A Narrative Approach to Early Chinese Buddhist Prose

Professor Antje Richter, University of Colorado Boulder

Chaired by Dr Xiaojing Miao, Pembroke College

Location: Harold Lee Room, Pembroke College

Time: 1 December, 2022, 14:00-16:00 GMT

The silence of Vimalakirti is a famous moment in Mahayana Buddhism. The householder’s decision to respond with “thundering silence” when asked to explain his understanding of non-duality forms the doctrinal and narrative culmination of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra, a text that mostly consists of a lively and occasionally even humorous back and forth in conversation in front of various audiences. The “scripture of the teaching of Vimalakirti” emerged in India in the first or second century CE and gained immense literary, religious, and cultural currency in East Asia, through Chinese translations that started circulating since the late second century. Scholars have discussed the sutra from many angles, but its narrative form has received little scholarly interest so far.

This talk analyzes Vimalakirti’s silence against two foils that the sutra itself sets up. The first foil is one of non-silence: the conversational pattern that underlies the sutra’s narrative and discursive progression. Turn-taking in this text is both highly formalized and open to surprising twists, not least because the setting of the conversation moves several times, both in this world and to alternative universes, along with the composition of the internal audience. The second foil is one of silence, because Vimalakirti’s celebrated silence is not the only occasion a main protagonist of the text chooses not to answer a question asked of him. Both foils contribute to the performative effect of Vimalakirti’s silence, in narrative as well as doctrinal terms. The talk will embed reflections on the narrative role of silence in the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra into native Chinese notions of speaking and not speaking, which both precede and postdate the introduction of the sutra in China. On a metalevel, the talk hopes to contribute to the extension and establishment of narrative approaches to Buddhist texts and medieval Chinese literature.

Antje Richter, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, received her PhD from LMU Munich 1998. Her publications include Letter Writing and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China (2013), A History of Chinese Letters and Epistolary Culture (2015), several co-edited volumes, and more than 30 articles. She is currently completing a monograph on notions of health and illness in medieval Chinese literature.

To sign up, please contact Dr Xiaojing Miao ([email protected]) or Dr Christopher Foster ([email protected])