By Nelson Landry
University of Oxford
December 16, 2021
The “Forest of Knowledge about the Texts and Images” conference took place on October 14-16, 2021, under the auspices of the Glorisun Charitable Foundation in collaboration with the FROGBEAR project at the University of British Columbia. The event was co-hosted by Yale University and the University of Zhejiang. It was held in honor of Prof. Koichi Shinohara’s eightieth birthday, marking such a significant milestone in his life with papers and discussions delivered by friends and colleagues on topics close to Prof. Shinohara’s heart. Although the conference could not be done in person, the mood remained light and cheery as over thirty participants, and hundreds of attendees, joined together to celebrate his person as well as his great achievements in the field of Buddhist studies, where his works continue to inspire students, practitioners and academics alike. The conference was so named after Prof. Shinohara’s most recent academic venture, the daunting translation in multiple volumes of a seventh-century Buddhist encyclopedia, the A Forest of Pearls from the Dharma Garden (Fayuan zhulin 法苑珠林), for the Bukkyō Dendōkyōkai (BDK) English Tripiṭaka Series (see volumes 1-3; 2019, 2019, 2020). In his pedagogical career, Prof. Shinohara taught first at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and later at Yale University, where he stayed until his retirement. He has published many works, including a seminal monograph on esoteric Buddhism and visualization practice titled Spells, Images, and Maṇḍalas (Columbia University Press, 2014). During his prodigious career, we have also seen the appearance of countless articles and book chapters on a variety of topics related to Chinese Buddhism, as well as seven volumes which he co-edited with his life-companion, Prof. Phyllis Granoff, such as Monks and Magicians (Mosaic Press, 1988) and Images in Asian Religions (UBC Press, 2004). His work on Chinese Buddhism has left a lasting mark, while the ever-broadening intellectual reach of his collected works has brought innovation to various topics of interest spanning from the socio-economic to the esoteric, from the lives of monastics to the field of material culture, and from the historical to the miraculous.
The first session began with introductory remarks by Vicky Baker, FROGBEAR Project Manager, followed by some laudatory words of welcome by Yale University co-hosts Eric Greene, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, and Valerie Hansen, Stanley Woodward Professor of History, as well as Sun Yinggang, Director of East Asian Religions at Zhejiang University. Chen Jinhua, Professor in East Asian Buddhism at the University of British Columbia, then shared his thoughts before presenting a compilation video to mark Prof. Shinohara’s octogintennial celebrations, as his many friends and colleagues shared personal stories and well wishes.
The keynote speech was delivered by Gregory Schopen (Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles), who covered sources attesting to image procession traditions in early and medieval India as they appear in Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya texts. The prevalence of image procession rituals in East Asia is well known, though until recently the only evidence of such rituals in India and Central Asia was in the accounts of Chinese pilgrim monks like Faxian and Xuanzang. Other Indian Vinaya traditions do not include rules on image procession, which might speak to the currency that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya had when Faxian—and later Xuanzang—visited. Schopen finally noted that in medieval texts, both the canonical Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and in monastic handbooks, there is mention not only of the appeasement function of the image procession, but also the economic aspects of these rituals. These notes on the regulated fund drives before processions provide a rare glimpse into the more mercantile aspects of Indian monastic life that were not made available by the accounts provided by the pilgrim monks.
