The Life & Times of Sariputra (c.1335-1426)


A review of From Bodhgayā to Lhasa to Beijing: The Life and Times of Śāriputra (c.1335-1426), Last Abbot of Bodhgayā, by Arthur McKeown.

This dissertation closely examines the life of Śāriputra (c.1335-1426) to destabilize the various myths surrounding the decline of Indian Buddhism, as well as to explore the methods by which this charismatic individual transplanted and reformulated the symbolic power of the Indian seat of enlightenment, Vajrāsana, in his travels to Tibet and China.

The Introduction examines the various theories of the decline of Buddhism, theories that attribute the “disappearance” of Buddhism to external factors such as the Muslim invasions and struggles with non-Buddhist factions, as well as to internal factors such as moral degeneration via tantra and loss of philosophical identity. Arthur McKeown highlights the oversights of contemporary scholars in unconsciously replicating rather than revising these positions, and brings to light the unfounded assumptions they contain. These assumptions include the perseverance of Mahāyāna beyond the Nikāya schools, and the exclusive targeting of Buddhists by Muslim armies. He also exposes the hidden agendas that contributed to the shaping of these theories — for example, the British endorsement of a portrait of Muslim violence that allowed them to portray their own colonial project in a salvific light. He also considers the influence of Tibetan accounts upon contemporary scholarship. Overall, he devotes particular attention to engaging Toni Huber’s The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) in dialogue with the theories of early scholars such as Alexander Cunningham and Jean Filliozat. The overall theoretical orientation of the dissertation is provided through reference to the work of Jonathan Z. Smith.

Part One evaluates the phenomenon of large-scale replication of the Mahābodhi stūpa of Bodhgayā in Southeast Asia and China in the fifteenth century. One important aspect of this phenomenon is the way it attests to the flow of Buddhists in and out of India, thereby revising the received picture of destruction and mass exodus.  Another aspect is the relationship of reconstruction projects with those of replication and transplantation, and the attendant motivations behind them.  McKeown explores the different resonances of the cakravartin ideal of kingship fueling such projects, and the role of royal patronage in empire-building evidenced by examples in Pegu, Pagan, and Chiang Mai, as well as in Beijing and Wutai Shan.

Chapter 1 focuses upon the Southeast Asian examples and expands the evaluation of the patronage of Mahābodhi stūpas beyond the religious to the political. It builds upon and engages extensively with Anne Blackburn’s “Writing Buddhist Histories from Landscape and Architecture: Sukhothai and Chiang Mai” (Buddhist Studies Review 24, 2007, pp. 192-225). It compares different types of replication as well as different ways in which rulers enacted the cakravartin kingship ideal, not only through patronage of rebuilding and replication projects, but through other paradigmatic acts as well, such as the sponsorship of Buddhist Councils. McKeown distinguishes such an assemblage of activities as a “lineage requirement, an authentic reenactment, not an imitation” in maintaining the cakravartin legacy of King Aśoka (p. 103). He thereby demonstrates how these large-scale Southeast Asian replicas of the Mahābodhi stūpa from the fifteenth century owe their magnitude not so much to mimesis of an Indian original as to the prestige of their patrons as lineage holders in the cakravartin legacy.

Chapter 2 focuses specifically upon the fifteenth-century Mahābodhi replica in Beijing and Śāriputra’s role in its creation. McKeown draws upon the foundation of the cakravartin ideal outlined in the previous chapter to show how the Chinese example diverges, most importantly through looking to the Chinese imperial past rather than to the Indian one. He frames the Yongle emperor’s (1360-1424/5, r.1402-1424/5) patronage of the replica and of Śāriputra himself as a strategic reenactment of the Yuan dynasty’s appropriation of Buddhism, as well as of pre-Yuan legacies. Moreover, the role of tantric technologies in imbuing the cakravartin ideal with enhanced power and in endorsing the Buddhist ritual preceptor with enlightened status distinguish the Chinese example. Acknowledging the existence of at least four other Chinese Vajrāsana stūpas (jingang baozuo), this chapter focuses upon the one Śāriputra was involved in creating, built on the site of Zhenjue temple. This temple is located within the very same part of Beijing the Yuan emperor built for the Tibetan imperial preceptor Pakpa, revealing one of many examples of Yongle’s strategic reenactments of Yuan history. Śāriputra proves to be key in this reenactment, playing the roles of priest and buddha to complement Yongle as patron and emperor, thereby mirroring the relationship of Pakpa (1235-1280) and Qubilai Khan (1215-1298, r. 1260-1298) as well as of Karmapa II Karma Pakshi (1206-1283) and Qubilai. The site of Beijing confers additional meaning upon the replica as both the former Yuan capital and as a powerful geomantic centre on the Daoist map, a centre comparable to Vajrāsana in the Buddhist cosmic schema.

