Podcast with Ralph H. Craig III, Hannah Gould, Youn-mi Kim, and Michelle C. Wang (7 September 2020).
Interviewed by Matthew Hayes
Transcribed by David McConeghy
Audio and transcript available at:
Matthew Hayes 01:52
Hello, I am Matthew Hayes for the Religious Studies Project. I’d like to welcome listeners to a roundtable titled “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Buddhist Ritual”. I want to begin first by introducing our roundtable participants. Then I’ll say some sort of preliminary words about the kind of motivations and the aims of this Roundtable. And then we can proceed to what I hope is a warm and compelling conversation about disciplinarity in the study of ritual and how you all see your work fitting in with the field and the state of the field, and so forth.
Matthew Hayes 02:36
I’d like to first begin by welcoming our first panelist, Michelle C. Wang, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Georgetown University. Michelle is a specialist in medieval Chinese art. Her first book, titled Mandalas in the Making: The Visual Culture of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang, examines Buddhist maṇḍalas of the 8th and 10th centuries at the Mogao and Yulin Buddhist cave shrines in northwestern China. In addition to her research on mandalas, she has also written about art and ritual, miracle tales of animated statues, the transcultural reception of Buddhist motifs, and text and image.
Matthew Hayes 03:19
I would also like to introduce Youn-mi Kim, who is Associate Professor of Asian art history at Ewha Womans University. Prior to joining the faculty there, she was assistant professor at Yale University and assistant professor at Ohio State University. She is Editor of New Perspectives on Early Korean Art: From Silla to Koryo (Harvard University Press, 2013). A grantee of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Research Fellowships in Buddhist Studies 2018, she is currently completing her two book manuscripts entitled Visualizing the Invisible: Liao Pagodas, Cosmology, and Body while working on her second book, Ritual and Agency: Visual Culture of Medieval Buddhism in North China.
Matthew Hayes 04:02
Next, I’d like to welcome Hannah Gould, who is a cultural anthropologist specializing in death, technology and religion. She recently completed field work within the Buddhist altar and grave industry in Japan, where she examined the emergence and decline of Memorial technologies and ritual traditions. Hannah is currently ARC Research Fellow with the death tech research team based at the University of Melbourne, studying new body disposal technologies and the future of cemetery design.
Matthew Hayes 04:37
And finally, we have Ralph H. Craig III who is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Stanford University. He has written previously on the theological anthropology of Nichiren Daishonin. Currently he is editing the translation of a Tibetan sutra and is under contract to write a religious biography of Tina Turner for the library of religious biography series out on Eerdmans Publishing.
Matthew Hayes 05:07
Wow, this is an amazing group. A very, very impressive group. Very happy to be joining you today for a discussion and certainly want to thank you all for being here. I’ll just say a kind of a preface, I guess, just sort of outlining some of the aims of this conversation. I mean, this this sort of idea for this roundtable grew out of my occasional frustration, I think, at seeing at both a kind of institutional and field wide level a push for interdisciplinarity in the study of religion, but also at the same time at this sort of individual level, I think, a fairly siloed approach, by many scholars who tend to kind of stay in their lane, in the field. And ritual, I think, to me is one of those religious phenomena that seems to invariably brings scholars together to discuss across these lines of discipline. It involves doctrine and text and materiality and implements and the body and space and architecture and all of these sort of components, and certainly the kind of broader society to support our ritual practice. And so, it sort of sits at this nexus between various disciplines and it provides a lot of opportunities for collaboration and conversation. Now in 2020, which has been a strange year, we find ourselves connected more than ever, right in a kind of virtual way. It seemed important and appropriate to gather together scholars of various rank and to work within and across the Buddhist tradition to describe their own interdisciplinary experience, and to reflect on maybe some of the challenges or maybe some of the promises that this type of work offers scholars interested in ritual, okay?
Matthew Hayes 07:06
To get this sort of conversation started, this is the RSP, right, which typically aims to take a fairly critical approach to religion and religious studies. And so I wanted to begin by exploring the kind of criticality of the term ritual. I’ll sort of frame this question by raising, hopefully a work that’s known to all of you, the 2005 volume, Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. This book really kind of highlighted maybe a dozen or more terms that were deemed very, very central and really important to the study of Buddhism and the section written on ritual was put together by Robert Scharf of UC Berkeley. There Scharf draws our attention, I think, to some of the ways that ritual and ritual studies can subvert or confront some of the power dynamics at play within religious communities. He draws our attention to things like play and theatrics and performativity and world building. Things like this that tend to undermine some of the more common conclusions that scholars come to using more traditional models of decades ago.
Matthew Hayes 08:29
So, I thought we might start by thinking about how your work investigates ritual and its component parts, meaning sort of texts and implements and spaces and communities and actors, and so forth. How this investigation is critical for you or sort of what you see in ritual as a critical term? How it might confront or challenge either through your own work or more generally, some of these dichotomous experiences that were favored decades ago or power relationships or things like this. And, Ralph, I know you’re sort of particularly interested in issues of terminology. I’ve seen you discuss this with the Oxford center a few months ago. How we sort of define things like liturgy. How we define terms like ritual. So I certainly don’t want to put you on the spot, but maybe we can begin here talking about terminology and criticality, certainly, opening up to everybody, but let’s begin here if that’s okay.
Ralph H. Craig III 09:31
Well, referencing that 2002 volume. I also see [the] Carl Bielefeld article, which comes before the ritual article, his article on practice. I see them as kind of going together in a sense, right? So what do we mean by practice? All right, if we say Buddhist doctrine and practice, what is the exact distinction we’re drawing? What do we mean with those terms? Right? And then putting that together then which Scharf’s article which follows it. So for myself, in my own research I’m looking at this Tibetan texts, and trying to figure out just what is meant in this text by Bodhisattva for ritual, which occurs a couple of times in the text, the phrase occurs. Trying to figure out what exactly the text is getting at saying that. We have the Chinese for this text, and we have the Tibetan, and then we have Sanskrit fragments of the text that occurred. It’s quoted quite frequently by Śāntideva. Around 24 times, so in the Śikshā-samuccaya. So I’m trying to figure that out. I don’t have an answer in that text, yet. So what is going on there? But in my own research, I mean, as I’ve, as I’ve discussed before, even going all the way back to the Pratimokṣa ritual and this idea of sealing off the sīma, right, the ritual boundary of the monastery and all that occurs in that boundary. I’m not sure why those things have to take place there in and how that then influences later practices in tradition. So I don’t have an answer yet for what exactly it means, right? But trying to figure that out, and it seems to be directly related to the idea of the Dharma preacher in the texts that I’m looking at right now. How they get ready to preach what’s expected of them seems to have something to do with this Bodhisattva ritual that the text discusses. So I’m trying to iron out these terms of as we speak.
