Cluster Leader: Paul Copp, University of Chicago
Was the text on a Buddhist ritual manuscript, xylograph, or other small inscribed object (what in this project we will call “portable textual objects”) always simply a text, in the usual sense? That is, just words to be read without regard to their material and visual format? In the case of a Buddhist ritual manuscript/xylograph, to what extent might its physical form, as well as its layout and other visual structures, have been made to be integral parts of, or guides to, the religious practices prescribed in the texts, as well as the very “meaning” of the texts? To what extent might such objects have been not mere “supports” for texts—fully disposable when the text was moved to another format (say, a variorum scholarly edition like the Taishō “Canon”)—but instead integral material and visual wholes made for, remade within, or otherwise inalienable from, the practices prescribed upon them?
Guided by these questions, this cluster will explore the practical aspects of the initial design and subsequent reworkings of portable Buddhist textual objects—manuscript ritual manuals, devotional images with instructions for use, small chanting liturgies, amulets, and talismanic texts of various kinds. Specifically, we will explore the extent to which we can see, first of all, anticipations of ritual and other practices built-in to the visual (and perhaps material) structures of Buddhist manuscripts and xylographs; and, second, ways that such objects were remade, during use, to match changing needs of practitioners. That is, for example, we will explore how an object’s physical and visual structure, taken as a whole—loosely, its size, shape, paragraphing, line breaks, integration of small images, as well as the interconnections among these features—might have constituted an important element of the object, intended to aid in the religious practices prescribed by the texts on it. We will ask what this might tell us, if anything, about the nature of the practices, and the understandings of texts, in which these objects were made to feature. We will also explore the extent to which, if at all, we can see how the objects were later re-worked, adjusted, folded, over-written, etc, for such practices. We will study how, and to what apparent purposes, images—pictures, diagrams, seals, talismanic glyphs of various kinds—were integrated into the layouts.
We will consider the extent to which different kinds of portable textual object differ in these regards. Can we generalize about manuscripts vs. xylographs? About texts in different formats (scroll, codex, sheet, etc)? About practices in which the textual objects were used (rolled or folded and worn, kept in hand during rituals, placed on an altar, etc)? About talismanic texts and textual amulets as classes of object? Is comparison with portable paintings or diagrams bearing prominent or multiple colophons from Dunhuang and other sites fruitful here? What might change in our understanding of these paintings, for example, if, as a thought experiment, we took their texts, rather than their images, as primary? How might this comparison help us in our understanding of portable textual objects?
What about comparisons with non-portable textual objects? The questions and methods of this cluster bear clear connections with Christoph Anderl’s “Typologies of Text and Image Relations,” as well as with Lothar Ledderose’s long and ongoing study of Buddhist cliff and cave inscriptions. The results of these different studies might be compared with those of this cluster to reach conclusions about the construction of text/image sites and objects more generally in the context of Buddhist practice. For example, is there anything that can be learned from comparing portable textual objects with physical “image/text” sites? Some have seen implicit bodily practices (mini-pilgrimages, perhaps) built-in to sites such as Yishan, in Shandong, and Baodingshan, in Chongqing. What can be learned from comparing the set-up of a textual landscape and that of a portable textual object? Can it help us to generalize about the nature of Buddhist practice in premodern China, and the understandings of texts that featured in it?
The current three-year plan is to focus in the first year on talismanic and amuletic textual objects—the portable textual object par excellence. Study of these objects in Vietnam, in both collections and in actual use, should help us to establish parameters for the studies of the following two years, more general surveys of manuscripts and xylographs held in museum and library collections. Currently, the plan is to investigate objects held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2021, and the following year either in New Delhi (the portion of the Stein collection remaining there) or in the broad northwestern region of China.