The second session titled “Cave Practices” was chaired by Prof. and Ven. Sheng Kai (Tsinghua University), accompanied by co-discussants James Robson (Harvard University) and Yi Lidu (Florida State University). The first panelist Eugene Wang (Harvard University) unpacked the concept of “visual narrative” in the context of meditation scenes depicted in Buddhist Yungang 雲岡 cave shrines. He stated how although pictorial and sculptural representations were usually associated with textual narratives, the assemblage of scenes from different texts in these shrines were irreducible to the source texts. Instead, the visual narratives had a logic of their own. Looking specifically at Cave 28, Wang argued that an alternative narrative program, a deep script, presided. He claimed this “deep script” told the story not of the respective source texts, but of the subject for whom the cave paintings were made. The second panelist Wei Zheng (Peking University) elaborated on the importance of the order in which the Yungang caves were chiseled into the mountain side. The earliest were the five Tanyao 曇曜 caves, followed by caves 7-8, then 1-2, then 11-13 and finally 5-6 and 9-10. His contention was that the order in which these caves were constructed was important for they could be associated with the ascension of new emperors. The five Tanyao caves, as well as caves 3 and 5-6 would all be “emperor caves,” while the rest were “satellite caves.” The third panelist Shi Jiangang (Northwestern Polytechnical University) analyzed the content of Song dynasty cave 10 in Mount Zhong 鐘山, Shaanxi, also called the “Hall of the Myriad Bodhisattvas” 萬菩薩堂. In his paper, he analyzed proofs present both in the cave as well as in textual sources that traced the content of cave 10 to the cult of Mañjuśrī on Mount Wutai 五台山. He showed that while this new site of cult to the “Myriad Bodhisattvas” at first drew its authority from its association with Mount Wutai, the Mount Zhong cave shrine, bordering the Western Xia state, became legitimate in its own right by its association with both military and civil rituals in the region. The fourth panelist Yi Lidu (Florida State University) examined the influence of the Sūtra of the Great Divine Spells of Auspiciousness on image-making and liturgical performance in the fifth century Yungang caves. She looked particularly at the content of the second-phase caves, as well as the text and ritual performance. It was noted, among other things, that many of the deities presented in the caves were drawn from the Sūtra—especially the deity Maheśvara, whose representations differed from other earlier depictions that were based on the Scripture on the Divine Spell of the Greatly Auspicious Meaning (Da jiyi jing 大吉義神咒經).
The third session titled “Esoteric Buddhism I” was chaired by Ben Brose (University of Michigan), accompanied by the discussant Robert Sharf (University of California, Berkeley). The first panelist Wang Jinping (National University of Singapore) studied the development of Zunsheng dhāraṇī tombs in Shanxi from the Tang to the Yuan dynasty. Of interest here was the discernible move away from local production of scriptural dhāraṇī texts to sūtra inscription upon tomb pillars in the region. These steles, with their evocations of the Zunsheng Dhāraṇī Sūtra, were believed—like the Sūtra itself—to be miraculous objects of great supernormal efficacy. Wang concluded by noting that the production of pillars overtook the scriptural forms of the Sūtra. As a result, these pillars came to represent an increasingly popular means of kinship record in the region. The second panelist Albert Welter (University of Arizona) spoke of the influence of Wuyue Buddhist culture on Chinese Buddhism. He looked specifically at the works of the longest reigning king of the southern Wuyue state, King Qianchu (r. 947-978), considering his role in print culture as exemplified by print projects related to the Dhāraṇī Sūtra translated by Amoghavajra (705-774), as well as his role in perpetuating the cult to Aśokan religious objects. Finally, Welter covered the overall influence of so-called esoteric Wuyue Buddhism. He looked at Wuyue’s place in Chinese Buddhist history, particularly how King Qian Chu 錢俶 (929-988), with his effective means of material distribution in the form of print and religious object replication, might have influenced Chinese Buddhism. The third panelist George Keyworth (University of Saskatchewan) offered a revised study of esoteric books and images preserved in Japanese Shingon medieval libraries. The esoteric texts were painstakingly copied by the “authentic hand” (jihitsu 自筆) of teachers, so that they came to function both as texts and images. Keyworth questioned the strategies of legitimation of these copyist monks, looking especially at the manuscripts and prints from Negoro-ji 根來寺. He noted how these teachers emphasized that copying these texts and images not only preserved but kept alive the late Tang teachings archived in their libraries. The fourth panelist Jacqueline Stone (Princeton University) looked at how Nichiren’s 日蓮 (1222-1282) “great mandala” (daimandara) embodied the dual aspects of image and text. As an image it represented the cosmos, while its use of Chinese graphs marked its association with the Lotus Sūtra tradition. Stone placed Nichiren’s calligraphic mandala into the broader medieval Japanese discourse about the Lotus Sūtra as well as Tendai readings of it. Stone noted how Nichiren navigated this rhetoric to bolster the dual aspects of the mandala. Therefore, the “great mandala” was an interesting example not only of how a text can become a potent religious object, but also how the content of such a text is not always forfeit the moment it becomes a cult object.