Matthew Hayes 12:01
Sure. For me, just to give a kind of an analogous example here, at least maybe to sort of clarify what it is I’m referring to, you know, in my own work, I’m trying to kind of illuminate the lay experience which is typically underrepresented, I think, in Buddhist studies, and maybe just Religious Studies generally. There’s a kind of a privileging there — monastic experience and monastics as kind of producers but also consumers — and especially in the case of Japan, laity is often left out of the conversation (in some ways, for good reason). And I say that because the materials there are often not written by laity. They’re written by educated monastics. So there’s a kind of a problem of material access there, or at least access to texts that can speak to the lay experience. I’ve worked very hard, I think, to kind of use ritual as a way to indicate the fact that there was much more co-mingling in my period, in early modern Japan, in ritual spaces and around ritual space ritual spaces. And that is, I think, sort of more often the case, right, then it’s sort of given credence in in scholarship.
Matthew Hayes 13:18
So, Youn-mi or Hannah or Michelle, are there any sort of approaches you take to ritual as a critical term, insofar as you might sort of, you know, offer audiences representations of otherwise under represented or unrepresented groups in your in your work or in your fields or regions?
Hannah Gould 13:38
I would say so. I’m an anthropologist, and I work in contemporary Japan. And I think both that disciplinary background and also the kind of field side, really almost predestines me to looking at ritual as a lived practice, and really looking at a grounded approach to ritual as something that people do and experience. It’s sensory and it’s embodied. That’s the kind of primary material that I look at every day. For me, if you think about a kind of practice to doctrine, kind of situation, I’m always as interested in what might be called the emic perspective. So, looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. How did they see ritual? How do they understand it to be effective? What are the conditions that are required? You mentioned that it’s often not represented through the lay people. I work in a population that it’s not only lay people, but it’s actually commercial actors. It’s the industry that supports the lay peoples’ practice and actually operates in between the kind of temple and lay people and that entire population has just been entirely ignored.
I would argue from religious studies because it’s almost outside of that temple-lay-people nexus. It’s an entirely different group of people and because the commercial… because they want money, we get a little bit taboo without any kind of intermingling of those things. But they really had a huge role to play in producing ritual, in designing it and selling it to lay people. You want to worship your ancestors, but you’re not allowed to leave the house because of COVID. Okay, we’ve got this taxi company in Japan, who will go to your grave, and do hakamairi for you, for example. And so there’s different kind of populations that through which ritual is born, that I think it’s only through an interdisciplinary perspective, that you kind of understand that. Being an anthropologist, that’s immediately where I went to design fieldwork, but I recognized that that’s not where a lot of other disciplinary backgrounds were predestined wanted to look at. And so I think, for me, and ritual being this huge term that I think really does connect lots of different disciplines, having different kind of perspectives and different scholars that I can draw on to help fill in that picture is really, really important. And then also recognizing where your particular field work and where your particular discipline can contribute, I think has really helped me kind of understand what ritual could be.
Matthew Hayes 16:15
Yeah, please just go ahead, Michelle.
Michelle C. Wang 16:18
So what you’ve all been saying, actually really speaks to me as well. My material is quite a bit earlier than Hannah’s. I’m always envious of anyone who has the benefit of being able to do ethical field work on. I think I’m speaking both to the dialogue that we’re trying to develop here in the space about interdisciplinarity and then how that pertains to ritual. For the material I work on, which belongs to the 8th to 10th centuries on my site, the Northwestern China Silk Road site Dunhaung, that this is material that had been primarily looked at really through a Japanese scholarly lens. We have such a rich history of studies of Buddhism and British ritual in Japan, by Japanese scholars — in fact, by Japanese, Buddhist monks, scholars of that tradition. One of the things that I was trying to really unpack in my work is the applicability of that model to earlier phenomena in northwestern China in a very different cultural milieu, a very different time period. And one thing that really came to the forefront was on the sites that I was looking at. There are these man-made caves. Buddhist cave shrines that were carved out living rock that we know from the beginning were patronized by laypeople. We have paintings of these lay donors, and quite a bit of work has been done on that from a historical perspective, from a social or history perspective. But what really seemed obvious to me was that we also had to look at these lay people, these lay donors as patrons of rituals. As consumers of ritual, as Hannah was saying. So that’s one way in which I think the kind of work that I was doing maybe uses ritual as a way to introduce interdisciplinarity into the study of Western culture as an art historian. And the type of material I’ve been looking at, not only had a very deep history of Japanese language scholarship, but also was studied in such way in which the images were really left inert, in which images and Buddhist deities were categorized. This is something that we call iconographic studies. I think also by reading ritual, not only were we able to acknowledge the presence of these lay donors, and consumers of ritual, but also maybe kind of get a sense of how they interacted with the images. Not just your paintings in cave shrines, but also other objects. At the site that I work on there were over 60,000 manuscripts and portable paintings and woodblock prints that were sealed up inside one of those caves sometime in the early 11th century. It’s a rich treasure trove of material. It’s also very challenging to make that material mesh with the site, because many of those manuscripts and paintings on probably came from freestanding temples in the local city, rather than on having produced in the caves themselves. But nonetheless, there’s a lot of material to work with. And not only is ritual, a rewarding lens through which to examine it, but it also does demand interdisciplinarity because we’re looking at visual images in the caves. And then we’re also looking at the manuscripts and also the Buddhist rituals that are described in them.
Hannah Gould 19:46
Michelle, I know that you use the term [consumer]. It is really fascinating work actually. But I know that you use the term “consumer” when you’re talking about the laypeople. I wonder, as someone who works, obviously, on religious economics… I wonder if that that framing of consumption and production or circulation has been productive, particularly in art history to kind of place art objects which might have been looked at kind of more symbolically previously, but within kind of social political context? I just wonder if that’s a shift in art history looking at it that way?
