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In Session: Constructing Blindness: Moral, Medical, & Media Frameworks of Disability from East Asia
2: Double B(l)ind: Rhetorical, Doctrinal, and Hagiographical Approaches to Blindness in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Literature
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Christopher J. Jensen
Carleton University, Canada
In the context of Buddhist doctrine, the karmic episteme provides an ironclad explanation of any difficulties encountered in an individual’s present life by inexorably linking them to prior malfeasance. This is particularly true in the case of embodied conditions that could problematize an individual’s ability to engage with the Buddha’s salvific dharma, which explains why the canonical list of Eight Difficult Births (Ch. banian八難) includes being “blind, deaf, or mute” (manglongyin 盲聾瘖).
In this paper, I consider one subset of this issue by focusing on the polyvalent descriptions of blindness found in early Chinese Buddhist hagiographies and narrative collections, such as Huijiao’s Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳) and Daoxuan’s Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (Xu gaosengzhuan續高僧傳). In these sources, blindness is generally addressed in one of three (somewhat incommensurate) ways: first, as a rhetorical trope, where blindness is often employed as a metonym for ignorance; second, when discussed in doctrinal terms, where it is typically associated with karmic causality; and, third, in hagiographical narratives, where it is frequently depicted as an affliction that can be assuaged through the ministrations of Buddhist monastic healers.
Informed by Koosed and Schumm’s research on the rhetoric of blindness in Christian scripture, this paper aims to explore the social significance of such accounts in constructing a particular viewpoint on blindness, as well as the ways that the narrative material both accedes to and contests this vision.