The fourth session titled “Inter-faiths” was chaired by Youn-mi Kim (Ehwa Womans University), accompanied by co-discussants Susan Andrews (Mount Allison University) and Chen Zhiyuan (Chinese Academy of Social Science). The first panelist Yan Yaozhong (Beijing Normal University) looked at the evolution of conceptions of the “Great spirit of the five directions” 五道大神. Yan argues against the popular view in Chinese academia that this figure was a late addition to Buddhism and Daoism, originating instead in indigenous ideas of the general of the five directions 五道將軍 associated in traditional Chinese culture with calamities and destruction. In fact, the Great Spirit would have originally been an Indian deity belonging to the Brahmanic tradition, and it was later incorporated into the Buddhist cosmos. It was in Central Asia along the Silk Road that the Great Spirit was included in the Buddhist netherworld. Yan argued that in China the Great Spirit had great currency, and it was only during the Song dynasty that he left center stage to make room for Yama, King of Hell. The second presentation was given by Michael Nylan (University of California, Berkeley) and Thomas Hahn (University of California, Berkeley) who spoke of the cult to the Great Yu 大禹 in Kuaiji 會稽 in present-day Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang. In Nylan’s talk, centering around the first century CE, she asked how the Kuaiji region—which had historically been the land of rebellious barbarians—became a center for classical learning in China. She looked, among other things, at the popularity of this region during the Eastern Han, as well as the works of the great classicist and promoter of Kuaiji, Wang Chong 王充 (27-97). She read in Wang Chong’s Lunheng 論衡 that by the first century Kuaiji was no longer considered part of the wild south, but was instead perceived as a beautiful and cultivated place. Interestingly, new classicists in the region also established a strong cult to the Great Yu, the primary culture hero associated with this region. Hahn then cast this same cult into the modern era, studying the contemporary presence of Yu in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, and in contemporary Chinese discourse. Quoting the speeches of Zhou Enlai 周恩來 (1898-1976), Hahn noted how Yu the Great is invoked in the name of science as the “nation’s premier hydrologist.” Yu in the modern era is therefore cast in economic and political terms as a heraldic figure calling for progress and development. The third panelist Liu Yi (Capital Normal University) revisited the old debate in Chinese Buddhist studies regarding the introduction of Buddhist images to the court of the Eastern Han which, supposedly, worshipped an image of both Laozi and Buddha. Liu pointed out that consensus claims that the earliest Indian images date back to the late first century CE, not the first century BCE and certainly not the time of Emperor Ming of the Han (r. 57-75 CE). The earliest extant Chinese example, the image carved from a money tree in Fengdu 豐都, Sichuan, seems to cast further doubts about these Eastern Han “Buddhist images.” Liu concluded after quoting the archeological evidence that the early images were most likely not Buddhist. The fourth panelist James Robson (Harvard University) presented recent research based on texts discovered in Chinese deity images in Hunan. Robson paid particular attention to the god of boatmen, Yangsi jiangjun 楊四將軍. Interestingly, the documents contained within these images—usually deities related to different Chinese guilds—contained their names as well as information on them. Robson noted that this information was crucial for very little is known about the religious nature of guilds in China. As was the case with European guilds, the relations between members mentioned in the preserved image documents show that guild members spoke of one another in terms reminiscent of monastic lineage structures, showing the extent religious discourse permeated the culture of the guilds. The fifth panelist Chen Huaiyu (Arizona State University) analyzed medieval Chinese Buddhist and Daoist stone lanterns. Traditionally, these played an important role in religious life, and their inscriptions have relatively set literary structures. These lanterns were also used in the struggle for patronage between Buddhists and Daoists, as both traditions sought to gain favor by completing lanterns to honor their gods, produce merit, reach soteriological goals, as well as serve the needs of their practitioners. Chen notes that this competitive aspect of the stone lanterns, many of which are still extant today, make them excellent material in the study of Medieval Chinese cultural history. The fifth panelist Sun Yinggang (Zhejiang University) spoke of the ongoing debate regarding the identity of one figure in a Gandharan relief image in China of a Śākya prince, with some identifying him as Māra, Indra, and Vaiśravaṇa. Sun claimed that this figure was the Great Spirit of the Five Directions, also known as Benshi 賁識. A similar martial figure holding a bow appears in Turfan as well as on a Northern dynasty image. Benshi was, moreover, a popular cult figure during the Tang and the Song. Sun showed that this figure was probably a yakṣa named Pāñcika.
