Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2016
Koichi Shinohara Spells, Images, and Maṇḍalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 352 pp.; 10 b/w ills. $55.00 (9780231166140)

What is the role of an image in a ritual setting? This unflagging question in the study of religious art and visual culture has been raised again by Koichi Shinohara, a historian of East Asian Buddhism who has already produced a number of inspiring works treating the issue. Images in Asian Religions: Text and Contexts (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004; co-edited with Phyllis Granoff) is one such work, in which he utilized a close reading of apologetic writings by the seventh-century Chinese vinaya specialist Daoxuan and his colleague Daoshi to discuss how a distinctive discourse about image worship evolved in medieval Chinese Buddhism. In Spells, Images, and Maṇḍalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals, he turns his attention to a totally different type of Buddhist literature loosely defined as “esoteric teachings” and incessantly delves into the question of the relationship between image and ritual. Constructing a history of the visual and performative culture of ritual through their textual expressions, this account raises important questions about the writing of image-centered narratives that will be of great interest to art historians.

As Shinohara indicates in the first few pages, what the book aims to offer is a hypothetical reconstruction of the formation of the Buddhist ritual tradition he terms “Esoteric Buddhism.” Originating in India roughly around the fifth century and spreading far beyond into Southeast, Central, as well as East Asian countries, this new Buddhist tradition, designated by a variety of terms, such as Tantric Buddhism, Vajrayāna, or E/esoteric Buddhism, focused heavily on ritual. Characterized from the beginning by an extensive use of spells, this distinctive trend developed into a complex, or more aptly “esoteric,” ritual system that consisted of the tripartite components of mantra/dhāraṇī (spell), mudrā (hand gesture), and maṇḍala (pantheon). Requiring the presence of an ācārya (master) who presided over the complex process of the ritual and guided the practitioner in special techniques, this new Buddhist tradition contributed to the production of a variety of forms of religious art and material culture, as well as science and technology. While a number of studies over the past decade have enriched an understanding of this distinctive Buddhist tradition, many issues—including its origin, its course of development, and even the proper term to designate it—are still being debated. (These are well illustrated in a recent encyclopedic compilation, Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia [Handbook of Oriental Studies], eds., Charles D. Orzech, Henrik H. Sørensen, and Richard K. Payne, Leiden: Brill, 2011). Shinohara participates in this scholarly endeavor by closely studying selected Chinese translations of Esoteric texts dating as far back as the fifth to the eighth centuries to trace the course by which Esoteric Buddhist ritual “evolved” (to follow his expression). He assiduously reads and analyzes the texts that he thinks document the gradual yet convoluted emergence of many fundamental features of Esoteric Buddhist ritual. Most importantly for art historians interested in ritual performance, he suggests that it developed from the introduction of physical images to their replacement by visualization practices.

In order to illustrate the development of Esoteric Buddhist ritual as a continuous process, Shinohara sets out three scenarios, or developmental stages, that constitute the conceptual model on which he bases his analyses and discussion. In scenario one, spells were recited repeatedly to attain largely this-worldly, practical objectives. In the second scenario, image worship was introduced into the earlier, simpler cult of spell recitation. In the last scenario, deities constituting the entire Esoteric pantheon were invited into the maṇḍala, and the candidates (that is, ritualists in training) were initiated into a wide range of Esoteric practices in their presence. Representing the title of the book, Spells, Images, and Maṇḍalas, the three scenarios serve as the criteria with which Shinohara maps out the textual sources he has carefully selected from the larger corpus of Buddhist scriptures.

While he admits that the historical development of Esotericism was far more complex and many-sided than the linear progression appearing in his presentation, he uses this framework to outline the evolutionary history of the ritual tradition throughout the three parts of the book. Titled “The Three Ritual Scenarios,” part 1 examines scriptures that focus on simpler dhāraṇī teachings (scenario one) and those that combine image worship and recitation of spells (scenario two). Shinohara continues to consider in the same part how the third scenario, that of maṇḍala initiation, came to be constructed through a close reading of a seventh-century compilation, the Collected Dhāraṇī Sūtras. The three scenarios are tested again in part 2, “The Evolution of Dhāraṇī Sūtras and the Introduction of Visualization Practice,” in which Shinohara examines selected groups of sūtras on dhāraṇīs translated by the Indian monk Bodhiruci (d. 727) at the beginning of the eighth century and revisits the process by which the maṇḍala initiation was introduced to the dhāraṇī sūtras. Through a comparative analysis of different Chinese translations of related rituals, he reconstructs the continuous process of development by which various elements of Esoteric ritual, such as forming mudrās, painting images, creating maṇḍalas, and making fire offerings (homa), emerged one after another and were combined with basic spell recitation. He also reveals how the introduction of visualization techniques in the maṇḍala initiation ceremony finally transformed Esoteric rituals fundamentally. In part 3, “Toward a New Synthesis: ‘Mature’ Rituals of Visualization,” Shinohara looks closely at two examples of so-called “pure” Esoteric Buddhist ritual and confirms that the synthesis of Esoteric rituals presented in the Collected Dhāraṇī Sūtras not only served as the basis for later instruction on maṇḍala initiation but also was reconfigured as a form of visualization ritual, which was finally designated as a yoga practice.

