By Alexander James O’Neill
My journey to Nepal begins a few years ago, when I decided to do a master’s project about Buddhist texts, in particular, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. It was in the process of studying Buddhist texts that my supervisor, Professor Christoph Emmrich, and I began to delve into the realm of paratexts in relation to Buddhist texts. Paratexts are the materials that surround text, where text is not understood simply as being a book, but the material for which the book exists. Titles, intertitles, colophons, covers, and so forth, all serve text. They are text’s vehicle and medium. In this case, the medium is not the message, but it shapes the message. It is the argument of paratextual studies, as pioneered by the French literary theorist Gérard Genette, that paratext, that is to say, materials surrounding the text, like titles, footnotes, and so forth, all point to the text and mediate the reader’s approach to the text. In this way, the reader is manipulated by the paratexts crafted by the author and published. The title of Genette’s study of paratexts is appropriately called Seuils, meaning thresholds, which captures the essence of the idea that paratexts manipulate the entrance of the reader into the text, shaping their approach and understanding.
Buddhist texts provide extremely ample opportunities for studying paratexts in historical cases, as there is a great abundance of materials to work with. The work that scholars at the Centre for Manuscript Studies at the University of Hamburg have done on paratexts is quite telling in this respect. They have engaged in studies on paratexts in manuscripts from all over South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia. In these cases, paratexts that are focused on include marginalia, commentaries (which paratextual studies would call intertexts), and other kinds of markings and indications that are peripheral to the text itself. In the case of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, of which the Aṣṭasāhasrikā serves as the earliest example, there are also many opportunities for studying paratexts. The manuscripts of this text are full of illustrations, adornments such as gilding, and other such flourishes. A great study that looked into these examples was Jinah Kim’s Receptacle of the Sacred.
In addition, my own supervisor, Professor Emmrich, looked into the practices of repairing and editing a thirteenth century manuscript of this text in contemporary Nepal, in his chapter “Emending Perfection” from the book Buddhist Manuscript Cultures. This study looked into rites and other practices engaged in by the Vajrācarya priests of Kwa Bahah in Lalitpur, Nepal, known in English as the Golden Temple. The same manuscript was involved in rites previously studied by David Gellner in his 1996 article “The Perfection of Wisdom: A text and its Uses in Kwa Bahah, Lalitpur.” In that article, Professor Gellner discusses the recitation practices of the manuscript, which have since become far more popular than they were at the time of his study.
What had not been studied as extensively in reference to these practices were the contents of the text itself. While the rites do not involve the use of a ritual manual, the texts being recited and edited do contain passages that suggest to the reader, or the ideal practitioner (“Son of Good Family or Daughter of Good Family”), to engage in very similar practices and to regard the text as supreme above all texts and its teachings as supreme above all teachings. As I began my master’s project, Professor Emmrich and I had the feeling like these passages may have originally been separate texts, such as ritual manuals, from early forms of book worship (or pustaka pūjā). Theories of composite origin for texts are frequently used as explanations for vast differences in textual content from one part of a text to another. A classic example would be Julius Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis for the origin of the Torah. While the Prajñāpāramitā has lent itself to similar theories over the years, and there is almost certainly an evolution in the text as regards its gradual expansion into the 100,000 śloka form (Śatasāhasrikā), it is best to exhaust other possibilities first. Therefore, these passages in particular needed further scrutiny and study.
My master’s project was essentially setting myself the task of identifying these self-referential passages and analysing them. Some examples include passages that suggest that the reader should spread and teach the text, that it should be made into a book (keeping in mind that text is not the same as a book), and that the text should be preserved. In addition, passages frequently spell out that practices related to the text are superior to passages relating to caityas, or the mounds containing the Buddha’s relics that were the focus of Buddhist devotional practice up until the time of the Prajñāpāramitā’s composition in the first century. The text also suggests that the spot of earth on which the text is worshipped becomes the true caitya, a passage discussed in its form as found in the Vajracchedikā by Gregory Schopen in his 1975 article, “The Phrase sa pṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet in the Vajracchedikā.” The other kind of such passage is that of self-identification, where the text identifies itself as the mother or progenitor of all buddhas and all perfections, as the true body of the Buddha, as the good friend, and so forth. The text concludes with self-referential passages where the Buddha is depicted as bestowing responsibility of the text to Ananda, his attendant, and asking that it be laid out in writing. In relation to paratextual studies, we have an interesting case here, where textual features, which are usually only found in paratexts, are found within the text itself.
