China and Inner Asia
Haifeng Aaron Shang
The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
The literary inquisition of 1079 against the Song poet and politician Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) had an enormous but understudied impact on his cultural legacy. After his exile to Huangzhou, Su sought solace in tathāgatagarbha thought, according to which all beings are equally endowed with Buddha-nature. During this time, Su frequently employed the metaphor of pure snow to allude to the concept of tathāgatagarbha in his artistic and literary works. While the Buddhist significance of this poetic image has largely escaped the attention of Su’s admirers from the Song dynasty to the present, Banri Shūkyū 萬里集九 (1428–ca.1507), a Japanese poet-monk of the Muromachi period (1336–1573), explored this connection in a commentary on Su’s work. Discussing the juxtaposition of catharsis and religious allegory in Su Shi’s snow poems and murals, Banri’s perspicacious commentaries open the possibility for new and very different understandings of this revered Song-dynasty icon’s cultural legacy.
Citing Banri’s commentaries, this paper seeks to explore how Su’s allegorical use of snow served to endow a famous corpus of exile art long associated with catharsis with deeper religious meaning. In so doing, it seeks to both challenge the conventional narrative of Su Shi and initiate a conversation on the hitherto underexplored issue of Buddhist influence on poetry and painting as therapeutic or cathartic practices in the Song and post-Song periods.