Ritual and Materiality in Buddhism and Asian Religions International Conference – Conference Report by: Kentaro Ide

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Princeton University “Ritual and Materiality in Buddhism and Asian Religions” Conference

Kentaro Ide
November 3, 2023


From June 13th to 15th, 2023, the international conference entitled “Ritual and Materiality in Buddhism and Asian Religions” convened at Princeton University. This conference was intended to foster work that explores the connections between ritual and different forms of materiality—such as manuscripts, printed liturgies, paintings, icons, statues, talismans, and bodily engagement—in Buddhism and the religions of Asia. Scholars from around the world gathered to share their research on ritual and materiality. Researchers and graduate students from the United States, Europe, and East Asia also participated in this conference to deepen their understanding of the conference’s subject. This conference was made possible thanks to generous support from the Glorisun Global Network for Buddhist Studies, Princeton University’s Center for Culture, Society, and Religion, Humanities Council, Tang Center for East Asian Art, Department of Religion, and East Asian Studies Program.


June 13th

Welcoming Remarks and Keynote Lecture

On June 13th, the conference began with the welcoming statements by the co-organizers Prof. Stephen F. Teiser (Princeton University) and Prof. Shih-shan Susan Huang (Rice University), the conference coordinator Junbin Tan (Princeton University), and the graduate student convener Sinae Kim (Princeton University). Teiser explained that the conference’s theme reflects ongoing interest among scholars in the relevant fields in the relationships between ritual and different forms of materiality. The conference’s goal is, he stressed, to rethink the state of fields in light of the holistic “ritual assemblage” in which objects, language, and human body collaborate to enact ritual performance. Huang stated that study of ritual materiality is by nature interdisciplinary because such subjects as art, religion, and performance constituted an integral part of it. She expressed hope that the conference would encourage scholars to refresh their perspective on multisensorial matrix of ritual, based on which different senses of materiality and ephemerality work together.

The welcoming statements were followed by the keynote lecture by Prof. Shu-fen Liu (Academia Sinica 中央研究院) entitled “The Arhat Cave Belief in Four Stele Inscriptions and the Daitokuji Paintings of Five Hundred Arhats.” In this lecture, Liu examined in great detail visual motifs surrounding arhat worship in the Song dynasty 宋 (960–1279), which are depicted in a set of scroll paintings of five hundred arhats preserved in the Japanese temple Daitokuji 大徳寺. By analyzing the paintings together with textual sources and inscriptions, Liu illustrated how the motifs of caves and rocks, as arhats’ dwelling place, were used for construction of arhat worship. She also stressed that a closer scrutiny of inscriptions and other sources suggests that different forms of worship of arhats and their sacred dwelling coexisted. Some sources tell that arhat caves were naturally formed, while others explain thatarhats dwelled in man-made replica caves. Moreover, the shifts in legends about arhats and their sacred dwellings through the times also entailed the changes in the content and format of the paintings. Liu concluded the lecture by pointing out that, while much research on the Daitokuji paintings has been conducted, more study awaits on questions such as who painted the arhat motifs and gathered them all in the set of paintings.

The subsequent Q&A session was centered around the two issues pertaining to Prof. Liu’s fascinating lecture. First, the audience raised a range of questions on how to interpret the legends of arhats and their dwelling. For instance, a question arose concerning whether Buddhist-Daoist interactions informed the development of visual motifs in arhat worship, given that the elements such as caves, rocks, bamboo forests are also commonly found in the Daoist imaginaire. Conversation also turned to how eminent monks and arhats were categorized and worshiped differently by the practitioners. Second, the participants were interested in the ritualized materiality of the paintings. Some questions focused on formal properties of the paintings. They thus addressed, for example, how different layers—background and characters—in the paintings were created and arranged. The discussion also touched upon the issue of whether the materiality of rocks and stones—which rarely change—could instantiate religious characters of arhats—who were old and unchanging. The welcoming statements and the keynote lecture marked a great start of the conference with a series of inspiring queries.


June 14thPanel One

Panel One was presided by Prof. Anna Shields (Princeton University) and accompanied by Prof. Justin McDaniel’s (University of Pennsylvania) comments.

