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Embedding Religions: Converting Figures and Conversion Stories

Panel Chair: Carmen Meinert | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m.

The panel presents the ongoing work of the interdisciplinary group “Buddhism in Motion” on conversion narratives. Stories about the conversion of communities are understood as analytical instruments to investigate ways of ‘making sense’ of the introduction of a religion in a specific region. The objective of the papers presented at this panel is twofold: an investigation of the object-language level and one of meta-language level. Firstly, papers aim at characterising the dialectics of conversion accounts with respect to: a. agent(s) of conversion and the strategies implemented, b. justification of the propagation of the religious faith, c. description of the converted other and d. repercussions of the conversion. As narrated reconstructions of the past, conversion stories are not merely an expression of the agenda of a religious community but also of dynamics which go beyond the religious field. It is these underlying strings that the group seeks to unravel in a second step.

Robert Mayer

Padmasambhava and the Buddhist Conversion of Tibet

The mythology surrounding the figure of Padmasambhava, the tantric hero famed for his role in converting Tibet to Buddhism in the eighth century, expresses many aspects of Tibetan self-representation: ranging from an uncivilised land of barbarians up to the arrival of Buddhism in the golden age of the Tibetan Empire. The stories connect Padmasambhava's deeds with a process of historical destiny, the creation of a sacred geography of Tibet, and with ongoing various religious themes. Features of the narratives are explored; developments over the generations, and contrasting versions favoured by different groups, or the same group in different contexts. Padmasambhava is in fact not seen so much as an historical culture hero, but rather as a Buddha with endless manifestations, so the narratives are never fixed, and remain alive with unlimited possibilities for new permutations. The Bon – the religious rivals - developed their own counter-narratives as well.

Stephen Eskildsen

Bodhidharma: Bringer of the True Dharma to China

Although Bodhidharma was active roughly 500 years after the introduction of Buddhism to China, he came to be touted as a heroic figure who converted Chinese Buddhists to authentic Buddhism for the first time. In Chan Buddhist sources this “authentic” Dharma is defined largely by austere discipline, meditation and wisdom that is “beyond words and letters”. However, as we shall see, Daoist sources indicate that his name also came to be associated with the transmission of “embryonic breathing” methods, or of methods for anticipating death and navigating through the intermediate state. Certain late imperial texts would maintain that the authentic Buddha Dharma transmitted by Bodhidharma was none other than the Internal Alchemy meditation of the Daoist Quanzhen tradition, and that Chinese Buddhists after Bodhidharma needed to be converted to the True Dharma once again.

Lisa Wevelsiep

Bringing Buddhism back to its Homeland: Narrating the (Re-)introduction of Buddhism in Bangladesh

Sources about Buddhism in the region of today’s Bangladesh are scare, but in most accounts the import of a new lineage from Arakan in the middle of the 19th century stands out as a central incident. Narrations about this intra-religious conversion usually take a quite standardized form, placing the monk Sāramedha and a return to a “true” vinaya-based Theravada Buddhism at the center of the story. The Narration evokes a certain picture about the state of Buddhism as perceived before the reformation and as envisioned ideally for the future. By looking at this story with respect to the question of how this narrative is informed by connections to other movements of reorientation in the global Buddhist World and colonial encounters at this time, the case study gives less insight into what happened at this moment historically, but elaborates how Bangladeshi Buddhists situate themselves in a web of other narrations.

Licia di Giaconti

When Laozi travelled to the West: fictive conversions in medieval Daoist narratives

One of the most famous stories in the medieval Buddho-Daoist interplay describes the travels of Laozi from China to India and the conversion of the "Barbarians" (huahu). Medieval sources  (3th-7th century) contain many accounts of or allusions to this narrative. The paper shall briefly summarize the development of the story and discuss the religious history of the  Santian neijie jing and the complex religious geography of the Taiqing jinye shendan jing. The main point here is to draw attention to those  motifs that are not easily understood within a "nation-state" paradigm (= China versus foreigners). 


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