Performing Arts

If one were to define Mahayana Buddhism by the sum of its parts, one would definitely include thaumaturgy and (extreme) asceticism as defining features. The sum however, would cast Mahayan Buddhism as an actor, and the breadth of its reach as a stage. Wonder-working and the performance of austerities a priori require receptive audiences to fulfill their roles; they are displayed and exhibited to viewers, listeners, and readers, in a self-reflective and self-legitimizing effort to construct a Mahayana identity, and perhaps, on a more focalized plane, the identity of the enlightened Mahayana master.


Mahayana and the Ascetic Imperative

    What are the exceptional visions that ascetics beg for, compared to that wonder--to see anything at all?

                            -Paul Valéry, Mon Faust

Recent scholarship has revealed Mahayana Buddhism to be more ascetical and less "this-wordly" than originally anticipated. In fact, it is now more often than not associated with a rhetoric of renunciation. Indeed, when one engages in the Middle Path, a rejection of the values and traditions of mainstream society are expected to follow. Many of the actual practices associated with Mahayana Buddhism remain, prima facie, devoid of any social significance and require no receptive audience. Meditation, fasting, chanting and other practices of the body, speech and mind invite no spectators, in fact, they are all better performed and achieve their soteriological purposes more effectively if performed in seclusion.

Most bodhisattvas in the Mayahana pantheon and historical exemplars (to some extent bodhisattvas themselves) of the tradition are typified as great ascetics. In fact, it would seem that as a defining characteristic, wondrous ascetic feats go hand in hand with Mahayana. The eminent Chan master Xu Yun, to whom we shall return for further illustrations, was representative of the strong correlation between extreme asceticism and Mahayana Buddhism. According to his autobiography, he spent a good part of 1902 in a thatched hut that he had built himself on Zhong Nan Shan. Xu Yun had managed to survive on a diet of wild herbs and water from melted snow. On the occasion of New Year's he decided to boil up some taros and sat waiting for them to be done. Without being aware of it, he entered a deep state of meditation. One day, his neighbor passed by and noticed that Xu Yun was in samadhi. After gently "waking" him, he asked: "Have you eaten?" To which the Chan master answered: "Not yet, but the taros in the pot must be cooked by now." When they both looked over in the pot, they found that the taros had accumulated an inch of mold and were frozen hard as rock. His neighbor exclaimed: "You have been wholly in trance for half a month" (Luk 318).

Life in any Buddhist monastery is ascetic, and under some angles, it can be considered a form of slow self-mortification. Holmes Welch however, has outlined seven general ascetic practices which are germane to Mahayana Buddhism, more specifically, to Chinese Buddhism. Devotees who would embark on these practices and successfully complete them would commonly be viewed as "celestial bodhisattvas," thus blurring the distinction between the latter category and that of "earthly dharma masters" (for lack of a better term). The practices were comprised of: 1) Striking the bell for the sake of the nether world, during which a monk would strike a monastery's bell for a certain number of hours per day over the course of a few years. 2) Sealed confinement, which entailed remaining sealed within one room, usually for a term of three years, devoting oneself to religious exercise. 3) Vows of silence and facing the wall (undoubtedly in homage to Bodhidharma). 4)Writing sutras or sketching sacred images in one's own blood. 5) Burning scars in the shape of swastikas, rosaries or the character fo on one's chest or back. 6) Burning fingers, and the ever so popular 7) self-immolation.

It is argued that Mahayana [ascetic] practice is primarily intended to de-socialise or de-condition the individual, whereby one can cut his or her attachments and overcome ignorance (Holt 3). Factionalism aside, Buddhist practices in general have an undeniable element of social renunciation and a tone of individual self-reliance. The parivrajaka life embodied such principles, which transpired in the four nissayas. Living at the base of a tree, begging for food, dressing in defiled rags and solely using urine for medicine are all considered tapas (ascetic practices) designed to section attachment to society and the self. In this framework, the sangha, which composes a cenoebitic collectivity of individual adherents, is simply an expedient means to achieve "economies of scale" through which spiritually successful monks are mass-produced. The sangha thus becomes a mere catalyst for individual practice, subordinated to fundamentally eremitic motivations of personal spiritual achievement. As Spiro notes, it provides "the social framework which is most conducive to overcoming desire and attachment" (294). However, if we are to dig deeper, it soon becomes apparent that the aforementioned position becomes a tenuous one indeed.


