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The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva: Dizang in Medieval China (review)

From: China Review International
Volume 16, Number 4, 2009
pp. 553-556 | 10.1353/cri.2009.0090

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Zhiru Ng. The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva: Dizang in Medieval China. Kuroda Institute Studies in East Asian Buddhism 21. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. xiii, 305 pp. Hardcover $52.00, isbn 978-0-8248-3045-8.

Along with Guanyin 觀音 (Sk. Avalokiteśvara), Puxian 普賢 (Sk. Samantabhadra), and Wenshu 文殊 (Sk. Mañjuśrī), Dizang 地藏 (Sk. Kṣitigarbha) is one of the four great bodhisattvas in East Asian Buddhism. In modern times, Dizang still features prominently in his capacity as the underworld savior or sovereign, a role intimately linked to the well-being of ancestors and thus afterlife practices. This image of Dizang, as Zhiru shows, is misleading for contemporary scholars in their exploration of the Dizang cult, especially with respect to its formation, development, and attending implications.

The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva, a book that grew out of the author's doctoral dissertation, is an important study of the early history of the Dizang cult in medieval China. By examining a wide variety of evidence related to Dizang such as scriptural texts of different genres, visual artifacts, epigraphical records, and indigenous narratives, Zhiru rectifies our monochromatic understanding of Dizang as solely the Lord of the Underworld. Zhiru successfully demonstrates that Dizang "was a multivalent figure situated at the nexus of religious experimentation, and the medieval cult of Dizang embodied a broad spectrum of elements extrapolated from diverse religious sources" (p. 15). On a larger scale, Zhiru also uses the study "as a corrective lens that illuminates the complicated historical realities and dynamics of medieval Chinese religion as well as continuities across Buddhist cultures" (p. 223).

Apart from the introduction, conclusion, and three appendices, the study consists of two main parts. The first part devotes two chapters to the early scriptural representations of Dizang from the sixth to the eighth century. In chapter 1, Zhiru presents the early representations of Dizang by introducing and examining two primary texts, both firmly dated to late sixth century, for the Dizang cult: (1) Scripture on the Ten Wheels and (2) Section on Sumeru Treasury. The former "sets forth the foundational mythology and iconography" of Dizang for later localized variations while the later offers "further glimpses of Dizang that resonated with the representation in the Scripture on the Ten Wheels" (p. 29). Here Zhiru gives a penetrating account of the early phase of the Dizang cult during which the identity and history of Dizang emerged in what may be a response to the sociopolitical situations of fifth-and sixth-century China. Having discussed the earliest sources of Dizang, chapter 2 introduces a variety of underexploited textual and iconographical materials to reevaluate the early dissemination of the Dizang cult in the seventh century. Toward this end, Zhiru revisits the relationship between Dizang and the Sanjie jiao 三階教 (Teaching of three levels), as previous scholarship held [End Page 553] that the flourishing of the Dizang cult was a result of the promotion of the Sanjie jiao. As Zhiru cautions against privileging written texts and deriving cultic origins solely from doctrinal formulations, she argues that the Dizang cult probably "existed in the seventh century as one of several growing modes of Buddhist devotion prior to its association with Sanjie jiao" (p. 77). Thus, the latter was not critical in its formation and dissemination.

In the next three chapters, which make up the second part of the book, Zhiru explores new directions and developments in the Dizang cult from the sixth to the tenth century. In an effort to explore the multifarious expressions of Dizang, Zhiru devotes chapter 3 to the examination of five lesser-known scriptures that foreground the Dizang cult. Composed between the sixth and the tenth centuries and reflecting "broader patterns of religious and cultural amalgamation that existed at the time," these scriptures produced new representations of Dizang and, therefore, furthered new developments in religious trends that "cannot be reduced to any singular theme" (p. 81). Zhiru's analysis shows that Dizang acquired additional roles in the religious experimentation of the Tang period. Beside being an object of ritual confession and meditation, Dizang also became a patron deity of divination, an all-powerful esoteric deity, and even a shaman...