The discussion in Panel One centered around the fundamental question that would be addressed through the conference: Why do humans perform ritual? After each panelist’s presentation, discussant McDaniel began by arguing that while the panel covered diverse topics in terms of content and time, all papers shared some cohesive themes surrounding the ways in which visuality could tell us about ritual sequence, methods, sources, and purposes of rituals. Moreover, he told, all of them combined the methods in different disciplines—art history, historical anthropology, and textual study to provide a very detailed description of “how,” “when,” and “where” humans produced ritual objects. Trent Walker (Stanford University) analyzed in detail the nineteenth-century Siamese illuminated manuscripts used in healing and funerary rituals. Kate Lingley’s paper (University of Hawai‘i at  ānoa) studied the sixth-century Chinese votive images and monuments commissioned by female patrons. Maya Stiller (University of Kansas) discussed how the Chosŏn period Korean temple mural paintings reflect patrons’ diverse doctrinal interests. And Mengxiao Wang (University of Southern California) addressed the ways in which the seventeenth-century Chinese theater arts incorporated and materialized Buddhist rituals. However, while all these papers beautifully described “how,” “when,” and “where” ritual practice with its own materiality took place, McDaniel insisted, any of these papers did not necessarily deal with the question of “why” humans do ritual. Why do humans spend time, money, mental energy, and resources to perform rituals that do not work in a proven way? He raised this question by referring to Frits Staal’s famous article “The Meaninglessness of Ritual” (1979). Staal argued that in contrast to languages that would undergo tremendous transformation to remain meaningful in accordance with each time, ritual activities such as Vedic mantras have remained changeless. This is because, he told, they are “meaningless.” By drawing on Staal’s insight into the meaninglessness of ritual, McDaniel reflected on the question of “why” humans do ritual in terms of its productive ambiguity. Ritual is meaningless, since it constantly absorbs meaning. Ritual is immutable since it continuously adapts to times. Because of this potency, he argued, ritual has been repeated and resilient overtime. Based on his reflection on such productive ambiguity, McDaniel encouraged all participants to ask the fundamental question of “why” in their own research.

In the subsequent Q&A session too, some important questions that would recur throughout the conference were raised. For example, materialized ritual assumes a certain “format” that frames its modal, sensorial experience. It is thus important to consider what the “format” means in each case study. Panelists also suggested that actual, materialized practice of ritual could not be reduced to what a prescriptive text presents; and there is a potential tension between intellectual system in a given tradition and actual ritual practice.

Panel Two

Panel Two was presided by Prof. Cheng-hua Wang (Princeton University) and accompanied by Prof. Laurel Kendall’s (American Museum of Natural History) comments.

The discussion in Panel Two more closely focused on materialized process of producing ritual and ritual objects. Discussant Kendall first pointed out that each panelist addressed the tension between what is in the prescriptive text and what people actually do with materialized ritual objects. Then, by drawing an analogy between ritual and cooking, Kendall suggested that the concept of “recipe” would be of great help in examining the materiality of ritual beyond this dichotomy. The selection of elements may be fixed in a text or a formula, but actual practice of materialized ritual often requires technique of an experienced practitioner who put them in a flexible way. The concept of “recipe” allows us to understand the variability of ritual practice. While, in producing rituals, people do refer to a prototype, they could choose multiple elements at hand and mix them up within a specific context. Kendall thus emphasized that a closer focus on the materialized practice of ritual leads to rich descriptions of how things are made, how they are activated, and how variations are implicated. For example, in her paper on portrayal of the Qing Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (1711–1799) as an emanation of a cakravartin in the thangkas paintings, Wen-shing Chou (Hunter College & The Graduate Center, CUNY) argued that while the production of innovative thangkas paintings referred to manuals and familiar visual languages, new elements were added in Qing Buddhists’ interactions with the Jesuits. Aleksandra Wenta’s (University of Florence) paper revealed that the range of “magical recipes” used in tantric Buddhist technologies, points to a considerable degree of fluidity and adaptability that characterizes tantric practices spreading across multiple regions.