In illustrating this path of development, Shinohara analyzes and partially translates a vast scope of texts. Among them, the Collected Dhāraṇī Sutras is the centerpiece of the book. Attributed to the Indian monk Atikūṭa, this collection is carefully organized around the idea of the maṇḍala initiation ceremony, which is called the “All-Gathering Maṇḍala Ceremony.” It brings together a rich set of existing ritual instructions for individual deities, typically organized around images, to create a ceremony that initiates the candidate into a common ritual tradition. This maṇḍala initiation continued to occupy a central place in later medieval Esoteric Buddhist ritual, though both the rituals for individual deities and the initiation itself underwent profound changes. Tracing the courses by which this ritual tradition emerged and evolved over time, Shinohara discusses how the relationship between image and ritual changed fundamentally.

In spite of Shinohara’s untiring quest to resolve the issue, the conclusions he draws with regard to the relation between image and ritual are somewhat frustrating to the art historian. Notably, he suggests that as the Esoteric Buddhist ritual tradition evolved, the status of images became increasingly uncertain. Indeed, his textually reconstructed history reveals that images were an important part of rituals in the early stage (scenario two), especially in those devoted to individual deities. Images, sculpted or painted, were the material foci in front of which rituals were performed. More than that, as described in the highly formulaic narratives in ritual instructions that prescribe the recitation of spells in front of images, miraculous signs that manifested around the image were believed to confirm the efficacy of the practice; for example, images were often said to emit light as the ground shook, and a loud voice praised the practitioner.

But such distinctive roles of the image became increasingly ambiguous, as the rich body of ritual practices involving spell recitation and image worship acquired a new identity with the introduction of the maṇḍala initiation ceremony (scenario three). The most important feature of this maṇḍala ceremony was the invocation of deities in the form of mental pictures, such as visions or in visualizations performed by the practitioners. Furthermore, deities called into the maṇḍala were represented on the maṇḍala by their “seats” rather than by iconic statues. During such rituals, a candidate for initiation, blindfolded, threw a flower into the maṇḍala, and in so doing, established a special bond with the deity on whom—or on whose “seat”—the flower landed. Although images were still present in the rituals, detailed instructions for them are not clearly mentioned in the texts that Shinohara has categorized within scenario three. Based on this marginalized status, Shinohara concludes that the significance of images as the material loci of deities had diminished by the time the general Esoteric Buddhist initiation ceremony emerged.

This conclusion may explain the relative scarcity of material evidence for the practice of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, particularly for practices that fall into the category of scenario three. Images employed in the maṇḍala ceremony were understood to be temporary; as auxiliary aids that assisted the practitioner to facilitate his visualization, maṇḍala diagrams on the altar are believed to have been destroyed as the complex ritual process ended. However, the role of images in the Esoteric Buddhist context cannot be reduced in such a simple way, as there still exist, on one hand, important traces of Esoteric Buddhist image-making, transmitted in the forms of historical records, archaeological evidence, and materials preserved in Japan by pilgrims who visited Tang China during the ninth and tenth centuries (for a brief introduction of such materials, see Henrik H. Sørensen, “Esoteric Buddhist Art Under the Tang,” in Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, 401–18). One important, albeit vexing, piece of evidence is Amoghavajra’s commission of the Golden Pavilion Monastery (Jin’ge si) at Mount Wutai, an intricately designed multi-storied architectural structure with a maṇḍalic assembly of sculptural images from the Vajraśekhara tradition (for a recent analysis on the iconographic program of the Golden Pavilion Monastery at Mount Wutai, see Wei-Cheng Lin, Building a Sacred Mountain: The Buddhist Architecture of China’s Mount Wutai, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014, 131–54 [click here for review]). Although it is not clear exactly how the monastery functioned as a ritual field, Amoghavajra’s active involvement in the construction at least signifies the gap between what is textually prescribed and what was actually practiced. On the other hand, the introduction of visualization practices into the maṇḍala ceremony seems not to have merely downplayed the role of physical images, but to have significantly changed their meaning and function. Indeed, it seems to have solicited the conflation between physical image and mental vision, thus blurring the distinction between the two. This point is well attested by the images Shinohara presents in the very last section of the book, the illustrations of deities of the Esoteric pantheon included in medieval Japanese compilations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As he rightly points out, these examples show that instructions on how to visualize deities had an impact on the iconography of physical images, testifying to a changed relationship between image and vision. Accordingly, this serves as a call to reassess what is prescribed in the vast corpus of texts against the actual images transmitted to us.

Shinohara has made a number of important findings based on his own textual erudition and painstaking discussion. His meticulous textual studies have set a firm platform for further examination of Buddhist art and visual culture. Now the mission to relate, or disentangle, the theory and practice of image worship is handed off to art historians.1

Sun-ah Choi
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Myongji University, Seoul, Republic of Korea

1 Several recent publications on the visual culture of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism have contributed to an understanding of these questions. See, for example, Paul Copp, The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism, New York: Columbia University, 2014; Michelle Wang, “From Dharani to Mandala: A Study of Mogao Cave 14 and Esoteric Buddhist Art of the Tang Dynasty (618–907),” PhD diss, Harvard University, 2008; and idem, “Changing Conceptions of ‘Mandala’ in Tang China: Ritual and the Role of Images,” Material Religion 9, no. 2 (June 2013), 186–217. For Japanese materials, see Cynthea J. Bogel, With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikkyō Vision, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009 (click here for review).

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