Mahayana and the Social Imperative

Even outside the context of a socially prescriptive sangha, the Mahayanist ascetic imperative, upon closer inspection, is found to depend on social recognition. For example, wearing defiled garments becomes not only a means by which the practitioner cuts attachment to the self, but also a way by which he or she can emphasise the cleavage between clerics and lays or demonstrate the acquired level of doctrinal learning. The purple robe (ziyi) bestowed upon eminent monks by imperial edict (from the Tang) is a perfect example of how an initially ascetic or self-directed practice becomes ripe with social subtexts and depends on consensual recognition. As Reinders remarked, "the monk stylises his behaviour so as to enact the boundary between monastic and lay" (264). The vegetarian diet, the wearing of robes, and the prohibition against alcohol were all crucial components in the definition of the monks identity, particularly in terms of differentiating between secular and clerical spheres. With respect to abstinence, a traditionally self-denying practice, Kieschnick notices various Buddhist figures' concern with reception and social response. Fachong and Daoji for example, refused to be in the presence of nuns, for fear that it would "give rise to vulgar rumours" or cause the "tainting of one's reputation" (Kieschnick 20-21). Such concerns for reputation and public opinion apparently drove many monks to extreme asceticism in order to disprove literati and court convictions of monastic debauchery in the Tang dynasty. In fact, the most memorable images of monks in Chinese literature point to sexual license rather than the mystique of continence. By the Tang dynasty, pornographic literature depicting fornication in monasteries circulated widely among the educated elite. To combat such a representation of lascivious clergymen, some monks doubled their ascetic impulse. Even basic tenets such as respecting a vegetarian diet became part of the struggle for monks' identity. When Buddhist polemicists wished to humiliate members of the clergy, they would often force or trick them into eating meat and drinking wine. This in turn, had the effect of making monks more adamant about what they ate or not. More extreme measures of proving one's devotion to Mahayanist asceticism also arose; self-mutilation and ritual suicide via immolation or jumping off cliffs became common scenes in monastic circles.

Such extreme forms of asceticism may seem to elude the reach of socially-inclined motivations, yet even dhutanga and related varieties of asceticism followed specific regimens of pre-defined practices. Rather than gaining inspiration for their actions from eccentric individual impulses, "ascetics among ascetics" were driven by the promises of prestige and social gratification (Kieschnick 45). A sort of "one-upmanship" develops as the "game of refusal and counter-refusal," to employ Bourdieu's terms, entails an interaction between the performer and the audience of which he or she continuously tries to keep ahead (Kieschnick 32). The Song Biographies of Eminent Monks tell us of Wuran, a lowly monk of unknown background who goes on a pilgrimage to Mount Wutai in search of the bodhisattva Manjusri. He eventually encounters a breath-taking monastery, who's abbot is actually Manjusri himself. Manjusri then assures Wuran that the he will be rewarded if he perseveres in his practice. Soon after, the monastery vanishes into thin air and Wuran begins to prepare for self-immolation:

    Zhao followed Wuran's orders, without the slightest alteration, burning him from the head down. Only when the flames reached his feet did Wuran's body fall over. Zhao exclaimed, "Of old, I hear, the Medicine King incinerated his body. Today, I have seen a superior man. How marvelous! What pain!" Later, disciples collected Wuran's remains and erected a stupa south of Mount Faxian that stands to this day (Zanning, Song Gao Seng Zhuan 23.3 (855c-856b) from Kieschnick 38).

The fact that an ordinary and quite generic monk would obtain a stupa dedicated to his worship, along with a mention in such a reputable hagiography clearly indicates the receptive worth of his final act. It might also lead us to a better understanding of his motivations for perpetrating such an act. In other words, much of what drives asceticism as a defining feature of Mahayana Buddhism is performative zeal in the face of a susceptible audience and its associated gratification.

In his chapter on medieval Chinese Buddhist ascetic practices, Kieschnick observes that asceticism was an inherently social practice which chiefly derived meaning in relation to social norms (66). If we briefly return to Chan master Xu Yun, the following account provides a hint of just how important social reception and the audience are to the ascetic act. Despite his illness and the doctor's remonstrations Xu Yun proceeded with his plans of burning of his finger "to repay his mother." Note how many times he mentions his entourage and the people surrounding him during a ceremony that should only involve his mother, the Buddha, and himself:

    Many people took turns in helping me up into the great shrine-hall to prostrate myself before the Buddha and go through various ritual and liturgy. The assembled monks recited the Ch'an-hui-wen, while with my whole mind I recited the Buddha's name to secure realease (ch'ao-tu) for my mother. At first I felt pain. But my mind gradually clarified until finally wisdom and awakening shone through. […] The burning of my finger was now completed. I got up on my own […] there was no need for people to support me. At that point I did not even know that I had been ill. I walked about thanking everyone and returned to the infirmary. People were surprised" (from Welch 325).

