2016-2017 Lecture Series Events
Buddhist Stairways to Heaven
Abstract: Buddha’s stairway to heaven traced a route most Buddhists aspired to follow. Pāli suttas and abhidharma offer ascent to radiant, pure, blissful lands ideal for enlightenment, through devotion, “a single mind of faith to the marrow of one’s bones,” and deathbed aspiration practices. Contrary to established opinion, “pure land” is a term of Indian origin developed from earlier “pure abodes.” Kumārajīva used “jing tu” to translate literal Sanskrit equivalents. The central concern of early Buddhists for heavenly rebirth set a strong Indian precedent for East Asian Pure Land. This complex of ideas and practices is crucial for understanding Mahāyāna Buddhology and the role of deities in ancient texts and modern Buddhist practice.
The All-Encompassing Lamp of Awareness: A forgotten treasure of the Great Perfection, its authorship and historical significance
Abstract: In 2001 an unusually fine Tibetan manuscript dating to about the 13th century appeared in the catalogue of a London dealer of antique books. The text found there, The All-Encompassing Lamp of Awareness, like the author to whom it is attributed, Shākya Rdo-rje, seemed otherwise unknown, though a copy of the same work was found in recent editions of the Rnying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa from Kaḥ thog monastery in Khams. In the present talk, we shall examine the probable authorship of the work and the contribution it offers to our understanding of the development of the Rnying ma pa Rdzogs chen tradition.
The Buddha and the Dragon Princess in the Lotus Sutra — for deciphering the Devadatta frontispiece in the Heike Nokyo set
The Heike Nokyo is a sumptuously produced set of Buddhist scriptural handscrolls that was commissioned by the Heike military aristocratic clan and offered to the Goddess of Itsukushima, the clan’s tutelary divinity, in the mid-twelfth century. The set is arguably the most sublime example of illustrated and decorated Buddhist scriptures in Japanese history. The Heike Nokyo includes twenty-eight scrolls of the Lotus Sutra each of which is decked with a beautiful multicolor frontispiece that captures central motifs of the sutra’s each chapter. Among them the “Dragon Princess” frontispiece of the Devadatta chapter scroll (Chapter Twelve) that depicts the Dragon Princess’s proffering her legendary jewel to Shakyamuni Buddha is particularly renowned for its splendor. However, unlike other sutra illustrations from the same period, the Dragon Princess here does not transform herself into a male figure, nor does she fly away to a buddha land in the south in order to be reborn there as a male Buddha. Furthermore, in contradistinction to the depiction in that chapter of the sutra in which the Buddha receives her jewel on Eagle Peak, in the Heike Nokyo frontispiece the Buddha sits on a heavenly pure land; and Dragon Princess stands effortlessly on ocean waves. No previous scholarship succeeded in deciphering this frontispiece as a narrative painting. I argue that the Dragon Princess frontispiece represents an unusual effort by erudite Heike court ladies who grounded themselves on the authentic Sui and Tang Chinese doctrinal commentaries in order to reject the popular yet vulgar gender-biased interpretation of the Dragon Princess episode -- that is, she had to change her sex before she was able to attain enlightenment. The frontispiece aims at establishing a superior interpretation of the princess’s episode in the Lotus Sutra that positively illustrates female Buddhist practitioners’ agency in both attaining their own enlightenment and providing salvation to other beings, both male and female.
The Indian Yogācāra Scholar Sthiramati and the Works Attributed to Him
Abstract: This paper focuses on the scriptural corpus of Sthiramati, a pivotal
scholar in the development of Indian Yogācāra thought in the 6th
century. So far Sthiramati’s work has received far less attention from
modern scholars than the treatises of other Yogācāra authors like
Asaṅga or Vasubandhu—probably because of the perception of Sthiramati
as a commentator and not as an original author and thinker in his own
right. However, as I have tried to show in a recently published paper,
commentators like Sthiramati have shaped the doctrinal development of
the Yogācāra tradition by introducing new concepts and reorganizing
previous teachings to a similar extent as “independent” authors like
Vasubandhu. In the first part I will give an overview of the works
ascribed to Sthiramati and question their authorship. The second part
of the paper will be mainly devoted to my editorial work on the
Sanskrit manuscripts of Sthiramati’s commentaries made available at
the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, namely the
Pañcaskandhakavibhāṣā and the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya Tattvārthā.
Crossing the Dharmascape: Mindfulness and Insight Practice in Burma and America
Abstract: In this talk, I analyze and compare divergent approaches to mindfulness (sati) in the work of contemporary Burmese monastic figures who have profoundly influenced conceptualizations of insight practice (vipassanā) in the U.S. (especially, Ledi Sayadaw, Mahāsi Sayadaw, Pa Auk Sayadaw, and Sayadaw U Tejaniya). By doing so, my goal is to explore how their teachings about mindfulness (and their receptions) reshape insight practice and senses of its purposes (as a therapeutic tool, as a means to escape from saṃsāra, as a secular versus religious resource, etc.). As we will see, neither forms of practice nor the worldviews that those forms entail and affect change seamlessly. Rather, arguments by these monks about mindfulness and the requisites of insight practice frequently diverge and even conflict. Such frictions produced by the movements of ideas and people across the complex landscape of dharma teachings that includes Burma and the U.S.—what I am calling the “dharmascape”—will be seen to reformulate the possibilities of practice.