The fifth session titled “Printing and Map” was chaired by Eric Greene (Yale University), accompanied by the discussant Tong Ling (Nanjing University). The first panelist Guo Lei (Dongguk University) presented on the dissemination of the Vimalakīrti Sūtra in Korea. Looking at the different versions of Ming Tongrun’s 明通潤 commentary of the Sūtra, Guo studied production culture in nineteenth century Korea. Among other things, Guo noted that most of the engraving was made by householders, while engravings of Buddhist texts and images were traditionally the purview of monastics. The second panelist Wu Xiaojie (Shanghai Normal University) presented on prints and images of the Shiwang jing 十王經 and the Shousheng jing 壽生經 found at Songgwang Temple 松廣寺 and Jeungsim Temple 證心寺 as particular examples of Korean wood block printing culture. Wu first described the material and then spoke of Shou Shengqian’s 受生錢 means of production, a man whose methods were well received in Korea. This constituted one of many instances of cultural exchange between China and Korea. The third panelist Hu Xiaozhong (Shandong University) studied a Jin dynasty Buddhist map on Lingyan Monastery in Shandong. This map, the Lingyan si tianyuan jie zhitu 靈巖寺田園界至圖, was an early example of map making in China. In an effort to leave a lasting depiction of the monastery, its blueprint was chiseled on a large stele, accompanied by explanatory descriptions. Hu noted that as a historical document, as well as a proselytizing tool, this image has lasting worth. The fourth panelist Susan Andrews (Mount Allison University) wrote about religious life at Mount Wutai using textual evidence provided by the Ancient Chronicle of Mount Clear and Cool (Gu Qingliang zhuan 古清涼傳). Andrews noted that in the last chapter of this two-folio work, mention of images, monastics and Mañjuśrī are conspicuous by their absence. This, Andrews claimed, is meaningful and hoped to draw from this final chapter some information on religious life at Mount Wutai and in the surrounding area. The fifth panelist Alexander Hsu (University of Notre Dame) delved into the fifth chapter of Daoshi’s Forest of Pearls. Hsu looked specifically at this chapter’s interest in compiling the different accounts regarding the preservation of the dharma, noting that Daoshi breaks from tradition by adding an additional account drawn from his colleague Daoxuan’s revelatory interview with deities. This revelation stated that many scriptures were written in many languages, they were kept and guarded in the heavens by different celestial beings. This categorical inclusion spoke to the prevalent feeling among Daoshi and his contemporaries that their knowledge regarding the transmission of the Dharma was limited and that new narratives had to be considered to marry the many varied texts in China from uncertain sources.
The sixth session titled “Cross-border Transmission” was chaired by Yin Shoufu (University of British Columbia), accompanied by co-discussants Max Deeg (Cardiff University) and Fan Jingjing (Peking University). The first panelist Robert Brown (University of California, Los Angeles) presented on the Indian icons that Xuanzang brought back to China. Although Xuanzang’s travels to the west were framed in the popular imaginaire as a quest for original Buddhist scriptures, he also had a real interest in bringing back Buddhist cult objects. However, Brown noted that Xuanzang mentioned only seven Buddha icons in his inventory, and even among the seven there were discrepancies in the descriptions depending on the source. Ultimately, the problem seemed to lay not so much in the discrepancies themselves which probably did not particularly matter to other interested parties at the time, but in the very modern methodologies used to interpret these differences. From an art history perspective, there are discrepancies that need to be explained so the objects can be called “art,” while in reality these details are secondary at best. The second panelist James Benn (McMaster University) analyzed the East Asian Buddhist attitude towards foreign and non-Buddhist practitioner in India. Benn delved into the apocryphal Lengyan Sūtra 楞嚴經 and its descriptions of demonic states attained in meditative trances—misperceptions that the Sūtra associated with states attained in non-Buddhist Indian schools. The presence of these heterodox teachings seemed to indicate a certain anxiety