Buddhism is, among other things, a religion of relics. Whether they purport to be of the founder, Säkyamuni Buddha, or of mythic Buddhas of the past, or of renowned saints and local holy men, relics have been central to Buddhist devotional life from the beginning of the tradition. The easy mobility of relics and their astonishing fecundity (Buddhist relics miraculously divide and reproduce) no doubt facilitated the spread of Buddhism across Asia. In time, the distinctive monuments that mark the presence of holy relics -- known variously as stupas, chaityas, chortens, pagodas, and so on -- came to dot the Asian landscape, transforming any number of indigenous sacred sites into centers of Buddhist influence.
Accordingly, there is a rapidly growing literature on Buddhist relic veneration, with contributions by historians, arthistorians, anthropologists, and Buddhologists alike. Yet rarely do scholars pause to consider the material appearance of the relics themselves. This is not surprising: the relics are typically little more than fragments of bone, teeth, crystallized minerals culled from the funeral pyre, or small stones, crystals, and sundry other natural objects. The meaning of relics would seem to lie not in their material form but in how they were construed and treated by the faithful. Hence, analysis tends to focus on reception (how a particular relic was regarded) rather than on the conditions of production (how a relic came to look as it does).
Consider the most famous relics in Chinese history: the finger bones of Säkyamuni Buddha from Famensi (Dharma Gate Monastery). Since the 1987 rediscovery of the Tang dynasty (618-907CE) crypt containing the relics, literally hundreds of books and articles have appeared that examine the history of the site and its treasures. The studies invariably foreground the finely executed nested reliquaries, many crafted of pure gold and silver, made to house the finger bones. For all the scholarship on the subject, the actual relics, despite their curious and indeed singular composition, have received little attention. If ever there was a case to go beyond reception and take seriously the issue of production, it would be Famensi.
The appearance of the relics is not the only extraordinary feature of the Famensi finds: equally unprecedented is the complex iconography adorning some of the nested reliquaries -- iconography associated with Chinese "Esoterism" (mijiao). Esoteric artifacts surviving from the Tang are few and far between, and thus, in contrast to the relics themselves, the Esoteric motifs found on the Famensi reliquaries have been the subject of considerable scrutiny and debate. But much of this analysis has been skewed, I believe, by misconceptions concerning the nature of the Esoteric tradition in China.
My aim here is to take a fresh look at the Famensi relics, as well as the Esoteric motifs on their matryoshka doll-like containers. I highlight some obvious but heretofore ignored features of the materials to support a new theory concerning their doctrinal and aesthetic significance. That these features have been neglected in the past attests, I believe, to certain preconceptions about the nature of Buddhist devotional objects, preconceptions that preclude approaching such objects under the rubric of "art."
On August 24, 1981, a portion of the imposing Ming dynasty masonry pagoda at Famensi, already weakened by an earthquake, collapsed following heavy rains (Fig. 1). Six years later, on April 3,1987, archaeologists excavating the foundations of the pagoda came upon an underground crypt.Constructed much like a traditional Chinese tomb, the crypt consists of a steep down ramp leading to an antechamber and three inner chambers, arranged along a north-south axis (Fig. 2). Sequestered for centuries beneath the pagoda, the crypt managed to escape the attention of looters; no one appears to have breached the crypt since it was last sealed in 874 CE. The archaeologists found more than four hundred objects (not counting thousands of coins strewn about), including more than one hundred spectacular specimens of silver and gold metalwork, as well as rare Chinese and foreign glass, Yue ceramic wares, tea utensils, textiles, and more. Carefully ensconced among the densely packed contents of the crypt were four sets of reliquaries, each containing a "finger-bone" relic of the Buddha.
The discovery of the relics at Famensi was momentous but not entirely unanticipated. The Famen Monastery, located some seventy-five miles west of the old capital Chang' an (present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi Province), was renowned throughout medieval times as the home of a precious finger bone of Säkyamuni Buddha. According to tradition, the relic was a gift of the Indian Emperor Aśoka (r. 273-232 BCE), and the Famensi pagoda was constructed at Aśoka's behest to house this treasure. Legend aside, little is known of the origins of either the monastery or its relic(s), but by the medieval period the monastery had come to enjoy a cozy relationship with the court. A stela inscription found in the crypt traces the current structure back to the Western Wei dynasty (535-56CE), when the magistrate Tuoba Yu opened the derelict pagoda, made offerings to the relic, and oversaw the restoration of the site. The monastery, severely damaged during the persecution of Buddhism in the 570s, was rebuilt during the reign of Sui Wendi (r. 581-604). In 625 the first emperor of the Tang, Gaozu (r. 618-26), gave the monastery the name by which it is known today, Famensi, or Dharma Gate Monastery. Gaozu's successor, Taizong (r. 626-49), was the first of many Tang emperors to have the relic transported to the imperial palace for worship. He is also credited with the construction of the underground crypt to safeguard the treasure. Several other Tang emperors paid homage to the finger-bone relic, including Gaozong (r. 650-83), Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-705), and Xianzong (r. 805-20). Emperor Yizong (r. 859-73) had the crypt rebuilt following the persecution of Buddhism during the reign of Wuzong (r. 840-46), and Yizong's young successor, Xizong (r.873-88), had the crypt sealed for the last time in 874. Few other Chinese Buddhist monasteries could boast this level of imperial support over so long a stretch of history.
