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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.1 (2023): 1–54;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature)

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Parasutraic Narratives and Cultic Repertoire: The Plurality of Afterlife Abode in the Tang Lotus Sūtra Cult

Chiew Hui HO 何秋輝
The University of Sydney

Abstract: Until recently, the role and significance played by parasutraic narratives in the formation and maintenance of scriptural cults have largely been overlooked. These narratives offer valuable insights into the cultic repertoire, the set of defining elements that distinguish one scriptural cult from another. One element that characterises the Lotus Sūtra cult is the trope of devotees attaining rebirth in various afterlife abodes, as depicted in the narratives. While the idea of rebirth in Tuṣita, Trāyastriṃśa, and the Western Pure Land could be found in the Lotus Sūtra, the association between the scripture and these realms as afterlife abode is almost indiscernible in pre-Tang monastic biographical collections, such as the Gaoseng zhuan and Biqiuni zhuan. By the early Tang, the association is noticeable, as evidenced in the early Tang biographical collection, Xu Gaoseng zhuan. The biographies of the Tiantai patriarchs, known for their esteem of the Lotus Sūtra, are the most critical for examining the trope of afterlife abodes. The ambivalence surrounding their afterlife destinations, accentuated by intriguing details about their deaths in their biographies, could have highlighted the various afterlife abodes open to Lotus Sūtra practitioners, which the cult adapted to accommodate a growing and diverse community of followers.

Keywords: parasutraic narratives, miracle tales, medieval Chinese Buddhism, Tang China, afterlife, sūtra cult, cultic repertoire


About the Author: Chiew Hui Ho is Senior Lecturer in East Asian Buddhism at the University of Sydney. He specialises in Chinese Buddhism with a focus on Buddhism in Medieval China. His area of research is the sociocultural history of Buddhism in China, especially how Buddhism was lived and practised on the ground by the laity. His first book, Diamond Sutra Narratives: Textual Production and Lay Religiosity in Medieval China, examines the role of the laity in shaping the Tang Diamond Sūtra cult by studying a substantial body of narratives extolling the sūtra in the Tang dynasty (618–907). Deeply interested in the interaction between storytelling, textual production, ritual, and material culture, he continues to study medieval Chinese Buddhist narratives related to different systems of scriptural devotion. He has published on various topics, including Buddhist philosophy, the relationship between iconography and ritual, and narratives of the Lotus Sūtra. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Buddhist Studies) from Stanford University.


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