To paraphrase the famous clichéd pop-zen koan, if a monk burns his finger off in the woods, would anybody care?

Since it derives meaning from its relation to social mores and consensual convictions, asceticism is central to the self-identity and image of the Mahayana devotee, and even more central to the self-identity and image of the tradition. This holds even truer for extreme asceticism for it accentuates the difference between the monk and society, but also on a second level, between the monk and other, less zealous--and hence, by the ascetic's logic, less spiritually advanced--monks. If we transpose this reasoning onto the vector of a Mahayana-Hinaya dichotomy, extreme asceticism seems to reinforce Mahayana's sectarian independence and alleged soteriological advancement.


Ascetic Thaumaturgy

Because of its close link with asceticism, thaumaturgy within the context of Mahayana Buddhism has been subjected to the same debate as asceticism. But before embarking on that topic, let us first examine just how closely related asceticism and wonder-working are.

Much like with asceticism, many scholars have attempted to include as thaumaturgy as one of the developmental themes of early Mahayana. This trend stems perhaps from the belief that asceticism invariably led to the attainment of magical powers. As Kieschnick relates, supernormal powers and the ability to perform wonder-works were incidental manifestations of spiritual progress; they came naturally to the adept as a result of his practice and he was expected to discount them as of relatively minor import (70). In Chinese Buddhist lore, powers were divided into six major groups, namely magical will (ruyi), supernormal hearing (tianer), mind-reading (taxintong), knowledge of one's previous lives (suzhutong), the ability to discern the previous lives of others (tianyan) and the state of having no outflows (defilements or desires) (wuloutong).

Faure notes, that the earliest ascetically inclined yogic exercises were devised to increase and develop spiritual energy and "powers" (1998, 30). In the case of the paccekabuddha, one of the dominant themes in Buddhist literature was to closely associate the ascetic figure with displays of magic (P. iddhi, Skt. rddhi) such as "flight" or "levitation" (Wiltshire xiv). The paccekabuddha has also been compared to the muni, a mysterious ascetic figure with extraordinary thaumaturgical powers mentioned as far back as the Rg Veda. Regardless of the tradition, there is strong precedence that points to an inherent connection between ascetic practice and the obtention of magical powers. Harrison for one, stresses that magic has been an under-emphasized, yet pivotal force in the (self)definition of bodhisattvas and early Mahayana (63). He contends that Buddhism has always been a "shamanic" religion rhetorically camouflaged by an all-pervasive monastic discourse and headed by masters of ecstasy rather than priestly intermediaries (64). Although this position might overstate the case, it shines light on how such, thaumaturgy has come to embody the very essence of Mahayana Buddhism and by extension that of its chief disseminator, the bodhisattva. Harrison adds that in order to legitimate itself as the self-proclaimed heir of Gautama's mantle, Mahayana Buddhism had to "sell itself" to other Buddhists and the population at large. One way of doing this was through the possession of relics, and another was through the (perceived) possession of ascetic techniques and associated magical powers. Hence, "magical apparitions and miraculous displays […] are not just some kind of narrative padding or scaffolding for the elaboration of doctrine; they are the very essence of the Mahayana's struggle to make a place for itself and to survive in a competitive environment" (66).


Performative Thaumaturgy

This tendency apparently originated long before the rise of Mahayana proper. As Wiltshire argues the paccekabuddha were harbingers of an ascetico/magico-religious tradition that later fragmented into sectarian groups. Many of these groups, including Jainism and particularly Buddhism, capitalized on the tradition's mythical appeal and magical powers in order to woo the lay masses (Wiltshire 108). Traditionally, the earliest strands of Buddhism used magical displays for proselytizing ends. The utilitarian usage of magic continued with Mahayana's inception in China, where an almost visceral thirst for the exotic attracted many of Buddhism's Chinese converts. Watanabe Shoei supports that Buddhist masters' ability to influence natural phenomena through magic was the primary basis for their appeal to potential converts (Shoei 161, from Faure 1991: 98). Indeed, Huijiao's treatise on divine marvels (shenyi) notifies us that "the purpose of these divine acts is 'proselytism,' " just as Daoxuan informs the reader in his chapter on wonder-workers that "without this [thaumaturgy], it would be difficult to spread [Buddhism]" (from Kieschnick 68). Magic, and the promise of supernatural skill as a result of Buddhist ascetic practice, were thus lures that catered to the Chinese fascination with thaumaturgy. Apparently, the ruse succeeded; when Holmes Welch interviewed Chinese monks asking them why they had joined the clergy one replied that he did so simply in order to obtain supernormal powers (Welch 260).