As I began my PhD project, I decided to expand this study into one that investigates texts that involve these passages as they are used in practice—in particular as they are used in practice in Nepal. The question then became, where do these passages begin and end? How broad is this textual phenomenon? Do we find it in all Buddhist texts? What about non-Buddhist texts? It was while taking a course on recent scholarship on the Mahāyāna at McMaster University with Shayne Clarke that I came across Richard Gombrich’s thesis that the early Mahāyāna relied upon written texts for their survival in a time when the established monastic infrastructure surrounding caityas and oral recitation was not at their disposal. Henceforth, the role of the written text in the Mahāyāna began to make more sense, as did the passages that I had been studying. The written text not only became the mode for the transmission of the Mahāyāna, but the centre of worship—standing in for the caityas that were dominated by mainstream Buddhism. These passages, in this light, serve to promote the preservation of text in book form and to prioritise their worship and their value over that of caityas, at a time when print media secondary to oral media in the transmission of sacred texts. In order to verify this theory, I had to see whether these are common features of all Mahāyāna texts, and whether they are found in non-Mahāyāna texts or non-Buddhist texts.
The conclusion of my research was that texts that have been considered earlier or middle period Mahāyāna by scholars, such as the Prajñāpāramitā corpus or the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, are full of such passages, but later texts, such as the Nirvāṇa Sūtra and the tantric texts, tend away from their use, instead directing the ideal practitioner to the recitation and practice of materials that are not identified with the text itself, such as mantras. After scouring the non-Mahāyāna corpus, I found only a few references to divisions of the Tipiṭaka, but not instances of self-referentiality of one text to itself. As for non-Buddhist texts, the question is where one starts and where one stops. However, Purāṇas come close: for instance, the Śivapūraṇa and Viṣṇupūraṇa have prefaces about the virtues of the texts, and how they should be used, but from the paratextual studies perspective, this is still a paratext: not incorporated into the body of the text in the same way the passages found in Mahāyāna passages are. This really emphasises a point that needs to be understood about these passages in Mahāyāna sūtras, they are not paratextual, but act like paratexts: they are interspersed throughout the text and are not prefatorial or introductory. My theory on why this is so, is that prefaces and introductions, being paratextual, may be discarded in the process of textual transmission, but if hardwired into the text itself, they are less likely to suffer this consequence, both making the passages more resilient parts of the whole and underlining their importance to the redactors of the Mahāyāna texts.
Thus, my project began to take shape as something that looked beyond the scope of the paratextual sphere. The text reaches out to the reader directly, without the need for external mediators, which may be tampered with or not considered “word of the Buddha.” The question then became, how do these passages actually influence people in the real world? In the world, there is no such thing as texts in abstract from material things: books just as much as computer screens. Paratextual studies also takes into account how these mediums change the way people interact with the text: whether a book is set up for worship on an alter or bound and printed by a scholarly press make a difference to how that book is used by ritual specialists. Thus, in asking how texts influence people, we are fundamentally asking a question of what agency do objects have. To explore this facet of the text requires me to locate actual cases of texts with these passages being used. The natural case would be in Nepal, where these texts are still worshipped, studied, and recited in Sanskrit.
My Trip to Nepal
My trip to Nepal had the following objectives: to identify cases of these texts being used, to identify the relationship between the self-referential passages and their use, to develop knowledge and acquaintance with research strategies and skills in Nepal, and to develop my understanding of the language. The last objective was the most straightforward, as Prof Emmrich put me in contact with his Newar and Nepali teacher, Laxmi Nath Srestha, who I met almost every morning and afternoon for two hours of intense drilling in Newar and Nepali. The other objectives required some more work.
Daily life was aided by the warm hospitality of Prof Emmrich and Prof Srilata Raman, his wife and one of my other committee members. I would join them almost every day for lunch and dinner, where we would discuss progress in the project, as well as daily life in Nepal. In the evenings, we would play card games, occasionally joined by their very skilled daughter Emilia, who usually won! The food was a mixture of Newar and Italian cuisine, and was always more than satisfying. Newar food was very agreeable for me, as it is not too spicy, dry, and quite mild overall. The exception would be beaten rice, baji, to which I never managed to get used.
The task of research was aided by Prof Emmrich’s long-time assistant in Nepal, Nutan Sharma, who also treated us to his warm hospitality on a number of occasions. Nutan was very supportive in helping me learn how to navigate and use the National Archives in Nepal, where a number of manuscripts could be obtained in microfilm form. Examples include ritual manuals for Aṣṭamīvrata rites, where texts are recited, as well as examples of early translations of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā into Newar with their introductions, which will allow me to trace the development of modern practices involving that text, as well as its understanding, in Nepal. This is a more difficult and time-consuming task than it sounds, as the electricity is very intermittent in Nepal. This means that in the middle of going through microfilm reels, the electricity may go off and one will have to wait a number of hours before one can get to work again. Nutan also helped on a number of occasions with interpretation, as my Nepali and Newar are not yet at the conversational level.
