AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 302

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Session 302: Transcription and Transformation: Buddhist Scribal and Manuscript Cultures in Japan, Tibet, and Thailand

Organizer: Bryan D. Lowe, Vanderbilt University, USA

Chair: Heather E. Blair, Indiana University, USA

Discussant: Heather E. Blair, Indiana University, USA

From at least the first-century BCE, the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia has been facilitated by the inscription of religious texts. Scholars have traditionally concentrated on the content of these materials, while ignoring the means by which they were transcribed. This panel, composed of specialists of Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, will look at scribes, patrons, and manuscripts to ask how the reproduction of texts shaped Buddhism in three distinct cultural and historical contexts. Each panelist maintains that transcription cannot be reduced to mere reproduction; instead, copying a manuscript altered the text while also transforming the communities that produced, transmitted, and received it. To this end, the first paper will examine ritualized forms of transcription in eighth-century Japan to argue that copying scripture prepared lay scribes for monkhood and helped patrons reach enlightenment. The second paper will turn to an illuminated manuscript to highlight how patrons, scribes, and readers (re)created a seemingly standardized biography for polemical and didactic purposes in eighteenth-century Tibet. The third paper will explore what we can know about the motivations that drove scribes and sponsors to produce manuscripts in pre-modern Thailand based upon colophons and inscriptions. In lieu of individualized responses, our discussant will open the panel by pointing out general themes of how manuscript studies can transform the way we understand Buddhism and will conclude by asking how we can learn—and how we can teach our students—about manuscripts in a climate in which bibliography and paleography are being cut from curricula.

Text as Practice: Patrons, Scribes, and Sutra Copying in Eighth-Century Japan
Bryan D. Lowe, Vanderbilt University, USA

Scribes often engaged in a series of abstinential and purificatory acts in preparation for copying Buddhist scripture (sutras). These ritualized practices served to empower the manuscript by making it capable of answering the patrons’ prayers. My paper will focus on eighth-century Japan—a time in which sutra copying flourished—to explore how transcription helped both patrons and scribes achieve their particular religious goals. From the patrons’ perspective, sutra copying was a means to liberation for both themselves and their ancestors. For many copyists, scribal labor functioned as training for monastic careers. My paper will look at diverse sources including colophons, narrative tales, and documents from an eighth-century scriptorium to argue that sutra copying can be considered an ethical practice in which people aimed to transform themselves and others through transcribing texts. I will also incorporate continental sources to show how the methods of transcription highlighted in this paper were widely shared throughout the East Asian Buddhist tradition. Unlike most narratives of Buddhism, which tend to fixate on male monastics, my paper will pay close attention to lay scribes and female patrons. I will suggest that these often neglected figures played a fundamental role in solidifying Buddhism’s position in Japan. I will also use the material presented in this paper to consider the relationship between devotional and scholastic textual practices.

Local Transformations in Illuminated Tibetan Biography
Andrew H. Quintman, Yale University, USA

The biographical tradition of Tibet’s acclaimed poet and yogin Milarepa (1028-1111) includes a vast and diverse body of literature. Most early works were superseded by a standard account of the life story first printed in the late fifteenth century and reproduced in numerous editions over the next five centuries. This paper will focus instead on a rare example of an illuminated manuscript version of the yogin’s life. The manuscript, produced in the eastern Tibetan region of Amdo (Qinghai Province) in the seventeenth century, is a relatively late work but preserves an early “pre-canonical” version of Milarepa’s life. Examining the text’s narrative frame, which describes Milarepa as an emanation of a buddha (nirmanakaya), and its visual program, which equates the yogin with Kalden Gyatso (1607-1677), the renowned seventeenth-century monk from Amdo, it is possible to trace how the text was transformed for use within a specific religious community. The process of transcribing manuscript biographies, I will argue, permits subtle manipulations of the text not possible in printed works. This, in turn, allowed patrons, scribes, and readers to create, or recreate, a seemingly standardized biography to suit a host of local polemical and didactic purposes. The manuscript generally highlights the growing cult of Milarepa in eastern Tibet, a tradition that began during the proceeding century. And in this case, the life story of a revered eleventh-century mendicant-adept was used to authorize the lineage and activities of a seventeenth-century scholar-monk.

The Buddha's Embodied Word and the Legitimization of Power: Pali Manuscripts from Northern Thailand
Daniel Veidlinger, California State University, Chico, USA

Many of the oldest extant Pali palm-leaf manuscripts are of Northern Thai provenance, written in a script used primarily for sacred literature known locally as the Dhamma script. These manuscripts, dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, were usually stored in elevated libraries that kept their contents safe from the hungry vermin that targeted the leaves. Besides being older than the typically eighteenth or nineteenth century exemplars from other parts of Southeast Asia, it is also fortunate that these manuscripts embody a tradition of relatively loquacious colophons that often convey a good deal of information about the circumstances in which they were produced. In some cases, there are inscriptions recording manuscript-making projects that add even more detail to the picture being painted by the colophons. This paper will look at a few representative colophons and examine the motivations that drove those who sponsored the production of the manuscripts, and the relation between these sponsors and the monastic scribes. It will explore how rulers and people of means sought to legitimize their authority by sponsoring the copying of manuscripts, and how scribes hoped in turn to gain merit by copying them in a process that sometimes eclipsed the importance of using these manuscripts to actually read and study the teachings of Buddhism.