2022 PTBS Lecture Series

Our Spring 2022 Lecture Series highlighted a diverse spectrum of topics related to Buddhism.

March 10: Nan Ouyang (UGent) “Constructing the Divine Abode of Dizang Bodhisattva: Mt. Jiuhua in Late Imperial China”


This talk focuses on the historical transformation of Mt. Jiuhua from a local mountain to a national pilgrimage destination and the ways in which Mt. Jiuhua became the divine abode of Dizang Bodhisattva (Skt. Kṣitigarbha), a savior of the underworld beings in Chinese Buddhism, in the late imperial period (14th–20th centuries). This study explains the making of the sacred mountain by analyzing four salient features of local Jiuhua Buddhism. First, it deals with the cult of mummified bodies by looking into local mortuary practices. Jiuhua Buddhists, choosing not to follow the monastic rules concerning cremation, opted to create a successful tradition of mummy-making for the deceased Buddhists. The continuing emergence of new mummies shaped the perceived sacred atmosphere of Mt. Jiuhua. Second, by analyzing relevant precious scrolls (baojuan), it reveals how vernacular literature functioned as a medium for the localization of Dizang. The performance based on such literature that was carried out at Buddhist events was the key to the further dissemination of the image of Mt. Jiuhua as a sacred mountain. Third, it explores the devotionalpractices of the eminent Buddhist master Ouyi Zhixu (1599–1655) on Mt. Jiuhua during his sojourn, and how the highly charged religious atmosphere of Mt. Jiuhua facilitates Zhixu’s devotion to Dizang. Fourth, it argues that the sacredness of the mountain was constructed and negotiated through pilgrimage practices, evidenced by many material objects used in pilgrimage. In summary, in explicating the uniqueness of Jiuhua Buddhism, this study adopts an interdisciplinary approach that bridges religion and geography and contributes to the study of sacred space in Chinese religion. By challenging the artificial dichotomy between “institutional” and “popular” religion and using understudied local materials, this study provides a different evaluation of the vitality of Ming-Qing Buddhism by focusing on religious practices.

March 17: William Bodiford (UCLA) “Our Dogen: His Birth, Lives, and Afterlives”

Dōgen (1200–1253), a Japanese Buddhist monk, walks amongst us, not just as a citizen of the world or as a Buddhist, but now celebrated as a timeless thinker, philosopher, and literary poet. Thanks to the gift of translation, his words provide people around the world with insights into their own selves, into Asian thought, and into Japanese culture. This remarkably versatile Dōgen first appeared about ninety years ago. My presentation will revisit the circumstances of his birth, trace his transformations and development across multiple fields of thought and literary genres, and conclude with a few reflections on what his multiple lives can tell us about ourselves.

March 24: Lindsey DeWitt Prat (UGent) “The Dharma of Japanese Sumo: Religion, Tradition, and the Female Taboo”

Few icons of Japanese culture are more widely recognized than the sumo wrestler. He sports a loin cloth and a slicked back topknot. His hulking body is aimed to engage. And the sumo wrestler is always a man, in the popular imagination at least. The Japan Sumo Association, a quasi-governmental corporation, champions itself as the custodian of a divine affair cultivated by male deities and mortal men, and exclusive of women. Juxtaposing modern and contemporary sumo literature with historical documents and present-day practices, Dr. DeWitt Prat will peer behind the icon to show how the fantasies surrounding sumo obscure the richness and diversity of its cultural history, a history that includes women.

March 31: Berthe Jansen (Leipzig & Leiden) “What is Buddhist About Law? A View from Early Modern Tibet”

While, within Buddhist Studies, there has been considerable disagreement on the relationship between Buddhism and law, it has been a vastly understudied subject that has fortunately received more academic attention in the past decade. Scholars in the past have equated Buddhist ethics or philosophy with Buddhism tout court. TW Rhys Davids, for example, once remarked that “in the strict sense of the word there is no Buddhist law; there is only an influence exercised by Buddhist ethics on changes that have taken place in customs” (1914: 827). On the other extreme, Rebecca French has positioned for the case of Tibet that “[m]ind training and inner morality are also at the center of the legal system for Tibetan Buddhists” (French 1998: 519) and that “[a]ll laws were understood as religious” (1995: 345). Contemporary scholars of Buddhism and law such as Lammerts and Schonthal attempt to find middle ground, in which Buddhist practice (ie, what Buddhists do), as evidenced either by texts or human conduct, takes center stage. In this talk, I will present a view from early modern Tibet on the complex question of how Buddhism and law intertwine. Using examples from prescriptive legal texts and descriptive legal cases, I will demonstrate in this talk how this entwinement was thought of by Tibetan Buddhists and how this played out in society.

