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Material objects and Spirituality. Human’s search for spirituality or spiritual development through religions ties closely to material objects Often found in rituals Material objects associated with Buddhism proliferated in the course of Chinese dynastic history.

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Material objects and Spirituality

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Material objects and Spirituality

  • Human’s search for spirituality or spiritual development through religions ties closely to material objects

    • Often found in rituals

  • Material objects associated with Buddhism proliferated in the course of Chinese dynastic history


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  • The numerous Buddhism-related material objects produced in Chinaalsobespeak the sinification of Buddhism

  • There is, however, an inherent paradox in the use of materials objects when one practices Buddhism

A golden Casket used to store sarira, 1043, the Song Dynasty


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The Paradox of Renunciation

  • “Renunciation” is a fundamental element of Buddhism, the beginning of the path

    • Renunciation of the world of sensory desire

    • Renunciation of the world of material things

    • Enter the order, living in a life of simplicity in a monastery

    • All dharmas are empty; all realities are illusions

Asoka’s Stupa, Five Dynasty


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  • But a monastery cannot sustain itself without the support of lay persons

    • Monastery solicits funds for its basic infrastructure and for making images and devotional objects

  • The result:

    • “Renunciation of material things” goes hand in hand with “promotion of the use of material things”

    • Illusions and realities emerge

    • Simplicity is compromised for complexity


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Material Aspects of Buddhism

  • A wide array of material objects exist in Chinese Buddhism

  • These objects range from the Buddha’s relics to things that may have only tenuous connection with Buddhism


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  • Objects inherited with sacred power and imbued with symbolism are most reverenced

    • Relics

    • Icons

    • Monastic uniforms, including robes and accessories

    • Tools for living, traveling and other activities

      • Ring-staff, rosary, ruyi sceptor etc.


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Three types of relics

  • Bodily relics (of the Buddha)

    • Bone

    • Hair

    • Teeth

    • Flesh

  • Contact relics

    • Everything the Buddha had touched

      • Things he had used, placed he had lived and preached etc.

  • Reminder relics

    • scriptures

    • images


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Relics in Buddhist Culture

  • The Buddha’s relics

    • Legends say that the Buddha’s relics were divided into eight equal parts and distributed among eight regions wherestupas were built to house them

    • King Asoka collected all the relics and redistributed among 84,000 stupas all over the world

    • The cult of relics is as old as Buddhism itself


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The Veneration of relics

  • Reasons for the veneration:

    • The presence of sacred power in relics

      • Capable of answering prayers to heal illness or to bring children to the barren

  • Functions and outcomes of the Veneration of relics

    • A distinguishing feature of Buddhism and a useful medium for proselytizing

    • accounted for the success of Buddhism

    • Worship of relics brought merit to the devotee, assuring a better rebirth


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Indian Relics Introduced to China

  • Legends tell that relics appeared in China in the third century

    • Story-tellers said that relics appeared in a vase due to monk’s ability to “produce” or “summon” them.

    • Some Chinese rulers tried to destroy them, only to help reaffirm their numinous power

  • The thirst for relics, among other things, prompted Chinese monks to make pilgrimage to India

    • Chinese pilgrims often claimed that they saw the Buddha’s relics or brought back some of them

    • Faxian (5th century) and Xuanzang (7th century) were two examples

      • Faxian saw the skull bone of the Buddha


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Chinese Rulers Venerated Relics

  • Emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty ordered the distribution of relics throughout the empire

  • Emperors of the Tang paid reverence to relics of the Buddha housed in monasteries

    • A tooth relic

    • A finger-bone relic

  • The finger-bone relic remains in the Dharma-Gate Monastery in China today.


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Indigenous Relics

  • While relics of the Buddha continued to be worshiped, relics of eminent Chinese monks emerged as respectable sacred objects.

  • These relics were remains of monks’ cremated bodies:

    • Teeth, bits of bone, flesh

  • They possess magical properties:

    • They may emit light

    • When burned, they leave behind hard relic grains

    • Capable of producing miracles (curative properties)


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  • Other forms of relics:

    • Mummified corpses of eminent monks covered with lacquered cloth and stored in big urns

    • Gilded mummy


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Icons in Chinese Buddhism

  • Icons: Images and statues of buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats,…

  • Who made icons?

    • Sculptors, painters, metal workers, embroiderers, potters,….


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  • Early Buddhism was aniconic; Icons were not objects of worship, but became a significant part of Buddhism when it was spread to China

    • Early Chinese called Buddhism “Teaching of the Icons” (xiangjiao)

    • The Chinese continued to celebrate and worship Images of buddhas, bodhisattvas…throughout history


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Image-Making

  • Buddhist Images were considered sources of sacred power

  • Image-making was perceived as creation of Buddhist art

    • It tied disparate social groups, from nobles to commoners, to the same rope.

    • It inspired and facilitated material culture

    • It gave the faithful opportunities to enter the presence of a buddha or bodhisattva, “taking refuge in the one of the three jewels.”


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  • Images are made from clay, stone, wood, bronze, gold

  • Yielded different arts: sculptures, paintings, cave reliefs, murals

  • Developed independently from the art of literati

One of thousands of stone sculpture in the Longmen Caves near Luoyang, Henan Province (Northern Wei, 492 AD)


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Social Functions of Images

  • Images, once made, appeared everywhere, used by people from all walks of life, and became an integral part of the devotional life of all Buddhists.

  • Images were objects of worship, repositories of powers capable of rewarding the pious and punishing the disrespectful

Guanyin (Song Dynasty)


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  • Often used inrituals (such as confession rituals)

  • Contemplation exercise (as objects of visualization)

  • Image decoration

  • Objects of prayers for pregnancy, cure from sickness, success in an examination or business venture, general well-being

Bodhidharma


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Rituals Connected to Images

  • Confession ritual:

    • Monks/nuns confess their faults before an image of the Buddha

  • Visualization ritual:

    • Monks/nuns attain a state of samadhi


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  • Rituals bringing life to images

    • Ceremony called “open the vision” (kaiguang or dotting the eyes) took place when a new image [of the Buddha or bodhisattva] was almost completed.

    • This is said to bring life and power to the image

  • Images given life include “ash icons”

Clam-dwelling Guanyin


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The Proliferation of Images

  • Massive image-making resulted in the proliferation of images

    • Artisans created a wide variety of forms of buddhas and bodhisattvas

    • Most basic form: a buddha/bodhisattva faces a devotee/viewer, gazing at one who pays obeisance to Him/Her.


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  • Popular perception of images

    • Body of the law: dharmakaya

    • Living entities with distinct personalities rather than emanations of the transcendent Buddhist images described in scriptures

  • Literary representation of images

    • Compassionate but can be deceptive, violent, and vengeful

Clam-dwelling Amitabha


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Iconoclasm and Iconophobia

  • Skepticism and hostility toward the Buddhist icon occurred alongside the tradition of image reverence

    • Anti-Buddhism: Suppression of Buddhism entailed the burning and destruction of Buddhist images, showing a contempt for the Buddhism and a rejection of the “divine power” of Buddhist images


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  • The falsity of image: Chan monks in late Tang and Song times refuted the veneration of image as part of their emphasis on the limitations of languages, images…

    • Some went so far as to burn images of the Buddha: Danxia Tianran of the Tang (see p.76)

    • The destruction of images is a metaphor for the destruction of delusion


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Confucian Iconoclasts

  • Opposed the practice of representing Confucius and his disciples with statues/images in Confucian shrines

    • Recognized that the practice was the result of Buddhist influence

    • Confucian objections were translated into action: images were destroyed or removed from Confucian shrines


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