Michelle C. Wang 20:20
Yes, I would say that there is a deep history of looking at the consumers of Buddhist art from my discipline, especially my discipline Art History. And, I think that’s been a really useful tool to look precisely at the social cultural context in which these objects were made. But I think, perhaps again, speaking to the things that we’re trying to develop here, what I was trying to do was to look not only at the immediate cultural context in which these cave shrines were made and the paintings were produced, but also to try to think about the religious contexts as well. That’s very tricky because we’re talking about, we’ve talked to a number of times about, how it’s much harder to capture lay ritual or lay practitioners as actors in the monastics. And also, again, because of this problem of trying to make this rich treasure trove of manuscripts and for materials that with the cave shrine, I think that would actually be a really great question for Youn-mi to respond to as well because a lot of her work on ritual has focused precisely on these really elite patrons.
Youn-mi Kim 21:35
Okay. Thank you, Michelle. Well, one of my primary research subjects is Liao dynasty pagodas. As you know, Liao dynasty was a huge empire, which brought large territory [together] in present day north China, Russia, and Mongolia, and during the Liao Dynasty. Many imperial patrons build huge pagodas. But at the same time, even when a pagoda was built by imperial patrons or local community cooperated together to build a huge pagoda they chipped in money. So usually it was not only the elite patrons but also lay people participating together to build a pagoda. I’m talking about rituals related to my research: Well, some of the Liao pagodas, especially the Chaoyang pagoda, which I studied for a long time, has a relic depository inside it. What is interesting is that this relic depository is completely sealed space. After the pagoda was built no one could enter the building, enter the pagoda. But the relic depository was designed as a ritual altar. And isn’t that a little strange? Because when we think about a ritual, we tend to think that it’s some kind of human action. But this ritual altar inside the pagoda did not have any human actants to perform an actual ritual. It happens that when I was a graduate students, my advisor, Eugene Wang was interested in the concept of virtual ritual. So we found that this pagoda relic depository was a perfect example for a virtual ritual. For a long time, I thought about how I could explain this phenomenon. I began to refer to many different kinds of ritual theory. I found that there was no single definition of ritual that everybody agreed on. There were so many different kinds of definitions on ritual. Some people say that it’s something very dynamic, while some people say it’s something very rigid and strict and authoritative. But it seems that almost everyone agrees that it’s some kind of human action, but for my case, there was no human action.
I think now it’s time for us to think about the role of non-human actants or material agency, because we have some cases, including some tombs, the inner-space of tombs, that was that was designed to be ritual space. It’s the same thing. There’s no human, ritual actant, but the materials themselves were designed to act as a material reactant, which could extend the ritual efficacy. So I’m not attempting to make a new definition of a ritual, but I’m trying to expand the extent of the boundary of the definition of ritual. I think the subject of today’s round table was a really good choice, because ritual is not only a very important concept inside the religious studies but in so many different disciplines, including politics and in sociology they also use this concept as a very useful framework. I found that there are studies which analyzed American football or [the U.S.] Presidential inaugural ceremony and even physician’s surgery as some kind of ritual, which I find very interesting.
Hannah Gould 26:30
It’s really fascinating. What do you say about the non-human, Youn-mi? Because not only in Japan where I’m working, we have funeral ceremonies, rituals, kuyō, kuyō for kuyōkai for inanimate objects, whether that be dolls or eyeglasses, or, in some case, bras and like all these different kind of objects. I’ve got a paper coming out soon in the Journal of Global Buddhism about the limits of ritual efficacy when we think about Robots, robotics and AI. So there’s been kind of a few stories recently about kind of Buddhist robots. They often get a lot of popular press. This is the new age. But, you know, what does it… What does it take for a non-human actor to be an effective ritual agent? Can they perform a funeral ceremony? Can they perform or blessing? What are the kind of limits [or] limitations, whether that be a kind of robotic system and AI system or even if it be something more like, you know, Buddhism on the blockchain? What does it for an algorithm to perform a Buddhist ritual? And how does that change? It’s really interesting because in Buddhism you have this huge historical background of non-human agents being involved in ritual that we can draw on to theorize which is what makes it so interesting.
Youn-mi Kim 27:49
That is so very, very interesting. So, when we talk about non-human agencies or non-human actors, now we have to consider robots and AI.
Matthew Hayes 28:01
I think this conversation is already helpful for me just thinking about this sort of expansion of boundaries. I mean, in many ways, this is precisely what interdisciplinarity is trying to do, right? Whether these are boundaries of social reception or textual reception or something like this. And, you know, in many ways, it’s pushing back against this rigidity, a sort of strictness, you know, about who are the knowledge producers and who are the consumers, as several of you have already sort of mentioned here. Being able to widen the scope of things like reception or interaction, or production in some cases is, I think, really one of the main missions of interdisciplinary work: trying to kind of push back against some of those tendencies that have been sort of set up over decades of prior study.
Matthew Hayes 28:53
You know, this is actually I think, a very helpful segue. I think several of you have expressed very sort of common or similar perspective on how you think of ritual as a critical term. In surveying your work individually I noticed also there some sort of common perspectives and angles on your own particular subjects. One of these sort of commonalities is things around ritual change, if I’m sort of reading everyone’s work, you know, acutely. And this could mean I think, in some cases change and things like visual language, right? A Buddhist iconography. This could mean confrontations with modernity, maybe in Hannah’s case, repurposing of ritual implements or sort of the passage of text across time across space. And, you know, sort of thinking of your work together as a whole transformation seems to be at least at some degree at play there in your work. Perhaps we could talk a little bit about ritual change as a consideration for you as researchers and scholars, right?
So why either at a kind of performative level or a material level or textual level or conceptual level, why is change an important consideration in your work, ritual change? And why? What does ritual change tell you about maybe the Buddhist tradition, or performance or the body or space or technology? And then maybe as a sort of an additional question: Is this something you actively seek out in your work? I know that ritual change is certainly not a new consideration for scholars, right, that sort of idea has been around for a while it’s been on the radar for many people working in and around ritual. You know, this is something I’ve sort of taken into consideration in my own work, it seems like a helpful barometer to measure some of the things we’ve been sort of talking about whether it comes to audience or power relationships or reception and things like this. Is this consideration for you? And if so, sort of what methods do you deploy in your work to consider things like ritual transformation or ritual change?
