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Giacomo Baggio defends PhD thesis on the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Commentary by Sengzhao et al.

A fundamental document on the evolution of Buddhist thought in early 5th century China
23 September 2019
Vimalakīrti debates with Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (scene from the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty)

On 30 September, Giacomo Baggio will defend his dissertation entitled ‘The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Commentary [T1775] by Sengzhao et alia and the Chinese Conquest of Buddhism’ to earn his doctoral degree in Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Commentary is a fundamental document on the evolution of Buddhist thought in China during the early 5th century and well exemplifies the proactive role played by the Chinese exegetes in reinterpreting and reshaping many central tenets of Buddhism in terms familiar to the Chinese cultural tradition and way of thinking .

Back to Sengzhao’s life and works

Giacomo Baggio: ‘My Master’s thesis focused on the interpretations of Buddhist emptiness that were formulated by Chinese exegetes during the 4th century and this led me to study and translate the treatise Emptiness of the Non-absolute by Sengzhao (a Chinese Buddhist monk and thinker who lived from 384–414), which is a very important source on this topic. When applying for a PhD, I decided to go back to Sengzhao’s life and works and to analyse the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Commentary in particular, an extensive work including the monk’s exegetical annotations on the Chinese version of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa along with those of two other exegetes, namely his fellow monk from Southern China, Daosheng, and the Kuchean Buddhist master (and translator of the sūtra in question), Kumārajīva.’

A prism reverberating light in different directions

Giacomo comments on the relevance and value of his PhD research: ‘ The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Commentary constitutes in many respects a very rich and interesting document. It provides us with a privileged viewpoint on the complex and multi-faceted process of the creative re-interpretation and appropriation of Buddhism by the Chinese during an age which constitutes a turning point in the long history of this momentous cultural acquisition. In my thesis, the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Commentary becomes a knowledgeable witness of its age, able to reveal events and describe intellectual vicissitudes and hermeneutic ventures, thus shedding light on many different issues – like a prism reverberating light in different directions.’

In addition to this, Giacomo continues, ‘the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa is a sūtra that we are particularly well informed about, as no less than three Chinese versions of it have survived. We are thus provided with invaluable material for comparing the different translation approaches and commentarial strategies. Finally, the analysis of this work makes an important contribution to the study of Chinese philosophical commentarial literature as a genre, a research field which has been little frequented until recent times.’

Nine years in East Asia

Giacomo Baggio completed his first Master’s degree at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and obtained his second Master’s degree at the Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. ‘I chose to do my PhD at the University of Groningen because it was a good opportunity to come back to Europe after living in East Asia for nine years and to resume my sinological studies in an institution that provides the ideal conditions for carrying out a good piece of research, for example a lively research environment such as that of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, good facilities and economic support.’ When asked about his future plans, Giacomo enigmatically replies: ‘At the moment, I have no clear plans for the future. All in all, mystery is the true motor of life…’

PhD defence ceremony

On 30 September, Giacomo Baggio will defend his dissertation during a PhD defence ceremony and in the presence of his supervisors Kocku von Stuckrad , Professor of Religious Studies, and Dr Stefania Travagnin , Assistant Professor of Religion in Asia, both of whom work at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen, as well as Stefano Zacchetti, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford.

Last modified:30 September 2019 12.20 p.m.
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