Koichi Shinohara: "Fotudeng's 'Magic': Dhāraṇī Practice and the Narrative of Omniscience"

Thursday February 4th 2010, 5:15PM
Event Sponsor
Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford, Department of Religious Studies
Encina Hall West, Room 208
Book cover of Images in Asian Religions


In the sixth century biography of the monk Fotudeng (232–348), his extraordinary dhāraṇī practice is presented as a missionary strategy, and it is distinguished explicitly from “profound doctrines.” Fotudeng’s biography is accordingly placed in the section on miracle workers in the Biographies of Eminent Monks collection. Fotudeng is described as being skilled in the use of “divine spells” (shenzhou). A Chinese collection of dhāraṇī practices, “The Scripture of the Great Divine Spell Dhāraṇīs of the Seven Buddhas and Eight Bodhisattvas” (T. 1332), dated fifth to sixth century, presents a large number of “divine spells.” These spells are identified as dhāraṇīs and attributed to the past Buddhas and a number of bodhisattvas. The explanations for these spells and their uses enable us to reconstruct how these spells were meant to work.

In this presentation I first examine Fotudeng’s use of spells in the light of the discussion of divine spells in this collection. The second part of the discussion will focus on the narrative that frames Fotudeng’s practice. I argue that this frame story should be read as a narrative about omniscience rather than as an effort to present the use of spells as something secondary and inferior. As a story of omniscience it has well known parallels. I discuss the story of Śrīgupta’s invitation to the Buddha as a popular example of an account of Omniscience, clearly a notion that troubled Buddhists of the time.

Speaker's Bio:

Koichi Shinohara is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies, Yale University. A graduate of Tokyo, he took his doctorate at Columbia. Before moving to Yale, he taught at McMaster University. Dr. Shinohara is widely known for his study of Chinese monastic biographies, as seen especially in the writings of the seventh-century authors Daoxuan and Daoshi. His works include many significant volumes on Asian religious history, including From Benares to Beijing: Essays in Buddhism and Chinese Religions in Honour of Dr. Jan Yün-hua (1991, in collaboration with Gregory Schopen); and, in collaboration with Phyllis Granoff, Monks and Magicians, Religious Biography in Asia (1988); Speaking of Monks: Religious Biography in India and China (1992); Other Selves: Autobiography and Biography in Cross-cultural Perspective (1994); Pilgrims, Patrons and Place, Localizing Sanctity in Asian Religions (2003); and Images in Asian Religions: Texts and Contexts (2004).