The ten essays and the response essay to them brought together in this issue of the Journal of Indian Philosophy invite us, even challenge us to take up anew and afresh the question of how to think about textuality per se in the study of Buddhism. At the same time, their lessons ramify far beyond this shared topic.

Although texts are generally foundational and indispensable for work the Humanities, reflection on and specification of what we mean by ‘text’ is too-rarely undertaken. Whenever we try to conceptualize textuality, or even whenever we pause in our investigations to reflect on the nature of texts, we quickly become aware that many of our ideas about textuality or about the nature texts are more inchoate than we initially assumed, as the many questions that commonly arise in textual studies suggest: How does a text ‘live’? What is the function of a text? Can a text be reduced to its content? What happens when a text is voiced aloud and heard? Is it the same as when a text is read silently? There are also conceptual conundrums in basic observations that authors had different agendas and interests in the texts they created than the agendas and interests of those who received these texts; that traditions display evidence that texts were reworked in the course of time, and that the modes of composition and reworking are often very different from each other; and that the historical presuppositions prevalent today are different from those of people in the past and maybe especially from those of people for whom the texts we study were most meaningful. Moreover, the later impact of some texts exceeds what people first received, while other texts are forgotten despite being initially welcomed. All this means that a text as an object of study is not easily relatable to text as a conceptual generalization. Nor are texts as objects of study easily relatable to the dynamics of perduring traditions about which we still rarely have adequate historical evidence or theoretical resources.

Text is more than a collection of words, more than its content, more than the intentions of its authors, transmitters, reciters, commentators, receivers. Texts have textures, and they come to life in different cultural and historical settings. Indeed, they can be thought to have agency, thriving on what Umberto Eco has called the intention of the text,Footnote 1 which transcends any author’s explicit plan or any mode of reception. Texts are filled with rhythms, with inner cognitive patterns with which tradition thinks through individuals, with emotional and aesthetic potencies that shape and are shaped by real lives in real worlds, including imaginatively real ones.

Nevertheless, in any endeavour to make sense of historical reality through texts, too often we give in to the temptation to reduce texts to their words. That is, we begin to think of a text as a thing, as something bounded and fixed, with a content that can be documented and highlighted. This content is worthy of attention, of course, and in the field of Buddhist Studies this has been especially the case whenever the content is of a doctrinal or philosophical character. Sometimes, we also reduce texts to what we think an “author” intended to convey; but what people do with texts equally deserves our attention, and when we turn our attention to the transmission and reception of texts we discover that their received messages transcend the explicit words that make up the text.

To give a familiar example, when a Pali Sutta opens with evaṃ me sutaṃ – “commonly translated “Thus have I heard” – and continues to describe the whereabouts of the Buddha and his students at a particular location, we first ask whether these are facts that represent historical reality. Some of us may want to know who “heard” “thus”, and how much this hearing corresponds to the traditional view that Ānanda – or anyone else – literally heard these very same words, or, perhaps, a not-yet-formulized version of them, from the Buddha. This is meant to help us decipher how literally to take the thus, which many aspire to understand as a historical report.Footnote 2 Yet evaṃ me sutaṃ may also be a specific genre marker, like once upon a time, thereby identifying a specific horizon of expectations, shared by authors and audiences, for the text that follows.Footnote 3 Or evaṃ me sutaṃ may be a marker of authority and, in a sense, the real point that the authors of the text are trying to make – that these are real things said by a real Buddha, and that this fact is so important as to drive us to preserve or study the text. Moreover, as close readings in scholarship have shown, the boundaries of the utterance are not clear, so that the continuation of the formula, ekaṃ samayaṃ may be part of the opening formula itself, to read “thus have I heard at one time.”Footnote 4 Furthermore, if we think of the texts in the context of recitation, evaṃ me sutaṃ is more like an opening chord for the performance, to be given heightened attention, thereby distancing the text even more from its mere verbal content. Finally, the translation “thus was heard by me”, which takes me as mayā like the Sanskrit rendering evaṃ mayā śrūtaṃ, rather than “this is my hearing”, which reads me as mama, and which acknowledges other possible hearings of the text, itself attests to our conditioned interpretive inclinations. For Buddhaghosa, both meanings, mayā and mama, are present in the text.