The Poetry Demon: Tensions within Chinese Buddhist Monks’ Literature
Abstract: Buddhist monks in Song dynasty China were visited by a literary impulse that interrupted religious activities and ritual. This unwelcome muse was sometimes referred to as the demon of poetry. In this talk, I explore some lesser-known intersections of Chinese poetry and the Buddhist path. I read monks’ verse together with prescriptive texts that restricted literary activity, including legal codes, primers, and hagiography. I hypothesize that at the heart of monastic verse culture was the negotiation of competing commitments to Buddhist monasticism and to literary expression.
***THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELLED***
The Inescapability of Narrative in Philosophy — A Buddhist Perspective
Abstract: It is well known that narrative can be a powerful means for conveying philosophical truths, and some have even argued that there are certain kinds of truths that can only be conveyed through narrative. This paper does not dispute that claim, but it makes a different argument. Starting with an understanding of narrativity drawn from the work of Gerald Prince, and moving to a Buddhist-inspired understanding of philosophy as the production of a particular series of mental events, the paper seeks to demonstrate that even the most recondite, abstract philosophy is always already narrative in nature. The implications of this inescapability of narrative include that even the most systematic of philosophical arguments nevertheless can be seen as a series of contingent events that emerge through the ongoing interaction of conceptual, discursive, and material transactions productive of both reality and truth. While such “narratives” may not rival their more riveting counterparts—i.e., actual stories—in terms of drama, they still function as narratives by affectively impinging on audiences in ways that leave those audiences fundamentally changed.
Sara McClintock (PhD in Religion, Harvard, 2002) is Associate Professor of Religion at Emory University where she teaches courses in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist narrative traditions, Indian philosophy, and interpretation theories in the study of religion. She is the author of Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason: Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla on Rationality, Argumentation, and Religious Authority (2010), an exploration at the intersection of religion, philosophy, and rhetoric in the writings of two eighth-century Indian Buddhist philosophers. She is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled Transactional Reality, Transactional Truth, on Indian Buddhist epistemological theories of the production of both truth and reality through the interaction of conceptual, discursive, and material processes.
How to access a native speaker’s reading of Medieval Chinese: Tibetan translations of Chinese from Dunhuang
Abstract: Among the materials preserved in Dunhuang are several Tibetan translations of scriptures made not from Sanskrit Indian sources but from Chinese. Among other things, these precious materials allow us access to contemporary educated readings of Chinese sources. This presentation introduces these materials and explores some aspects of their value.
Jonathan Silk studied East Asian Studies at the Oberlin College in Ohio and subsequently Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan. At the latter university he obtained his PhD in 1994 with the thesis: The Origins and Early History of the Mahāratnakūţa Tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism, With a Study of the Ratnarāśisūtra and Related Materials. During his studies, Silk spent several years in Japan. After his PhD, he became Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Grinnell College in Iowa and in 1995 at the Department of Comparative Religion of the Western Michigan University. From 1998 until 2002 he taught in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, and from 2002 in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Since 2007 he has been Professor in the study of Buddhism at Leiden. In 2010 he was awarded a VICI grant from the NWO (Dutch National Science Foundation) for project: “Buddhism and Social Justice.” In 2016 he was elected as a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen [KNAW]). Currently, Silk is Professor of Buddhist Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies.
"Just singing:" Kōshiki in Contemporary Sōtō Zen
Abstract: In the late tenth century, Japanese clerics started to develop a liturgy in the vernacular language. Probably the most important liturgical genre that was developed during that time was kōshiki 講式. This genre became very popular, and over the centuries more than 400 kōshiki for various objects of veneration, such as buddhas, bodhisattavas, kami, or eminent monks, were composed.
While most scholars have focused on kōshiki in premodern Japan, this paper will explore kōshiki in contemporary Sōtō Zen and thus demonstrate its continuing vitality. First, I will examine the performance practice of kōshiki, focusing especially on the musical realization of the liturgical texts. Then, I will analyze how novice monks learn to perform kōshiki, and finally, I will examine how monks interpret the performance of kōshiki as part of their Zen practice. In this way, I aim to shed light on an overlooked facet of Zen Buddhism and integrate the musical side of ritual practices into scholarly analysis in order to contribute to a better understanding of Buddhism as a lived religion.
Michaela Mross is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. She specializes in Japanese Buddhism, with a particular emphasis on Sōtō Zen, Buddhist rituals, sacred music, as well as manuscript and print culture in premodern Japan. She has written numerous articles on kōshiki 講式 (Buddhist ceremonials) and co-edited a special issue of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies on kōshiki. Currently, she is finishing a book manuscript on the development of kōshiki in the Sōtō school.