The periodic translation of the relic to the imperial palace was an elaborate affair accompanied by popular festivities and outpourings of piety. The sometimes lurid spectacles surrounding the processions are commemorated in both painting and literature, most famously in a memorial to the throne by the renowned litterateur Han Yu (768-824) in 819. In his memorial, Han Yu, a proponent of traditional "Confucian" mores, castigated the emperor for promoting superstition and condoning the barbaric worship of the Buddha's "decayed and rotten bone, his ill-omened and filthy remains." Offended, Emperor Xianzong considered executing Han Yu for the affront but settled on banishment instead.
The 1987 discovery of the crypt and its treasures captured the attention of historians, archaeologists, art historians, and scholars of Buddhism. The latter were particularly excited by early reports of artifacts associated with Buddhist Esoterism, a complex ritual culture that was introduced to China in the eighth century by a succession of itinerant South Asian masters. As medieval images and ritual objects connected with Esoteric Buddhism are few and far between, the Famensi finds, which included invaluable gold and silver artifacts donated by the imperial court, promised to contribute significantly to our grasp of this still poorly understood tradition.
Scholars typically treat "Esoteric Teachings" in China as a manifestation of a pan-Asian tradition known as Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayāna. However, as I have argued elsewhere, Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayāna does not properly refer to a single or self-conscious tradition so much as to a variety of loosely related sixth- and seventh-century innovations in Indian Buddhist practice that drew heavily on non-Buddhist forms of image worship (Sanskrit: püja). These innovations included the production of new scriptures, new liturgical manuals, new iconography, and a new ritual technology that foregrounded the use of mandalas (geometric arrays of deities), mudras (hand gestures), mantras (incantations), and visualization exercises. While the ritual and material culture of these late Indian Mahāyāna developments spread rapidly across Asia, their effects were felt differently in Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, and Japan. In some cases, they spawned new traditions that developed along independent trajectories; in other cases, they were simply absorbed into already dominant modes of Mahāyāna thought and practice. It is thus a mistake to regard Indian Buddhist Tantra, Tibetan Vajra-yāna, or Chinese or Japanese Esoterism as localized instances of a single distinct, cohesive, or self-conscious tradition.
These new ritual developments were transmitted to Tang China by a handful of South Asian masters, notably, Śubhakarasi&mdot;ha (Shanwuwei, 637-735), Vajrabodhi (Jin-gangzhi, 671-741), and Amoghavajra (Bukong, 705-774). The rituals they promulgated were elaborate affairs that could take weeks to perform and required considerable material resources. The reputation of the foreign masters was such that they were able to attract the imperial and aristocratic patronage necessary to stage these ornate rites. This explains, in part, why the influence of these masters was felt mainly in the capital, Chang'an, and why their teachings waned, at least in China, within a few generations of their deaths. Japan is a different story: a number of well-connected Japanese pilgrims arrived in Chang'an in the eighth century precisely when these new practices were at the height of fashion.Japanese clerics such as Kükai (774-835), Saichō (767-822), and Ennin (793/4-864) received instruction in Esoteric rites and brought them back to Japan, along with the liturgical manuals, icons, and implements that went with them. Kükai and Saichō went on to found new schools in Japan, notably the Shingon and Tendai schools respectively, that shared a distinctively "Esoteric" (Japanese: mikkyō) approach to Buddhist philosophy and practice.Japanese mikkyō had a profound influence on all later Japanese Buddhist sects, including Hossō, Kegon, Pure Land, Zen, and Ni-chiren. Indeed, the imprint of Japanese Buddhist Esoterism extended to all aspects of Japanese political culture, philosophy, and the arts.
In Japan the vast panoply of texts, deities, and rites associated with Esoterism was organized into a single architectonic system based on the "mandalas of the two realms." A mandala is a prescribed group of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and sundry other deities set in a geometric array on an altar or in a painting, or conjured through the narrative of the liturgy itself. The mandalas of the two realms, namely, those of the Diamond Realm (Vajradhätu Mandala, Japanese: Kongōkai Mandara, Fig. 3) and the Matrix Realm (Garbhadhātu Mandala, Japanese: Taizōkai Mandara, Fig. 4), depict dozens of major and minor deities spatially organized into various "families" and "assemblies." The details of the system are too arcane to delineate here; suffice it to say that these two mandalas are said to represent and integrate the twin aspects of enlightenment, variously identified as active/static, immanent/transcendent, compassion/wisdom, and so on.
Japanese priests and scholars had long assumed that the two-mandala system was of Chinese, if not Indian, origin, first brought from China to Japan by the founder of the Shingon school, Kükai. This is not surprising, since the legitimacy of Shingon teachings in particular, and Japanese Esoterism in general, was predicated on their Chinese bona fides. Nonetheless, scholars had been stymied by the absence of any explicit reference to the two-mandala system in Chinese sources. While versions of the individual mandalas were known in China, there was no textual, epigraphic, art historical, or archaeological evidence that the Chinese were ever aware of a two-mandala system.