Studies that tend to assume that text is a clearly defined entity seem also to anticipate that this same entity can then be subject to processes of change. This is no doubt true in some ways, for example when a text becomes established and then is copied, performed, and recited. Yet there can be a danger in treating a text in this way, especially if the scholarly investigation unthinkingly prioritizes content over usage and reception, ultimately suggesting that context is secondary, sometimes even to the extent of ignoring that a text was a product of context to begin with. When we acknowledge that every text is always embedded in context, we can open ourselves to exploring how a text’s ‘life’ draws from different human endeavours and cultural processes. Text is a vehicle for cultural imagination and ideologies; it displays the social cosmos, channels and re-channels love and hate, conceptualizes and projects philosophical intuitions and religious visions; it entertains; it impacts personal and public identities, tells us who we are, who they are, what we would want to be, what we cherish and may never become; and it consoles and waits patiently to be read or recited, with attention to content or just to sound and rhythm, to the mystifying force of inspired words; and more and more. Text’s boundaries shift and reach out to other texts, people and contexts. To paraphrase Bakhtin, text is an utterance, aimed at an addressee;Footnote 5 it is a communicative act trying to do something in the world. It thus has a life beyond its content, while content itself is sometimes only an excuse for the dynamics of tradition.

We suggest an engaging with text as an infinity rather than a totality, adapting Levinas,Footnote 6as something capable of speaking to an infinite range of addressees even while being founded on so many factors and cultural roles. This infinity need not result, however, in us concluding that any ideas of text found within specific traditions will inevitably be inchoate or haphazard. Among the processes that give life to texts are conserving or conservative ones, instituted practices that regularize tradition and society. Texts as preserved within traditions have gravitational points that restrain the creative processes inherent in text reception. Tradition highlights key concerns that it cherishes and establishes as the basis of social realities, and these serve to constrain processes of the imagination. Tradition may have its open-ended sides, where innovation is encouraged, but it also has its delimiting, homogenizing and regularizing aspects, as a result of which people feel comfortable encountering the familiar and where ideals can appear relatively clearly defined.

Buddhist traditions, like all enduring traditions, thus work between two vectors, one centrifugal, returning toward the core, grounding vision, the other centripetal, creatively working toward new possibilities and expression. These are not two separate processes, but two sides of the same effort, as is obvious in the core notion in texts of the figure of an unchanging Buddha who, at the same time, always and inevitably, changes and adapts. Just as Borges suggests about Don Quixote in Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote, engaging the Buddha in different times, places and existential conditions is necessarily reshaping and retelling him in new ways.

In the case of texts from other times and places, and especially from times and places quite distant from us, an additional factor is in play: particular texts instantiate tacit ideas of textuality of their own. Ideally, the contemporary scholarly interpreter’s own ideas of textuality will triangulate not only with the particular text at hand but with the alternative ideas of textuality instantiated by that text for the sake of a future idea of text, one that will be more adequate than those we now have because of its capaciousness to bridge and to hold together diverse conceptions of text.

This is what the papers collected in this volume, most of which emerged from a conference on The Idea of Text in Buddhism held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in December 2019, aim to do. The papers are diverse, just as the Buddhist world is diverse. They take up textual examples and interpretive issues from a variety of Buddhist traditions in distinct historical contexts but they all bring to our attention counterintuitive, fascinating aspects of Buddhist ideas of text that not only help us to learn more about particular Buddhist texts in history, but invite us to cultivate self-consciously a conceptual and hermeneutic fusion of horizons, in a Gadamerian sense, between diverse Buddhist ideas of textuality and our own diverse ideas of textuality and then to deploy the resulting idea with ever greater flexibility, nuance, and insight. Our description of the articles here follow’s upom the theoretical focus of this introduction, rather than the sequence in which they are presented in the volume, which is driven by historical and genric concerns.