Kendall further maintained that the study of ritual materials calls attention to ecology of their complex “sense-scape.” From an anthropological viewpoint, she stressed, even while senses do have biological aspect, the ways in which humans carve up a lexicon of sensory experiences are socially determined. Once one goes beyond texts to obtain a comprehensive understanding of materialized ritual practice, one will see that different senses have constituted its integral part. In this panel, Sujung Kim’s (DePauw University) study of “wearable” talismans in premodern Korean Buddhism revealed how haptics played an important role in the practitioner’s claim for the talismans’ efficacy. In her study of the material qualities of chanting the Buddha’s name in the thirteenth-century Japan, Susan Dine (Vanderbilt University) illustrated the ways in which aspirants envisioned the chanted voice as “objects” that were both auditory and visual. Aspirants thus engaged with various perceptive faculties to layer meaning and increase the recitation’s efficacy. Kendall pointed out that in the earlier anthropological literature, ritual was often understood as symbolic system. However, when we engage with ritual at the level of substance, we will see it as something more than such symbolic system. Whether ritual may work or not, she concluded, and how to describe ritual’s own material and sensorial nature are major challenges for scholarship.

In the Q&A session, the panelists and participants mainly discussed how the concept of “efficacy” works in study of ritual. The question also arose as to how the material and sensorial experience of ritual could transform both objects and practitioners into ritual “co-agency.”

Panel Three

Panel Three was presided by Prof. Jonathan Gold (Princeton University) and accompanied by Prof. Justin McDaniel’s comments. The discussion in Panel Three reconsidered scholars’ approach to interactions between humans and non-human objects in materialized ritual practice. Discussant McDaniel introduced two major concepts, “affordance” and “entanglement,” to examine what is at stake in this panel. The conceptof affordance originated in the psychology of visual perception developed by James Gibson. Gibson stressed that while the properties are objective phenomena, they serve as “affordances” only relative to particular observers. For instance, if the surface is raised approximately at the height of the knees of the human biped, then it “affords” sitting-on. Likewise, the chair “invites” humans to sit down. Affordances work in relation to the properties of other perceiving and acting entity. McDaniel argued that while the concept at first glance seems to invite deterministic approaches to describe a world of causes and effects, it does not. He emphasized that ritual objects do not determine human activities but “afford” a possibility of activities in future. Two papers in this panel examined how ritual interactions between humans and non-human objects generated a sense of time. They discussed not only rituals at work but also the periods of “pre-” rituals and “post-” rituals throughout which humans keep interacting with objects. Materialized ritual practice requires much preparation. Chihiro Saka (International Research Center for Japanese Studies) examined how people meticulously prepared silk cloths to be offered to a Japanese Buddhist folk deity. Seunghye Lee’s (Leeum Museum of Art) study of textual relics in Liao China suggested that relics do not just mark memory of the Buddhist teachings; they “afford” ongoing contacts with them from present to future.

Another concept of “entanglement” highlights a state of being essentially dependent on different entities. McDaniel argued that the concept
of entanglement is of great use in reflecting how co-dependencies and interrelations make people change their ways that the nonhuman is acting on
the human and vice versa. In the panel discussion, the discussant and the panelists agreed that this concept is of particular significance for study of
ritual space in which humans and non-human objects arise as an “co-agency.” Keping Wu’s (Duke Kunshan University) paper on worship of deities with no statues in rapidly urbanizing Suzhou discussed how human bodies, physical space, and absent objects interacted to maintain the efficacy of ritual. Jingyu Liu (Wheaton College) explored the configuration of altars in the Water-Land ritual (shuilu fahui 水陸法會) in China to show how a particular entanglement of ritual space, objects, and bodily movement of ritual specialists conditioned this ritual’s later development.

All papers thus revealed that materialized ritual practice grew out of codependent relationship between humans and objects in time and space. In  concluding remarks, McDaniel suggested the possibility that further study of dependent arising of agency will enable scholars of Asian religions to generate a “local theory” of ritual. In the Q&A, the panelists and the audience continued to discuss how each case study contributes to the theorizing of entanglement, dependent origination, and karmic affordances.