Matthew Hayes 31:16
Not everyone at once.
Hannah Gould 31:20
Yeah, I mean, change is a huge aspect of my work. I suppose I explicitly frame my project as a moment of great uncertainty and precarity in Japanese Buddhist rituals. Particularly about rituals around death and dying, given kind of the background of huge demographic shifts happening in Japan. The breakdown of intergenerational systems of ancestor worship and care, but also a background of things like North Korean missile launches and pandemics and 3/11. This kind of sense in which death is becoming a part of everyday life and how that can destabilize these kinds of ritual systems and traditions that of the last two generations.
I think the one thing for scholars and I don’t know if this is everyone, but the thing about change that is so appealing is that often it’s kind of when rituals begin to break down, that you can kind of see their component parts or how they work in the first place. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what makes a ritual effective, until something goes wrong, right? When ritual fails…. So, change provides this kind of really fascinating, kind of almost natural laboratory or testing ground for us to look at, okay, for an anthropologist in particular, you know, what happened? Why didn’t that ritual what made it effective? You know, what are the limits of it? What you would like to do and what could it be and what couldn’t it be? So, I might spend a lot of time talking to people who are trying to design new ways of memorializing people, caring for them, and new technologies for incorporating ash. Whether that be, you know, putting ash in jars and keeping it the home on the Butsudan, or making it into jewelry or shooting it into space. But what makes that meaningful, right? What are the limits of what you can do? And sometimes you’ll hit kind of a limit or an experimentation or an innovation, where all you get as reaction is? “Oof, no.” And sometimes people can’t explain why. Right? So, for example, a lot of you know, the Butsudan, the Buddhist altars that are in the homes, how to dispose of them. How that process [of disposal] happens. A lot of the time people can’t put it into words what’s right or wrong. But if I suggest something like, “Okay, so what if I would just to put an old puts it on out with a trash on the side of the road?” And the reaction you get is just kind of like, “Oh, no.” It’s embodied. It’s affective, right? It’s like, that couldn’t happen! And so change provides you this really fascinating test or testing ground to kind of work out these kind of sometimes unspoken rules to ritual that they only emerge kind of when they’re breached. So if you have this kind of soup of transformation, you can kind of start to see the edges of what ritual could or might be, at least for me. That’s why it’s so interesting and engaging to do that work.
Michelle C. Wang 34:16
I think Hannah, what you said about unspoken rules is really interesting. I think a lot that would apply to scholarship as well. I’m here to say on ritual change it kind of really boil down to historical changes, again, this historical knowledge. I think it’s a little hard way of looking at things from a distance to capture what, like I said, a moment is. But even in the 10th century what we see in Northwestern China is a period of intense change on which we have the Tibetan empire which ruled over Central Asia and you know, this site in Northwestern China and the fall of the Tibetan Empire, and then the rise of a local government, nominally pledging allegiance to the central Chinese government, to central China. But really, it was quite independent. So they increasingly adopted more and more grandiose titles, actually calling themselves kings of Dunhuang. It was actually a moment where — I think I was just looking at the dates and the chronology – and I thought, “Wait, they actually line up next to one another, he’s actually lined up next to another.” You know, what was happening with local practitioners in Dunhuang and then with the Tibetans, and then that was what led me to notice not just change but parallel changes. And, again, that was really kind of boiled down to iconography.
When we’re talking about esoteric Buddhist rituals, this is a highly ritualized form of Buddhism with very specific iconographic templates such as mandalas on very geometric or highly diagrammatic representations of Buddhist deities and cosmology. What I’ve seen was actually the interpolation of a different modular elements. I think the kind of this idea of breaking down ritual into modular elements is really attractive to me as well. I’m breaking down ritual into these constituents, you know, modular elements that kind of see where what we recognize as those highly ritualized, esoteric forms of Buddhism, those modular elements with maybe things that were not conventionally considered to be part of that tradition. How they were being fitted together in innovative ways. I thought was quite interesting, maybe kind of pushing back against, you know, these distinct categories with these categories that we respected for a very long time. I think for me, it’s really interesting to think of maybe the mechanics underlying ritual, you know, how do you do it? How do you put things together? And then when are these moments that can trigger a great change? Because going back to the 19th century — so this is a period in which we see a lot of independence among the local — we basically see a lack of, let’s say, central centralized political authority, right? We have this very independent local government in Dunhuang. And then this also coincides with what’s been called the “Dark Age” of Tibetan history in which there was kind of a gap between the first and second transmission of Buddhism in which scholars who for some reason believe that there was a great deal of ritual innovation precisely because of the lack of centralized government control of Buddhist rituals. And so, it seems to me that maybe during this historical period, that it was ripe for experimentation, and maybe localized forms of Buddhism that were really designed to fit the needs of local lay devotees rather than monastic elite.
I was intrigued by the question raised about how do you know when it’s effective? How do you know it’s efficacious? And I wonder if that has to do with especially since we’re talking about changes over time with maybe what gets carried forward, what is transmitted. I’m wondering if, Ralph, that’s something you see in your work. You’re dealing with different sources, some of them fragmentary. And that’s something I find so fascinating and challenging as well. You’re working not just inter-disciplinarily, but really across, you know, languages and cultures.
Ralph H. Craig III 38:12
Yeah, I think, I mean, one of the things that came to mind as you were speaking is in many Indian texts, in many Sanskrit texts, you have the section called the phalaśruti. This is the hearing of benefits, literally, the hearing of the fruits, right? So the benefit that is to be gained from either engaging in reciting the text itself or doing what the text enjoins you to do and how these phalaśruti change over time. All right, how in different additions of a text, you’ll see different phalaśruti. And there are many ways right to think about that one scholar Florinda De Simini right in her book Of Gods and Books. Right? she discusses the phalaśruti extensively. And she doesn’t discuss it in these terms. But now because of your question, Michelle, I’m thinking about how these phalaśruti change how the expectations of efficacy and of what the text can do and what its benefit will be to you. Or the text may say, engaging in the text can bring rain in the drought. You see this in a lot of dhāraṇī texts, but then when that text is copied and used in another text (parts of dhāraṇī texts are often used in other texts) the rainmaking part will be dropped. Or the part about childbirth will be dropped and inserted in that part will be something else. And is that because the geography has changed? The rain is not so much an issue in this new environment? Is it transmission error? The part of that text is just missing. We’re working with these fragments. It’s not always clear why a part is missing, but it often seems more deliberate than not. So I think you’re absolutely right, and in my own work, in particular, I see it in these hearing of benefit sections, which are relatively understudied. I mean, they’re acknowledged or they’re a part of almost every text we look at. So many scholars mentioned these texts, these portions of texts, these phalaśruti, but some scholars are just now starting to think about what they actually do. And that then entails looking at these changes.