Paul Harrison’s article addresses the self-referentiality of certain Mahāyāna Sūtras which has been noted frequently in scholarship. A striking, well-known feature of these texts is the manner in which they recurrently turn back upon themselves, speaking about the infinite virtue that would accrue to one who studies, internalizes, recites, teaches - we could go on and on - even one of their lines. This on and on intrigues Harrison, who asks why the authors of these texts are so addicted to this algorithm of ever more complexity, of a continuously generative mode which persists to make the text grow and expand toward a wildly robust expression. Harrison’s explanation is that this mode of thought itself, this specific quality of textuality, is the text, more than the plain words we read or even the ideas they aim to convey. The latter are merely a particular expression of this pattern of recursivity, reflexivity, and self-referentiality which is what the authors were pointing out to begin with. The text is the means by which people produce textual vision through the distinctive pattern of articulation in certain texts.

The article by Natalie Gummer turns our attention to another foundational text of the Mahāyāna. Gummer discusses the “Chapter on the Benefits to the Performer of the Dharma” (dharmabhāṇakānuśaṃsāparivartaḥ) of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (aka “The Lotus Sūtra”), which emphasizes the outstanding perceptual capacities, in each of the six senses, of the dharmabhāṇaka, the reciter or performer of the text, whose senses and understanding become like those of the Buddha. In the course of the text relating the wonders of the dharmabhāṇaka, the reader (or reciter or listener) comes to realize phenomenologically that the person who is speaking about these realities and preaching the sūtra, in another instantiation of self-referentiality, is the dharmabhāṇaka himself. Thus, the performer of the text, while engaged in recitation, becomes an embodied presence of the Buddha, infused and consecrated by Buddhavacana through his performance of the text, thereby making present the Buddha’s cosmic sovereignty. Buddhavacana is thus underscored as a performative modality that transforms the performer as well as his audiences, who by encountering him articulating the text and embodying the Buddha achieve and experience a vision, a darśan, of the Buddha as present. Thus, again, the content of the text is only a pretext, a vehicle – indeed a perfected, beautiful, powerfully inspired excuse, for the achievement of a much more robust encounter with the text, that is with the power of the Buddha.

Like with Harrison’s essay, the lessons and ramifications of Gummer’s article are large and compelling, going far beyond the particular texts they consider. To see the extent to which this is so will not only be a task for historical investigations, but also one that will profit from the perspectives found in phenomenological hermeneutics of literary works, not only for their approaches to the study of individual works of literature, but also for their insights into the ways in which one bestows meaning to lived experience through engagement with texts.

Richard Salomon highlights the great flexibility of Buddhist texts, focusing mainly on collections in verse from the Suttanipāta (and its corollaries) and of the Dhammapada and the Udāna-varga. In a manner that resonates with Harrison’s and Gummer’s arguments, Salomon discusses the inner modalities of expansion that only become evident when we compare different versions of texts. Texts grow and grow in a way that demonstrates that Buddhavacana relates not only to what the Buddha or others who were inspired by him said, but indeed “that Buddhavacana could be considered to include words which the Buddha could have spoken” (Salomon’s emphasis). Texts are again not only their words, but their potentials, their vectors of elaboration and growth, the possibilities they offer for further elaboration of Buddhist value and insight.

