D. Neil Schmid, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, International Studies Program, North Carolina State University
The Chinese Buddhist canon, edited in the form of various tripitakas such as the Taisho shinshu daizokyo or the Zhonghua dazang jing, contains hundreds of didactic narratives known as avadana or jataka tales. These stories about the karmic consequences of acts great and small were a fundamental means of propagating Buddhism throughout its development in China. Unfortunately, over time any traces of how these narratives were actually enacted have been effaced by editors. Indeed, given the hundreds of stories compiled, we still know little if nothing about the characteristics, format, and performance of these basic and once ubiquitous means of proselytization. In contrast, the manuscript find at Dunhuang provides a unique window on the role of these narratives in the propagation of Buddhism in medieval China. Avadana and jataka stories from the corpus of manuscripts, here known as yuanqi, show a distinct format and genre features indicating their use in Buddhist liturgies, and as such are the sole surviving examples of a widespread tradition once necessary for the dissemination of the religion. This paper will examine the features which distinguish these narratives as a form of ritualized storytelling within the context of Buddhist liturgy. In detailing their enactment, the paper will differentiate these narratives from other contemporaneous genres such as transformation texts (bianwen) and sutra lecture texts, thereby providing a nuanced understanding of what comprised Buddhist literature ‘on the ground,’ including, crucially, how it was performed in the medieval period.