Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia

Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia

Edited by Juliane Schober
Copyright Date: 1997
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    Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia
    Book Description:

    This collection of previously unpublished essays presents a broad range of explorations into the biographical genre of the Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Each contribution examines sacred biography in one or more representational modalities in the texts, art history, literature, myths, rituals and cultures of the Buddhist tradition.

    Scholars in the history of religions, anthropology, literature and art history present a broad range of explorations into sacred biography as an interpretive genre. The essays investigate both universal and local articulations of Buddhist sacred biography, illustrating the construction of interpretive frames of reference that map salient themes onto diverse contexts.

    The combination of thematic depth and theoretical sophistication inSacred Biographymakes this volume innovative reading for all scholars with comparative interests.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6421-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Trajectories in Buddhist Sacred Biography
    (pp. 1-16)
    Juliane Schober

    Sacred biographies inspire imagination, belief, and practice in many religious traditions. The popular penchant for the life stories of religious figures persists without concern for the historicity accorded to the times, places, and facts of individual lives they recount. Stories about the lives of saints and founders of religious traditions cast into relief precisely those acts and episodes that evoke salient themes throughout the broader religious tradition. They provide a narrative explication of abstract religious concepts and, at the same time, become the fabric for speculations about pervasive religious concerns. In diverse ways, this accounts for the continuity of biographic...

  5. Part 1 Buddha Biography in Textual and Visual Narratives
    • [Part 1 Introduction]
      (pp. 17-18)

      Reynolds, Woodward, and Brown present a common focus on classical articulations of the Buddha biography in the textual and visual renditions of the Buddhist tradition and civilization. By focusing on the central role of the Buddha’s own biography, this section begins the discourse at a juncture where previous studies and conventional understandings of the life of the Buddha meet innovative interpretations of the processes by which the Buddha biography becomes universalized across the tradition.

      Reynolds’ discussion of mythology in the Buddha’s biography leads him to identify lineages that link the Buddha to his karmic past, to other Buddhas of the...

    • Rebirth Traditions and the Lineages of Gotama: A Study in Theravāda Buddhology
      (pp. 19-39)
      Frank E. Reynolds

      Buddhism, particularly in its Theravāda form, has often been presented as a religion in which mythology plays an insignificant role. The central Theravāda doctrines that affirm codependent origination as the basis for the coming-into-existence of worldly phenomena, the law ofkarmicreward and retribution as the regulating principle that determines the destinies of sentient beings, and the ineffability of the soteriological goal have all—so the argument goes—relegated mythic modes of expression to a secondary level.

      This argument has a certain plausibility since the character of Theravāda teachings has, in fact, inhibited the development of certain kinds of mythology...

    • The Biographical Imperative in Theravāda Buddhism
      (pp. 40-63)
      Mark R. Woodward

      The textual corpus of Theravāda Buddhism includes a rich and diverse body of sacred biography. While questions concerning the “historical Buddha” have figured most prominently in Western scholarship, there are numerous texts recounting the former lives of the Buddha Gotama [theJātaka, Nidānakathā(ND), and the laterPaññasa-Jātaka(PJ)], those of previous Buddhas [theMahāpadāna Sutta, Buddhavaosa(BU),Cariyāpitaka(Cyp), andJinakalamālipakaranam(JM)], and Bodhisattva who will attain Buddhahood in the future [Dasabodhisattuppattikatha(DB)]. There are also accounts of the lives of great disciples,arhat(P. enlightened disciples) [Thera/Therīgāthā(TT)], the inhabitants of the heavens [Vimanavatthu(Vv)], and even hungry...

    • Narrative as Icon: The Jātaka Stories in Ancient Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture
      (pp. 64-110)
      Robert L. Brown

      Thejātakasare stories, often very good ones, filled with what makes stories interesting (action, intrigue, romance, love, death, the marvelous) and constructed around plots that have the twists and turns and unexpected events to keep the listener or reader fascinated. Each deals with a past life of the Buddha by narrating various individuals’ actions described in a chronological sequence. The listener or reader mentioned just above implies a spoken, or possibly a written, text. But thejātakaswere frequently represented visually in the art of India and Southeast Asia, and placed within architectural contexts. It is some of these...

  6. Part 2 Extensions of the Buddha Biography in Texts
    • A Family Quest: The Buddha, Yaśodharā, and Rāhula in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya
      (pp. 113-128)
      John S. Strong

      Almost every introductory textbook on Buddhism recounts, in one fashion or another, the touching Theravāda tale of the Buddha’s farewell to his sleeping wife and his newborn son on the night of his Great Departure. Disgusted by the sight of the drooling denuded damsels of his harem, Gotama resolves to leave, but on his way out, he pauses at his bedroom door: “At that moment a lamp, fed with sweet-smelling oil, was burning dimly in the inner chamber. The mother of Rāhula was asleep on a bed strewn with many jasmine flowers, and resting her hand on the head of...

    • Nāgārjuna’s Longevity
      (pp. 129-159)
      Reginald A. Ray

      The Buddhist master Nāgārjuna (second–third century)¹ is one of the greatest and most celebrated of all Indian Buddhist saints. He is identified as the founder of the Madhyamaka school, author of numerous important texts, guru of a number of important figures, and even, in some accounts, the first propounder of Mahāyāna Buddhism itself.² Yet in spite of his important and well-documented presence within Indian Buddhism, Max Walleser, Jan Yün-hua, and other scholars who have taken up “the problem of Nāgārjuna” agree that he remains an enigmatic figure, described in a hagiography that is rampant with difficulties.³ Prominent among perplexing...