Panel Four

Panel Four was chaired by Prof. Bryan Lowe (Princeton University) and accompanied by Prof. Laurel Kendall’s comments. The discussion in Panel Four had two focuses: sensory experience of ritualized matters, and community generated through rituals. First, discussant Kendall praised for the hard work of the panelists who worked to reconstruct a living context for ritual objects. This work of reconstruction is important, she stressed, for any scholar who wants to think beyond the tension between what is in the text and what people actually do with materialized ritual objects. Kendall then stated that multi-sensory experience of matters constituted an integral part of the ritual practices studied by each panelist. Ritual objects should be in motion, for instance, when the practitioners claimed for their efficacy. In Yoonah Hwang’s (University of Southern California) paper on the painted long banners from Mogao Caves, these banners were unfurled so that the practitioners might appreciate a sense of kinetic flapping. Bodily experience of banners being carried too was integral to the description of ritual sequence. In a similar vein, Ching-chih Lin (National Chengchi University) revealed how incense-burning, which entailed experience of smoke and ashes, played a role in the formation of local societies dedicated to the worship of a local deity in Northern Taiwan. The panelists and the discussant agreed that study of ritualized materiality should take into account the instability of matters as well as sensory experience of them. Community materialized through rituals was another focus in the panel discussion. Regarding this point, Kendall first pointed out that more attention should be paid to the economy underlying production of ritualized matters. In the pre-industrial world, for instance, how did people in a ritual community produce dyestuffs? While the practice of burning incense itself has a long history, how has the market of incense changed through the times? Kendall thus encouraged participants to pay closer attention to the very substance of objects. Furthermore, she argued that, in each paper, ritualized objects—such as banners, incense, sands, altars—too arise as actors that, together with human practitioners, formed a community. In his study on Daoist fengdu 酆都 practitioners during the Southern Song 南宋 (1127–1279), David Mozina (independent scholar) employed the “post-humanist” approach to this subject. By describing ritual objects and altars as the actors that would invite human practitioners to feel the bleakness of the unseen demonic realm, he illustrated how ritualized materials gave a sensuous expression to the fengdu community. Caroline Hirasawa’s (Waseda University) paper on mantra and visual representation of its efficacy in medieval Japan demonstrated the network of monks, constituents, mantras, and also objects that participated in the ritualized exchanges.

Overall, the discussion confirmed that once produced and activated, ritual objects could transform both humans and objects into co-agency that establishes and maintains a ritual community or network. In the Q&A session, a question also emerged asking to what extent is the category of “materiality” relevant to papers that focused more on intangible elements like sounds and smells.


June 15th: Panel Five

Panel Five was chaired by Prof. Thomas Conlan (Princeton University) and accompanied by Prof. Justin McDaniel’s comments.

The discussion in Panel Five reconsidered agency of ritualized objects and promising methods to describe it. Discussant McDaniel first urged every participant to reflect on an assumption underlying the study of ritualized objects. Scholars try to pick up fragmented objects from the past, reconstruct their living context, and make them understandable to those living now. He argued that such effort is at least in part human-centric, thus calling for the necessity of examining an assumption that there is a clear distinction between a scholar as an observer, and people, places, and things observed. McDaniel then introduced Alfred Gell’s (1945–1997) concept of “art nexus” as a tool for reflection on the relationship between humans and objects. The “art nexus” represents the network of social relations in which art work are embedded. It considers objects not in terms of their aesthetic value or appreciation in the culture that produced them. Instead, Gell proposed to consider art objects in performative terms as systems of actions. Art objects are thus considered to be the equivalents of persons, more precisely social agents. Gell’s idea of the social networks in which objects exert agency on the various actors clarifies the issues at stake in each paper in this panel. It sheds a better light on a process in which objects have changed their “recipient” overtime, which in turn transformed the meaning of objects.

Youn-mi Kim’s (Ewha Womans University) study of talismans in the Chosŏn period showed how study of simple talismans could open up a vast landscape of practice stretching from medieval Dunhuang to the Chosŏn, and to contemporary Korea. Chuck Wooldridge (Lehman College, CUNY) argued people in contemporary Taiwan saw “maintenance” of temple buildings and icons as equivalent to devotional practice that preserves a relationship to deities. The work on maintenance showed that the recipient not only takes care of objects but also adds new qualities overtime. In her paper on Sanskrit syllables in Japanese Buddhist embroideries, Carolyn Wargula (Bucknell University) argued that Sanskrit syllables often appear on images embroidered with human hair and evoke one’s somatic presence. All these papers suggest that different people through times involved in the social networks surrounding objects. As the way in which people frame the meaning of objects changed, from ritualized matters to past objects to be studied, so did their “recipient” change from the practitioners to curators and scholars. The “recipient” is a part of the material co-agency of object and changed its meaning overtime.

