Seeing with the True Dharma Eye

The workshop “Vision and Visuality in Buddhism and Beyond” (November 24–26, 2016) took place at the University of Zurich. It brought together a group of eighteen outstanding scholars from various academic disciplines, working on Indian and East Asian religious, epistemological and aesthetic traditions. All papers presented engaged with theories of vision and visuality against the canvas of the richly variegated traditions of Buddhism in South and East Asia. The central workshop theme addressed in the papers was the analysis of implications, epistemic validity and the metaphysical place of kinds of knowledge derived from various types of vision, all topics strongly reflected in the relevant Buddhist and comparative sources.

Julia Escher

Organized by Polina Lukicheva, Rafael Suter, and Wolfgang Behr (all University of Zurich), the goal of the workshop was to highlight aspects of Buddhist theory and practice where visual perception and visuality play a central role. The organizers also aimed to consider these Buddhist conceptions in their original discursive contexts, as well as discussing their transformation within the broader fields of epistemology and aesthetics in East Asia.

The introductory lectures were by Rafael Suter and Polina Lukicheva. Suter presented on the terminology of perception in pre-Buddhist and early Buddhist texts of medieval China. Taking the text Gōngsūn Lóngzǐ 公孫龍子 as a starting point, he analyzed the use of the terms “sè 色” (color) and “xíng 形” (shape), as well as their connection to the Sanskrit term “rūpa” (form, shape). Lukicheva’s talk was focused on the adaptation of Buddhist concepts of visuality in aesthetic theories. She explored the question of what model of vision is involved in vision and visuality in Buddhism, and elaborated on how these concepts influenced pictorial paradigms in China.

Indian epistemological tradition

The first part of the workshop was dedicated to exploring the notion of perception in early Indian tradition. Jens Schlieter (University of Bern) explained that, in contrast to early modern philosophy in Europe, there is no indication of subjectivism or perspectivism in early Indian Buddhism. He argued that imagery of non-perspectival vision was dominant instead, which entailed the transgression of the observer’s horizon. Philipp Maas (University of Vienna) presented a semantic study of the term “dhyāna” (meditation) in the yoga tradition by focusing on the Sanskrit work Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which is dated to the early 5th century. Comparing it to Buddhist and early Brāhmaṇa sources, he observed that “samādhi” (absorption) and “dhyāna” are used synonymously in some parts of the text. Christina Pecchia’s (Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna) presentation was concentrated on the concept of cognition in Indian epistemological tradition. Based on Dharmakirti’s (6th–7th century) discussion of direct perception and interference, Pecchia analyzed the relationship between perception and conceptualization and explored how cognitive processes can be improved or trained in order to gain illumination. Dan Lusthaus (Harvard University) introduced us to the notion of “rūpa-prasāda,” which is understood in various Indian Buddhist schools as a rarified type of rūpa that has the ability to sense. According to this theory, the “rūpa-prasāda” was located in the sensory organs and performed the cognitive perceptions.

Several scholars talked about visualization in Medieval Japanese Buddhism. In Steffen Döll’s (University of Hamburg) presentation, he discussed how actual topographies, monastic architectures and religious iconographies were combined, in order to create a manifestation of transcendent realms, such as the Pure Lands. Monasteries can therefore be interpreted as a visual representation of an imagined environment. Paulus Kaufmann (LMU Munich) focused on the role of visuality and visualization in Esoteric Buddhism in general and in the teachings of the Japanese monk Kūkai (774–835) in particular. He elaborated on the apparent prioritization of acoustic signs over visual signs in Esoteric Buddhism, concluding that the relationship between the two was far more complex than often believed. Pamela D. Winfield (Elon University) arranged her presentation around the Japanese Sōtō Zen master Dōgen (1200–1253) and his visions of monastic architectural layouts. She asked what theoretical systems and firsthand experiences shaped the material and visual forms of Dōgens Zen temples and came to the conclusion that he reworked the Chinese five elements system into a Buddhist context.

Non-duality of the visible and invisible

A large number of presentations were dedicated to visuality and visualization in Chinese Buddhism. Hans-Rudolf Kantor (Huafan University) analyzed the significant role of “guān 觀” (self-referential observation/contemplation) in Tiantai teaching. He also reflected on the non-duality of the visible and invisible, as well as the paradoxes that arise in connection to the term “guān.” Jane Geaney (University of Richmond) focused on the metalanguage of perception in Early Chinese thought. By basing her findings on textual sources, she argued that there was no hierarchy between the actions of seeing and hearing. On the contrary, they formed a balanced pair. Additionally, Geaney elaborated on the uses of “yí 義” as “(external) meaning” and “yì 意” as “(internal) meaning.” Christoph Anderl (Ghent University) explored the terminology of visual processes in visualization sūtras of early Chan Buddhism. According to Anderl, analysis of the usage of the terms “guān 觀” and “kàn 看” in these sūtras shows a growing focus on introspection in the early Chan Buddhist school. Stephan Peter Bumbacher (University of Basel) explained how the introduction of the notion of visualization to Chinese thought influenced meditational practices in China, which previously had focused mainly on breath control. He further described the new forms of Daoist and Buddhist meditational practices in China, which were centered on the visualization of either a Daoist deity or of the Buddha. Paula Varsano (University of California, Berkeley) discussed the notion of visuality in the “yǒngwù 詠物” tradition in Chinese poetry, which entailed poems dedicated to a physical object. She furthermore raised the question of how visuality was used by the poets to play with the boundaries between viewer and object, as well as between poet and imagined audience. Mark Nürnberger (LMU Munich) examined the structure of Kumarajiva’s translation of the Lotus Sūtra and its commentaries in connection to the use of the term “yǒngxiàn 湧現” (emergence). He observed that emergence in the Lotus Sūtra often takes the form of an unforeseen occurrence, which challenges his disciples’ understanding of the Dharma and thereby enables a first step towards awareness. Xiao Yang (Heidelberg University) presented an analysis of different representations of Mahamayuri found in Sichuan, dating from the 9th to the 13th century. Several discrepancies between transmitted descriptions in texts and the actual images can be observed, which is possibly due to local tradition as well as different means of representations (e.g. painting or carving).

The workshop concluded with two presentations that focused specifically on image studies or on imagery. Barbara Lund (LMU Munich) applied theories of image studies to the context of Buddhist visuality. She identified the concept of “Upaya” as a suitable connection between Buddhist visual studies and image studies. Nicholas Newton (Edinburgh) examined the use of imagery in the Daśabhūmika Sūtra. By focusing on the metaphor of the “great tower of networks of clouds of lights,” he created a visual reconstruction of the imagery and thereby showed the importance of visuality to the rhetoric of this text.

The participants found the workshop to be a great success, and they appreciated that scholars from different fields could exchange ideas on vision and visuality in Buddhism. The concluding discussions showed that there were still many questions to ponder and various areas to explore further, e.g. the representation of concepts of visuality in Buddhist art, the effect of (partly) hidden images on the viewer, or the role of mimesis in visuality and vision in Buddhism.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 30–31)