    • Stūpa, Story, and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Aśokan India
      (pp. 160-192)
      Jonathan S. Walters

      In “The Many Lives of Buddha: A Study of Sacred Biography and Theravāda Tradition,” Frank Reynolds sketched out a dynamic conception of the Buddha biography in which Buddhist life stories are viewed, not as comparatively accurate or inaccurate reflections of the events in “the historical Buddha’s” life, but as a locus for creativity and change within the streams of Buddhist history.¹ In this essay I want to develop Reynolds’ view that Buddhist biographies both reflected and shaped the historical situations in which they were composed, by examining a set of three biographical texts in Pāli verse that were produced in...

  7. Part 3 The Jātakas and Biographies of Kings
    • [Part 3 Introduction]
      (pp. 193-194)

      Among more than five hundred stories of the Buddha’s former lives, known as thejātakatales, several identify the future Buddha as a king. The history of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia, where such stories are widely known, provides ample examples of royal rulers who self-consciously sought to emulate in their own lives the ideal of future Buddhahood. Cultural representations of the future Buddha as king and of the king as a future Buddha are therefore common themes in the sacred biography of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

      McGill’s essay presents a discussion of a set of paintings depicting the Buddha...

    • Color plates
      (pp. None)
    • Painting the “Great Life”
      (pp. 195-217)
      Forrest McGill

      The “Great Life,” orVessantara Jātaka, and the other stories of the Buddha’s last ten lives have for centuries been among the most important texts for Southeast Asian Buddhists. The stories provide not only the amusements of well-told tales, but also moral instruction, as their protagonists have come to be seen as exemplars of Buddhism’s Ten Perfections of patience, wisdom, giving, and so on.¹

      Four paintings now in the Phoenix Art Museum illustrate four of the key episodes of theVessantara Jātaka(plates 1–4). Almost uniquely among published paintings they bear donative inscriptions. These inscriptions name the persons who...

    • From Prose to Poetry: The Literary Development of Samuttakote
      (pp. 218-231)
      Thomas John Hudak

      While the Indic stories of the Buddha’s former lives (jātaka) are some of the most important literary forms to have come out of India, thePanyatsajātaka, a group of tales that do not appear in the original Pāli canon, are an even more influential set of Buddhist birth-tales in Southeast Asia. Literary tradition holds that these fifty tales were composed in Pāli in Chiengmai by monks sometime between 1457 and 1657, although a more recent study places their composition as early as 1265 in Hariphunchay.¹ Regardless of their date of composition, these tales have been major sources of inspiration in...

    • “Rationality” in the Biography of a Buddhist King: Mongkut, King of Siam (r. 1851–1868)
      (pp. 232-256)
      Paul Christopher Johnson

      A close examination of the biographical representation of King Mongkut of Siam over the last century provides one way of beginning to fill in the gap between indigenous and Western ideas of sacred biography. Mongkut provides a unique figure in this regard because he himself balanced precariously between Siamese expectations of kingship and Western ideals of the scientific, diplomatic, and commercial leader. Mongkut was extraordinary in that he was able to fuse at least two notions of the political “ideal man”: the Western ideal of “progress” with the Theravāda Buddhist values of lineage and merit. As a result, both Western...

  8. Part 4 The Biographical Genre in Local Buddhist Cults and Practice
    • In the Presence of the Buddha: Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahāmuni Image
      (pp. 259-288)
      Juliane Schober

      In his discussions of cosmogony and the regeneration of time, Mircea Eliade¹ has called attention to the pervasive tendency across religious traditions to define the present in terms of a pristine past. Eliade’s observation has been borne out in studies of Theravāda Buddhism, many of which have focused, in some measure, on the tendency in this tradition to interpret the present in terms of ideal constructs of a “pristine” past. For example, much attention—among scholars and within the tradition itself—has been paid to the continual purification of the teachings (dhamma) and monkhood (sangha), two of the Three Refuges...

    • The Textualization of a Monastic Tradition: Forest Monks, Lineage, and the Biographical Process in Thailand
      (pp. 289-309)
      James L. Taylor

      This essay examines the prolific life accounts of the ethnic Lao Buddhist “saints” (arhat) in Thailand since the beginning of the 1970s. Significant biographies in this tradition centered around the lineage of a widely acclaimed religious virtuoso of modern times, Ajaan¹ Man Phuurithatto (1870–1949).² Many of Man’s early wandering ascetic disciples spent most of their lives on the fringe of the nation-state, and they eventually became famous after they settled and were integrated into the tightly regulated religious establishment.

      In the course of anthropological fieldwork, informants in isolated northeastern Thai villages would relate tales of wandering eremites who founded...

    • The Biography of Modern Burmese Buddhist Meditation Master U Ba Khin: Life before the Cradle and past the Grave
      (pp. 310-344)
      Gustaaf Houtman

      With the rise of individualism during the early eighteenth century, writers became more interested in the uniqueness of persons and biography came to signify the story of the life of an individual human being.¹ Biography has a long history going back at least as far as the Egyptian tomb stones and early oral history. Yet biography also has a short history in that it has been subject to relatively recent trends. Kindall found that the word biography was first employed in the seventeenth century to mean a literary tradition used “to create a separate identity for this type of writing.”²...

  9. Index
    (pp. 345-364)
  10. About the Contributors
    (pp. 365-366)