David McMahan, “Buddhist Visionary Literature and the Logic of Visionary Imagery”
The Mahāyāna Sūtras inaugurate a revolutionary shift in Buddhist literature. They include the stark dialectics of emptiness, which rigorously deconstruct all conceptual structures, whether they are philosophical edifices or taken-for-granted ways of seeing things. At the same time, they introduce a new genre of visionary literature that represents an explosion of the visual imagination, with a proliferation of fantastical scenes and scenarios. This session explores some of the varieties and functions of such imagery, arguing that the underlying logic of emptiness and the abundance of visionary imagery in certain sūtras is the same—that all things are ananta: boundless, infinite, without end. Visionary literature expresses another way of freeing up things from the illusion of fixed, inherent existence, playfully deploying fantastical imagery to suggest the shimmering possibilities just outside of ordinary awareness. It can also be seen as a genre of fantasy novel dramatizing Buddhist themes—emptiness, compassion, skillful means—and the idea that the ordinary world is overflowing with hidden beauty, wonder, and meaning if seen through the eyes of heightened awareness. This literature also leads directly to a systematization of such imagery in complex visualization meditations in Pure Land and Tantric traditions.
McMahan, David. “Realms of the Senses: Buddha Fields and Fields of Vision in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra.” In Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visual Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Routledge, 2002..
Selection from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra
- 9:30am - 10:15am
- 10:15am - 11:00am
David McMahan is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2008), Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhism (Routledge Curzon, 2002), and several articles on Mahāyāna Buddhism in South Asia and Buddhism in the modern world. He is also the co-editor of Buddhism, Meditation and Science (Oxford University Press, 2017), editor of Buddhism in the Modern World (Routledge 2012). His most recent book, Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Traditions in Ancient and Modern Worlds, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.