As for the cases of such texts being used, I observed a couple of significant rites in relation to this. The first was the recitation of the Navagrantha, the nine most sacred sūtras of Nepalese Mahāyāna Buddhism. These are the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, the Gaṇḍavyūha, the Daśabhūmika, the Samādhirāja, the Laṅkāvatāra, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, the Tathāgataguhya, the Lalitavistara, and the Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtras. This took place at Bouddhanāth Mahācaitya in Kathmandu, and was organised by the Bajrācārya Pūjāvidhi Adhyayan Samiti, which is an association for Newar ritual specialists, or Vajrācāryas (B and V are interchangeable), based in Nyākhacok in Lalitpur. Lalitpur is the most Buddhist of the three main cities of the Nepal/Kathmandu Valley. The official reason why performance of the rite was in Kathmandu rather than Lalitpur was that it was a very sacred location. It may also have been an opportunity for the Bajrācārya Pūjāvidhi Adhyayan Samiti to get in touch with the wider public outside of Lalitpur. The rite took place on Friday, the 10th of May, the full moon day (Pūrṇimā) of the month of Caitra, and its official name was the Nava Sūtra Pāṭha, or reading of the nine sūtras. It was paired with a rite called the Saptavidhānottara, or the performance of the seven higher rites—a series of ritual offerings, involving complex mudra choreography, representatives of the five Buddhas, and a massive maṇḍala. These rites had separate sponsors, but according to one specialist, Deepak Bajracharya, were done on the same day on the same location because it is difficult to get so many priests free on the same day. As for the priests who participated, the rite involved 108 Vajrācārya from not only Lalitpur, but also Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Thimi, Kirtipur, and Bungamati. While the main sponsors were from Lalitpur, the other supporting sponsors included many Buddhist devotees from around the world, including Taiwan.
The actual practice of the recitation of the Navagrantha involved first a series of offerings and pūjās for the nine texts, as since they are so sacred, they cannot simply be opened and read like a novel. Then the manuscripts, which had strings tied around individual chapters, were distributed in those sections to each of the priests who had assembled for the occasion. Each priest then read the section that they were given. Thus, the nine texts, which from beginning to end, one after another, would take months to complete, could be completed through simultaneous reading in only a couple hours. What appears to be important here is the recitation of each syllable of the text for its sacred value, rather than having the text be read for study or entertainment.
Not long after the rite, I had the opportunity to talk in depth with Deepak Bajracharya, one of the specialists from Lalitpur who took part in this rite. He clarified many things about the rite itself. He also explained that the reason why the Prajñāpāramitā is prioritised at Kwa Bahah and other places, and the reason why it is given pride of place in the centre of the Navagrantha, is that it is considered the mother of all Buddhas. Thus, just as a good son takes care of his mother, likewise the practitioners of the Mahāyāna should take care of their mother on the path to Buddhahood: the Prajñāpāramitā. This confirms part of the theory of the influence of the book on the individual reader or ritual specialist: the reason why the concept of the Prajñāpāramitā being the mother of all Buddhas is prevalent is that this is what the text itself claims. Likewise, the text suggests that the ideal practitioner recite, memorise, teach, and protect it, which is just what is done.
Later in my stay in Nepal, I also had the pleasure to meet Prof Naresh Man Bajracharya, the Vice-Chancellor of Lumbini Buddhist University. Prof Naresh Man is not just a scholar but also an active reformer of the Newar Buddhist tradition, attempting to modernise many aspects of the practice, such as introducing initiations to people whose parents had not been traditionally Newar Buddhists, using language understood by the participants (i.e. rather than Sanskrit), and building new Newar Buddhist institutions outside of the Kathmandu Valley, such as in Pokhara. Prof Naresh Man was kind enough to invite me to the performance of another rite involving the Navagrantha. This time it was the ritual recitation of the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the Mahāyāna version of the life of the Buddha up to his awakening. This was a unique occasion as the rite was sponsored and attended by Theravāda monks originally from Thailand who are now working for Dhammachai International Research Institute based in Sydney, Australia. One of these monks, Phra Weeachai, explained that they were in Nepal to collect manuscripts, but were invited by Naresh Man to observe the pūjā.
This rite took place in a monastery right in Thamel, the tourist centre of Kathmandu, called Chhusya Bahal. Once inside the monastery, the bustle of the street was quietened. The rite again involved the preliminary rites required to open the manuscripts for reading, as well as an explanation at various points by Prof Naresh Man as to what he was doing. The manuscript pages were then handed out to the participant priests who then proceeded to recite. Afterwards food was distributed and everyone ate and enjoyed themselves. The ceremony was also recorded by a Buddhist television station, Bodhi TV.