This chapter encompasses a vast series of historical resonances and thereby draws upon the work of many scholars including Herbert Franke’s work on Sino-Tibetan relations (or perhaps in this instance more properly Mongol-Tibetan relations) in the Yuan, and Patricia Berger’s work on relations in the Ming and Qing together with Ishihama Yumiko’s work on Qianlong. The chapter concludes by posing the question of why no large-scale replicas of the Mahābodhi stūpa were created in Tibet. McKeown points to the diminishing role of the cakravartin in Tibet resulting from the ascendancy of the patron-priest ideal.  In Tibet, the priest as bodhisattva or buddha became the more significant and authoritative component in the relationship. Drawing upon the work of Jonathan Z. Smith (To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p.87), he distinguishes the large-scale replicas discussed in Part One as being based on an “equivalence of relations” of “(cakravartin) kingship and Buddha figure, temple and citadel” rather than a formal “equivalence of terms” as found in small-scale replicas (p. 169). This observation seems to suggest that there is something about the fifteenth century in Tibet than fails to sufficiently satisfy the “equivalence of relations” present in the other examples. Through bringing theories of replication into dialogue with historiographic detail, Part One will appeal not only to Buddhologists interested in Buddhist notions of kingship and Sino-Tibetan relations, but also to scholars across disciplines.

Part Two focuses upon the narratives of Śāriputra’s life and visions, examining three different biographies to attempt to recover the voice of Śāriputra, an Indian Buddhist in exile.  Chapters 3, 4, and 5 deal with the ordinary or exoteric biography (Complete Biography), the esoteric biography (Secret Biography), and the lineage biography (Rosary of Jewels) respectively. While various stylistic and scribal features link the ordinary and esoteric biographies with Śāriputra himself, these narratives appear to have fallen quickly out of fashion. McKeown recovers their significance through close reading of the nature of visionary experiences in relation to everyday life found in these texts, and the ways in which “the narrative and metaphors of the mahāsiddha tradition are overlaid onto the history of Buddhism’s decline in India” (p. 312). He also distinguishes the two accounts in terms of their points of orientation, the ordinary biography toward geographic locales and the esoteric biography toward time. The lineage biography, on the other hand—a narrative in which Śāriputra is featured more as transmitter of a lineage rather than as an individual—perseveres, reiterated in texts such as the Blue Annals (Deb ther sngon po). Through comparing these narratives, McKeown observes thematic resonances and divergences and draws attention to the ways in which “Śāriputra is being written out of his own history” in the lineage biography (p. 178). Translations of these manuscripts, the first of which is only a partial manuscript (despite its title) together with translations of the siddha biographies authored by Śāriputra himself, are included in the appendices.

Chapter 6 evaluates the Tibetan and Chinese historical sources referring to Śāriputra, together with the events and places described in the biographies.  The discrepancies are carefully considered and some possibilities for resolving them are proposed.  Most importantly, these discrepancies are maintained rather than glossed over. As an exercise in coping with the challenges posed by working with multiple narratives and histories in tandem, this chapter speaks to the concerns of many scholars attempting to contextualize the life of an individual in a particular historical space and moment, as well as to the particular issues of spanning geographic regions. The dissertation concludes with a brief reflection upon the larger relevance of Śāriputra in the context of relic worship and pilgrimage practice.

In examining the narratives and historical evidence of the life of one late Indian Buddhist — an upholder of vinaya codes as well as a tantric practitioner with relationships to the Nātha lineages — this dissertation bridges the gap in current scholarship between the themes of normative and antinomian, thriving and disintegration that have framed the study of other late Indian Buddhists. In doing so, it suggests a more complex and less dramatic version of Buddhism’s fate in India, enhanced by the parallel frameworks of trauma, exile, and rebuilding evidenced in the life of Śāriputra. In framing this individual as one of many late Indian Buddhists attested in Tibet and China through at least the fifteenth century, this dissertation calls us to look beyond the geographical boundaries of India to locate “late Indian Buddhism.” It proposes networks of pilgrimage and patronage, symbolic exchange and transplantation as alternative paths for tracing the fate of a tradition. In bringing the significance of these paths to light, McKeown makes a significant contribution to the fields of Buddhology and religious studies. Moreover, his theoretical engagement with the replica will be of interest to art historians and scholars of visual culture. Finally, the author’s attunement to the subtleties of biographies, his careful attention in negotiating the events and connections found in these accounts in relation to available historical sources, and his perseverance in listening closely to the echoes of Śāriputra’s voice will speak to historians and literary scholars alike.

Rae Erin Dachille-Hey
PhD Candidate
Group in Buddhist Studies
University of California, Berkeley

Primary Sources

The Complete Ordinary Biography of Śāriputra (Sha ri pu tra’i rnam thar thun mong ba tsha tshang ba)
Ku cor Rtogs ldan Sangs rgyas dpal bzang po (1386-1445), The Biography of Paṇḍita Śāriputra, Entitled “Rosary of Jewels” (Pan tri ta shri pu tra’i rnam thar rin po che’i phreng ba zhes bya ba)
, The Versified Biography of Lord Grags pa rin chen (Brje brtsun grags pa rin[ch]e[n] gyi rnam thar tshig bcad ma)
Śāriputra, The Biography of Śrī Virūpa (Dpal ldan bir wa pa’i rnam par thar pa), translated into Tibetan by Jñānaśrī
, The Biography of the Lord of Yogins, Gorakhnātha (Rnal ’byor dbang phyug mngon po ba glang bsrung gi rnam par thar pa), translated into Tibetan by Jñānaśrī

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2010. 570 pp. Primary Advisor: Leonard W. J. van der Kuijp.


Image: The stupa of Śāriputra at Nālandā, the ancient center of higher learning in Bihar, India. Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like