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Nic Newton, ‘Description, Visualisation, and Concatenation in the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra’

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Duration: 0:30:38 | Added: 30 Mar 2022
Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021

Nic Newton
PhD candidate in Sanskrit, Asian Studies Department, University of Edinburgh

‘Description, Visualisation, and Concatenation in the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra’

Do syntactic patterns signify an intended transition from external recitation to a more motivated memorisation and mental recitation, and thence to full visualisation of a meditation object, or are they the ornamentation of a text for rhetorical or other communicative ends? Could they be both? In this paper I argue that the identification of concatenation and other poetic means found in the larger Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra’s highly repetitious description (varṇaka) of the jewel-trees of Amitābha’s paradise problematises understandings of this passage as a cognitive stencil for visualisation. I apply Yelle’s method for the semiotic analysis of a discourse event to this example and view it as a ritual and mode of rhetorical performance. The use of this method of parsing allows the diagramming of patterns, and evidences the use of escalation, exhaustion, concatenation, and the rigorous integration and manipulation of two lists (mātṛkā): the seven precious materials and tree parts. The identification of concatenation (śṛṅkhalika) in particular allows a comparison with incidences of anadiplosis found outside Mahāyāna literature in the Mahāsudassanasutta and Dīpaṃkaravastu. It also points us to examples such as the Indriyeśvara chapter of the Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra that have no semantic link to the larger Sukhāvtīvyūhasūtra’s description. Furthermore, concatenation brings to mind methods of recitation and memorisation such as the kramapāṭha, and is noted as an established feature of poetic technique appearing in several genres of Indian literature from the Vedas to Māhārāṣṭrī Jaina and Prakrit literature. The use of concatenation in Buddhist literature across examples that are seen as mere descriptions, and in those that are understood as visualisations, calls into question the purposes of the passage from the larger Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra. Whilst the perspectives of the Guan wuliangshoufo jiang (*Amitāyurdhyānasūtra) and Wuliangshou jing youbotishe yuanshengjie (*Sukhāvatīvyūhopadeśa), make it hard to vitiate the views of scholars such as Harrison and Gethin that this passage is a template for visualisation, it seems our understanding needs to be augmented. It may be that concatenation here is simply a legacy of memorisation. It may also be that this manipulation was intended to heighten the impact of the metaphor of Amitābha as spiritual sovereign, and the deployment of literary ornament serves to further increase the praise quotient of the passage. However, it may also be that such a patterning announces a distinctive purpose for this passage, and that its images were singled out for memorisation and adornment by virtue of their established use in pragmatic contexts.

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