Interior Adornment: On the Hidden Contents of Chinese Buddhist Statues in Context

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5:30 pm to 7:00 pm
Virtual Event
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About this event

Prof James Robson (Harvard)


Scholars and curators have long known that religious statues throughout Asia have hidden cavities that are filled with various objects inserted during a consecration ritual. That knowledge was, however, largely dispersed and when a statue was found to have materials inside there were the usual expressions of surprise or wonderment. This talk aims to demonstrate the ubiquity of such practices and explores the hidden world of these statues through a discussion of a large collection of statues from throughout East Asia (primarily China, but also in Korea, and Japan). These statues provide a valuable glimpse of Buddhism, local religion, ritual practice, lay devotion, and lost sūtras. These statues also raise a host of significant interpretive questions for historians of religion, including issues such as icon animation, idolatry, and iconoclasm. The images discussed in this talk contain a niche carved into their back (or sometimes in the uṣṇīṣa, base, or pedestal) that is filled with a variety of objects that can include relics, religious manuscripts and printed texts, and a “consecration certificate” or “ vow text." These statues are ubiquitous but have had a particularly intriguing history of visibility and concealment in East Asia and in Western scholarship. This talk will raise questions about why sacred images and icons such as these have been objects of extreme devotion for some, but also how they have presented problems for priests, politicians, missionaries, philosophers, and academics who for various reasons have found them distasteful, attacked their validity and power, and have tried to hide them away or destroy them. Why, even in the face of critique and destruction, have they persisted and proliferated into the present?

Speaker Biography

James ROBSON 羅柏松 is the James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, the Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard University Asia Center, and the Director of the Regional Studies East Asia (RSEA) Program. In 2020, he was named a Harvard College Professor for his contributions to undergraduate teaching.  He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, after spending many years doing research in China, Taiwan, and Japan. He previously taught at Williams College and the University of Michigan and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.  He specializes in the history of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism.  He is the author of the Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak [Nanyue 南嶽] in Medieval China (Harvard University Press, 2009), which was awarded the Stanislas Julien Prize awarded by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Toshihide Numata Prize in Buddhist Studies. He has also published widely on topics ranging from sacred geography and local religious history to the historical development of Chan/Zen Buddhism.  His current research includes a long term project on the history of the confluence of Buddhist monasteries and mental hospitals in Japan. He is the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions: Daoism; the co-editor of Images, Relics and Legends–The Formation and Transformation of Buddhist Sacred Sites and Buddhist Monasticism in East Asia: Places of Practice; and is currently completing the “Sui-Tang Buddhism” chapter for the Cambridge History of China: Volume 4, Sui and T’ang China, 618-907, Part II and a book entitled The Daodejing: A Biography for the Princeton University Press series on the "Lives of Great Religious Books." He is currently the co-editor of T’oung-Pao.


The event is open to public. Please register via Zoom.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

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Sponsor: The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation