Robert Ford Campany. Signs from the Unseen Realm: Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012. xix + 300 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3602-3.
Reviewed by Richard V. Simmons (Rutgers University)
Published on H-Asia (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Buddhist Miracle Tales
This volume is an exemplary translation and penetrating study of a fifth-century Chinese collection of Buddhist miracle tales originally compiled by a scholar-official, Wáng Yán 王琰, who was also a strong believer and proponent of Buddhism in the era when it was first beginning to make its way into Chinese society and the daily life of the population. The collection, Records of Signs from the Unseen Realm (Míngxiáng jì 冥祥記), has been lost as a discrete text, but was preserved in citations of the text in early collectanea. Robert Ford Campany has translated the 129 surviving stories from the text, including a surviving preface by the original compiler, and gathered them together here in this single volume. The product of his efforts facilitates identification of common themes and shared motifs in the stories that Campany can then mine for what they reveal about the Buddhism and society of their times. This is an annotated translation; and Campany provides extensive scholarly notes discussing details of the stories, the history behind them, and their Buddhist background and milieu, without getting mired in the tedium of a detailed collation of all the various surviving textual versions (though still clearly documenting sources). In addition to the translations and the footnotes themselves, Campany has provided commentary after most of the stories as well as a detailed and thoughtful exploration of the history and background of the text in a substantial introductory discussion. The appendices to the volume include a list of “Fragments and Questionable Items,” and a highly useful “List of Major Motifs” that provides a list of the stories where each of the identified motifs are found.
Wáng Yán, the author of the original collection, was born in the mid-fifth century to an undistinguished family in a busy commercial seafaring locale in the far southwest within what is now northeast Vietnam. Before he was ten his family had returned with him to the southern capital of Jiànkāng. In the ensuing decades of his life in the lower Yangtze valley region Wáng Yán developed an important and influential connection with at least one Buddhist monk and cultivated a profound belief in Guānyīn (rendered as “Sound Observer” by Campany). Following a trip up the river through the Yangtze gorges, Wáng Yán returned in 479 to find the Sòng (420-79) ruling house displaced by the Southern Qí dynasty (479-502). This was fairly fortuitous for Wáng Yán as he had connections in the ruling Xiāo clan of the Southern Qí that he was able to draw on for his livelihood in subsequent years. In his interactions with the ruling clan and the circle of literati around them, Wáng Yán also apparently participated in debate over the efficacy and validity of Buddhism, arguing strongly for the pro-Buddhist side. Wáng Yán compiled Míngxiáng jì between 485 and 493, years when this debate was likely in full swing.
Exploring Wáng’s motives, Campany determines that “the primary karmic reason for Wang Yan’s composition of the text was his personal relationship with his votive image of Sound Observer, and that his primary stated aim in writing was to persuade readers to become devout Buddhists like himself” (p. 12). The stories that Wáng gathered are narratives recounting the personal experiences of people that can serve as documentary evidence of Buddhist claims “about the unseen world, the soul’s survival of physical death, karma, rebirth, the efficacy of devotional acts, and the perils of slandering the Dharma or violating the sanctity of Buddhist images and sutras” (p. 12). Among the earliest of Chinese stories to use experiential accounts as persuasive attestation for their message (p. 43), the narratives in this collection thus serve as products of the “collective mentality and collective memory” of their time and place, providing the modern scholar with evidence about religious attitudes and practices that were common in fifth-century Chinese society (p. 27).
Campany finds that the overwhelming majority of the stories fall into a set of identifiable narrative frames (pp. 44-46), such as rescue by the Bodhisattva Sound Observer, observations of the afterlife by those who have returned from the dead, wonders performed by monks and nuns with special spiritual powers, and punishments received by those who assault the Buddha. The different kinds of storylines revolve around various religious themes and motifs (pp. 49-62 and appendix 2), including devotion to Sound Observer, the concept of gǎnyìng “stimulus-response,” the zhāi abstinence ceremony, spirit monks, the sacredness of sutras and the power of their recitation, the authenticity of Buddhist practices, rebirth, and vegetarianism.