Ralph H. Craig III 41:04
This includes the texts I’m working on right now: the Dharmasaṃgīti sūtra, in Tibetan the Chos yang dag par sdud pa’i mdo. It has this very long, I would argue a solid fourth of the text is phalaśruti. But some parts of that is more toward the end, right? So the last fourth of the text, but portions of that portion don’t occur in the Chinese. Some of the significant benefits [mentioned]. So when I was reading through the Tibetan just to preliminarily see what was there, I got excited by these kinds of things. I was like, “Oh, you do the text, and you get this, and you’ll have a beautiful body. That will be great. Who doesn’t love a beautiful body?” But that is not in the Chinese, and we’re just now starting our work to see if that’s because it wasn’t original to the text. We’re trying to cross reference to see if that parts of that section come from somewhere else. Or if it means problems with our manuscript, which, of course, is possible.
Youn-mi Kim 42:18
Well, Ralph brought out brought up a very important issue, I think, of the relationship between actual ritual practice and ritual manuals, for example, and the reasons why certain rituals or the believed efficacy of tiny changes. Some of my research is also related with similar kinds of questions. I found that there are many different reasons for certain changes in a ritual, but one of the reasons was related to practical reasons. What I mean is that sometimes people might think that some aspects or every aspects of a ritual should have some very important symbolic meaning, but some of them change because of practical, not symbolic, but practical reasons.
What I want to talk about is a Korean Buddhist ritual known as pokchang. This pokchang ritual is a rite in which certain monks prepare very special ritual objects to be enshrined inside a Buddhist statue to enliven the statue. When they made the statue, based on materials excavated from inside Buddhist statues, we know that such ritual was practiced at least since 13th or 12th century in Korea. But what is interesting is that the ritual manuals, which explains about the ritual, these survive only from the from the late 16th century. We have a list seven different editions for that ritual manual known as Josanggyeong in Korean. And when Korean scholars compare our actual objects, excavated from statues and compare them with these ritual manuals, what we find is that sometimes it was ritual practice itself that changed at first and then people later reflected that changes those changes in in a new edition of ritual manual. Some of the changes happened because of practical reasons. For example, in the late 18th century, Buddhist paintings in Chosŏn Korea began to change from hanging scroll into framed form. They began to mount Buddhist paintings using wooden frames. What is interesting is that in Chosŏn Korea, people also did similar pokchang rituals or Buddhist paintings, but because paintings do not have inner space. What people did was they prepared a special pouch, trying to enshrine a relevant object inside the pouch, and hung it above the painting. But when the mounting format changed from hanging school into framing, people changed the ritual So, instead of making pouch they made a square box which enshrined similar objects and then they attached the box behind the painting in order to enliven in the painting. What made that change was not symbolic reason, but this practical change that happened. The material shape of the painting style and change of that ritual was reflected in the later version of virtual Josanggyeong in the ritual manual. Can I say one more thing?
Matthew Hayes 47:02
Youn-mi Kim 47:02
You know, last month I was staying at a local Buddhist monastery in a mountainous area in Korea. I participated in a special program in which we went lived like a monk or nuns for three weeks. And the program was super strict. And then there were our three monks and one nun who supervised us. During the program, what we found most difficult was the eating ritual. We called it baru gongyang. For every meal there were so many details we have to follow in order to help this meal. It was so strict and when our nun first taught us how to do this ritual there were quite a few different dhāraṇīs and mantras we have to recite during this new time and also there were mudras. But then we found that the ritual that the nun was keeping for many years was actually different from what her colleague monks were doing. And they did not know that their monasteries had different rituals. They thought that they were sharing the same meal ritual but they found from this program…. They found that they were actually the rituals a little differently. I think in that way, without noticing sometimes ritual develops in different ways and then it slowly changes and sometimes practitioners do not [even] recognize those changes.
Matthew Hayes 49:04
Hannah Gould 49:05
I really love this conversation. Sorry, just because…
Matthew Hayes 49:07
Hannah Gould 49:08
I particularly like to talk to people who are more kind of, maybe historically-minded than anthropologists can sometimes be because I think we have that kind of a significance bias sometimes in studying ritual and religion where as you said, Youn-mi, this change must have occurred because it’s important or symbolic, or you know, that as you’ve all talked about, sometimes it’s environmental factors or political factors, or just chance or just variation. And I think of the work of Ruth Toulson who works in Singapore, on Singapore funerary rituals. And she says that sometimes the things that remain are actually the things that are the least important because they’re the things that impose the least amount of burden on people to continue. And we kind of assume that as rituals change, it’s always the most important core heart part of that ritual, that will remain, but that’s often not the case. I am really just enjoying these kinds of historical approaches to it.
Matthew Hayes 50:07
I was just going to say one thing that sort of got me thinking, just in hearing each of you speak, is how central human actors are to all of your work, whether or not it’s modern or pre modern, right? And I suspect maybe more so for somebody like Hannah, I mean, you’re sort of doing ethnography in a very active way. If anything, just to kind of ask a practical question, 2020 has revealed itself to be a year of change and a year of dysfunction in many, many ways. I’m thinking about those of you who have to be on site right to conduct your research or those of you who need to have in a dialogical relationship, or at least an interactive relationship with your subjects. What sort of new obstacles or challenges or just kind of practical problems have arisen for you? What sort of problems do you anticipate even arising next year? So this is a very uncertain time with this kind of global health crisis. And I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about a difficulty you’ve had or some difficulties you’ve had in your pursuit of data or materials or anything. Maybe we can start with you, Hannah, just because I know this is probably the most…
Hannah Gould 51:29
Yeah, that’s all the problems. Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m not sure if it’s clear but I’m based in Australia. And we’ve been relatively lucky in terms of our COVID response, but we’re also very proactive. So I’m not allowed to leave the country and my university won’t let me go overseas to do research. You know, they won’t give me insurance or anything. I’m not allowed to leave my house for more than an hour at the moment. So a trip to Japan to do some research is not really in the cards. So it’s been a weird year for me, both because COVID has stopped me doing… obviously traveling to Japan and doing any kind of in person field work, but also because COVID is about death and I study death ritual and death ritual change. So you know already academics kind of blur their scholarship and their work. All my Facebook feeds, all of my social media feeds have been from some of my participants interlocutors in the field, you know, people working at funeral homes. We’ve got our first COVID death today. How did you know? How did they react to that?