Mark Allon, continuing his well known work on Buddhist Orality, highlights both the conserving and “conservative” elements alive within the early Buddhist tradition. With a series of intriguing examples, Allon argues that the early Buddhist discourses were designed for fixed recitation by groups of reciters, which requires that instituted practices strongly limit their or their authors’ improvisatory impulses.Footnote 7 What Allon presents to us goes beyond questions of textual preservation and transmission. Indeed, he helps us to see that communal modes of recitation are integral to the idea of text in Buddhism, indeed that they are crucial to a text’s ability to imbue performative moments with sacred aura. It is this sense of fidelity to the Buddha’s words that serves as the condition for this power to be channelled into the creative, literary and aesthetic sides of the tradition, discussed in some of the other contributions in the volume. While highlighting the centrifugal force of collective recitation of texts, Allon also helps us to see that the texts are not just the means to preserve the Buddha’s words, but that they create conditions for different types of meaningful Buddhist experiences. Allon emphasizes the many kinds of changes that texts underwent, and the diverse factors that contributed to these changes, which demonstrates that these were very often introduced intentionally.

Eviatar Shulman’s article generally discusses the same body of texts that Allon is concerned with, the early Buddhist discourses. Shulman underscores the literary and other creative modalities of these texts, which indicate that the motivations behind the composition of the texts were more than an intent to preserve the Buddha’s words or messages. Rather, the texts also aim to beautify the image of the Buddha and to create other kinds of Buddhist aesthetic experiences, to entertain, and to explore the inner potencies of the dharma. For Shulman, texts are forward moving, vessels for the internalization of tradition in its various aspects, tools for personal engagement with the materials, often contributing to performative events or absorbing materials from performances. According to Shulman’s argument, the early Buddhist discourses are not analogous to recordings of live performances. Rather, he emphasizes the literary aspects of the texts, and especially so while introducing his theory for the composition of the early discourses, which he calls the play of formulas.Footnote 8 Shulman speaks of the (oral) formulas from which full discourses are composed as the true texts of early Buddhism, so that the texts we find today are possible combinations out of formulas, much like children build with legos. This inner potential of the texts, to generate more and more valuable Buddhist textual utterances through re-application and enhancement of traditional materials, is a basic aspect of the Buddhist creative mode.

Continuing the emphasis on the literary aspects of the texts, Juan Wu provides an important analysis of the Cīvaravastu in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya. Vinaya is often taken to be works of and for jurists, a term Wu still retains, although the jurists of the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya prove to be storytellers no less than rule enforcers. Offering a comprehensive analysis of one section of the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya and comparing it to other extant versions of the Vinaya, Wu takes the comparative approach to the texts as a method for viewing “the different ways in which these Sthavira sects or schools used narrative and storytelling to construct their religious identities.” For her, the authors of the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya are the masters of Buddhist narrative lore, who were interested in re-constructing or imagining the Buddha’s social milieu, in this case sharing specific interests with Jain authors and storytellers. Again, the literary side of the texts turns out to define much of their social and religious identity, beyond their ostensible purpose to relate the rules and regulations of Buddhist monastic life.

Aleix Ruiz Falqués’ contribution joins the collection in order to provide emphasis for a key aspect in the medium of the texts – language. Crucial to the identity of the text, the languages in which they are encountered each force their own rhythms, aesthetics, opportunities and limitations. Ruiz-Falqués problematizes the complexity of language and its relation to text in his discussion of the Pāli grammatical tradition, which he suggests was an important gateway to studying Pāli in the traditional monastic setting after the sixth century of the Common Era. Focusing on the perplexing nature of sandhi in Pali, he shows that the language of the texts is subjected to patterns of formularization similar to the ones to which the texts’ overt messages are. Paying attention to the practice of frozen sandhi, which regulates specific choices among the many options for sandhi in Pali, Ruiz-Falqués sheds light on the oblique correspondence between the level of the language and the more commonly studied philosophical level of the formula, which takes place on the narrative level that we normally identify as the text.

