New Book: Spells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals

Here’s an announcement regarding a new book on Buddhist ritual that might be of interest to readers:

Columbia University Press is pleased to announce the publication of Spells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals by Koichi Shinohara.

  • A new study of the relationships between esoteric Buddhist rituals in India and manifestations in China
  • The second book in the Sheng Yen Series in Chinese Buddhism
  • Based on an enormous collection of research on Buddhist ritual texts
  • Explains both in theoretical and historical terms how Buddhist rituals and Buddhist Art interacted with each other

“Shinohara has given us an insightful and detailed examination of the transition between Mahāyāna and early Esoteric Buddhism based on Chinese sources. He has illuminated the development of practices that include the worship of images, visualizations, and the use of mandalas, and his painstaking discussions of rituals give us a vivid sense of how practices might have been performed.”
— Paul Groner, University of Virginia

Koichi Shinohara traces the evolution of Esoteric Buddhist rituals from the simple recitation of spells in the fifth century to complex systems involving image worship, mandala initiation, and visualization practices in the ninth century. He presents an important new reading of a seventh-century Chinese text called the Collected Dharani Sūtras, which shows how earlier rituals for specific deities were synthesized into a general Esoteric initiation ceremony and how, for the first time, the notion of an Esoteric Buddhist pantheon emerged.

In the Collected Dharani Sūtras, rituals for specific deities were typically performed around images of the deities, yet Esoteric Buddhist rituals in earlier sources involved the recitation of spells rather than the use of images. The first part of this study explores how such simpler rituals came to be associated with the images of specific deities and ultimately gave rise to the general Esoteric initiation ceremony described in the crucial example of the All-Gathering mandala ritual in the Collected Dharani Sūtras. The visualization practices so important to later Esoteric Buddhist rituals were absent from this ceremony, and their introduction would fundamentally change Esoteric Buddhist practice.

This study examines the translations of dhāranī sūtras made by Bodhiruci in the early eighth century and later Esoteric texts, such as Yixing’s commentary on the Mahāvairocana sūtra and Amoghavajra’s ritual manuals, to show how incorporation of visualization greatly enriched Esoteric rituals and helped develop elaborate iconographies for the deities. Over time, the ritual function of images became less certain, and the emphasis shifted toward visualization. This study clarifies the complex relationship between images and ritual, changing how we perceive Esoteric Buddhist art as well as ritual.

Koichi Shinohara teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University.

To find out more about this book, see:
http://www.cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-16614-0/spells-images-and-mandalas

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About Jovan Maud

I'm a lecturer in the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Georg-August University, Göttingen, Germany. Interests include: transnational religious networks, popular religion in Thailand, religious tourism and commodification, and digital anthropology.
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