The issue of how to combine different methodologies was another focus in the discussion. David Andolfatto’s (Heidelberg University) paper on Buddhist clay materials in India and Mongolia stressed that the development of archaeological study have illuminated a hitherto understudied aspect of those objects—that they contain human flesh, saliva, feces, and urine. Megan Bryson (University of Tennessee) reconstructed Dali-Kingdom rituals by combining historical methodology and imaginative narrative. By doing so, she tried to “voice” the lost past and restore a sense of temporality embodied by ritualized objects. On one hand, the discussant McDaniel warned that use of narrative raised a question of how one, as a scholar, could be fully responsible to the past to be studied. On the other hand, however, the panelists and the discussant agreed that multi-disciplinary approach to ritualized materials would open the possibility of reconstructing the living context for them.

In the Q&A session, the panelists and the audience had further discussions on promising methods for reconstruction of the past. They showed particular interest in how one could properly adopt different types of account, such as scholarly prose and narrative, to restore the meaning of objects.

Graduate Student Discussion

After all panel sessions ended, graduate student participants had a discussion on what they have learnt from this conference. The discussion covered a wide range of topics relevant to ritual and materiality, but two issues drew particular interest. First, graduate students examined how to address “efficacy” of ritual objects or whether the question of efficacy makes any sense at all. Many papers presented in the conference used the term “efficacy” to discuss how ritualized materials do “work” on those involved. For people living in the modernized world, it is not always obvious whether they could claim efficacy of a certain ritual. While students acknowledged the difficulty in explaining ritual efficacy, they agreed that a closer focus on the material practice of producing ritual objects would enable a contextual approach to the question of efficacy. By studying “who” produced objects and “how,” one could illustrate a fuller context in which people claim for ritual efficacy. Second, graduate students examined the status of theory in the study of materialized ritual. In this conference, discussant McDaniel encouraged scholars to be in dialogue with various theories (such as affordance and nexus) and also to consider how to generate a “local theory” of ritual. Some students were concerned that too much use of theories would undermine the particularity of each ritual experience that has its own modalities. All students, however, appreciated that to have a dialogue with theories allows them to go out of each’s field of study and hence to reflect on such fundamental questions as to why humans perform ritual.

Concluding Discussion

The conference ended with the concluding remarks by the organizers, the keynote speaker, and the discussants. Each speaker commented on the major issues discussed in the conference. Prof. Shu-fen Liu appreciated that each panelist revealed how cultural relics in religious traditions developed differently in diverse regions. Liu also stressed that further study should be done to address “who” participated in material process of producing ritual objects, such craftsmen, painters, and experts. Prof. Laurel Kendall reiterated the metaphor of “recipe” to call for the need to discuss the variability of ritual practice that arises from contact between materials and the practitioners’ hands. Kendall then encouraged the audience to pay closer attention to human and non-human objects’ motion that creates a dynamism of ritual. Prof. Justin McDaniel once again urged each to reflect on the fundamental question of why humans spend money and material resources to create decorations that embellish ritual space. In addressing that question, McDaniel argued that materialized ritual gives a certain form to beings and thus informs the movement or rhythm in which a body travels amidst the world. Prof. Shih-shan Susan Huang showed appreciation towards the conference’s interdisciplinary vibe, which allowed scholars from different disciplines to have productive dialogues. Simultaneously, Huang recognized disciplinary differences in each approach and thus encouraged the participants—especially those taking a text-centered approach—to investigate what visual images tell us about ritual. Finally, Prof. Stephen F. Teiser evoked the need to address the sociopolitical power that ritual and ritualized materials exert. Ritual is not just a pleasant thing to do. Rather, ritual subordinates people, alienates people, and hides actual power relations under the guise of aesthetic unity. Teiser suggested that study of materialized ritual should elucidate such economy of subordination and disempowerment.

The three days conference was quite fruitful in that the participants shared many inspiring questions on the connections between ritual and different forms of materiality in Buddhism and Asian religions. It is hoped that the discussion in this conference will foster the flourishing of further study on this subject.


Author Bio: Kentaro Ide is a Ph.D. student in Department of Religion, Princeton University. He is currently working on the dissertation that investigates the Buddhist thinker Hōnen’s (1133–1212) unique contribution to the medieval Japanese debates over the salvific inclusivity of those deemed to be of lesser religious capacities—‘evildoers’. By integrating into a single narrative the intellectual history of Buddhist doctrines and the social history of aspirants’ lives, the dissertation argues that Hōnen criticized the conventional discourse of salvific inclusivity and, on that basis, conceptualized salvation as transcending the requirements of wisdom and morality.


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