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Colloquium on Asian religions | The importance of action, speech and sound to early Buddhists

When:Mo 06-02-2017 17:00 - 18:30
Where:Oude Boteringestraat 38

Speaker: Prof. Barend ter Haar (University of Oxford, UK).


We tend to study religious culture in terms of its doctrinal or at best ritual contents. This betrays the Protestant origins of the field of religious studies, as well as the mindset of the overly literate historian. We define ourselves in terms of our linguistic skills and preferably our ability to close-read and translate. We tend to privilege the written side of a culture above its oral side, and the text above its living practice. And yet, texts always have oral lives as well, even in a literate age as the West at least has seen since the Reformation and China increasingly since the eighteenth century.* When we look at the biographies of the most prominent Buddhist monks of the third and fourth centuries, it becomes rapidly clear that texts as written objects were only a small part of the lived reality of religious life. A prominent monk was rarely known, or constructed in biographies as well-known, for his writing.** In this talk I will experiment with a slightly different view of these early monks and argue that they achieved their contemporary prominence on the basis of performances, whether miracles, rituals or the performance of the word of the Buddha.      

* The importance of texts in China has a history of its own, but the eighteenth century sees a substantial increase in the use of texts and maybe even literacy.

** Unsurprisingly this was even more true of Buddhist nuns.