of its movement across Asia between the eighth and twelfth centuries. By examining different points and moments of exchange and adaptation, the panel will also attend to the process of negotiation between the local/regional and the global/transregional in South, Central and East Asia. It will challenge the diffusionist narrative of Buddhism’s spread from India to other parts of Asia, and suggest the muti-directionality of influence in the development of Esoteric Buddhist traditions. Another goal of the panel is to explore approaches for understanding Esoteric Buddhism and its art that cross disciplinary boundaries. Cynthean Bogel’s paper examines the use of icon and image in the earliest esoteric temples in Japan and suggests how the local contexts played an important role in determining the structure of the newly introduced sacred spaces. Rob Linrothe brings a ninth century silk painting of Vajrasattva from Dunhuang to a new light and demonstrates how the painting represents the process of “deity yoga”, an important esoteric Buddhist practice. Amanda Goodman’s paper proposes a socio-historical understanding of medieval Esoteric Buddhist practices by examining the visual and the textual sources pertaining to the production, circulation, and consumption of mandalas in tenth-century Dunhuang. And finally, Jinah Kim investigates the historical process behind the expansion of Indian Esoteric Buddhist pantheon by examining the use of local and personal visions in two Nepalese illustrated Buddhist manuscripts of the eleventh and the twelfth centuries.

Crossing Boundaries and Expanding Spaces: Esoteric Buddhist Visual Culture and Practice in Japan
Cynthea J. Bogel, Kyushu University, Japan

The ritual and philosophical structure of Japanese Esotericism, Mikkyô, as it was imported in the ninth century, demanded a complex and visionary conceptualization of the universe that had very little artistic or material precedent in Japanese visual culture. In temple halls of eighth-century Japan the mural space or the raised three-dimensional altar were distant and framed in relation to the viewer. Few pictures or diagrams that mapped the cosmos, or complex pictorial representations of the pure land paradise (gokuraku), were produced in Japan prior to the tenth century. Similarly, there is no significant evidence of eidetic contemplations (“visualizations”) carried out with paradise imagery. This scenario contrasts with the Chinese context, where Daoist and Buddhist cosmological diagrams or paintings and sculptural assemblies relating to visualization practices both informed and acted as ground work for Esoteric imagery. Bianxiang, tableaux (painted or sculpted) depicting the Buddhist pure lands, were often the visual component of contemplation rituals. The rituals associated with bianxiang and other types of paradise imagery and those for mandala differ greatly. However, without imagery that mapped the divine cosmos in a grid or geometric assembly, or a representational tradition depicting or engaging the adherent’s encounter with the Buddha realms, the new material and visual requirements for mandala and Esoteric ritual spaces—both within and outside the Japanese monastery—had a profound impact on both representation and the collective cultural imagination. This paper considers the interior space of pagodas, abhiṣeka halls, and icon halls in Japan in such a visual and conceptual framework.

Mirror Image: Deity and Donor as Vajrasattva
Rob N. Linrothe, Northwestern University, USA

Based on newly translated texts and visual comparisons of works from distant locales, this paper provides insights into a previously underanalyzed Esoteric Buddhist painting from Dunhuang. In the process, methodological questions are raised about the framing of disciplinary and field-studies boundaries. The focus is a 9th c. silk painting (64 x 62.3 cm) with ink and pale colors taken from the Dunhuang Mogao Cave 17 in the early 20th century by Paul Pelliot and preserved in the Musée Guimet’s Pelliot Collection (EO 1167). It depicts the Esoteric Buddhist deity Vajrasattva with 4 offering goddesses in an arrangement loosely termed a mandala. Originally, a sixth figure appeared at the bottom of the painting, though now there remains only parts of the face, chest, and a few fingers grasping either a vajra or a bell’s vajra-handle, the two implements that Vajrasattva also holds. This is either a donor figure or the donor’s Vajrācārya, the master who, in the act of initiation, takes on the form of Vajrasattva. In either case—the initiated donor or the master—translations of contemporary texts are used to demonstrate that what is represented is the process of ahamkāra or “deity yoga” in which the initiate is absorbed into the body, speech and mind of the chosen deity, and sees his teacher and himself as identical to Vajrasattva in essence. Comparisons are also made with Vajrasattva depictions from South Asia and Japan.

Enter the Mandala: Reflections on the Tantric Visual Corpus of Tenth-century Dunhuang
Amanda K. Goodman, University of Toronto, Canada

Scattered throughout the Stein, Pelliot, and Beijing Dunhuang manuscript collections are some three dozen sketches and paintings identified in the secondary literature as “magic diagrams,” “ritual diagrams,” “mandalas,” or “altars.” While several of these images have been identified and various chronologies proposed, a number of questions about the specific source materials for and actual uses of such Buddhist images at Dunhuang remain. Drawing on published manuscript evidence, as well as the rich body of recent scholarship on the Dunhuang drawings, this paper will examine three “mandala” sketches (S2139, P2012, P4009), along with related textual sources (B7667, P3835, P3913, and so on), in order to speculate on the local community of specialists responsible for the production, circulation, and possible consumption of such images at Dunhuang during the tenth century. It will also consider the implications of this regional material for our understanding of the place of similar images in late-medieval Buddhist practice beyond the site.

Localized visions, trans-regional practices: Iconographic Innovations of Indian Esoteric Buddhism
Jinah Kim, Harvard University, USA

This paper explores the historical process behind the proliferation of Indian Esoteric Buddhist iconography by examining the use of localized visions in two Nepalese illustrated manuscripts of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtra made during the eleventh and the twelfth centuries. Unique among the medieval South Asian Buddhist illustrated manuscripts, the two manuscripts have captions for images, which prompted their immediate use as iconographic reference books since the publication by Alfred Foucher (1865-1952) in 1900. The captions provide much more than just the names of the deities. Many identify the sites where the images were located and the names of the historical persons to whose visions the images’ iconographic features were attributed. The contemporary ritual texts (sādhana) also share the localized and historicized characteristics seen in the manuscripts as many authors of the visions are identified. The fame of the person or the site often determined the success of a certain manifestation of a deity as a cultic image. The historical characteristics of Esoteric Buddhist iconography thus identified suggest that the overwhelming number of images of Indian Esoteric Buddhism emerged not from doctrinally fixed prescriptions in texts but from creative adaptations based on local and personal visions. The paper also suggests how these localized visions were employed to construct a vast sacred space comprising the Buddhist world in a book, truly crossing the boundaries of time and space from within.