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Book: Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism

Chapter: 7. Interpretations and (Mis)understandings: Three Case Studies of Illustrations of the Buddha's Lifestory

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.39987


This chapter expands the theme of visualising the Buddha, by exploring the literary and visual endeavour of biography. We know that Buddhist narrative art often required (and still requires) oral or written explanations by monks or others tasked with interpreting the visual depictions. These explanations could, of course, greatly influence a person’s understanding of the images. This chapter looks at three instances featuring explications of illustrations of the Buddha’s lifestory, taken from three very different milieux. The first example comes from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya: Strong reexamines the story of Mahākāśyapa’s ordering the depiction of selected scenes from the Buddha’s life and then using them to help King Ajātaśatru cope with the news of the Buddha’s death. Second, Strong explores what is possibly the earliest comprehensive account of the legend of the Buddha by a Westerner: Tomás Pereira’s 1685 Portuguese summary of a 190-chapter Ming Dynasty life of the Buddha, in which each page of text is illustrated by a facing woodblock print. He focuses on the effect this systematic illustration of the original may have had on Portuguese understanding of the narrative. Finally, Strong looks at early 18th century Dutch misexplications (as depictions of Adam and Eve) of various Buddha images they saw at Mulkirigala in Southern Sri Lanka—a site they further misperceived as being Adam’s Peak. A conclusion will relate these three case studies and return to the wider themes of the volume, around how visual and verbal images can help us to understand the history of Buddhism.

Chapter Contributors

  • John Strong ([email protected] - jstrong) 'Department of Religious Studies Bates College, Lewiston, Maine USA'