Magical skills were undeniably used for utilitarian purposes. While in most instances they were displayed as a show in order to attract devotees or increase one's reputation, magical arts were also used, to a lesser extent, in mediating between the realms of the numinous and the mundane (Faure 1991: 108). Gomez has expatiated upon this point, introducing the idea that wonder-working on a cognitive level, displays the emptiness of all things while on a soteriological level, it brings about the release of sentient beings by luring them onto the "right path" (235). Williams has also addressed the question: "If all lacks inherent existence […] magical interventions, as real as anything else, […] reveal the true nature of things as much as anything else" (122). He mentions that since "the Buddha uses his magical interventions solely for the benefit of sentient beings, their use will reveal the true nature of things more openly […]; 'fictions' become 'reality' and 'reality' becomes 'fiction' " (122). While this might be considered as one reading for the use of thaumaturgy, it seems to be reserved for the higher-minded Buddhists and bodhisattvas. It almost comes accross as an apologetic justification for the comparatively base use of wonder-working for proselytizing and exhibitionist purposes.


The Ritualization of Performance: Self-Identity and the Mahayana

    "It's over, the "buddhas and patriarchs" disease that once gripped my chest. Now I'm just an ordinary man with a clean slate." -Daito

Asceticism and thaumaturgy, both hallmark features of Mahayana Buddhism, have been shown to be more dependent on social response than originally anticipated. Asceticism requires and audience in terms of reception and acknowledgment so it can fulfill its main aims. Similarly, wonder-working, which incidentally is strongly related to ascetic practice, also takes on performative airs. Just as inviting as a siren's chant, it too requires an audience in order to succeed in its endeavour. As rhetorical and narrative devices, both asceticism and magic have entered the identity of Mahayana, and transitively, the identities of the greatest Mahayana exemplars, bodhisattvas and masters (separated by a thin line) alike.

What I wish to forward here in concluding this paper is the notion of enlightenment as a performed role rather than an achieved state. In other words, enlightenment or socially categorized manifestation of it (such as the abbot/dharma master or bodhisattva) are institutionally pre-determined and ritualized. Acting enlightened then precedes actual enlightenment. Once the tell-tale signs of an enlightened Mahayana master are identified, all the adept has to do is abide by them. In this case, the performance of extreme austerities and wonder-working have been identified as going hand in hand with what it means to be an assiduous and illuminated devout of Mahayana. Once these features are displayed to an audience or to a social entity that responds to them in an anticipated fashion and bestows enlightenment onto the adept, then he or she is officially "enlightened." The behaviour is reinforced and the adept then acts accordingly, cyclically reaffirming his or her own enlightenment by acting it out and gaining the corresponding social recognition.

Kenneth Kraft alludes to the deconstructionist Zen discourse on self-identity in a way that might prove parallel to what is being said here. Succinctly put, Zen authenticity, and thus enlightenment are defined by extremely specific yet ultimately fluid criteria (including zazen, the monastic rule, withdrawal from the world, and so on) (110-112). These criteria are rigorously abided by in terms of crafting a Zen identity, however when that identity is achieved, the criteria become ultimately meaningless. Nevertheless, they are paradoxically upheld as part and parcel of "Zen-ness." Asceticism and thaumaturgy function in a similar way since they define the Mahayanist practitioner but are ambiguously repudiated as authentic or ultimately pregnant marks of enlightenment. Nonetheless, one must fulfill the requirements of asceticism and wonder-working, before one can discard them as soteriologically irrelevant. The Buddhist ambivalence towards thaumaturgy for example is illustrated in the following passage from the Jingde chuandeng lu:

    Once when the master [Huangbo] was travelling to Mount Tiantai, he met a monk on the way. They walked and talked together like old acquaintances…As they thus travelled along together, when they came to a swollen valley stream, Huangbo planted his staff, took off his hat, and stopped there. The other monk tried to take the master across with him, but the master said, "Please cross over yourself." The other one then gathered his robes and walked upon the waves as though treading on level ground. He looked back and said, "Come across! Come across!" The master upbraided him, saying, "You self-perfected fellow! If I had known you would concoct wonders, I would have broken your legs!" The other monk sighed in admiration and said, "You are a true vessel of the teaching of the Great Vehicle." As his words ended, he disappeared (Cleary 73, from Faure 1991: 107).

