Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Origins of Book Veneration in Mahayana Buddhism

A new article explains the origins of book veneration in Mahayana Buddhism. Will Tuladhar-Douglas points out that early Buddhism featured two institutions to preserve the Buddha’s oral teachings on the one hand and to preserve and venerate his relics on the other. The invention of written sutras produced an artifact that functioned as both teaching and relic simultaneously. Therefore reading aloud and written reproduction of the sutras was valued just for the sake reproducing it, as in oral transmission, while the sutra itself was venerated as an important relic. An early (2nd-4th centuries C.E.) text in the Prajnaparamita tradition depicts a sutra on a throne on a glorious stupa being venerated by the gods themselves:

Moreover, at that time the great Bodhisattva Dharmodgata caused a peaked shrine to be built from seven (kinds of) jewels, decorated with copper and sandalwood, draped with strings of pearls. At each of its four corners he had lamps fashioned from single rubies set. On each of the four sides were silver censers facing each of the four directions, in which pure krsnaguru (Vepris bilocularis) incense was burnt to worship the Prajnaparamita. In the middle of this shrine was set a seat (parmika) made from seven jewels; and on the seat was a casket (peca) made from four jewels. The Prajnaparamita, written on leaves of gold coated with lapis lazuli, had been placed inside this. The peaked shrine was decorated with hanging banners and garlands of many colours. (V 249-50.4) Now Sadliprarudita, the merchant's daughter and her five hundred attendants saw the peaked shrine laden with countless arrays of offerings. They saw hundreds of godlings, with Indra chief of the gods, scattering and showering and festooning the peaked shrine with sacred mandarava flowers, sandalwood, gold dust and silver dust. They heard divine hymns. (V 250.5-9)

See Will Tuladhar-Douglas, “Writing and the Rise of Mahayana Buddhism,” in Die Textualisierung der Religion (ed. Joachim Schaper; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 250-72.

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