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Texts and Mahayana Buddhism

Texts and Mahayana Buddhism

It would be impossible to talk about East Asian textual culture without considering the role of Mahayana Buddhism. Before reading the article below, let us watch the video and reflect on the role of books within culture.

Prof. Sumiyoshi will show you three different editions of the same book published during the Edo period, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century respectively. You will see how approaches to publishing evolved over a period of 200 years.

Books introduced in this step

Three "Shijing" books Shijing (J. Shikyō) , Classic of Poetry, known also as the Book of Songs [Left: Late Edo period (1865)] [Center: Middle of Edo-Period (1791)] [Righ: Early Edo period (1664) ]

Shijing is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, comprising more than 300 works dating approx. from the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE. The content of the songs varies. One of the most famous poems is “The Pulchritudinous Peach Tree” (桃夭) (Shijing I.1.6) which celebrates the beauty of a young bride. Though this course is about Japanese culture, you will learn a lot about Chinese books, too!

Mahayana Buddhism

It would be impossible to talk about East Asian textual culture without considering the role of Mahayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism developed in Northern India at the beginning of the Christian era and gradually spread to China as part of the contacts between the central-Asian Kushan empire and China during the Later Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.). (fig.1, fig.2)

Old temple in Kucha Fig. 1. “The Kizil Caves complex”, associated with the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Kucha, located in the current China, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. [Take a closer look] (From the “EXPEDITION SILK ROAD” exhibition catalog)

Ho-tan Shutsudo Fig. 2. Ancient Khotan, Archaeological Explorations, Dhammapada, Manuscript, Birch bark, Russian Academy of Science [Take a closer look] (From the “On the trail of texts – Along the Silk Road” exhibition catalog)

The eastward expansion of Buddhism is one of the great events in East Asian history and its significance goes well beyond the history of religion. It affected the everyday life of people, of course, but also the development of textual culture. In particular, Buddhist sutras (okyō) played a fundamental role in the development and spread of books in East Asia. (fig.3)

Shukeisou Fig. 3. Priest on a journey to obtain Buddhist sutras [Take a closer look] (From the “EXPEDITION SILK ROAD” exhibition catalog)

“Sutra” is a general term for Buddhist texts of any school or sect. The reason for focusing on Mahayana texts in particular here is that Mahayana Buddhism placed a particular emphasis on the production and circulation of written works. The Lotus Sutra of the Sublime Law (J. Myōhō rengekyō), for instance, the most representative work of Mahayana Buddhism, repeatedly urges its readers to “accept,” “recite,” “explain,” and “copy” the sutra. From the very outset, Mahayana Buddhism urged its followers to copy its sacred texts in order to spread its teachings more widely, and nowhere was this more literally and emphatically applied than in China and its neighboring countries, where Buddhist texts circulated in Chinese translation.

Explore more about books

As mentioned in Step 1.1, you can view the images of most books—introduced in this course—in larger size by clicking the links marked Click to take a closer look. The link takes you to an online library where you can enjoy quality images and detailed information but it gives you more than that.


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Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

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