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,
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
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