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Burning for the Buddha

James A. Benn

Publication Year: 2007

Burning for the Buddha is the first book-length study of the theory and practice of "abandoning the body"(self-immolation) in Chinese Buddhism. It examines the hagiographical accounts of all those who made offerings of their own bodies and places them in historical, social, cultural, and doctrinal context. Rather than privilege the doctrinal and exegetical interpretations of the tradition, which assume the central importance of the mind and its cultivation, James Benn focuses on the ways in which the heroic ideals of the bodhisattva present in scriptural materials such as the Lotus Sutra played out in the realm of religious practice on the ground.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

None of my work would have been possible without the foundation (knowing what and how to read) and inspiration (knowing what and how to write) provided by my great teacher, T. H. Barrett. I really hope he likes this book. I should like to thank the members of my doctoral committee at the University of California, Los Angeles (Robert Buswell, William Bodiford, Benjamin Elman, David Schaberg, and Richard von Glahn), for their careful ...

Abbreviations and Conventions

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p. xiii

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pp. 1-18

The monastery and its environs echoed with mysterious sounds and were bathed in multicolored rays of light. Crowds of pilgrims in unprecedented numbers were drawn to the mountain, where they enthusiastically participated in ceremonies affirming their commitment to the Buddhist path. Flocks of birds were observed behaving in an unusual yet portentous manner. At the center of this web of activity that extended ...

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Chapter 1. “Mounting the Smoke with Glittering Colors”: Self-Immolation in Early Medieval China

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pp. 19-53

In China, unlike India or Tibet, the biographies of monks formed a distinct genre that became an important part of Buddhist literature.1 As collections of biographies entered the canon and were widely read, accounts of the conduct of monks and nuns recorded Buddhist practice and shaped it as well. From the sixth century onwards monastics could find exemplary models of conduct in the history of their own ...

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Chapter 2. The Lotus Sūtra, Auto-Cremation, and the Indestructible Tongues

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pp. 54-77

To understand the way in which Chinese Buddhists shaped their auto-cremation practices we will need to examine the nature of this text as a whole in addition to looking closely at the legend of the Bodhisattva Medicine King. How did a piece of literature composed in quite a different religious and cultural milieu come to affect Chinese beliefs and practices so deeply and enduringly? Why and how was the Lotus in particular so influential on body ...

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Chapter 3. Samgha and the State: The Power(s) of Self-Immolation

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pp. 78-103

China had been unified since 581, first under the pro-Buddhist Sui 隋 (581–617) and then under the Tang 唐 (618–907), a dynastic house that dared not challenge the strength of the Buddhist institution despite its ideological commitment to Taoism. As a consequence of these developments, self-immolation looked different, too. By the seventh century it was a well-established practice, but in contrast to earlier periods—when rulers apparently ...

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Chapter 4. Is Self-Immolation a “Good Practice”?: Yongming Yanshou on Relinquishing the Body

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pp. 104-131

But if self-immolation did in fact offer a somatic path to liberation, as I believe it did, then what did Chinese Buddhist authors who worked with doctrine make of the practice? How did they fit self-immolation into the larger framework of valid and orthodox praxis? In this chapter we shall examine two such attempts to do so. The first is the enthusiastic defense of self-immolation offered by ...

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Chapter 5. Local Heroes in a Fragmenting Empire: Self-Immolation in the Late Tang and Five Dynasties

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pp. 132-163

We can find in the many accounts of self-immolation from the eighth to tenth centuries no overarching narrative of religious persecution and dynastic legitimation such as we perceived in Daoxuan’s collection. Probably the most significant theme that recurs throughout the section, and one that Zanning develops with enthusiasm in the critical evaluation, is the miraculous power of the relics of the Buddha, in which the compiler had a great personal interest. ...

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Chapter 6. One Thousand Years of Self-Immolation

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pp. 164-194

We have seen that self-immolation was a fluid concept that embraced a range of practices and interpretations. Even after the tenth century the concept of self-immolation never solidi

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pp. 195-202

I hope this study has shown that there can never be a single answer to that question. Now that we have a better sense of the range of practices, variety of practitioners, and the vastly different times and places in which they acted, it will be apparent that both the “they” and “that” of the question are meaningless. We need to ask better questions of our sources. The reader who has reached this point in the book may be forgiven for ...

Appendix 1

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pp. 203-246

Appendix 2

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pp. 247-260


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pp. 261-314


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pp. 315-346


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pp. 347-360

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861735
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824829926

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 256467719
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Burning for the Buddha

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Subject Headings

  • Self-immolation -- Religious aspects -- Buddhism.
  • Self-immolation -- China.
  • Buddhism -- China -- Customs and practices.
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