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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Unfurled and Unfolded: East Asian Buddhist Manuscript Cultures
1: Depravities and Atonement: The Function of a Dunhuang Manuscript Booklet
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Boston University, United States
This paper unpacks how the format of medieval Silk Road manuscripts were shaped by their anticipated use and handling by practitioners. In short, manuscripts were only fully activated when held in the hands of devotees. I will explore these issues through Stein 5610, a medieval era manuscript rediscovered in the Dunhuang Library Cave in northwest China. The manuscript is in a concertina format, which unlike the rolled scroll format typically found in medieval Buddhist monastic libraries, the concertina booklet opens like a codex, enabling easy access to different parts of the texts and was a style often intended for personal use. The small 35.5 by 8.5-centimeter size of Stein 5610 further indicates that it would have been convenient for an individual to carry. The manuscript contains two texts. The first text warns of gruesome postmortem retribution for acts often deemed heretical by Buddhist doctrine, such as performing animal sacrifice and consulting spirit mediums. The second text explains the correct method for confessing one’s sins. I argue that the pairing of these two texts speaks to the function of this particular manuscript. For any action, one could consult its karmic retribution in the first text and then find the correct method to repent in the second text by using the same accessible booklet. Stein 5610 is the only Dunhuang manuscript that second text appears in so this strengthens the argument that the booklet was specifically created for the purpose of efficiently examining wicked acts and how to atone for them.