Head, Eyes, Flesh, Blood

Head, Eyes, Flesh, Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature

Reiko Ohnuma
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 392
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    Head, Eyes, Flesh, Blood
    Book Description:

    Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood is the first comprehensive study of a central narrative theme in premodern South Asian Buddhist literature: the Buddha's bodily self-sacrifice during his previous lives as a bodhisattva. Conducting close readings of stories from Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan literature written between the third century B.C.E. and the late medieval period, Reiko Ohnuma argues that this theme has had a major impact on the development of Buddhist philosophy and culture.

    Whether he takes the form of king, prince, ascetic, elephant, hare, serpent, or god, the bodhisattva repeatedly gives his body or parts of his flesh to others. He leaps into fires, drowns himself in the ocean, rips out his tusks, gouges out his eyes, and lets mosquitoes drink from his blood, always out of selflessness and compassion and to achieve the highest state of Buddhahood.

    Ohnuma places these stories into a discrete subgenre of South Asian Buddhist literature and approaches them like case studies, analyzing their plots, characterizations, and rhetoric. She then relates the theme of the Buddha's bodily self-sacrifice to major conceptual discourses in the history of Buddhism and South Asian religions, such as the categories of the gift, the body (both ordinary and extraordinary), kingship, sacrifice, ritual offering, and death.

    Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood reveals a very sophisticated and influential perception of the body in South Asian Buddhist literature and highlights the way in which these stories have provided an important cultural resource for Buddhists. Combined with her rich and careful translations of classic texts, Ohnuma introduces a whole new understanding of a vital concept in Buddhists studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51028-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xx)
    (pp. 1-25)

    In 399 c.e. a Chinese Buddhist monk by the name of Faxian set out from his home in Chang’an to undertake a fourteen-year pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land of India. After following a path westward across the length of China, he eventually worked his way south via the Karakorum trail and entered the northwestern portion of the Indian subcontinent, in the regions of Uḍḍiyāna and Gandhāra (in what is currently northern Pakistan).

    At the time of Faxian’s visit, Buddhism in this region (under the Later Kuṣāṇas and Śakas) was flourishing, and in addition to the many large monasteries and...

    (pp. 26-51)

    In the twenty-second chapter of the Divyāvadāna we find a long and elaborate rendition of the story of King Candraprabha, who gave away his head to an evil and greedy brahmin. The story opens with a description of King Candraprabha’s magnanimous generosity and the beneficial effects it has on his kingdom. King Candraprabha is described as “a giver of everything, a renouncer of everything, one who gave without attachment and engaged in great generosity.”¹ He gives away so many material gifts that everyone in Jambudvīpa’s 68,000 cities becomes exceedingly wealthy. No one goes around on foot anymore; instead, they ride...

    (pp. 52-89)

    In chapter 1 I argued that gift-of-the-body jātakas can be usefully treated as a discrete subgenre of “super-jātakas” within the larger generic context provided by jātakas and avadānas as a whole—even though the stories I place in this category are widely divergent in terms of language, style, dating, and historical context. The purpose of this and the following chapter, therefore, will be to demonstrate in a more concrete manner that gift-of-the-body jātakas constitute a separate and identifiable grouping of texts marked by consistent features and conventions that make it meaningful to speak of them as a subgenre. Gift-of-the-body jātakas,...

    (pp. 90-139)

    As we saw in the previous chapter, gift-of-the-body jātakas show significant variations in plotline, with each conventional plotline emphasizing different themes and allowing different concerns to be brought to the fore. Nevertheless, the unity of the genre is ensured by the fact that all such tales share in common the central theme of the bodhisattva’s gift of his body and the rhetoric surrounding this gift. Whether or not the gift is completed, whether or not the bodhisattva dies in the process, and regardless of who the recipient is, certain aspects of the rhetoric or argumentation remain the same: the bodhisattva...

  11. IV DĀNA: The Buddhist Discourse on Giving
    (pp. 140-166)

    Now that I have subjected the gift-of-the-body genre to a careful analysis in terms of its “conventions of plot” and “conventions of rhetoric,” in this and the following chapters I turn away from a strictly genre-focused approach in order to look more broadly at some of the major conceptual issues that come to the fore within gift-of-the-body tales. Taking a cue from the phrase “gift of the body” itself, chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to the “gift” aspect of these tales, while chapter 6 is devoted to the “body” aspect. I turn now to the subject of the gift....

    (pp. 167-198)

    How does the bodhisattva’s gift of his body relate to the larger discourse on dāna I enumerated in chapter 4? In the following discussion I shall be pursuing a double argument: On the one hand, the bodhisattva’s gift of his body represents one of the highest ideals of giving to be found in the Buddhist tradition and is commonly depicted and classified as an ideal and nonreciprocal gift—in other words, a gift that falls somewhere below the heavy black line in table 3 of the previous chapter. On the other hand, however, gift-of-the-body jātakas, through a variety of different...

    (pp. 199-241)

    I turn, in this final chapter on the gift-of-the-body genre, from the “gift” aspect of these tales to their “body” aspect. For despite the bodhisattva’s apparent willingness to throw his “worthless” body away, and despite the opinion expressed by J. H. Bateson (in the quote given above¹) that there is little more to say about the matter, gift-of-the-body stories do, in fact, have much to say about the body—about the ordinary body, about the ideal body, and about the ways in which one is transformed into the other. Such stories give voice, in fact, to a rich and complex...

  14. VII KINGSHIP, SACRIFICE, OFFERING, AND DEATH: Some Other Interpretive Contexts
    (pp. 242-265)

    In this final chapter I move beyond both the “gift” aspect and the “body” aspect of the gift-of-the-body theme to consider a number of other interpretive contexts that might be brought to bear on this discussion—contexts I have not been able to deal with in the remainder of the book, but wish to discuss at least briefly before I conclude. These discussions revolve around the topics of kingship, sacrifice, offering, and death: Why is the bodhisattva within gift-of-the-body jātakas so frequently a king, and what do these stories have to tell us about kingship and its legitimation? How is...

    (pp. 266-272)

    Throughout this book I have focused upon the plotlines, characters, rhetorical strategies, and religious conceptions characteristic of a particular genre of stories involving the bodhisattva’s gift of his body. Though many different points have been treated and discussed, several of them converge around a single, consistent, underlying dialectic. By way of summarizing my discussion and highlighting this dialectic, let me return to an idea that I presented in chapter I and that has served as a leitmotif throughout the remainder of this book.

    In chapter 1 I made a wide-ranging distinction between the “ethos of the jātaka” and the “ethos...

    (pp. 273-284)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 285-336)
    (pp. 337-358)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 359-372)