Mahayana Buddhism also harbours ambiguous feelings towards extreme asceticism and asceticism. Many well-respected and influential members of the dharma openly castigated the austere enterprises taken up by their fellow dharma brothers. Huijiao, and more vehemently Yijing, both critisized self-mortification and other extreme ascetic acts as arising out of pathological fanaticism (Kieschnick 47). Furthermore the litany of hedonistic and transgressive Mahayana masters, from Puxian to Ikkyu demonstrate to what extent even run-of-the-mill asceticism was subjected to ambiguity and questioned in terms of its validity.

Returning to the original point, asceticism and thaumaturgy have been ritualized or perhaps even institutionalized into the ethos of Mahayana enlightenment. Hence, they and the reactions that they occasion are engrained, almost subconsciously, in the very behaviour of Mahayana masters. Once again, Xu Yun's life provides a striking example of how an eminent Mahayana figure's life should be ripe with ascetic and thaumaturgic feats in order to be socially recognized as one:

    In 1909, when the Venerable Hsu-Yun was travelling in Yun-nan, he was having a chat with a high official. Suddenly a cow came over where they were sitting and knelt before him, with tears streaming from both its eyes. It belonged to a cattle butcher who soon appeared on the scene. Hsu-Yun said to the cow: "If you want to escape from life, you must take Refuge in the Three Jewels." The cow nodded its head and Hsu-Yun recited the Three Jewels on its behalf. When it got up, it was quiet and docile as a human being. Hsu-yun tried to offer compensation to the cattle butcher, but the latter would not accept it. He was so overcome by the miracle he witnessed that he renounced his trade, took the Refuges himself, and became a vegetarian (Welch 317).

Relating the experience of his own enlightenment, Xu Yun explains what he felt when a tea cup fell to the ground and broke into bits with a loud noise: "Suddenly the roots of doubt were cut. In my whole life I had never felt such joy. It was like waking from a dream" (Welch 82). This experience seems almost generically Chan, as if Xu Yun had been conditioned and subliminally predisposed to recognize this moment as a moment of illumination. Welch himself adds that it reads almost like classical description of enlightenment, a "public case" (gong an) (83). Once again, if the Hsu Yun acts as is expected of an enlightened master, then he will be recognized as such. The existence of Mahayana Buddhism and much of its institutional framework depends on how the targeted audience responds to it.

This is vaguely reminiscent of what Bielefeldt once called "pulling out the Zen master card". Zen language, concepts and rituals are purely instrumental and reactionary. Taken out of context, on their own, they have no intrinsic meaning whatsoever. Taking the famous koan, "does a dog have Buddha nature? Mu," out of a Buddhist framework is completely nonsensical. Yet, the Zen master expresses enlightenment through his every word, thought or action for one reason: he's pulling out his Zen master card. Once the disciple, the audience, or the assembly approach the experience bearing in mind that the "protagonist" is a Zen master, then it all comes together and makes perfect sense.

The audience who is being courted infuses the actions, thoughts or words with meaning and power. If for example, a Jesuit priest were to seize a cat and slice it in two, he would undoubtedly be taken off to jail or seriously reprimanded. Throughout the history and development of Mahayana Buddhism, certain feats, such as those of the ascetic or thaumaturgical variety, have been proven to elicit specific responses which bestow ritual and institutional power upon the performer. It is precisely for this reason that asceticism and thaumaturgy, and perhaps even enlightenment, are performing arts.


Cited Works

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Faure, Bernard. The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Gomez, Luis Oscar. " The Bodhisattva as Wonder-Worker," in Prajnaparamita and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze, edited by Lewis Lancaster, 221-261. Berkeley CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1977.

Harrison, Paul Maxwell. "Searching of the Origins of the Mahayana: What Are We Looking For?" in The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 28, no. 1 (1995): 48-69.

Holt, John C. Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitika. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981.

Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monks: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Kraft, Kenneth. Eloquent Zen: Daito and Early Japanese Zen. Honolulu HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Luk, Charles. Ch'an and Zen Teaching. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser, 1970.

Reinders, Eric. "Ritual Topography: Embodiment and Vertical Space in Buddhist Monastic Practice," from History of Religions, 36: 3 (Feb 1997), 244-264.

Spiro, Melford E. "The Rule," from Buddhism and Society, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1982, 290-304.

Welch, Holmes. The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.

Wiltshire, Martin G. Ascetic Figures Before and in Early Buddhism: The Emergence of Gautama as the Buddha. New York NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.