Paul CoppThe Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University Press, 2014

by Luke Thompson on October 27, 2014

Paul Copp

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Paul Copp’s new book, The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (Columbia University Press, 2014), focuses on Chinese interpretations and uses of two written dhāraṇī during the last few centuries of the first millennium.  Based on extensive research on the material forms that these dhāraṇī took, Copp departs from a tradition of scholarship that focuses on the sonic quality and spoken uses of these spells, drawing our attention instead to how written and inscribed dhāraṇī were used to adorn and anoint the body.  A central theme is Copp’s assertion that the diffuse dhāraṇī practices that appeared centuries prior to the flowering of a high Esoteric Buddhism in the eighth century were not simply a crude precursor to the later development of a fully systematized Esoteric Buddhism, but rather were a set of loosely related practices and ideas that continued to develop alongside Esoteric Buddhism.  Through rich descriptions of dhāraṇī use and interpretation, and liberal use of Dunhuang materials, he shows that dhāraṇī were ubiquitous in all sectors of Chinese Buddhism: before, during, and after the eighth century.  In this way Copp challenges the teleological view of early dhāraṇī-based practices as being but one stage leading to the eventual triumph of a comprehensive Chinese Esoteric Buddhism.  In addition, Copp demonstrates how material dhāraṇī practices were a product of both Chinese and Indic input.   Drawing on archeological evidence, he notes that the way in which dhāraṇī were actually worn reflects Indian precedents, while on the other hand Chinese textual records describe and prescribe the wearing of dhāraṇī in terms borrowed from Chinese practices of wearing amulets, seals, medicines, and talismans.  The book contains thirty-two illustrations of amulets, written dhāraṇī, dhāraṇī stamps, dhāraṇī pillars, and funerary jars that help the reader to better visualize and understand the material practices at the center of Copp’s work.  This book will be of particular interest to those researching or wishing to learn more about the history of scholarship on dhāraṇī, Chinese practices of wearing enchanted objects, Chinese interpretations and uses of dhāraṇī (particularly outside of a systematized, ritual-philosophical Esoteric Buddhism), theories about the role of writing and inscription in religious practice, and Chinese Buddhist material culture.


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