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Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia

Juliane Schober

Publication Year: 1997

This collection of previously unpublished essays presents a broad range of explorations into the biographical genre of the Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Each contribution examines sacred biography in one or more representational modalities in the texts, art history, literature, myths, rituals and cultures of the Buddhist tradition.

Scholars in the history of religions, anthropology, literature and art history present a broad range of explorations into sacred biography as an interpretive genre. The essays investigate both universal and local articulations of Buddhist sacred biography, illustrating the construction of interpretive frames of reference that map salient themes onto diverse contexts.

The combination of thematic depth and theoretical sophistication in Sacred Biography makes this volume innovative reading for all scholars with comparative interests.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xi

This volume presents previously unpublished essays on sacred biography in the Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. It introduces into the cross-disciplinary discourse methodologies and perspectives in anthropology, art history, and history of religions that center on the theme of biography in Buddhism. Each contribution examines sacred biography in one...

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Trajectories in Buddhist Sacred Biography

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pp. 1-15

Sacred biographies inspire imagination, belief, and practice in many religious traditions. The popular penchant for the life stories of religious figures persists without concern for the historicity accorded to the times, places, and facts of individual lives they recount. Stories about the lives of saints and founders of religious traditions cast into relief precisely those acts...

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Part 1: Buddha Biography in Textual and Visual Narratives

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pp. 17-18

Reynolds, Woodward, and Brown present a common focus on classical articulations of the Buddha biography in the textual and visual renditions of the Buddhist tradition and civilization. By focusing on the central role of the Buddha’s own biography, this section begins the discourse at a juncture where previous studies and conventional understandings of the life of the...

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Rebirth Traditions and the Lineages of Gotama: A Study in Theravāda Buddhology

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pp. 19-39

Buddhism, particularly in its Theravāda form, has often been presented as a religion in which mythology plays an insignificant role. The central Theravāda doctrines that affirm codependent origination as the basis for the coming-into-existence of worldly phenomena, the law of karmic reward and retribution as the regulating principle that determines the destinies...

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The Biographical Imperative in Theravāda Buddhism

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pp. 40-63

The textual corpus of Theravāda Buddhism includes a rich and diverse body of sacred biography. While questions concerning the “historical Buddha” have figured most prominently in Western scholarship, there are numerous texts recounting the former lives of the Buddha Gotama...

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Narrative as Icon: The Jātaka Stories in Ancient Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture

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pp. 64-109

The jātakas are stories, often very good ones, filled with what makes stories interesting (action, intrigue, romance, love, death, the marvelous) and constructed around plots that have the twists and turns and unexpected events to keep the listener or reader fascinated. Each deals with a past life of the Buddha by narrating various individuals’ actions...

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Part 2: Extensions of the Buddha Biography in Texts

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pp. 111

In this section, Strong, Ray, and Walters illuminate textual sources across a variety of Buddhist traditions. Their essays illustrate the ways in which salient characteristics of the Buddha biography were extended to encompass the lives of other enlightened beings and religious communities or...

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A Family Quest: The Buddha, Yaśodharā, and Rāhula in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya

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pp. 113-128

Almost every introductory textbook on Buddhism recounts, in one fashion or another, the touching Theravāda tale of the Buddha’s farewell to his sleeping wife and his newborn son on the night of his Great Departure. Disgusted by the sight of the drooling denuded damsels of his harem, Gotama resolves to leave, but on his way out, he pauses at his bedroom...

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Nāgārjuna’s Longevity

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pp. 129-159

The Buddhist master Nāgārjuna (second–third century) is one of the greatest and most celebrated of all Indian Buddhist saints. He is identified as the founder of the Madhyamaka school, author of numerous important texts, guru of a number of important figures, and even, in some accounts, the first propounder of Mahāyāna Buddhism itself. Yet in spite...

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Stūpa, Story, and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Aśokan India

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pp. 160-192

In “The Many Lives of Buddha: A Study of Sacred Biography and Theravāda Tradition,” Frank Reynolds sketched out a dynamic conception of the Buddha biography in which Buddhist life stories are viewed, not as comparatively accurate or inaccurate reflections of the events in “the historical Buddha’s” life, but as a locus for creativity and change...

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Part 3: The Jātakas and Biographies of Kings [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 193-194

Among more than five hundred stories of the Buddha’s former lives, known as the jātaka tales, several identify the future Buddha as a king. The history of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia, where such stories are widely known, provides ample examples of royal rulers who self-consciously sought to emulate in their own lives the ideal...

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Painting the “Great Life”

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pp. 195-217

The “Great Life,” or Vessantara Jātaka, and the other stories of the Buddha’s last ten lives have for centuries been among the most important texts for Southeast Asian Buddhists. The stories provide not only the amusements of well-told tales, but also moral instruction, as their protagonists have come to be seen as exemplars of Buddhism’s Ten Perfections...

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From Prose to Poetry: The Literary Development of Samuttakote

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pp. 218-231

While the Indic stories of the Buddha’s former lives (jātaka) are some of the most important literary forms to have come out of India, the Panyatsajātaka, a group of tales that do not appear in the original Pāli canon, are an even more influential set of Buddhist birth-tales in Southeast Asia. Literary tradition holds that these fifty tales were composed...

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“Rationality” in the Biography of a Buddhist King: Mongkut, King of Siam (r.1851–1868)

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pp. 232-255

A close examination of the biographical representation of King Mongkut of Siam over the last century provides one way of beginning to fill in the gap between indigenous and Western ideas of sacred biography. Mongkut provides a unique figure in this regard because he himself balanced precariously between Siamese expectations of kingship and Western...

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Part 4: The Biographical Genre in Local Buddhist Cults and Practice

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pp. 257

Schober presents mythic, textual, and ritual perspectives on Mahāmuni, an image believed to have been created as the Buddha’s Living Twin and representative in his absence. The essay explores the ways in which ritual service to this image is used to create the Buddha’s presence and shows how the image is used in the negotiation...

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In the Presence of the Buddha: Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahāmuni Image

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pp. 259-288

In his discussions of cosmogony and the regeneration of time, Mircea Eliade has called attention to the pervasive tendency across religious traditions to define the present in terms of a pristine past. Eliade’s observation has been borne out in studies of Theravāda Buddhism, many of which have focused, in some measure, on the tendency in this...

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The Textualization of a Monastic Tradition: Forest Monks, Lineage, and the Biographical Process in Thailand

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pp. 289-309

This essay examines the prolific life accounts of the ethnic Lao Buddhist “saints” (arhat) in Thailand since the beginning of the 1970s. Significant biographies in this tradition centered around the lineage of a widely acclaimed religious virtuoso of modern times, Ajaan Man Phuurithatto (1870–1949). Many of Man’s early wandering ascetic disciples...

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The Biography of Modern Burmese Buddhist Meditation Master U Ba Khin: Life before the Cradle and past the Grave

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pp. 310-344

With the rise of individualism during the early eighteenth century, writers became more interested in the uniqueness of persons and biography came to signify the story of the life of an individual human being. Biography has a long history going back at least as far as the Egyptian tomb stones and early oral history. Yet biography...


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pp. 345-364

About the Contributors

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pp. 365-366

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864217
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824816995

Publication Year: 1997

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Gautama Buddha.
  • Buddhist hagiography -- History and criticism.
  • Buddhist saints -- Biography -- History and criticism.
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