A Narrative Approach to Early Chinese Buddhist Prose

To sign up, please contact Dr Xiaojing Miao (xiaojing.miao@pmb.ox.ac.uk) or Dr Christopher Foster (cf44@soas.ac.uk)

The silence of Vimalakirti is a famous moment in Mahayana Buddhism. The householder’s decision to
respond with “thundering silence” when asked to explain his understanding of non-duality forms the
doctrinal and narrative culmination of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra, a text that mostly consists of a lively
and occasionally even humorous back and forth in conversation in front of various audiences. The
“scripture of the teaching of Vimalakirti” emerged in India in the first or second century CE and gained
immense literary, religious, and cultural currency in East Asia, through Chinese translations that started
circulating since the late second century. Scholars have discussed the sutra from many angles, but its
narrative form has received little scholarly interest so far.
This talk analyzes Vimalakirti’s silence against two foils that the sutra itself sets up. The first foil
is one of non-silence: the conversational pattern that underlies the sutra’s narrative and discursive
progression. Turn-taking in this text is both highly formalized and open to surprising twists, not least
because the setting of the conversation moves several times, both in this world and to alternative
universes, along with the composition of the internal audience. The second foil is one of silence, because
Vimalakirti’s celebrated silence is not the only occasion a main protagonist of the text chooses not to
answer a question asked of him. Both foils contribute to the performative effect of Vimalakirti’s silence,
in narrative as well as doctrinal terms. The talk will embed reflections on the narrative role of silence in
the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra into native Chinese notions of speaking and not speaking, which both
precede and postdate the introduction of the sutra in China. On a metalevel, the talk hopes to contribute
to the extension and establishment of narrative approaches to Buddhist texts and medieval Chinese