AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 93

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Session 93: Textual “Function” in East Asian Buddhism: Dislocation and Relocation of Scriptural Authorities

Organizer: Stefania Travagnin, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Chair: Zhiru Ng, Pomona College, USA

Discussants: Charles B. Jones, Catholic University of America, USA; Zhiru Ng, Pomona College, USA

The field of Buddhist studies began as a form of textual study, and the translation and interpretation of texts has remained the predominant approach in the field. The emphasis on written texts in Buddhist scholarship has provoked debate over whether this textual bias undermines the role that forms of material culture (such as visual images and, more recently, the media) play in the scholarly reconstruction of this religious tradition. This panel aims at provoking alternative ways to define and investigate ‘texts’, reconstructing the interplay and hierarchy between ‘texts’, visual culture and performative practices, as well as proposing new theoretical directions in the discipline of textual studies within Buddhology. The papers and the following discussion are thus meant to create a conceptual frame for a new epistemology of textuality, as well as provoking new challenging debates on research methodologies in the field. The papers explore the proposed theme within different contexts (Chinese liturgical texts, Prince Shōtoku's Buddhist commentaries, rituals in Japanese esoteric Buddhism, and East Asian Buddhist cinema), from different perspectives and covering various historical periods. Finally, the papers will analyze how a genre of texts can change its social and religious function in different historical (and therefore social and religious) periods, and rethink the social and ritual process of turning a textual narrative into a sacred scripture. The discussants of the panel are an expert in Buddhist visual arts and rituals, and a historian of East Asian Buddhism. This double perspective is meant to balance and diversify the session.

Buddhist Exegetical Texts and Performativity: When Does a Text Do?
David Neil Schmid, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, USA

This paper examines Buddhist liturgical texts from the 8th-14th known as sutra lecture texts (jiangjing wen), liturgies (keyi), and precious scrolls (baojuan) to understand the process of how canonical scriptures are made to perform. Buddhist sutras, i.e., discourses of the Buddha, function in multiple circumstances to diverse ends, and hence through editing are shorn of all indications of actual performance and immediacy. As texts, they instead index agents, places, and times elsewhere. In medieval China, however, a genre of Buddhist text develops that radically shifts the textual deixis to the here and now, simultaneously maintaining deictic center of the sutras. The liturgical texts under discussion quote and explicate sutras, yet, from the Tang period forward, they increasingly incorporate institial directions for ritual enactment into body of the text. This textual gesture reinscribes performativity into the written word, while at the same time minimizing reliance on external performative contexts for their efficacy. As representations then, these liturgies both describe the ritual events to take place and, through recitation, enact the entire ritual sequence of events exterior to the written word. This deictic collapse maximizes the text’s potency: rituals fail when people fail to perform them correctly, and this inclusion of ritual directions ensures a degree of surety. In this sense then, possession of a baojuan text was thus the possession of an event. The materiality of the text/event enabled greater access to the divine and exemplifies the vernacularization of ritual communication with the divine which occurred during this period.

Textualized Rituals/Ritualized Images: Construction of Meaning at the Border of Canonical Authorities
Benedetta Lomi, University of Virginia, USA

The Japanese esoteric religious pantheon is a wealth of deities parading a complex array of symbols, the interpretation of which has been a primary concern of textual and visual exegesis. Recent trends in Buddhist scholarship have analyzed the role of sacred representations within liturgical practices, trying to establish a pattern in the way images are canonized and ritualized, or how they are used in specific devotional contexts. This has stimulated a shift from the interpretation of images to the questioning of their ontology based on the response of ritual practitioners and worshippers alike. This paper analyzes the ritualistic practice and devotion for the Bodhisattva Batō Kannon in today’s Japan as a case study of how visual interpretations of sacred images have informed their functions above and beyond textual authorities. The development of specific horse-protecting functions, still part of the beliefs surrounding this deity, relates to the visual response to the images of Batō Kannon more than to its “canonical” textual interpretations. In particular, information found in canonical sources has been manipulated and adapted to match the deity’s iconography in response to specific ritual needs. Therefore, through the analysis of the textual and ritual occurrences of a deity, I argue that we need to highlight a distinction between legitimizing strategies and canonizing practices. While canonical texts – and the process of textualization - function as legitimizing tools, it is the ritualization of the image what constitutes the ultimate “canonizing” authority.

Serious Texts in Funny Places: Comic and Other Curious Representations of Prince Shōtoku’s Sangyō-gisho
Mark W. Dennis, Texas Christian University, USA

Japan’s Prince Shōtoku (574-622 CE) is remembered as an adroit politician and Buddhist exegete who composed the Sangyō-gisho—three Buddhist commentaries whose value and canonical status have been the subject of heated scholarly debate. This modern debate, framed as a search for the “true record,” relies on traditional, text-critical methods and assumptions wherein the text is seen as a fixed body of ideas written down in a material form whose authorship and original meaning are the proper subjects of serious scholarship. But this approach has diverted attention from other sorts of issues regarding textual use and value, including how these texts have, as the work of Shōtoku, exceeded their material form. Indeed, it has been their local production rather than content that has been remembered as a significant event not only in ancient rituals, poetry, and artwork, but also in the distinctly modern forms of HTML text, television docudramas, YouTube clips, and comic books. By investigating these ‘mixed,’ non-exegetical media of this textual ‘event,’ I will be able to show their importance for gaining a greater understanding of how Buddhist texts have been used, transmitted, and valued.

Buddhism in “Animated Texts ”: When Projecting Images Functions as a “Textual" and “Scriptural” Practice
Stefania Travagnin, University of Groningen, Netherlands

The field of Buddhist studies has recently embraced a new subject of investigation: the interplay of Buddhism with media and film. Indeed, films on the historical Buddha Sakyamuni have been produced since the beginning of the twentieth-century in several format and for different purposes, and more recently hagiographical portraits of Buddhist monks and nuns, and propaganda of Buddhist institutions via documentaries and TV serials became an already well established genre. The Buddhist communities in contemporary East Asia produced what I have called a “reformation” in textual production, where not just written words or fine arts, but also music, TV drama, documentaries and films could function as ‘texts’, but with the written language replaced by spoken language and visual culture. This paper focuses on those films with Buddhist contents that have been produced in East Asia by local directors, and assesses how those films can function as texts in the Buddhist practice. The argument that a film can function as a text implies the formulation of a new type of textual analysis that can fit the format that a filmic text represents. The second part of this study questions whether, in parallel to the social and ritual process that turns a religious textual narrative into a sacred scripture, a film may function as a scripture as well. I argue that it is not merely the production but especially the reception of these filmed texts to turn them to the status of scriptures, and explain how sacredness and canonicity are endowed.