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Dr. Rafal K. Stepien, ‘On Numen in Antinomianism, or Reading Religion in Irreligion’

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Duration: 0:30:15 | Added: 30 Mar 2022
Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021

Dr. Rafal K. Stepien
Assistant Professor of Comparative Religion, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

‘On Numen in Antinomianism, or Reading Religion in Irreligion’

Understandably, scholars of Buddhist texts read and write about texts that are Buddhist. But what is the proper hermeneutical approach to take towards a text that, though identifiably ‘Buddhist’, nonetheless exhibits overtly non-Buddhist, even anti-Buddhist, features? More generally, what methodologies and theoretical lenses are appropriate for scholars of religion when working on ‘irreligious’ literatures?

This paper is a foray into such questions as they present themselves in antinomian religious poetry. Specifically, I focus on the Chinese Buddhist poet Hanshan 寒山 (d. c. 850) and the role of wine and inebriation in his work. Hanshan is typically portrayed as a dishevelled recluse – something of a Chinese darvīsh – whose poetry is as uncouth as its author’s mountain hideaway. The profusion of Buddhist tropes in his poetry, however, attests to a thorough knowledge of and adherence to the sūtras and strictures studied and practiced in his day. Foremost among the postulates of the Tang-dynasty Chan Buddhism to which Hanshan subscribed was the notion of ‘Buddha-nature’ (佛性); the pure and pre-existing ‘original mind’ (本心) whose realization was the professed goal of Buddhist believers. And foremost among the precepts to which practitioners adhered in order to sober this (intrinsically undefiled yet perceptibly entangled) mind from worldly pollution was the avoidance of any intoxicants or mind-altering substances such as wine. On what basis, then, can our recusant poet-contemplative Hanshan deride religious regulations prohibiting wine-inebriation?

This paper forms part of a larger research project examining certain prima facie surprising commonalities I have identified between Buddhist and Islamic irreligious literatures. As such, I juxtapose the wine motif in Hanshan with its use by the Sufi-inclined Persian poet Ḥāfeẓ (d. c. 1389). In so doing, I seek to both challenge unquestioned assumptions among classical and contemporary reading communities as to the mutual incongruity of Buddhist and Islamic literature and thought, and contribute to the dawning awareness of extensive historical transmissions of literary motifs as well as religious doctrines. It is hoped, moreover, that this will concomitantly revise, or at least begin to question, accepted historical tropes as to the scarcity of trans-religious reading practices across Tang-Song-era Buddhist East-Asia and Abbasid-era Islamic West-Asia.

In terms of the conference call, this paper may be located as a study of Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist poetic literature in comparative perspective, with specific attention to scholarly modes of reading and study, and the manners in which these both relate to the language and rhetoric of source texts and are received in and thereby help construct religiously identified reading communities.

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