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.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Moerman on the Lotus Sutra

D. Max Moerman writes about "The Materiality of the Lotus Sutra: Scripture, Relic, and Buried Treasure" in Dharma World:

What is the Lotus Sutra? The scripture itself provides one ready answer: The Lotus Sutra is a Buddha relic. Like a number of other early Mahayana sutras, the Lotus Sutra asserts an equivalence between a roll of scripture and a relic of the Buddha. Employing a new theory of embodiment, the Lotus Sutra replaces the Buddha's corporeal remains with his textual corpus. The material form of the Buddha's word, rather than the material remains of the Buddha's body, is recognized as the central object of veneration and, as such, is to be enshrined in a stupa, a reliquary previously reserved for the remains of a buddha.

Moerman charts the development of ritual practices in medieval Japanese Buddhism that involved creating elaborate copies of the sutra in order to bury them in stupas. Such practices were motivated by concern "with the postmortem salvation of both the religion and the religionist." Moerman draws the moral for scholars of religion:

... the texts themselves did not bear the communicative or pedagogical function usually attributed to scripture. Great care and expense went into the production of these texts .... Yet the texts were never to be recited, studie, or taught, or at least not for 5.67 billion years. The value of their production and use lay in their media as much as in their message .... the power of sacred texts lies not only in their words and ideas but also, as the Lotus Sutra insists, in their materiality and instrumentality.

Moerman revists much of the same material in his essay published in The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions, edited by Kristina Myrvold(Ashgate, 2010, see summary here).

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