Report: KHK Panel "Buddhism in Motion – Encounters in Early Religious Networks" (March 2012, Tel Aviv)


Eight researchers of the Buddhist Studies Group of the KHK „Dynamics in the History of Religion" at Bochum University participated with the two interconnected panels Buddhism in Motion—Encounters in Early Religious Networks at the 11th Conference of Asian Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 22nd/23rd, 2012.

Panel I: Sven Wortmann, Jason Neelis, Christoph Anderl und Jessie Pons;

Panel II: Carmen Meinert, Licia Di Giacinto, Sven Bretfeld und Lucia Dolce.

Core Themes

With the title "Buddhism in Motion" the group did not focus on a contingent aspect of the Buddhist religion on its way through time and space. Rather, the title referred to motion as a constitutive element for the distinction of Buddhism as an analytical category under the paradigms of cultural dynamics and polyphony, approaching also the problem of Buddhism in dynamic transfer as an emergent product rising from contact.

In order to analyse and understand from a global perspective local Buddhisms as integrative parts—as emplacements as well as constituents—of translocal (and trans-temporal) structures and processes, the group choose a network model in order to come to terms with this example of relational emergence.

The Presentations

"Emplacements" of Buddhism were addressed in all individual talks as hubs or nodes that mutually correlate to a translocal network that might be called Buddhism in the singular. As such all eight talks were interconnected through a meta narration that allowed to understand the expansion of Buddhism throughout Asia through eight case study focusing on a specific time and location respectively.

1. Formation of Buddhism and Buddhist Networks

Sven Wortmann's presentation on "Mobility of Religions during the Formation Phase of Indian Buddhism" questioned whether Buddhists were more mobile than Jains and Brahmins during the formation phase of Indian Buddhism on the basis of doctrinal and archeological evidences.

Jason Neelis continued the argument while exploring in this talk "Patterns of Buddhist Mobility between South Asia and Central Asia" how Buddhist networks were established along trading routes between South and Central Asia that facilitated long-distance transmission beyond cultural boundaries as well as contact diffusion of Buddhist trends through emerging Buddhist hubs and nodes.

2. Motion of Buddhism between Hubs

The motion of Buddhism between locations or hubs was investigated by Christoph Anderl and Jessie Pons through the example of Buddhist narratives.

Christoph Anderl's presentation "Buddhist Narratives: Aspects of Transfer and Distribution" investigated how the 'soft boundaries' of Buddhist narratives allow for their spatial dissemination, while through localisation 'hard boundaries' are established and local versions of a narrative are appropriated.

This argument was exemplified through Jessie Pons' talk "The Vessantara Jātaka, a Buddhist Narrative in Motion". She explored how a specific narrative, the Vessantara Jātaka, found different local expressions in a 1st century AD Pāli version from India and a 7th/8th centuries Sogdian version from the Central Asian oasis Dunhuang.

3. Transformation of Buddhism

The transformation of Buddhism at different locations was at the core of the talks of Carmen Meinert and Licia Di Giacinto.

Carmen Meinert's presentation "Entangled in Local History: Diffusion of Tantric Buddhism in Eastern Central Asia" explored how despite shifting rules, the new rulers of Dunhuang in the 11th century, the Tanguts, created a unique Tantric Buddhist cave in Dunhuang, a cave that documents the central role of Central Asian people in the diffusion of Tantric Buddhism in Central Asia and Tibet.

Licia Di Giacinto explored in "Dissecting China: Buddha and the Local Pantheons in the Early Medieval Era (100-300 AD)" how the localisation approach versus the signification paradigm and a narratological approach allows to explain major variations in pantheon's structure and composition during the early dissemination of Buddhism in China.

4. Second Order Reflections

Finally, Sven Bretfeld and Lucia Dolce discussed how second order reflection produces specific local identities in relation to translocal orientations.

Sven Bretfeld's talk "Theravāda Buddhism as an Emergent Product of Translocal Processes" discussed how through an interaction with the Buddhist world in Asia Sri Lankan Buddhists established a narration of positioning Sri Lanka within a network of the known Buddhist world and thereby transformed the translocal network as well as reshaped the local Buddhist field.

Lucia Dolce "Strategies of Emplacement: The Buddhist Encounter with 'Japan'" showed how the territory of Japan was 'maṇḍalised' as a process of emplacing Buddhism and how thereby Buddhism was responsible for shaping a 'national' identity.