regarding the validity of indigenous Chinese practice. The Lengyan Sūtra conveniently offered assistance against these lurking non-Buddhist specters in the form of Lengyan defense spells and practice. The third panelist Minku Kim (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) investigated the floating stone image of the Buddha Vipaśyin recorded during the Southern Dynasties period. This image, which appeared in the Forest of Pearls, might have a replica existing to this day at the Shaoxing Museum. Kim questioned whether this image was a forgery, while also introducing the audience to the growing field of “metal and stone study.” The fourth panelist Chen Jinhua (University of British Columbia) spoke of the transmission of a famous image of the Buddha out of Mahabodhi Temple in India. Chen noted that this image was seen by many pilgrim monks, and the famous emissary Wang Xuance 王玄策 (fl. 643-61) famously replicated it and brought it back to the Tang court. Evidence would suggest that this same image was later replicated again, and may have gone as far west as Dunhuang and as far east as Japan. The fifth panelist Li Wei (He’nan University) analyzed the sinicisation of depictions and textual description of self-sacrifice, paying particular attention to such images on Aśokan pagodas. Li took two Jātaka tales as his anchors, the first about the “Swift-eyed King” sacrificing his eyes, and the second about a man feeding a tigress and her cubs with his own body. The images would have been used in visualization practices by monks who would look at these stories represented in cave grottoes where they would do their practice. Kim stated that looking at the relation between such stories and medieval Chinese practices would yield some very interesting information on religious life at the time.
The seventh session titled “Sacred Biography” was chaired by Sun Yinggang (Zhejiang University) accompanied by the discussant Chen Huaiyu (Arizona State University). The first panelist Max Deeg (Cardiff University) studied an alternative biography of the Buddha in the Fo benxing ji jing 佛本行集經. He noted that although it was the first Chinese biography of the Buddha translated into English, the text itself has been used, for the most part, uncritically. Deeg looked at different features of this originally Chinese text which is without an Indic counterpart, drawing out information on its northwestern origins and its value in interpreting Buddhist narrative art. The second panelist Fan Jingjing (Peking University) surveyed textual and iconographic representation of the Great Renunciation and asked the question: “Why did the Buddha renounce the world?” Fan cobbled together the different excerpts on the Buddha’s life spread across the textual traditions of the different sects as well as representational depictions of his renunciation. The final product showed the extent to which ideas and stories were shared across sectarian traditions, even though discrepancies still abounded. The third panelist Liu Xuejun (Jiangsu Second Normal University) drew a parallel between literary “concluding remarks” 論贊 found in the early Buddhist biography genre and panegyrics inscribed on monk portraits. The “concluding remarks” were usually associated to Chinese historical writing, but Liu drew other interesting parallels with both the tradition of celebrating monks through portraiture and other artistic means of representation, as well as to Indian Buddhist panegyrics. The fourth panelist Chen Lang (University of Michigan) examined the construction of the Tiantai lineage in later imperial China by comparing the later Tiantai chunfo xinyin 天台傳佛心印 to the Fozu tongji 佛祖統紀. The differences between these two representative texts show a shifting Tiantai historical narrative, one that was distinguishing itself from the past while simultaneously retaining its grasp on it. The fifth panelist Feng Guodong (Zhejiang University) wrote about the transmission of a story related to the fifth Chan patriarch, Hongren 弘忍 (602-675). The tale recounted how in a past life Hongren was a tree planter who in his old age encountered the fourth Chan patriarch. This encounter, and the prophecy that ensued, became an important narrative in Chan discourse and was represented in both text and image countless times. In his presentation, Feng analyzed the development of this story, and traced its influence across image and text.