Outside of my research, later in my stay, I had the opportunity to meet Prof Chiara Letizia, from Université du Québec à Montréal, and her students, who had come with her for a course project. Prof Letizia and her students were guided around to various important sites by Nutan. Unfortunately, a number of her students got sick. Hygiene is very important in Nepal, and even a small mistake in the preparation of food can result in a few days in bed. It is usually advised that all water used, with the exception of shower water, be bottled water.
With Prof Letizia and her students, I had the opportunity to see the performance of the Rāto Matsyendranāth Jātrā, which is the parading of a chariot containing the deity called Buṅga Dyaḥ around Lalitpur. The deity is identified as both Karuṇāmaya, or Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and as Matsyendranāth, a Hindu saint, making the rite one of the many occasions in which Buddhist and Hindu traditions and practices intersect in Nepal. There are a number of these festivals in Nepal, but this one is distinguished by the colour of the deity, red (rāto). The chariot is built according to ritual specifications over an extended period, and ends up being a very tall structure, looking somewhat like a Christmas tree. In the process of the chariot’s procedure through the city, many events occur. For instance, the chariot is met by a smaller version pulled by teenage boys, and at one point one of the Kumārīs, or girl goddesses, exits from her shrine to greet the chariot as it passes. This year, not all of the electrical cables had been cut across the streets, meaning that at one point, the smaller chariot had to force its way through the wires, forcing everyone who was standing behind that wire have to jump out of the way to dodge the cable! The cable snapped off each pole down the street, to what seemed to be the entire length of the cable around a bend in the street.
At the festival, by chance I met some people who had been visiting Nepal from BLIA/Fo Guang Shan, the Taiwanese monastic order for which I had previously volunteer editing work. I met them by noticing a logo on the shirts of one of the observers. They invited me to come with them to get an update on the aid work they were doing near Banepa, to the east of the Kathmandu Valley. I took this opportunity, and at various points on the journey up the mountain to visit some of the relief sites, I almost regretted it! The road up these mountains was sometimes paved entirely with jagged rocks and was always bordered on one side by a sheer drop of thousands of feet. The driver said that these roads were no problem compared to those going up to Gorkha! At the top, we visited a Tamang temple which was being rebuilt, after being devastated in the earthquake last year. The original temple had been built with mud brick and was being replaced by one with steel reinforcement and concrete with funding from BLIA. On another mountain peak was Shree Tapeshwor Higher Secondary School, which had been rebuilt entirely with BLIA funds. The view from the mountain was quite breath-taking, and after going down into the valleys for lunch, we proceeded back to Banepa, where we observed the shelters that had been built for urban families who had lost their homes in the earthquake. At that point, the majority of the people who had benefited from these shelters had been rehoused, meaning the project, overall, was a success. One can only pray that the next earthquakes are weaker, and the buildings are made more resilient.
There were many other opportunities to experience Newar Buddhism and Hinduism on a daily basis. At various points from my room in Lalitpur, I heard the sound of distant drumming or the blowing of horns. At some points, I was laying down for a rest, when I was almost compelled to arise and rush to see where the sound hearing a distant ritual out the window was coming from. One such occasion was the opportunity to see a Newar Buddhist ordination ritual. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Newar Buddhist monks get married. Nevertheless, they still ordain in the traditional way, according to the vinaya, when at a young age. After a period in the robes and with a shaven head, the young boys who had ordained give back the precepts, but not their status as monks. This practice may have its roots in the gradual merging of Buddhist and Hindu traditions and cultures, but the Newar Buddhist oral tradition relates that it was forced upon Buddhists by either Śaṅkarācārya or by a king, such as Jayasthiti Malla. It seems likely that a combination of these explanations is true. In this particular ordination ceremony, I saw young ordained Newar Buddhists in orange robes being carried by their parents into Kwa Bahah for a rite.
Nepal is a place full of opportunities to learn about religion, as well as humanity and its resilience. One year after a devastating earthquake, people are managing to continue their lives and practice of the Dharma, despite economic and political difficulties. Inspirational is one of the many things one could call this experience. My research is not over, but has just begun in Nepal, however this trip eventually ended and I had to say good bye to friends made over that period. Even the owners of the bed and breakfast I was staying at, Traditional Homes at Swotha, showed some disappointment at having to part company after so long, and so many days of practicing broken Nepali and Newari. On my part, I can only express my utmost gratitude to them for their very kind hospitality and the great meals they offered on a daily basis. Likewise, to everyone else who helped with this fruitful trip, including SSHRC, my supervisor, Prof Emmrich, Prof Raman, and Prof Letizia, Nutan, and Laxmi.