The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (The Sheng Yen Series in Chinese Buddhist Studies)
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Whether chanted as devotional prayers, intoned against the dangers of the wilds, or invoked to heal the sick and bring ease to the dead, incantations were pervasive features of Buddhist practice in late medieval China (600–1000 C.E.). Material incantations, in forms such as spell-inscribed amulets and stone pillars, were also central to the spiritual lives of both monks and laypeople. In centering its analysis on the Chinese material culture of these deeply embodied forms of Buddhist ritual, The Body Incantatory reveals histories of practice―and logics of practice―that have until now remained hidden.
Paul Copp examines inscribed stones, urns, and other objects unearthed from anonymous tombs; spells carved into pillars near mountain temples; and manuscripts and prints from both tombs and the Dunhuang cache. Focusing on two major Buddhist spells, or dharani, and their embodiment of the incantatory logics of adornment and unction, he makes breakthrough claims about the significance of Buddhist incantation practice not only in medieval China but also in Central Asia and India. Copp's work vividly captures the diversity of Buddhist practice among medieval monks, ritual healers, and other individuals lost to history, offering a corrective to accounts that have overemphasized elite, canonical materials.
of move that have at times been voiced in the field of Buddhist Studies, a particularly clear statement of which can be found in Henrik Sørensen’s response to aspects of Michel Strickmann’s book Chinese Magical Medicine.43 Sørensen faults Strickmann for thinking that there were larger areas of commonality between Chinese Buddhism and Daoism than there in fact were. “In his penchant for understanding the common ground of Buddhist and Daoist practitioners—a ground that in many ways does appear to
credits David Keightley’s work on “archaeology and mentality” as inspiration, particularly his discussions of the “relationship between the technology of a culture and its conception of the world and man himself.”10 This book will not attempt to advance any theories of material culture and cognition, but takes from works such as those of Martin Powers, Richard Sennett, and Webb Keane a basic methodological orientation toward its subject. To study Buddhist doctrine, for example, shorn of the
afflicted parts amulets of the inc antation of wish fulfillment 83 of the body through a physical medium such as twine, oil, water, wood, ash, or mud. Their bodily focus also connects them within a larger set: the securing of some locality, whether it be the physical person, the home, the city, or the nation against harm from such menaces as storms, plagues, enemies, or demonic attack. The basics of the rites in this larger set, again, are in general the same as those we see in this passage:
only the text of a spell and the name of the intended target of its protective influence; whereas, as we have seen, the Chinese examples are multilayered hybrids of text and image. The sociological locations of the two sets of charms also differed: surviving Gilgit examples were all made for royalty, while (at least so far) the Chinese amulets that have been found belonged to men and women of humbler station. There is, however, evidence of an exception to this trend within the Chinese evidence,
central square. The remainder of the manuscript consists of brief spells, often featuring the word vajra (bazheluo)—the “diamond” (jin’gang) of the central deity’s name—and the names of deities of the directions arranged systematically. These include generalized figures such as “the God of the Southeastern Direction,” etc., as well as the famous spirits amulets of the inc antation of wish fulfillment 117 of the four directions known as the Four Heavenly Kings. Just beyond the central image,