Reading through the 129 anecdotes and translator’s commentary in this book, the radical break with many long-standing popular Chinese religious traditions that Buddhism required in Wáng Yán’s day, and the tension, or “contestation” as Campany denotes it (pp. 38-43), between Buddhism and Daoism all become starkly apparent. Story number 5 weaves Buddhist elements into the indigenous view of the bureaucracy of the afterlife, including ideas about rebirth and how correct observation of the Dharma can help one prepare for death and obtain salvation. The short anecdote that is story number 7 illustrates how “karma trumps transcendence-style longevity arts” (p. 87). Story number 17 relates how the correct path of the Buddhist Dharma prevails over that of the Daoist Way of Pure Water in successive generations of the Jìn ruling clan. A blunt and strident argument in favor of vegetarianism is provided in story number 34. With Campany’s guidance, we see in story number 65 how its complex narrative contests traditional ritual practices, such as animal sacrifice for local gods and notions of impurity; critiques the traditional view of “plaints” in the afterlife and the Celestial Master school of Daoism; and generally extols the virtue of Buddhist practice and the idea of karma (pp. 179-180). The protagonist of story number 77 works actively inside the Daoist community, urging others to convert to Buddhism. An attempt to return to Daoism and turn fully away from Buddhism by burning Buddhist sutras and images seriously and vividly backfires in story number 86. Thus as anecdote and incident are recounted one after the other, and his thick dossier of evidence takes shape, Wáng Yán’s motives and goals in his promotion of Buddhism all come into strong and dramatic relief.
In this translation and examination of the above-cited anecdotes and the other stories in the collection, Campany’s discussion and commentaries are highly insightful and shine a focused and penetrating light on the early practice of Buddhism in China. Campany also packs a great deal of useful background information in the text. So this volume of translations can additionally function as a kind of lucidly illustrated basic reference work on Buddhism in early Chinese society. The book’s annotations in the footnotes reflect the translator’s broad and commanding grasp of the literature and previous scholarship on the subjects treated. Many an interesting and useful point is noted therein, along with excellent discussions of the nuances and background of older idiomatic or specialized terminology.
But much of the helpful information in the footnotes is unevenly indexed, or not indexed and all. This means that it is sometimes difficult to get at this information any other way than by reading through the text and carefully perusing the footnotes. Many important points might be quite difficult to find again if the reader does not make his or her own note of them. For example, jīngshè 精舍 “oratory” (p. 95, note 158) is listed under the Romanized form in the index and the English translation is provided as cross-listing; but yuānhún 冤魂 “wronged cloudsouls” (p. 143, note 389) is indexed only by the English translation; and dānyī 單衣 “single-layer gown” (p. 120, note 274) is found only under its Romanized form. At the same time, fúshè 福舍 “lodges of the fortunate” (p. 79, note 89) is only indexed under “lodges”; xíng zūn xiàng 行尊像 “carrying an image of the Venerable One” (p. 121, note 280) is not found in the index in any form; and gāncǎo 甘草 “licorice” (p. 155, note 439) is also not indexed. Though tedious to be sure, a bit more time and attention in the compilation of the index would have increased the utility of this volume immensely.
Campany’s translations are nicely rendered. They read smoothly and are quite faithful to the meanings of the originals. This reviewer uncovered no infelicities. The pīnyīn transcriptions of the Chinese are also quite accurate. Only a couple of minor errors were noticed. One is the rendering of the name 自敖 as “Ziao” (p. 158). This should be transcribed “Zi’ao” (or more precisely, “Zǐ’áo”). First, because the latter is the correct way to separate the two syllables of this disyllabic name according to the spelling conventions of the Hànyǔ pīnyīn system; second, because the former spelling is entirely a possible single syllable historically in Chinese, as well as in Chinese dialects, and represents a form of certain syllables now spelled “Jiao,” such as焦, which is pronounced ziāo in Héjiān 河间 and other dialects in Héběi. A second minor error is on page 168, where “Dān” 單 should be transcribed “Shàn,” for that is how that character is pronounced in names. The alternate character reading that is given in the text, and noted by Campany—善, also Shàn—is due to this overlap of pronunciation and simultaneously serves as a reminder of the correct pronunciation for單 in this context. Yet these are extremely minor issues and do not detract from the excellence of the translation in the least.
Overall this volume is a first-rate contribution to the field of medieval Chinese Buddhist studies. At the same time it is also a fine example of the value and usefulness of translation of early texts in their entirety and the importance of such efforts in the scholarship of the field. Through Campany’s impressive effort, the fifth-century perspective and rhetorical goals of Wáng Yán’s original text are now rendered easily accessible for further study and analysis.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Richard V. Simmons. Review of Campany, Robert Ford, Signs from the Unseen Realm: Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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