A Forest of Knowledge – Conference Report by Nate Lovdahl

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A Forest of Knowledge about the Texts and Images regarding Buddhist Saints, Sages, Translators, and Encyclopedists: Conference Report

By Nate Lovdahl
Yale University
December 17, 2021

If Buddhist Studies is itself a forest of knowledge, Koichi Shinohara has proved himself one of its most adept guides. Over his fifty-plus year career, Shinohara’s research has aided scholars across Buddhist Studies (to say nothing of those other forests—Asian Studies or Religious Studies, for example—into which his work has tangled), and he has mentored many students, graduate and undergraduate. Anyone who has read his research knows that Koichi Shinohara is an erudite, careful scholar; to anyone who has spoken with his students and close colleagues, it is apparent, even secondhand, that he is also a deeply caring person. It is clear that his friendship has produced traces as indelible as those he has left through his work. It should come as little surprise, then, that many of the scholars who have benefitted from Shinohara’s guidance would join together to celebrate his career and to present papers in honor of his eightieth birthday.

Between 14 and 16 October 2021, the University of British Columbia, together with co-hosts Yale University and Zhejiang University, held a conference entitled, “A Forest of Knowledge about the Texts and Images regarding Buddhist Saints, Sages, Translators, and Encyclopedists: A Conference in Honour of Prof. Koichi Shinohara’s (1941-) 80th Birthday.” This event was sponsored by the Glorisun Global Network for Buddhist Studies, with administrative support from the FROGBEAR project. Owing to lingering COVID-related challenges, the sponsor and co-hosts opted to hold the event via Zoom. Although there were, as there always are with online conferences, occasional technological difficulties, the event was overwhelming successful, and thanks must be offered to Vicky Baker and Carol Lee for their efforts in ensuring that. Moving the event online allowed for greater international participation, and it also allowed non-panelists, such as myself, to attend with ease.

Each of the three days of the conference consisted in three individual panels. At the beginning of each, the panel’s chair made some brief opening remarks before turning things over to the discussant(s), who offered comments on pre-circulated papers and video presentations. Afterward, each panelist responded to the discussant(s)’ comments and questions. Put differently, the conference itself was not an opportunity to present papers in a live setting so much as it was a conversation among participants already familiar with those papers.[1] Although it led to occasional difficulties, the organizers opted for the best conference format available to them. Given the geographic spread of the panelists, to say nothing of the sheer number of papers under discussion, a more “standard” conference model with live presentations and multiple rounds of feedback would have been a near impossibility. By focusing instead on reader responses and the conversations arising from them, the organizers pruned the conference, allowing the most fruitful components to remain at the fore.

Given the enormity of the event, with its nine separate panels spread across three days, I will focus on the thematic elements that appeared across the conference and, more particularly, those that bound the papers in each respective panel. Although the conference organizers assembled the papers in each panel on the basis of general shared themes, I am more interested in how the primary discussant(s) of these panels led conversations along particular paths, using theoretical or intellectual concerns of their own as guideposts. In so doing, the discussants dug up the deeper roots that connected the papers both to each other, as well as to the sorts of questions Shinohara has examined throughout his own career. These deeper connections, and the conversations concerning them, were often much more interesting than the more surface-level themes that had originally bound each panel.

The conference opened with some brief remarks from the various co-hosts of the event and from several of Shinohara’s close colleagues. Following these welcoming notes, attendees joined Shinohara in watching a touching series of videos from an array of scholars, each of whom expressed their tremendous gratitude for his years of support and camaraderie. Professor Emeritus Gregory Schopen (University of California, Los Angeles) closed the panel with a keynote speech, “Image Processions and Monastic Fund Drives in Early and Medieval India.”

In his paper, Schopen explored our developing knowledge of the history of ritualized Buddhist image processions in particular Indian Buddhist contexts. He began by explaining that we have derived much of our understanding of these processions from Chinese sources, including accounts from figures such as Faxian 法顯 (337–c. 422) and Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664). Schopen subsequently highlighted various Mūlasarvāstivādin sources that demonstrate the far older history of these same image processions in India. Using examples from vinaya texts and handbooks for the monastic community, Schopen explained that nuns and monks often undertook these image processions during festivals as one means of raising funds. After addressing the historical facts, Schopen closed with some thoughts concerning how emic and etic perspectives have inevitably shifted understandings of such image processions throughout history. Schopen noted how the Mūlasarvāstivādin sources (here offering an emic perspective) describe the procession primarily with regard to its function as a source of funding, whereas Chinese travelers such as Faxian and Xuanzang (our etic observers) saw simply what they understood as the pageantry of religious life in India.

In the second panel, “Cave Practices,” chaired by Professor and Venerable Sheng Kai (Tsinghua University), James Robson (Harvard University) and Yi Lidu (Florida State University) served as co-discussants. Robson responded to papers by Eugene Wang (Harvard University), Yi Lidu, and Zhang Liming (Zhejiang University). Yi responded to papers by Wei Zheng (Peking University) and Shi Jiangang (Northwestern Polytechnical University).[2] In their analyses, Robson and Yi raised some points concerning the significance of caves in the practices each paper described. However, they often seemed more interested in what we might call art historical questions, and both repeatedly noted the complicated relationship between texts and images in cave art. They touched on various points related to this: How should scholars grapple with the relationship between written narratives and their artistic representation? Do we tend to privilege written sources over visual ones? What did images allow Buddhists to do, especially as they relate to the combining or reconfiguring of multiple narratives, that texts could not? What do such reconfigurations tell us about how Buddhists thought about these narratives and their connections to one another?

