Filled with Meaning: Why Do the Contents of Buddhist Statues Matter?

Colloquium | September 12 | 5-6:30 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall

 James Robson, Harvard University

 Center for Buddhist Studies

Scholars have recently come to realize that religious statues throughout Asia have hidden cavities that are filled with various objects inserted during a consecration ritual. This talk explores the hidden world of these statues through a discussion of a large collection of (primarily) Buddhist statues from China, Korea, and Japan. The statues discussed in this talk contain a niche carved into their back (or the base) that is filled with a variety of objects, including relics, religious manuscripts and printed texts, materia medica, desiccated insects, talismans and dharani, and a “consecration certificate” or “vow text." The manuscripts from inside of these statues provide a valuable glimpse of local religion, ritual practice, lay devotion, and lost sūtras. These statues also raise many interpretive questions for historians of religion, including issues such as icon animation, idolatry, and iconoclasm. These statues were ubiquitous, but have had a particularly intriguing history of visibility and concealment in East Asia and in Western scholarship. This talk will raise questions about why sacred images and icons such as these have been objects of extreme devotion for some, but also presented problems for priests, politicians, missionaries, and philosophers, who for various reasons have found them distasteful, attacked their validity and power, and have tried to hide them away or destroy them. Why, even in the face of critique and destruction, have they persisted and proliferated into the present? Why are the contents of these statues important for scholars of Buddhism and East Asian Religions?

James Robson is James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations

 and the Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard Asia Center. He is also the Director of the Harvard Summer School in Kyoto program. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University (2002) and previously taught at Williams College and the University of Michigan. He specializes in the history of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism. He is the author of the Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak [Nanyue 南嶽] in Medieval China (Harvard University Press, 2009), which won the Stanislas Julien Prize awarded by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in France and the Toshihide Numata Prize in Buddhist Studies. He is the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions: Daoism (2014). He has also published on topics ranging from sacred geography and local religious history to talismans and the historical development of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Some of his major articles include: “Signs of Power: Talismanic Writings in Chinese Buddhism" (History of Religions 48:2); "Faith in Museums: On the Confluence of Museums and Religious Sites in Asia"; and "A Tang Dynasty Chan Mummy [roushen] and a Modern Case of Furta Sacra? Investigating the Contested Bones of Shitou Xiqian"; “The Buddhist Image Inside-Out: The Placing of Objects Inside Statues in East Asia,” “The Archive Inside: Manuscripts Found Within Chinese Religious Statues,” “Hidden in Plain View: Concealed Contents, Secluded Statues, and Revealed Religion,” and “Brushes With Some ‘Dirty Truths’: Handwritten Manuscripts and Religion in China.” During the 2012-2013 academic year he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is engaged in a long-term collaborative research project with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient studying local religious statuary from Hunan province and a long-term project on the history of the confluence of Buddhist monasteries and mental hospitals in Japan. He is currently completing a monograph on the Daodejing for the Princeton University Press, Lives of Great Religious Books Series entitled The Daodejing: A Biography.

 buddhiststudies@berkeley.edu, 510-643-5104