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Over the last several decades, scholarship in Buddhist Studies has increasingly moved away from an earlier portrait of the Buddhist monastic as an asocial and homeless renunciant, one who “goes forth from the home into homelessness,” having severed all worldly and familial ties. In fact, recent scholarship on the social history of Buddhism has gradually uncovered a very different Buddhist monk—one who is fully embroiled in the world and deeply involved in the surrounding community, owns personal wealth and property and engages in complicated financial transactions, is deeply committed to cultic practices (such as the worship of images and relics), and remains intimately connected to the family he has supposedly “renounced” and left behind. In this new body of scholarship, we encounter objects and figures that were formerly obscured—money, food, art, physical objects, women, and children.
Vanessa Sasson’s wonderful new collection Little Buddhas: Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions might be seen as a fitting sign of the maturity of this trend. Growing well beyond its origins in a 2009 panel at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, this impressive volume (exceeding five hundred pages in length) brings together nineteen contributors from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Sweden, and Taiwan, representing the disciplines of religious studies, South Asian studies, East Asian studies, Buddhist studies, anthropology, and art history. It ranges widely over geographical regions, historical periods, Buddhist traditions, and approaches to childhood, yet manages to feel like a cohesive collection, with many of the contributors explicitly pointing to parallels and connections between different chapters.
The volume opens with a useful introduction by Sasson, who reviews some of the seminal previous scholarship in this area and makes the argument for “a [End Page 183] broader history of Buddhist childhood” placed within the context of the larger emerging discipline of childhood studies. The following chapters are logically divided into two major parts. Part one is called “Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts” and focuses on textual representations of children in Buddhist literature. Part two is called “Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Traditions” and focuses on the roles children have played within living Buddhist traditions, past and present. The organization of the volume thus recognizes the important distinction to be drawn between textual representations of children and actual children’s lived realities, while also allowing for some fascinating links to be drawn between the two. My only quibble here is the possible misplacement of Melissa Curley’s contribution, “Zen-Boy Ikkyu,” within part two. One of the finest pieces in the entire collection—and one of the only pieces to focus explicitly on the construction or invention of “childhood” (in this case, in modern Japan)—this piece clearly focuses on textual representations of childhood, which makes its placement in part two rather puzzling.
Part one appropriately opens with a contribution by Gregory Schopen—perhaps the single most important representative of the new emphasis on social history in Buddhist studies—followed by a good companion piece by Amy Langenburg. Both pieces focus on classical Buddhist literature from India and establish beyond any doubt the abundant textual evidence for the presence of children in Indian Buddhist monasteries—including various categories of child monastics, monastic servants, children gifted to the Samgha, and children placed in the Samgha’s care for protection or healing. In these two pieces, the Indian Buddhist monastery is repainted as a virtual nursery, with children of various ages forming a vital part of its community. The attention of the volume then shifts to textual representations of eminent Buddhist children: Vanessa Sasson examines the depiction of the Buddha’s own childhood, while Kate Crosby takes up the textual traditions surrounding the Buddha’s son Rahula, who serves as the original model for child monastics. Miriam Levering focuses on the highly precocious children who populate Chinese Buddhist hagiography, while Winston Kyan offers a specific case...