Signs from the Unseen Realm
Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication
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This book concerns a collection of Buddhist miracle tales, Mingxiang ji 冥 祥記, or Records of Signs from the Unseen Realm, written at the end of the fifth century CE by the scholar-official Wang Yan 王琰. In part 1, I introduce the work and its author, exploring the nature and genre of the text, its religious themes, narrative tropes, and social and religious contexts. Part 2 offers an annotated translation and selective commentary...
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A generous summer fellowship from the Provost’s Office of the University of Southern California allowed me to work on this book in concentrated fashion during the summer of 2009. That summer I spent four productive weeks at the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 創価大学 in Hachioji, Tokyo, Japan. I am grateful to Soka University, as well as the...
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In the list of sources for each translated item, when citing Lu Xun’s compendium, Gu xiaoshuo gouchen, and the recent Japanese work Hōon jurin no sōgōteki kenkyū, edited by Wakatsuki, Hasegawa, and Inagaki, what I provide are page numbers, but when citing Wang Guoliang’s edition of the text,Mingxiang ji yanjiu, what I give is the serial number of the item in his ordering, not the page number. I have generally based my translation on...
Part 1. Signs from the Unseen Realm and Buddhist Miracle Tales in Early Medieval China
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As far as we know, a minuscule number of monks and laymen of foreign extraction, often with the help of Chinese assistants, began translating Buddhist scriptures from Indic languages into literary Chinese in the middle of the second century of the common era.1 Buddhist-inspired visual imagery was deployed in various places throughout China around this same time.2 But in this earliest period, the audience for the translated texts was vanishingly small, and the Buddhalike images that have been...
Wang Yan and the Making of Mingxiang ji
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No biography of Wang Yan survives. The longest narrative we have about
his life is his own preface to Records of Signs from the Unseen Realm. That
document, combined with a few laconic mentions of him in other texts, allows
us to construct only a rough chronological sketch.
His clan, originally hailing from Taiyuan in the north (in present-day Shanxi province), was probably among the masses of people who migrated southward in the first several decades of the fourth century. His ancestors’ and father’s personal names are not recorded. There was a famous Wang...
Miracle Tales and the Communities That Exchanged Them
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In this section I will make three points: the stories found in Mingxiang ji
were mostly compiled by Wang Yan from various sources, not invented by
him from whole cloth; they were collectively fashioned by many parties;
and most of them are accounts of events claimed to have happened to one
or more named individuals. I begin with this last point.
Early medieval Chinese Buddhist miracle tales constitute, as I said above, a subset of the genre known as zhiguai, or “accounts of anomalies.” One particular feature of the miracle-tale genre...
The Idiom of Buddhism Represented in the Tales
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From the point of view of the history of Buddhism, the miracle tales bear
witness to a particular style of the religion that arose in early medieval
China. Before I elaborate on this statement, a preliminary methodological
note is in order.
There is a way of imagining and writing the history of religious traditions— a way so common that we tend to forget that there are alternatives— that pictures them as holistic entities, living organisms that grow over time while maintaining a singular core “essence” throughout...
Miracle Tales and the Sinicization of Buddhism
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The miracle tales constitute invaluable evidence of the process of the sinicization of Buddhism—that is, the ways in which the foreign religion was introduced into China and explained, justified, and sometimes accommodated to Chinese audiences.107 This is because, as texts, they attempted to effect certain aspects of sinicization at the same time that they reflect aspects of this complex process. I find it useful to think of them as having done so at two levels...
The Narrative Shape of the Miraculous
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Each Mingxiang ji story narrates events that contravene an implied everyday perspective on how the world normally works. Each tale is distinctive, mentioning dramatis personae and other details that appear nowhere else in the text. But the reader quickly notices that the extraordinariness featured in Signs from the Unseen Realm has been channeled into a relatively...
Religious Themes in the Text
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Having just discussed the recurrent story lines in Signs, I intend here to
outline the major religious concerns and interests evident in the text. My
aim is not to give a thorough treatment of any of these religious themes
taken singly, but simply to provide an overview of what the most salient
themes in the text are.
Ganying 感應. The single most important organizing concept in Signs is that of ganying, or “stimulus-response,” which is both a religious...
Part 2. Translation: Signs from the Unseen Realm
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As a child I lived in Jiaozhi.2 There was a Dharma master Xian 賢法師 there, a wise and virtuous monk from whom I received the five precepts.3 I was given a metal image of Sound Observer4 to make offerings to. Its form was different from those of today; on the other hand, it was not very old. It was of the type that was produced during the Yuanjia period.5 Its casting was done so skillfully that it seemed to be the actual [bodhisattva].6 I took it with me to the capital. At the time I was still a boy, and with my two...
Appendix 1. Fragments and Questionable Items
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I briefly list here two sorts of passages attributed in collectanea to Mingxiang ji. One type consists of fragments of text so brief that no story line is discernible. The other type consists of whole stories that I doubt—either on the basis of their content or on the lateness of the anthology (combined with the absence of earlier attributions of the story in question to Mingxiang ji)—were part of Wang Yan’s text (at least autograph versions of it), despite the attribution...
Publication Year: 2012