The eighth session titled “Daoxuan’s Worlds: Factual and Imaginary” was chaired by Alex Kaloyanides (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), accompanied by the discussant George Keyworth (University of Saskatchewan). The first panelist Tong Ling (Nanjing University) presented on the scholar-monk Daoxuan and his evocation of Sui dynasty Buddhism in his late compilation of miracle tales, the Ji Shenzhou sanbao gantong lu 集神州三寶感通錄. Daoxuan lived at a time when Buddhism’s future was uncertain, as the Tang emperors flitted back and forth from support for to enmity against the faith. Tong noted that Daoxuan’s emphasis on Sui Buddhist revivalism, his sympathetic accounts of the successes of both emperors Wen and Yang of the Sui, as well as the erasure of Tang dynasty anti-Buddhist decrees from his history, were in fact informed by his desire to garner the support of the ruling classes. The second panelist Ho Puay-peng (National University of Singapore) elaborated on two monastic diagrams, the Guangzhong chuanli jietan tujing 關中創立戒壇圖經 and the Wushan shisha tu 五山十剎圖. Ho asked why these diagrams were believed to be more effective means of transmitting the true architectural form of these monasteries. As well as how these were received in different cultural contexts. Ultimately, Ho concluded that these images were, perhaps most importantly, depictions of the path of practice, illustrating cultivation methods for the monastics that inhabited these monasteries. The third panelist Chen Zhiyuan (Chinese Academy of Social Science) picked apart the complicated history of two very similar texts in the Taisho canon, the records of Daoxuan’s interviews with deities in both T1898 and T2107. Chen noted that in past decades a version of T2107 was discovered at Nanzenji 南禪寺 in Kyoto, providing new insights on the nature of these two texts. He noted that this was a work that Daoxuan began very late in life and that it was most likely a collaborative effort completed with the help of Daoshi and Yancong. The fourth panelist Nelson Landry (University of Oxford) presented on Daoxuan’s relation to cult objects, paying particular attention to the scholar-monk’s compilation of miracle tales T2106. Landry noted that many records provide information on Daoxuan’s own personal experience of the miraculous, be they visions of images shapeshifting, or witnessing light emanations from sacred pagodas. Moreover, Daoxuan was a prominent figure in the Tang capital who played a central role in the Buddhist imperial cult. In fact, the records of miracle tales attest to the fact that Daoxuan may well have been in personal contact with one of the holiest Tang Buddhist relics, the Famen Monastery 法門寺 finger bone of the Buddha. In the wider context, observations about Daoxuan’s experience of the miraculous are also relevant when speaking of the Chinese Buddhist medieval worldview.
The ninth and final session titled “Esoteric Buddhism II” was chaired by Hao Chunwen (Capital Normal University), accompanied by the discussant Eugene Wang (Harvard University). The first panelists Wei Xiaomei and Yao Qilin (both of Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings) studied early Tang texts and representations of the thousand-armed Guanyin 千手觀音. Traditionally, depictions of thousand-armed Guanyin were believed to be inspired by descriptions in scriptures. However, in a survey of the relevant texts as well as the Dingzhou 定州 white stone Buddhist images, Wei and Yao showed that Sui-Tang representations also inspired later textual depictions of Guanyin. The second panelist Youn-mi Kim (Ehwa Womans University) presented on talismans known as “Talismans of the Pure Land in the Next Life.” Talismans are particularly interesting for they are religious objects occupying an ambiguous place between text and image. Kim also traced the development of these talismans from premodern East Asia to modern Korean society. These talismans harkened back to the “seals of spirit feet” found in Dunhuang, with heritage carried through the Koryŏ into the Chosŏn periods in Korea. These talismans ultimately transcended spatial, religious and cultural boundaries, making them excellent objects of study for those with an interest in religious life and the transmission of popular practice. The final panelist Joseph P. Elacqua (Leiden University) took the Womb Realm (Taizōkai) mandala 胎蔵界曼荼羅 as the launching pad for his discussion, paying particular attention to the Sheda yigui 攝大儀軌, the Taizō zuzō 胎蔵圖像, and the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. These were all associated to the monk Śubhakarasiṃha who, inspired by Womb Realm works, manufactured a whole new pantheon of esoteric deities with associated spells, images and places in the mandala. This work complemented Prof. Shinohara’s work on esoteric Buddhism, and Elacqua concluded by tying the three above works to the larger Chinese esoteric and Japanese Shingon context.
The conference concluded with words of praise for Prof. Shinohara as organizers and hosts delivered their closing remarks. It is worth noting that the papers presented during this three-day conference will be published as a multi-volume compilation of essays on the topic of texts and images in Asia. Finally, in the spirit of this conference, I would like to personally wish Prof. Shinohara many happy returns, ‘may you live to be one hundred years old’ (changming baisui 長命百歲)!