Ben Brose (University of Michigan) chaired the third panel, “Esoteric Buddhism (1).”[3] Robert Sharf (University of California, Berkeley) was the panel’s discussant, and he responded to papers by Wang Jinping (National University of Singapore), Albert Welter (University of Arizona), George Keyworth (University of Saskatchewan), and Professor Emerita Jacqueline Stone (Princeton University). Sharf raised a number of thoughtful questions on topics ranging from how we can discern whether a tomb pillar is simply commemorative as opposed to soteriologically useful, how we should understand the relationship between particular types of esoteric texts and sectarian identity formation in Japan, and how enlightenment might be carried from one life to another. Sharf’s broader interrogation, however, concerned matters of definition. He asked, in various ways, how our modern, scholastic definitions map onto the historical facts and what the utility of such mapping might be. This conversation became most pointed in discussions of two of the thorniest terms at hand: “religion” and “esoteric.” Sharf’s inquiries prompted the panelists to raise a number of additional questions. How, for example, can we understand whether something is done for religious purposes or simply because that is how the community in question does things? What makes a practice esoteric as opposed to more generically Mahāyāna? What do we gain from asking these sorts of questions more broadly?

Panel four, “Inter-faiths,” opened the second day of the conference. Youn-mi Kim (Ehwa Womans University) chaired the panel, and the co-discussants were Susan Andrews (Mount Allison University) and Chen Zhiyuan (Chinese Academy of Social Science). Andrews responded to a paper by James Robson. Chen responded to a joint paper by Michael Nylan and Thomas Hahn (both of University of California, Berkeley), as well as to papers by Liu Yi (Capital Normal University), Chen Huaiyu (Arizona State University), and Sun Yinggang (Zhejiang University).[4] Given the number of papers and the multiple discussants, questions were many and varied. There was, however, a running theme across many of the conversations concerning the “inter” of “inter-faith.” The discussants and panelists continually returned to questions about influence and origins and how we grapple with those. They explored how we can understand the influence between not only any given religious traditions, but between cultures more generally, between the economic and religious factors that inform people’s religious lives within a society, and even between academic disciplines.

Tong Ling (Nanjing University) joined chair Eric Greene (Yale University) as the discussant for the fifth panel, “Text, Printing, and Map.” Tong responded to papers by Guo Lei (Dongguk University), Wu Xiaojie (Shanghai Normal University), Hu Xiaozhong (Shandong University), Susan Andrews (Mount Allison University), and Alexander Hsu (University of Notre Dame). The participants of this panel, along with Michael Nylan (University of California, Berkeley), who raised additional questions, discussed larger themes concerning intertextual relationships and problems of authenticity. In looking at the relationships between texts, panelists asked about how extant Buddhist texts shaped the formation of new documents, how people transpose knowledge from one region to another through documents like maps, and how genre norms operate between Buddhist and official court documents. These questions on textual relationships lent themselves quite naturally to inquiries into problems of authenticity—who decided what was authentic for the purposes of printing or copying historically, and how we deal with textual or historical authenticity today. Michael Nylan (University of California, Berkeley), in raising questions about how scholars deal with historical veracity and how we glean it from our sources, emphasized the particular importance of this problem in light of contemporary political concerns about disinformation.

“Cross-border Transmission” was the conference’s sixth panel. Chaired by Yin Shoufu (University of British Columbia), Max Deeg (Cardiff University) and Fan Jingjing (Peking University) responded to papers by Robert Brown (University of California, Los Angeles), James Benn (McMaster University), Minku Kim (The Chinese University of Hong Kong), Chen Jinhua (University of British Columbia), and Li Wei (He’nan University). Fitting for a panel on cross-cultural exchange (in one form or another) and echoing some of the ideas Schopen raised in his keynote, the participants had a series of conversations concerning perspectives on and the rhetorical utility of persons or things deemed “other.” Can we turn to Xuanzang’s travelogue, for example, to ask questions about religious life or Buddhist art in India that did not interest him? What does his perspective offer—or obfuscate—relative to accounts from within India? The panelists, however, spent more time exploring how Chinese Buddhists used accounts of outside religious persons or objects for their own rhetorical aims. Heretical figures found in Indian Buddhist texts, for example, could serve as convenient stand-ins when critiquing non-Buddhists without stepping on any important toes in the Tang. Claims that religious objects from outside China miraculously appeared within allowed people to grant legitimacy to those objects on Buddhist grounds. Beyond an element of intrigue, the panelists agreed, it was the very “foreignness” of the persons or objects in question that made them useful to Chinese Buddhists.