Even more than the literary and linguistic side of the texts, the theme of performance receives a prominent place across this collection of essays. Important to many of the articles discussed already, it receives greater illumination in the three remaining essays. Among these, Trent Walker offers an inspiring discussion of bilingual, Pāli-Khmer sermons, which are designed for performance and which demonstrate different types of combinations and continuities between the authoritative Pāli tellings and the vernacular ones in Khmer. The Pāli draws on the top-down, transcendent power of the Buddha in his lofty, idealized mode of cognitive perfection, while the Khmer brings the bottom-up, local, freer and natural modality of the vernacular, which “brings the Buddha down to earth.” Texts, and the languages they use, thus thrive on “kinetic, interactive processes of performance and reception.” The real, living, employment of the two languages side by side, “allow[s] for a complex, layered mediation between written text, oral performance, communal listening, and soteriological aspirations.” Walker’s discussion of the specific techniques that preachers use in alternating between the languages is the closest we come in this volume to a living use of texts in a contemporary performative context that employs authoritative scripture, and it bears close reading in connection with both Natalie Gummer’s and Richard Salomon’s essays here.

Pia Brancaccio helps us extend our conceptualization of text to its artistic context, through her discussion of the remains from the Bhārhut stupa, the earliest evidence for Buddhist narrative art, which in her interpretation also possess a clear performative side. Art allows us to perceive the concrete, local processes of popular transmission of narratives, again moving us away from over-emphasizing the conceptual content of a story to perceiving its ability to embody sacred presence. Text may thus bring the devotee to a constructed encounter with the Buddha, since the site is designed to make the Buddha present in the world of his worshipers. Brancaccio interprets the pictures at Bhārhut, together with their accompanying inscriptions, in light of the traditional South-Asian cultural practice of picture scrolls, which are used by picture-showmen for the performance of popular stories. In a similar way, the Bhārhut reliefs functioned as aids for a public performance, in which the guide would relate popular stories about the Buddha. For Brancaccio, what is at stake is the Buddha’s presence, based on a sense of locality emphasized in the reliefs, which makes the figure of the Buddha tangible to his devotees. Here, again, we find the bhāṇaka active as a performer introducing the stories in live performance. This conclusion is reached since inscriptions suggest that at this site, the bhāṇakas were often responsible for funding the construction of the art-works and for their arrangement.

Finally, Yagi Morris’s discussion of the medieval Japanese esoteric manual of the Kinpusen himitsuden employs a robust notion of performance. This article takes up the burden not only of representing Buddhist textuality in the so-called tantric spheres of Buddhist traditions, but also those of the non-Indic textual Buddhist worlds. Yagi Morris does this well through her ability to speak at the same time at different levels of analysis - the political, geographical and cosmological, ritualistic and ceremonial, philosophical and meditative. These are all embedded in the text, which itself is a technique to transform the body of a dethroned emperor on the run into an enlightened body of a Buddha and a living deity incarnate. The rock on the mountain Kinpusen is the local deity Zao who himself is the embodiment of the Buddha Vairocana in line with the Honji suijaku paradigm of Medieval Japan, according to which local deities are evident traces of underlying Buddhas. The mandalic maps produced by the text are used to refashion the emperor’s being, in a live ritual context. These different levels of textual ideology all come to life only in a performative mode of “text-as-event”, so that text is a vehicle to transform the individual. As with all of the essays in this collection, this contribution calls us to consider the broad realities with which text resonates, and to remember that texts become most potent and effective in a live setting.

Taken together, the essays gathered here together with a response to them do not provide us with a comprehensive definition of the idea of text in Buddhism, but they do help us to see that any future concept of text that is developed will not be adequate if it does not help us to understand the various ways that texts were able to mean so much, to so many, and so deeply. The articles also help us to appreciate just how critical it is for us in Buddhist Studies, as a community of inquiry in the Humanities, to develop more adequate understandings of the very idea of text in Buddhism and they help us to appreciate just how important a task it is for us to undertake collectively. Taken together, they remind us that to address the idea of text, those of us concerned with the study of Buddhist lifeworlds will benefit from learning from our colleagues in adjacent fields in the Humanities; history and philology, of course, but also literary studies, ethnographic studies, and art history. They are clearly worthy of the traditional description of the Buddha’s teaching as leading onwards to a good place (opanayika): their collective accomplishment is that they help us to see a way onwards to a better place for Buddhist Studies.

** On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.