For me, some of that has been…. I’ve been able to kind of switch to doing some fieldwork in Australia and looking at kind of more local responses within religious communities to death and dying and kind of the restrictions around COVID. We only have 10 people per funeral service here in Australia. There’s quite a strict limit and lots of differences about body preparations and body handling and embalming. And some of that has me being trying to be active on social media and following news reports in Japan and kind of calling up my participants and asking them how they’re doing. But also, you know, as an anthropologist, I think I’m always so focused on interviewing people and being there on the ground, I don’t always give enough time to kind of explore texts. And, actually, COVID has maybe given me a chance to kind of try out some new kind of more textual methodologies that I think is not my training. It’s an interesting kind of way for me to kind of start exploring those issues and see how it’s written about and work more with textual materials. It’s both a really difficult time to be conducting fieldwork, and also, it’s the most important time for me to be engaging with the subject matter, because COVID has totally transformed how [death rituals are] happening.
Matthew Hayes 53:56
Right? I know in the case of Japan, and I suspect elsewhere also, there are now these kind of distanced funerary rites. These kind of distance memorials and things like this. And so my immediate question to somebody like you who, as you say, kind of needs to be on site, or at least, you know, ideally wants to be there with people, is there such a thing as a kind of distanced ethnography or virtual ethnography or a way for you to kind of access, you know, the data or the people or the kind of events in sort of the same ways that they are evolving in real time in 2020 in this kind of virtual proxy sort of distanced way?
Hannah Gould 54:34
Yeah, I think, the first thing for an anthropologist is the kind of the shape of your ethnography is always driven by the shape of what people are experiencing. So, if people are a lot more online today, and they’re attending funerals through Zoom, then you need to be online and you need to be on Zoom. And even if I were in Japan, not doing that aspect of it would kind of betray what’s happening in the ground. The other interesting thing, I suppose, is that a lot of the trends of that debate happening in Japanese culture towards, for example, smaller family rituals, smaller funerals that don’t maybe involve, you know, extended families or companies, are with one monastic and perhaps just a small family. They have actually been happening for a long time. So, when COVID hit, in some ways, it’s just exacerbated changes that have been going on for quite a while, as opposed to kind of completely revolutionizing them. I think that’s also really interesting, because, cremation or all these kinds of new ways of dealing with ashes. It shows that it’s not always a huge revolution. It can just be kind of a slower evolution towards things that have already been going on. It’s not perfect from afar, but it is my daily bread and butter at the moment and I’m lucky to have enough of my participants in Japan who want to update me. I’m unable to get kind of source materials with Japan, sent to me, so it’s certainly true [that COVID has had an impact]. In 2020, I’d love to be there. But hopefully 2021 I’ll be able to go back.
Matthew Hayes 56:07
And in the case of Michelle and Youn-mi and Ralph, and I suspect myself as well, I mean, we’re largely relying on things like digitization of archival materials or texts or facades and things like this. But are there any other considerations? Michelle, or Youn-mi or Ralph that you maybe have to take into consideration nowadays or maybe looking forward to your work? I suspect the impact may not be as dramatic as it is for Hannah, but anything for you in this way?
Ralph H. Craig III 56:34
Well, one, I’m sorry, were you about to say something, Michelle?.
Matthew Hayes 56:41
Oh, go ahead, Ralph.
Ralph H. Craig III 56:42
Okay. It’s true that I largely work on text. So not having access to collections and until recently, for example, the Stanford library and also the East Asia library, which is a part of it, which I really love. I haven’t been able to access them. But more importantly for me has been the inability to have the spontaneity that I didn’t really realize my research required. I drew a lot from overhearing conversations informally or just being around some of my colleagues or other departments, for example, at Stanford. Or to just to go into colloquium and hear some of the things that they’re doing there. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from that. I’m looking at the Dharma preachers in this particular text, for example, the dharmabhanakas, that came from overhearing a conversation. In AFAM, Stanford doesn’t have an AFAM department, but I was thinking about my own background in New Orleans and all of that, thinking about the article that I wrote on nature in Christian symbols and all of that. Then I overheard this conversation at a colloquium that I was at and they seem to be saying a number of things that I was also seeing in the text that I was looking at. So that is actually what inspired me to look at this text in the first place, and started this whole kind of research project that I’m on right now. Then in these kinds of conferences, just kind of interacting with various scholars, and not having that, right? Or even to do something like this, where it has to be scheduled for something to occur, to reach out. And it takes…
When I was teaching online last quarter, and obviously, of course, will be for the for the foreseeable future, everything is so scripted and scheduled. I’m not having the kinds of spontaneous interactions that have been central to my work thus far. And I’ll adjust. You have to, but that is something that has changed my research. And my project on Tina Turner, obviously. She’s a living figure and I was supposed to be in Switzerland doing research related to the book that I’m writing on her right. She’s a Swiss citizen. Now she lives in Switzerland. And all that went out the window. All the people that I was supposed to meet with. Some of them refused to meet over Zoom. They feel that they can’t have the kind of interaction that they want to have over Zoom. And so that shell that whole aspect of my project.