As mentioned above, there is little evidence that what has come to be known as Esoteric Buddhism was ever imagined as an independent teaching or tradition in China, much less organized into a coherent system, as was Japanese mikkyō or Tibetan Tantra. And this has contributed to some confusion, as scholars are wont to identify certain deities or iconographic forms as "Esoteric" even though the Chinese themselves did not categorize them as such. Take, for example, the stone sculptures from Anguosi that are frequently discussed alongside the Famensi finds. Anguosi was founded in the Tang capital in 710, not far from the imperial palace, and the monastery, like Famensi, enjoyed close ties to the court. In the 1950s a number of exquisite stone sculptures dating to the third quarter of the eighth century were discovered in a pit at the Anguosi site. The group, bearing traces of pigment and gold, includes images of the Buddha Ratnasa&mdot;-bhava, Praj&nmacr;āpāramitā (or Mañjuśri) Bodhisattva, as well as vidyäräjas ("luminous kings") such as Trailokyavijaya, Haya-grīva, and Acalanātha. Largely on the basis of iconography alone, these images have been classified as Esoteric, which would make the Anguosi group the largest surviving repository of Tang Esoteric sculpture. Virtually nothing is known, however, about the ritual context or function of these images. Scholars assume that the Anguosi group must have been arranged in a mandala-like array on an altar intended for use in initiatory rites such as abhi⋅eka (Chinese: guanding, lustration). Yet this assumption concerning their function is made solely on the basis of their purported Esoteric iconography. The reasoning is circular: a particular iconographic form is classified as Esoteric because it was supposedly intended for Esoteric use, but Esoteric use is presumed solely on the basis of the iconography.
In much the same way, a number of deities appearing in wall paintings at Dunhuang, such as those of Cintämanicakra Avalokiteśvara, are routinely identified as Esoteric irrespective of the absence of an Esoteric ritual context. At the same time, depictions of the Buddha Amitāyus or Sākyamuni are almost never placed in the Esoteric category, despite the key roles they played in Esoteric rites associated with Amogha-vajra. In the end, attempts to classify particular deities or iconographie elements as "Esoteric" or "exoteric" are predicated on later Japanese sectarian developments; in China the use of the term "Esoteric" is best reserved for a style of ritual practice rather than a class of deities.
If we then limit our use of "Esoterism" to the new ritual technology disseminated by Amoghavajra and his countrymen, the material evidence for Tang Esoteric practice is quite limited. A few implements and icons intended for use in Esoteric ritual and thought to date from the Tang survive in Japan, but many are of uncertain or contested provenance. As a result, prior to the Famensi discovery, Esoteric ritual culture of the Tang had to be reconstructed largely on the basis of surviving scriptures and ritual manuals -- genres that are prescriptive rather than descriptive in nature.
All of this explains why the first announcements that Esoteric artifacts and evidence of the two-mandala system had been discovered at Famensi caused such a stir. Specifically, scholars claimed that two sets of nested reliquaries uncovered at Famensi -- the eight-container set found in the rearmost chamber no. 3 (Fig. 5) and the five-container set uncovered in a secret niche beneath chamber no. 3 (Fig. 6) -- represented the Womb and Diamond Realm Mandatas respectively. And the hourglass-shaped base of a kneeling bodhisattva holding a tray for the display of the finger bone, found in chamber no. 2, was said to represent the doctrine of the "unity of the two [mandala] divisions" (Japanese: ryōbu funi); the base's upper dome is supposed to depict the Diamond Realm and the lower dome the Womb Realm (Fig. 7). This two-mandala reading gained wide currency: it was foregrounded in the museum at Famensi, where an entire hall is devoted to explicating the Famensi materials in terms of the two mandalas. It also made its way into virtually every major Chinese publication on the Famensi finds, including the official two-volume archaeological report that appeared in 2007.
There is no question that iconography associated with the Vajradhātu Mandala is in evidence at Famensi, notably, on the forty-five-deity case, which is part of the nested five-container reliquary set found in the secret niche (Fig. 8). The iconography on the base of the kneeling bodhisattva also draws on the Vajradhātu Mandala (Fig. 7). It proves more difficult, however, to find unambiguous evidence of the Gar-bhadhätu Mandala in the crypt, and the claim that the doctrine of the "unity of the two worlds" is expressed on the base of the kneeling bodhisattva is convoluted and, I believe, unconvincing. When viewed without recourse to later Japanese tradition, Famensi provides no compelling new evidence that Tang clerics were aware of a two-mandala system -- or, indeed, of any Esoteric system at all.
The tendency to view the Esoteric motifs at Famensi through the lens of later Japanese two-mandala theory has skewed analysis of the materials. But there is another, perhaps more subtle, problem with the studies of Famensi "Eso-terism" to date, namely, the manner in which scholars ostensibly deduce "inner" beliefs and dispositions on the basis of "outer" material culture and ritual practice. And this requires another brief excursus on hermeneutic issues. buy thesis