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date: 03 December 2022

Buddhism and Biographylocked

Buddhism and Biographylocked

  • Ben Van OvermeireBen Van OvermeireAssistant Professor of Humanities, Duke Kunshan University

Summary

The Buddhist religion has a long and rich tradition of biographical literature. This literature has functioned to unify distinct and often contradictory elements of Buddhist ritual, practice, and doctrine, adjusting these elements to specific historical situations. Scholarship on the function of literary characters in making narrative worlds coherent supports this argument: when readers engage characters, they draw together textual and non-textual data to construct beings that are similar to themselves. This connection of a specific situation with a larger whole, a connection that is at the same time an organization, can be observed in how Buddhist biographies are built. Biographies of Shakyamuni, for example, contain many traces of changes motivated by local conditions. The body of Shakyamuni is used to authorize these changes: the local is situated at the heart of Buddhism. Biographies of Chinese Buddhist saints attest to the same process, as can be seen in the shifting representation of Indian saints in China or the literary transformations of the Patriarchs of the Chan school. While these changing representations reflect changes in historical Buddhist communities, they can also produce attitudes and regulate behaviors. The debate on the portrayal and effects of women and animals in Indian Buddhist texts provides an illustration of this, as does scholarship on how saintly ideals regulate behavior. The case of Buddhist autobiography, a genre at times so closely connected to biography that it is nearly indistinguishable from it, provides a final example of how identity is structured in Buddhist biography.

Subjects

  • Buddhism

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