Michelle C. Wang 59:44
Do you agree that with just COVID and the scheduling things, we’re all being forced to be a lot more goal driven? I think that we might have had this kind of a loss of, maybe, serendipity and the kind of casual encounters that you might have. Conferences. I find that I actually missed quite a bit. So the Zoom coffee hours don’t really quite compensate for all that. And it’s challenging, I think, especially when you’re participating in international conferences where it’s a lot harder to bridge the linguistic divides and the kind of casual conversations you might have with scholars speaking their second and third languages…. That’s a little harder, I think, to sustain a resume. I would say, there’s something that Hannah mentioned that made me wonder. So you were saying that ethnography is shaped by the lived experiences of your colleagues and your subjects. It kind of makes me wonder, maybe for those of us who are pre modernists, and we’ve talked about, you know, moments of crises and change, right? Whether there was anything like that going on, and if so, where would we look for that material? I mean, so let me just leave that out. There was a very strange thought that popped into my mind, speaking of lack of serendipity
Michelle C. Wang 1:01:00
Speaking to digitization, one thing I’ll say is that I’ve been working on a project with the international Dunhuang project with a postdoctoral fellow Miki Morita and with staff at the British Library, with Luisa Mengoni and Mélodie Doumy. This involves the cataloguing and digitization of Silk Road artifacts in North America, which hadn’t been done systematically before. I would say that as much of a boon the digitization has been for those of us who work with pre modern materials, especially manuscripts, that the production of new digitization has slowed down considerably because we’re talking about libraries and museums where people got furloughed with a great deal of uncertainty and people who work at home actually not having access even to those primary sources in order to digitize them. So maybe just a final thought is that for anyone working on China studies, I think the COVID crisis is also intertwined with just what’s happening in terms of US-China relations, especially in this election year. So there’s been a lot of uncertainty about that. A lot of things that, I think, throw into question what our scholarly collaborations with colleagues in China will look like going forward.
Matthew Hayes 1:02:24
That’s a great segue. I mean, many of you have mentioned these sorts of obstacles in making contact, establishing contact with people, maintaining relationships, not only with your subjects, in the case of Hannah, but also just other scholars. I mean, Ralph, I appreciate this perspective on spontaneity. I think I can absolutely agree with you. Some of the most exhilarating moments for me, both as a graduate student and now as a kind of a fresh PhD, have been those moments where you encounter something when you least expect it. Those are the kinds of moments that I think we all really appreciate. And absolutely when we fall into this kind of mundane, you know, very, very scheduled highly kind of, you know, standardized routine every day, it becomes very, very difficult to seek out something obscure or chase down something that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be worth your time. Spending two hours chasing something down and so on. It makes it very, very difficult. Perhaps we could spend the last few minutes here talking about some of the kind of practical challenges, but also maybe some of the approaches you take to establishing networks across disciplines, whether that’s across departments or across methodological lines or across, you know, borders, right? In a kind of a physical sense, not only for 2020, but also just sort of looking forward in your own work and how you envision yourself maintaining some degree of interdisciplinarity with all these sort of challenges that are that are arising and perhaps we can sort of finish here.
Matthew Hayes 1:03:57
Maybe Youn-mi, if you don’t mind, would you mind starting here.
Youn-mi Kim 1:04:01
Of course. My primary field is history of arts and I have been trained inside my own field. But at the same time, I have a lot of intellectual exchanges with scholars in the field of Buddhist studies. So, for me, it was kind of very natural that I began to have many communications with them. And then I’m also participating in the Frog Bear Project, and that project has many scholars of Buddhist studies. At the same time, it also has quite a few art historians, including myself, and Michelle was in our office. I think this kind of interdisciplinary project really helps make us into truly interdisciplinary researchers.
I want to add a little bit more comments on this 2020 situation because of this pressing epidemic. I have been really frustrated, but, at the same time, I see some kind of some kind of good effects as well. What I mean is, for example, next year in March, the art history association of Korea is planning to have a big international conference. But at the moment it seems that we have to do it online, so we’re changing our plans. I was a little bit disappointed because I couldn’t really physically invite all my old colleagues and famous scholars. At the same time, what is good is that we will make this conference available online so that everybody can watch the conference and ask questions. This make it more democratic, I would say, because anyone around me, anyone around the world doesn’t need to buy a plane ticket to come to Korea to attend the conference and listen to the lectures of the scholars. So, it became free for everyone. I believe that these kind of online conversations in the future will help many small institutions in various ways to have and host international conferences more easily because it reduces costs. It’s just the current situation obviously has many frustrations and disappointments, but at the same time it has some level of positive effects as well. And the same for the museum exhibitions. My field is art history. So I have many exchanges with museum curators. I mean, some museums have very expensive or relatively expensive museum tickets. But nowadays, museums have begun to offer more online exhibitions and online education and many of them are free and open to everyone. It is making some positive effects. At the same time, I’m hoping that the world will return to normal for me to bring my graduate students to Sichuan province in China. Last week I cancelled [the program and] so my students were so disappointed.
Matthew Hayes 1:08:27
Please go ahead.
Ralph H. Craig III 1:08:30
I just wanted to kind of build upon what Youn-mi was just saying also to circle back to the question you asked about ritual change. As you know, Matthew, some of my work is about liturgy and looking at kind of liturgical practices and text. It’s writing that fundamentally tells you who to be. They create subjects. They describe kinds of subjects as well. There’s always this question of what is… what is this liturgy telling us about the subject, either who envisions or is participating? Or if you’re lucky enough, that maybe in Hannah’s case, if you’re lucky enough to have actual people doing something, then to have actual conversations about that. And so that now in these COVID times, right, it’s like, “Who are we being asked to be as scholars?” Or as researchers? I think that’s an open question. I don’t think it’s…. I think, like Youn-mi was just saying, one of those things we’re being asked to be is to be more open, to be more accessible with our research. Because on a fundamental level, that’s how we can share across these platforms and some of my favorite resources like BDRC. And some of these kinds of database sites have during this time, totally revamped their interface. Just to make them more accessible and easier to use in acknowledgment of the fact that many people are accessing this material now, digitally. But then also addressing, for example, in the US, we had during what spring quarter for me, I was co-teaching my exploring Buddhism class, which is basically an intro to Buddhism class. But at the same time, there was all this unrest happening around racial issues in the United States and all of this and trying to find a way each class session to address that some of our students were kind of living in areas that were hard hit by protests and unrest. And then being on Zoom at the same time as all of this was happening. So, trying to discuss that and deal with that, but also get through, you know, our kind of fifth century material, which is not directly related. So it’s been asking us to be different in some way. And that’s a kind of ritual change. Right? That’s my point.
