Many approaches to the study of Buddhism and media overlap with traditional Buddhist studies methods such as textual analysis, art theory, ethnography, and ritual studies, as well as studies of material culture. Media studies may concern itself with contemporary media messages and forms, but it need not be limited to the realms of mass media and popular culture. In foregrounding media and material cultural, scholars can trace the development and flow of Buddhism as a global religion and cultural phenomenon. Such studies also invariably draw attention to the lived aspects of the religion: How do Buddhists enact or perform Buddhism? How do Buddhists communicate ideas about Buddhism both to other Buddhists as well as to outsiders? And how do these communicative acts change one’s understanding of Buddhism? Such questions go beyond the merely textual, historical, or philosophical and call us to answer deeper questions about the nature of Buddhism in the contemporary, global age.
Scott A. Mitchell
Sharon A. Suh
Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.
Michelle C. Wang
The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries. A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks. In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.
The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.
Stephen C. Berkwitz
Relics and images of the Buddha and of other awakened beings occupy important places in ritual practice throughout the Buddhist world. Their significance and sacrality are evidenced by the numerous written and oral narratives that have been composed by Buddhist authors and storytellers to describe how they were obtained and what makes them special. Buddhist narratives on relics and images are mainly found outside of the tradition’s canonical literature, either as discrete texts or as sections in larger works. These narratives often supply explanations as to why certain relics shrines and images are worthy of veneration and can be sites for authorizing power and political status. The written and oral narratives about these allegedly extraordinary objects typically include material concerning the origins of revered relics and images linked to the Buddha or other awakened saints, as well as narratives that prophesy and recount how such special objects were found in their present locations and came to be worshipped by devotees. Such textual sources also often associate particular relics and images with the authority of a ruler or a monastic community that possessed them. It seems clear that the more important a given relic or image is for a Buddhist community, the more likely that it will have a narrative that is used to help locate this object in time and space for devotees to understand and worship it properly. In sum, these narratives play a critical role in endowing relics and images with their extraordinary natures and important roles in the devotional and political spheres of Buddhist communities across Asia.