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.
Casey Alexandra Kemp
Although in Tibet there is no single text directly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this English work is the primary source for Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. These understandings have been highly influenced by Western spiritualist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in efforts to adapt and synthesize various frameworks of “other” religious traditions, particularly those from Asian societies that are viewed as esoteric or mystical, including tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. This has resulted in creative forms of appropriation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation of Tibetan views and rituals surrounding death, which often neglect the historical and religious realities of the tradition itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a prime example of such a process. Despite the lack of a truly existing “book of the dead,” numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies on this “book” continue to be produced by both scholars and adherents of the tradition, making it a focal point for the dissemination and transference of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The set of Tibetan block prints that was the basis for the original publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1968) consisted of portions of the collection known in Tibetan as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State or Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This work is said to have been authored by Padmasambhava in the 8th century ce, who subsequently had the work buried; it was rediscovered in the 14th century by the treasure revealer (gter ston) Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa; b. c. 1350). However, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, it is nearly impossible to determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is due partly to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably change the content and order of collected works. Despite this challenge, the few systematic efforts made by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, and the works produced by Bryan Cuevas and Donald Lopez Jr. are particularly noteworthy. The Bardo Thödol is essentially a funerary manual designed to guide an individual toward recognizing the signs of impending death and traversing the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the post-mortem state. The texts are meant to be read aloud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition. This presentation is indicative of a complex and intricate conceptual framework built around notions of death, impermanence, and their soteriological propensities within a tantric Buddhist program developed in Tibet over a millennium, particularly within the context of the Nyingma (rNying ma) esoteric tradition known as Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Tibet and other tantric Buddhist societies throughout the Himalaya have developed a variety of technologies for practically applying Buddhist understandings of death, and so this particular “book” is by no means the only manual utilized during the dying and post-mortem states, nor is it even necessarily included in all Tibetan or Himalayan funerary traditions. Nevertheless, this work has captured the interests of Western societies for the past century and has unofficially become the principal introduction not only to Tibetan death rites but also to Tibetan Buddhism in general for the West.
Different media have been used to spread the teachings of Buddhism, and they have exerted a significant influence upon the development of Buddhist ideas and institutions over time. An oral tradition was first used in ancient India to record and spread the Buddhist Dharma, and later the Pali canon was written down in the 1st century bce. Writing was also conspicuously used to transmit Mahāyāna texts starting in the first centuries of the first millennium. Printing was developed in medieval China probably in connection with the Buddhist desire to create merit through copying the texts. Efforts to print Buddhist texts in Western languages and scripts began in earnest in the late 19th century, and Western printing methods were later adopted by Asian Buddhists to publish the texts in modern times. It is important to appreciate the intricate relationship between the medium that is used to transmit a text and the form of the text itself, as well as the commensurate effects of the texts and their ideas on the medium and its uses in society. The oral medium has many constraints that forced the early texts to assume certain forms that were amenable to oral transmission, and institutions arose to assist in the preservation of these texts as well. Even once writing came to be used, the common people generally did not read but rather heard the text recited by learned monks. Private reading is for the most part a modern invention and it, too, had a distinct influence on the development of Buddhism, leading to modern reformist movements that demanded less superstition, more meditation, and a closer adherence to the teachings found in the canonical texts. The Internet is also shaping the popular reception of Buddhism, as Buddhist teachings and texts proliferate on thousands of websites in a dizzying array of languages.
Belonging to an esoteric corpus of Buddhist texts known as the teachings of secret mantra (Skt. guhyamantra), the tantras of Vajrakīla have been carefully guarded through the centuries and handed down from teacher to disciple under a strictly ethical code of conduct. Although the texts themselves often seem to advocate a violent and unrestrained lifestyle, under the skillful guidance of a suitably qualified guru, who must be seen by the disciple as none other than the Buddha himself, one who seriously engages in the systematic practice of their profound series of meditations becomes quickly and thoroughly purified in body, speech, and mind. The wrathful deity Vajrakīla is described in all the tantras that bear his name as the manifestation of heroic power for the overthrow of Māra. During times of peace he manifests as Vajrasattva, and his mind abides in tranquility. During times of activity he manifests as “Vajra of Total Destruction” (Skt. *Ativināśanavajra) and, when manifesting as a bodhisattva, he is Vajrapāṇi, “the One with a Vajra in his Hand.” With regard to his name “Vajrakīla”: vajra as a prefix is found everywhere within the Buddhist tantras. Originally meaning “the hard or mighty one” and referring in particular to the thunderbolt as a weapon of Indra, it subsequently became so intimately associated with the development of tantric ideas in Buddhism that the entire system of practice came to be known as the Vajrayāna or Vajra Vehicle. Indeed, as a symbol within the Buddhist tantras it is as pregnant with meaning as the very texts themselves. Characterized as abhedya, “unbreakable,” and acchedya, “indivisible,” the term may be said to represent nothing less than the full enlightenment of the samyaksaṃbuddha, who himself came to be referred to as Vajradhara, “Holder of the Vajra.” The Sanskrit word kīla means “nail,” “peg,” or “spike,” and thus Vajrakīla may be taken to mean “the unassailable spike” or, on a higher level, “(He who is) the nail of supreme enlightenment.” Introduced to Tibet during the 8th century ce, the Buddhist tantras of Vajrakīla were received with great enthusiasm and quickly became established as a vital element in the religious life of the Tibetan empire. Said to encompass every aspect of the ground, path, and goal, the Vajrakīla tantras present a coherent and complete system of spiritual practice that culminates in the attainment of perfect liberation from the round of rebirth. The roots of Kīla mythology, however, may lie buried deep within the pre-Buddhist religion of ancient India where, in the Ṛgveda, the story is told of the god Indra who slew the demon Vṛtra. It is said that, at that time, Indra stabilized the earth and propped up the heavens with a kīla and thus, at the outset, we have clearly discernible indications of a path along which a simple wooden stake might travel so as eventually to become deified as a terrifying god of awesome power, one by whom all demons are vanquished and enlightenment realized for the benefit of the world.