Matthew Hayes 1:11:17
In many ways, it’s actually asking us to be interdisciplinary, right? It’s asking us to kind of reach across disciplines and maybe put a foot in, you know, other issues that we don’t commonly put a foot in, when we’re working on fifth century Indic texts all the time. So absolutely very, very similar experiences for me. Spring quarter, I looked at materials that I think spoke more so to social issues. These were issues in pre- modern Japan, in my case, but as an instructor? I felt that kind of responsibility to bridge those worlds together, and it seemed effective. So students had their dials turned way up during those moments. I think they were sort of more receptive to that type of flexibility and nimbleness when it comes to disciplines and excavating some of those harder issues that were very, very visceral for many of them at that time around the spring and still are certainly. So yeah, that’s a helpful comment.
Michelle C. Wang 1:12:13
You could, also actually follow up with Matthew about thinking about maybe the burden, or expectations placed on scholars in different disciplines or how different disciplines are responding to the COVID crisis. Because as you know, there’s been a lot of great material produced by our colleagues in religious studies and Buddhist studies that we’re all planning on using on this fall when we teach. And I think there may be the focus is more on education or public education, public scholarship. And I see actually very different expectations placed on the artworld where the focus is more on maybe on maybe kind of a diversion or, you know, healing. It’s a very different kind of rhetoric, actually, which I find really interesting and exciting. We talked about maybe the transactional or maybe consumerist aspects of Buddhist ritual a couple of times during this conversation and, I think that if, let’s say for Buddhist ritual were to be carried out remotely, we would expect there to be some sort of transactional aspect of it, right? It wouldn’t be carried out for free. But same time there is increasing expectation that museum related digital programming, you know, when we take this online, that it will be free. And I don’t think this is a long-term model. I just finished correcting proofs for co-authored article that’s coming out from Museum Journal and I didn’t hear from the staff of the journal for a long time. I was afraid to reach out because I was genuinely terrified that they lost their jobs. I just didn’t know what was going on. And so I find it really interesting. That’s actually something that a couple of us have talked about teaching and how we’re trying to bring this to life for students, as well as for one another as academics. I’m actually teaching a class this fall on “Art in Crisis,” speaking about how the pandemic is affecting not just our research as well as our teaching. Originally, I was slated to teach a course on Zen art and realized that it would have been quite possible to do just given the uncertainty of library access, where my students are going to be, uncertainty about when you think you’re going to open, so on and so forth. One of the things that students are really keen on looking at is really the response to the art world and artists on to the pandemic and kind of be unpacking this idea of the healing power of arts during the pandemic. And find it ironic because, you know, we, a number of us talked about dhāraṇīs and we know about, you know, the ways in which Buddhist rituals can be deemed a healing, you know, a sort of advocacy, but, increasingly, it seems to me that we’re thinking about expectations of religious studies scholars versus maybe the art world. It seems to me that maybe more than the burden on expecting patient healing has been placed onto the religious studies, if that makes sense.
Matthew Hayes 1:15:07
Yeah. I just sort of want to get Hannah in here as well, just any thoughts for you Hannah on sort of disciplinary expectations as Michelle just described or the sort of burden or alternatively, you know, network building and some of the sort of challenges for reaching across disciplines in light of some of these burdens, I think that are emerging for some of you.
Hannah Gould 1:15:26
I mean, being an anthropologist in Australia… as you know, religious studies as a discipline is not really a discipline in Australia, it’s kind of never been. So people who work in religion tend to be trained in different social sciences disciplines. And then there’s the added kind of, I suppose, relationship between the US and Australia where, you know, there’s a tendency for U.S. academics–I don’t think I’ll offend anyone– to position the U.S. as the academic core and the English speaking world. Like some of these big conferences like AAR, or the AAA, for example, really represent themselves as kind of, you know, the core number one most important place where Religious Studies is happening or anthropology is happening. And so being a scholar who doesn’t work in that job market and that kind of discursive space, you have to do more work to engage with US scholarship. And for Australians in particular, geographically, we just travel. This is part of how we do our jobs. And so Australian academics, we’ll go to maybe two or three international conferences every year. Almost all of our conferences will be International, because that’s how we engage with different academic communities. We also get to engage with both the UK and the US and Europe and Asia. And I think that because we don’t see Australia as the core it actually allows us to kind of speak to lots of different organizations and different kinds of scholarships. I think that’s an enriching aspect because, especially about habitus, it’s part of a ritual to travel to different academic communities and kind of force yourself to engage and forge relationships that might otherwise have been made for you by graduate connections or, you know, supervisory connections and that sort of thing. It’s kind of more of an active process of creating relationships.
Hannah Gould 1:17:20
For anthropologists, in particular, for a discipline that really seeks to contribute to contemporary debate and discourse. If the healing aspect is being put onto the art world, I think anthropologists have felt a lot of burden or a lot of responsibility to being actively engaged and to pivot towards not only the COVID kind of crisis, but also, you know, Black Lives Matter in America, but also the kind of resonances that has in Australia for the kind of Indigenous Australian rights movements and that sort of thing. So a lot of people have attempted to pivot their research and that has placed burdens on different people because of just how academic life is structured. I know that we’ve already seen kind of declines in single journal authored submissions from women who have caring responsibilities. We’ve seen journals find it harder and harder to get reviewers and to kind of be able to maintain that level of academic performance. So it’s been quite a bit of an existential crisis for anthropologists in a lot of ways because the main bread and butter of going out and just hanging out and talking to people, and traveling the world is one appeal to be done. But at the same time, it’s reminded us that you know, you kind of have to be really active and put yourself into conversation, whether that be via social media or via engaging a lot more on kind of disciplinary debates and you know, email lists, etc. That’s something you kind of have to practice and have to become a new rhythm of your working life.
Matthew Hayes 1:19:00
Well, maybe forging relationships in the light of our academic burdens is a perfect place to end this conversation. Wonderful perspective. This conversation took turns I hadn’t anticipated. It was quite exciting for me. And it also felt very timely, much more timely than I think I had anticipated as well. So, I want to thank all of our participants: Michelle, Youn-mi, Ralph, and Hannah, thank you very much for your time and for your effort. It was wonderful to chat with you. I hope to see you around maybe on a screen again, or maybe in person someday. So we’ll leave it here. Thank you very much.
Ralph H. Craig III, Hannah Gould, Matthew Hayes, Youn-mi Kim, and Michelle C. Wang. 2020. “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Buddhist Rituals”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 7 September 2020. Transcribed by David McConeghy. Version 1.1, 7 September 2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/interdisciplinary-approaches-to-the-study-of-buddhist-ritual/
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