SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

Polishing the Buddha’s Sacred Text? A Methodological Reconsideration of the Significance of Variant Readings in the Most Popular Mahāyāna Code in East Asia

Toru Funayama (Kyoto University)

Date: 8 December 2017Time: 5:30 PM

Finishes: 8 December 2017Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: SALT (Alumni Lecture Theatre)

Type of Event: Lecture


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Polishing the Buddha’s Sacred Text? A Methodological Reconsideration of the Significance of Variant Readings in the Most Popular Mahāyāna Code in East Asia


The Fanwang jing or the Scripture of the Pure Divinities' Netted [Banners], sometimes called Brahmajāla-sūtra or Brahmā's Net sūtra, is in fact a Chinese Buddhist apocryphon composed around the mid-fifth century. I have recently published an edition of the text in book form, by consulting over five earlier manuscripts dating from before the 10th century, two stone inscriptions, and ten woodblock print editions during the 12th-18th centuries. Surprisingly enough, the Fanwang jing, which is merely seven pages long in the modern Taisho Canon, has as many as over six hundred variant readings. More importantly, a large majority of those variants suggest not scribal errors but a clear intention to improve ‘awkward’ or ‘ambiguous’ wording in the original text. As a result, I am led to consider a new methodology for editing this type of texts and the reasons such copious amounts of variants were produced; the latter point is directly related with the question of whether the Chinese readers aimed to ‘correct’ the Buddha's words. 

After a short overview of the contents and some essential characteristics of the scripture, I will examine the characteristics of textual emendation, classifying the types of variant readings into several kinds in terms of religio-philosophical contents and consistency/inconsistency of format. I will also briefly compare the nature of Chinese Buddhist apocrypha with Mahāyāna texts in India, and consider a fundamental difference in the value of variant readings between Sanskrit commentarial treatises on Buddhist philosophy and Chinese Buddhist translations of sutras. Finally, referring the commentators' idea on variant readings, I will try to draw a conclusion regarding whether or not medieval Chinese Buddhists intended to correct sacred texts.


Funayama Toru, born in 1961, is currently a professor of Buddhist studies at Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan. His research mainly covers two different areas in the history of Buddhism. One is Chinese Buddhism from to the fifth/seventh centuries, a period from the late Six Dynasties period up to early Tang; his focuses are on the formation of Chinese Buddhist translation and apocrypha, spread of the notion of Mahāyāna precepts, the exegetical tradition on the Mahāparinirvāṇa-Mahāsūtra, and more.

The other is philological and philosophical issues in Buddhist epistemology and logic in India from the fifth/tenth centuries, particularly Kamalaśīla’s (the late eighth century) theory of perception. In both areas, he is interested in the concept of saintliness as firmly related with the system of practice.

His most recent publications included the study and edition of the Fanwang jing Higashi Ajia bukkyō no seikatsu kisoku Bonmō kyō: saiko no katachi to hatten no rekishi 東アジア仏教の生 活規則『梵網経』─最古の形と発展の歴史 (The Scripture of the Pure Divinities' Netted [Banners] (Fanwang jing), Mahayana Code for Daily Life in East Asian Buddhism: The Oldest Form and Its Historical Evolution), Kyoto: Rinsen shoten, 2017, 528p.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

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