Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

3 - The Environment of Ritual in a Song-Dynasty Buddhist Monastery

Friday, March 23
12:45 PM - 2:45 PM
Location: McKinley, Mezzanine Level

In most Buddhist contexts, ritual is a fleeting and contingent activity—performed at a specific time, in a specific space, in response to specific local conditions. What happens, then, when the discourse and matter of ritual are introduced into a time-space that exceeds the merely local, that looks toward the eternal, that embraces the environmental? How might conceptions of ritual be best brought into dialogue with vaster scales of time and space? This paper seeks to address such questions through a close reading of Shizhuanshan (Dazu County, Chongqing Municipality), a private Buddhist sanctuary sponsored by the wealthy layman Yan Xun in the late eleventh century. Yan underwrote the construction of a small Buddhist temple, as well as the carving of thirteen image-filled niches, whose completion was celebrated with the performance of a Water-Land Retreat (shuilu zhai), a grand ritual of universal salvation; further, he commemorated his donations with a long stele text, carved directly into a cliff face. Together, these works of text, image, and architecture transform Shizhuanshan into a site for the perpetual enactment of Buddhist ritual and teaching, a concern that seems to have been widespread in the Song. Curiously, Yan’s stele also pays particular attention to the preservation of the mountain’s ecology as an important component of this grander project. In rendering the work of ritual an eternal, environmental concern, Shizhuanshan, I argue, encourages a significant reconceptualization of the ways in which ritual is typically understood to be temporally and spatially framed.

Phillip E. Bloom

The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens, California

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