Descent of the Deities: The Water-Land Retreat and the Transformation of the Visual Culture of Song-Dynasty (960-1279) Buddhism

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Descent of the Deities: The Water-Land Retreat and the Transformation of the Visual Culture of Song-Dynasty (960-1279) Buddhism

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Title: Descent of the Deities: The Water-Land Retreat and the Transformation of the Visual Culture of Song-Dynasty (960-1279) Buddhism
Author: Bloom, Phillip Emmanual
Citation: Bloom, Phillip Emmanual. 2013. Descent of the Deities: The Water-Land Retreat and the Transformation of the Visual Culture of Song-Dynasty (960-1279) Buddhism. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation identifies a paradox at the heart of the visual culture of Song-dynasty (960-1279) Buddhism. On the one hand, as the celestial pantheon expanded, it was conceptualized in ever more bureaucratic ways, mirroring the growth of the terrestrial government itself. On the other hand, the boundary separating that supramundane realm from the human world became decidedly more permeable; ghosts and deities became an omnipresent part of daily life. How to treat these two contradictory phenomena--one pointing to rational orderliness, the other pointing to unpredictable unruliness--posed a distinct problem for Song visual artists, spurring the development of new strategies of pictorial representation and forcing reflection upon the nature of representation itself. Chinese Buddhist art was never to be the same again. I argue that the key to understanding these new forms of art lies in the Water-Land Retreat (Shuilu zhai), a massive, icon-filled ritual of decidedly cosmic pretensions. The patterns of practice and strategies of visual representation associated with this ritual constitute a system that radically broke with earlier Chinese tradition. Practitioners of the liturgy created an open ritual syntax that allowed it to take on myriad forms in accordance with its sponsors’ needs, while also allowing it to absorb deities and practices from non-Buddhist traditions. This dissertation examines these phenomena in three parts. Part 1 excavates the social place, methods of practice, and visual profile of the Water-Land Retreat in and around the Song. Relying extensively on paintings from the Jiangnan region, cliff carvings from Sichuan, and numerous liturgical manuscripts, I argue that image and practice are inextricably bound in this ritual. Part 2 focuses on the motif of the cloud in Water-Land-related images and texts. Through an examination of images of cloud-borne descending deities, I contend that this nebulous motif became the locus for reflection on the mediational nature of representation. Finally, Part 3 addresses the bureaucratization of ritual practice and pictorial production in Song Buddhism. I argue that practitioners of the Water-Land Retreat simultaneously embraced and transcended a bureaucratic idiom drawn from Daoism and contemporary government to create a new Buddhist vision of the cosmos.
Terms of Use: This article is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:dash.current.terms-of-use#LAA
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:11107804
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