The final day of the conference opened with “Sacred Biography,” the seventh panel, chaired by Sun Yinggang (Zhejiang University). Chen Huaiyu (Arizona State University) responded to papers by Max Deeg (Cardiff University), Fan Jingjing (Peking University), Liu Xuejun (Jiangsu Second Normal University), Chen Lang (University of Michigan), and Feng Guodong (Zhejiang University). Here, the panelists moved beyond discussions of the specific biographies or sets of biographies they examined to explore how sacred biographies functioned both for the communities that wrote and read them, as well as for scholars. Many scholars—including Prof. Shinohara—have written on the role of hagiography as a rhetorical device, and the panelists touched on several of those argumentative threads in their exchanges. More interesting were the discussions about how we can use these sorts of biographies to craft arguments about wider historical and social ideas, whether at the time of the subject’s life or during the period of biographical composition.

Alex Kaloyanides (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) chaired the eighth panel, “Daoxuan’s Worlds: Factual and Imaginary.” George Keyworth (University of Saskatchewan), the discussant, responded to papers from Tong Ling (Nanjing University), Ho Puay-peng (National University of Singapore), Chen Zhiyuan (Chinese Academy of Social Science), and Nelson Landry (University of Oxford). Anyone familiar with Daoxuan 道宣 (596–667) is already aware of the enormity of his textual output and his role in the Chinese (if not wider East Asian) Buddhist imagination. It should come as little surprise, then, that four papers on him might have little else in common. The expansiveness of Daoxuan’s works and all he has to offer served as a uniting theme across the panel. At a certain point, conversations shifted to the place of Daoxuan in claims of Buddhist intellectual authority. Subsequent Buddhists often relied on Daoxuan’s writings, and some even claimed connections to the man himself, in order to demonstrate their positions as arbiters of knowledge. Given the impetus of this conference, to say nothing of his own masterful study of Daoxuan, one might wonder whether we can both position Prof. Shinohara within this intellectual lineage and count him as a Daoxuan-esque figure in his own right.

The ninth, and final, panel saw the conference returning to topics similar to those discussed on the first day. This panel, “Esoteric Buddhism (2),” was chaired by Hao Chunwen (Capital Normal University/Princeton Institute for Advanced Study), with Eugene Wang (Harvard University) serving as the discussant. Wang commented on a joint paper from Wei Xiaomei and Yao Qilin (both of Academy of Dazu Rock Carvings),[5] as well as papers from Youn-mi Kim (Ehwa Womans University) and Joseph P. Elacqua (Leiden University). These panelists touched on several key topics, directly connecting themes prevalent throughout the rest of the conference. This was especially true in their conversations concerning ideas of transmission and the power of images. In this instance, the conversation focused on the concept of the “technology” of the esoteric, be that in the form of talismans, mandalas, or particular sculptural attributes.

There remain a few points worth noting. The conference, like the pre-circulated materials, was bilingual, with participants speaking in either English or Mandarin (and, helpfully, occasionally both). Given Shinohara’s connections to the various academic communities around the world, I wondered why we did not see presentations in other languages, especially Japanese or Korean. Several key factors were likely at play here, including Shinohara’s relationship with Zhejiang University and the particular significance of both his English- and Chinese-language academic publications. Given the geographic spread of the participants (including several scholars located in Korea), we might also attribute this linguistic representation to wider changes in academic language practices, with English serving, for better or worse, as an ever-expected lingua franca.

The bilingual nature of the conference will also persist beyond the event itself. As Chen Jinhua (University of British Columbia) explained after the end of the final panel, the conference organizers will gather many of the papers for publication in a festschrift in honor of Prof. Shinohara. What is more, they will publish many of these in both their original language, as well as in an English or Chinese translation. This forthcoming bilingual publication will certainly prove to be an appreciated effort.

In reflecting on the conference more generally, I realized that it is perhaps better to think of Buddhist Studies not as a forest, but as a grove of knowledge. In this reconsideration, Koichi Shinohara has been less a guide and more an orchardist. He has tended, with great care, the various scholars who have followed him, helping each to bring forth their own fruits. Each of the conference’s participants, especially the younger scholars and those whom he had advised, expressed both gratitude and debt to Shinohara, and it is undoubtable that Buddhist Studies would be far more barren without him.

[1].     I should note that, as a reporter on the conference, the co-organizers provided me with the panelists’ video presentations after the fact. These videos certainly helped me to understand more fully what the participants had discussed during the conference, but, because I want this report to reflect my actual experience while attending, I will focus on the event itself.

[2].    Shi Jiangang was not present at the panel.

[3].    Due to some technological issues, Brose was not able to join immediately, though he did help to close out the panel.

[4].    Chen was also slated to respond to a paper by Yan Yaozhong (Beijing Normal University), but Yan was not present at the panel.

[5].    Yao Qilin was not present at the panel.

Nate Lovdahl is a doctoral candidate at Yale. His research examines how Buddhist ordination rituals and the state’s administrative laws mutually defined the parameters of legitimate monasticism during the Tang and Song periods. Nate’s research has been supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation and Fulbright-Hays DDRA Program.

[Report originally posted on CJBS News Blog December 17, 2021. To see the original post, please click here.]

Read Zhao Yanfei’s translation of this report in Chinese here.