April 21: Charles DiSimone (UGent) “Putting Together a Puzzle Without All the Pieces: Reading Damaged Buddhist Manuscripts”

In the modern world we live in one is presented with a seemingly incalculable number of books to choose from, each and every one a perfect product of precise publication parameters printed on pristine pages. For scholars it is as simple as plucking a well-edited tome off a library shelf or, even easier, pressing one’s finger over a ‘download’ virtual button to have primary source material in its original language or even a well-thought (and sometimes not so well thought) translation. These beautiful editions and translations and the studies that result from them are the products of the gritty work of scholars puzzling over various manuscript materials. This talk is designed as a sort of ‘how it’s made’ instruction and will outline the process of the philological and textual study of Buddhist manuscripts from broken artefacts in the ground to critical editions. Recent manuscript discoveries in Greater Gandhāra will serve as focus point around which the talk will revolve.

April 28: Amy Langenberg (Eckerd College) & Ann Gleig (University of Central Florida) “Did the Buddha Teach Consent?: Buddhist Ethics After Sexual Abuse in Contemporary North American Communities”

Since the 1980s, North American Buddhist communities have been the site of recurring sexual misconduct and abuse allegations. While efforts to bring about justice have been hampered by denial and deflection from teachers, community leaders, and board members, a number of grassroot initiatives have responded more effectively to abuse. Drawing on ethnographic research in multiple North American and transnational Buddhist communities, we identify an emerging Buddhist sexual ethics in these grassroots justice efforts. We will focus, in particular, on three significant responses to abuse: transparency and accountability, sexual consent, and a survivor-centered orientation. We will map each onto classical Buddhist sexual ethics, illuminating areas of disjunction and overlap. Taking our cue from survivor-center advocacy, we argue that, although a Buddhist sexual ethics is locatable in textual traditions or lineage-based teachings, only critical constructive approaches make classical Buddhist sexual ethics useful for just responses to abuse.

May 5: Naomi Appleton (Edinburgh) & Chris Jones (Cambridge) “Three Paths, Two Buddhas and One Vehicle: Disentangling Indian Buddhist Literature”

In the famous Lotus Sūtra parable of the burning house, the father promises his three sons three types of vehicle with which they can play, in order to get them to leave the building. When they get outside, their gifts are identical. As any student of Buddhism knows, the three vehicles represent the three ways to reach liberation in early Buddhism: the bodhisattva path leading to full and perfect buddhahood; the path of the śrāvaka or “hearer”, leading to arhatship; and the vehicle that leads to becoming a pratyekabuddha, an independent or solitary buddha. The one vehicle is, of course, the Mahāyāna or “Great Vehicle”. This parable paints a simple picture of the three vehicles of mainstream Buddhism being supplanted by the all-encompassing Mahāyāna, and this has been much repeated in scholarly literature. This paper, which emerges from a collaborative project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, offers a more complicated assessment of early Buddhist accounts of paths, vehicles and buddhas, with a focus on Indian narrative literature on both sides of the Mahāyāna divide. Was the idea of three paths or vehicles really taken for granted in non-Mahāyāna contexts? And how do Mahāyāna sources make sense of these categories of liberation as they seek to offer new perspectives? By exploring a range of narrative literature that engages these debates, we shed new light on ideas about buddhahood, and on the role of these ideas in the distinction between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna thought.

May 12: Eric Greene (Yale University) “Did Early Chinese Buddhists Understand their Scriptures? – What the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Commentaries Show Us”

In the grand narratives of the transmission of Buddhism to China, only beginning in the early fifth century did Indian Buddhist literature come to be translated into Chinese in a manner both accurate and comprehensible. Though “accurate” is arguably a normative assessment that we might question, there can be no doubt that many pre-fifth-century Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts are very difficult to understand and that later Chinese Buddhists on the whole rarely read, studied, or commented on them. As scholars have in recent years analyzed in more detail the texts attributed to key early translators such as Dharmarakṣa 竺法護, Zhi Qian 支謙, and An Shigao 安世高, we have learned much more about the how these early translations worked. Yet while it is now often possible for us, armed with our knowledge of parallel Indic texts, to see how these early translations were intended to work, it is much harder to know how or whether Chinese readers would have made sense of them. In this paper, I will examine whether early Chinese Buddhists were able to understand their scriptures by looking at the very few cases where we have access to (1) a difficult-understand early Chinese translation, (2) a parallel Indic text that allows us to be nearly certain how the translation was intended to work, and (3) an early Chinese commentary that allows us to see how the passages were understood. Such commentaries once existed for a fair number of pre-Kumārajīva Chinese Buddhist scriptures, though only a few survive within the Chinese Buddhist canon. In recent years, a number of new (albeit fragmentary) commentaries to pre-fifth-century translations have come to light from the Dunhuang and Turfan manuscripts. Drawing from these examples, in this talk I will discuss some cases where early Chinese commentaries evidently preserved accurate knowledge of the original Indian texts that had not been included in the translations proper or which had in the translations been rendered in an impossible to understand form. Here, in short, we have evidence for a living interpretive community, presumably one originating in the original translation event itself, that at least sometimes provided a scaffolding that would have made even impossible-to-understand Chinese translations comprehensible.


These lecture series were generously sponsored by the Tianzhu Foundation.