Virtual pilgrimage and virtual geography: Power of Liao miniature pagodas (907-1125)

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Abstract

This paper examines the role of the miniature in Buddhist ritual, through analyses of miniature pagodas from middle-period China. Due to the otherworldly sensations they evoked and their theatrical nature, miniatures were often endowed with magical and performative power in funerary and religious contexts. The miniature pagodas from the Liao empire (907-1125) were replicas of the stupa monuments (the prototype of the pagoda) at the Eight Great Sacred Places in India. Adopting ritual theories and a comparative approach, this paper illuminates how the Liao miniature pagodas were devised to symbolically transfer the sacred places to the Liao empire in northeast China, allowing Liao Buddhists to make a virtual pilgrimage to the Buddha’s homeland by circumambulating the pagoda. The ways in which they functioned in the Buddhist ritual were similar to the small-scale copies of the Holy Sepulcher in medieval Europe. Their power-contrary to common sense-originated from their miniature size and intentional rejection of their sacred prototype. Through these miniatures, the banal ritual of pagoda circumambulation was transformed into an imaginary journey to the distant holy land, which was believed to be more efficacious and meritorious than an actual pilgrimage, and the prairie of northeast China was turned into the most sacred place in the Buddhist world.

Original languageEnglish
Article number206
JournalReligions
Volume8
Issue number10
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 2017

Keywords

  • Buddhism
  • Holy sepulcher
  • Liao empire
  • Miniature
  • Pagoda
  • Ritual
  • Sacred place
  • Stupa
  • Virtual pilgrimage

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