Ritual and Representation in Chinese Buddhism: Visualizing Enlightenment at Baodingshan from the 12th to 21st Centuries

by Karil J. Kucera


*Includes 159 color images.

Buddhist practice in Song-dynasty Sichuan reflects the realities of the place—one of cultural intersection yet removed from many of the restrictions of metropolitan China—and the time—the ninth-century Buddhist persecutions giving way to a twelfth-century synthesis in Buddhist thought. This resulted in a curious blend of exoteric and esoteric forms of Mahayana Buddhist practice, a perfect example of which is found at Baodingshan.

Baodingshan consists of a monastic complex and two rock-carved areas, Little Buddha Bend and Great Buddha Bend, located in Dazu in western China and dates from the Southern Song period. The complex is fundamentally different from earlier Buddhist rock-carved sites in China in its construction and layout. Foregoing traditional niche-based iconography for large, deeply cut reliefs reaching dimensions as great as eight meters high by twenty meters wide, within Baodingshan's Great Buddha Bend, the carved works flow from one tableau into another. The site contains both texts and images related to the main schools of Buddhist thought. This study looks not only at Song societal beliefs and concerns as reflected in the choice of works carved at Baodingshan, but also the thoughts and actions of later visitors to the site up through the twenty-first century. The absence of standard dedicatory inscriptions on the part of patrons at Baodingshan suggests a different approach to the underlying conception and function of the site, rationales for which are the focus of this work.

This book presents an integrated analysis of all of the components of Great Buddha Bend within the greater Baodingshan site, something that was lacking in earlier studies. Written to provide guidance to the site for a wide spectrum of readers—specialists and non-specialists alike—it provides a clear explanation of the major iconographic features of the imagery as well as translations of the numerous accompanying carved Buddhist texts. It also presents the basic tenets of Pure Land, Chan [Zen], Huayan and Esoteric Buddhism in order to explain the features of these sects as seen represented in visual as well as textual form at the site. Lastly, with its focus on ritual use and audience reception from the 12th to the 21st century, This study provides a new model for the discussion and evaluation of other religious sites as entities that organically evolve over time.

Ritual and Representation in Chinese Buddhism presents a new discussion of Baodingshan across time, looking holistically at how this extensive grouping of Buddhist carvings work together and how they have changed in usage from their creation in the Song Dynasty to the present era. Beginning with a description of the narrative aspects of the site,this book includes discussion of Buddhist ritual practice as well as secular activities that took place there over the centuries. Centering around a core analysis of texts and images, the different frameworks of time visually and textually presented at Baodingshan are discussed while also posing more universal questions that relate to religious practice as well as audience interpretation such as how do Chinese people historically construct time; how is time represented within a Buddhist framework; what does time look like—does it have a particular look, shape or color? This study includes new translations of both the inscribed Buddhist texts and secular inscriptions carved at the site dating from the 12th through the 21st centuries—inscriptions left by educated elite, soldiers and government officials, highlighting regional issues related to continuity and change made visible at Baodingshan.


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