Jewels book review

Buddhist Studies History Iconography

Jewels, Jewelry, and Other Shiny Things in the Buddhist Imaginary

Edited by Vanessa R. Sasson

University of Hawai’I Press 2021
Hardback: $72.00 / ISBN-13: 9780824887858
Paperback: $32.00 / ISBN-13: 9780824889555

12 Chapters, bibliography, contributors, index, colour plates, 380 pages

Chapters include:

  1. The Emerald Buddha as a Map
  2. Jewels of Recognition and Paternity in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu Traditions
  3. Taking Refuge in Jewels
  4. Jeweled Renunciation: Reading the Buddha’s Hagiography
  5. Are We All Merchants? Buddhists, Merchants, and Mercantilism in Early India
  6. “I Don’t Want a Wife without Ear Cuffs”: Jewels, Gender, and the Market among the Newars of Nepal
  7. Ornaments of This World: Materiality and Poetics of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Reliquary Stupa
  8. Beads and Bones: The Case of the Piprahwa Gems
  9. Translating the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing
  10. Luminous Remains: On Relics, Jewels, and Glass in Chinese Buddhism
  11. Offerings for Prosperity to Wish-Fulfilling Jewel Cakra Avalokiteśvara
  12. Hidden Treasures: Wish-Fulfilling Jewels in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

From the publisher:

Renunciation is a core value in the Buddhist tradition, but Buddhism is not necessarily austere. Jewels—along with heavenly flowers, rays of rainbow light, and dazzling deities—shape the literature and the material reality of the tradition. They decorate temples, fill reliquaries, are used as metaphors, and sprout out of imagined Buddha fields. Moreover, jewels reflect a particular type of currency often used to make the Buddhist world go round: merit in exchange for wealth. Regardless of whether the Buddhist community has theoretically transcended the need for them or not, jewels—and the paradox they represent—are everywhere. Scholarship has often looked past this splendor, favoring the theory of renunciation instead, but in this volume, scholars from a wide range of disciplines consider the role jewels play in the Buddhist imaginary, putting them front and center for the first time.

Following an introduction that relates the colorful story of the Emerald Buddha, one of the most famous jewels in the world, chapters explore the function of jewels as personal identifiers in Buddhist and other Indian religious traditions; Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Jewel Sutta; the paradox of the Buddha’s bejeweled status before and after renunciation; and the connection in early Buddhism between jewels, magnificence, and virtue. The Newars of Nepal are the focus of a chapter that looks at their gemology and associations between gems and celestial deities. Contributors analyze the Fifth Dalai Lama’s reliquary, known as the “sole ornament of the world”; the transformation of relic jewels into precious substances and their connection to the Piprahwa stupa in Northern India and the Nanjing Porcelain Pagoda. Final chapters offer detailed studies of ritual engagement with the deity known as Wish-Fulfilling Jewel Avalokiteśvara and its role in the new Japanese lay Buddhist religious movement Shinnyo-en.

Engaging and accessible, Jewels, Jewelry, and Other Shiny Things in the Buddhist Imaginary will provide readers with an opportunity to look beyond a common misconception about Buddhism and bring its lived tradition into wider discussion.

The Sumeru Review:

When we think of Jewels in Buddhism, the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are top of mind. But of course, there’s more. Gems have fascinated humans since time immemorial and have worked their way into our social interactions and cultural imagination. They figure prominently in iconography and liturgy in every religion.

It is surprising that nobody has thought to pull together an anthology on the subject before, and it is to Dr. Vanessa Sasson’s credit that she has offered us this sumptuous array of scholarship on the use and implications of Buddhism’s long involvement with gemstones.

I was particularly drawn to the book because I’ve written two books on the subject of Chinese and Tibetan temple iconography for laypeople curious about what all that bric-a-brac represents. My camera and text focused on interpretation to facilitate transmission of the basic tenets of Buddhist practice.

Sasson’s book takes an entirely different approach. It’s largely a book of textual and historical critique. As a practitioner rather than a Buddhist Studies scholar, I could see great depth for those so inclined, but these days I admit to being much more focused on the future than the past.

The other book by Sasson with which I’m familiar is Yasodhara and the Buddha, a popular historical novel which does a great job of bringing the characters, time, and place into lyrical immediacy. This one, published by the University of Hawai’i Press, is for the Buddhist Studies community. Sasson is entirely comfortable in both domains.

For the general public and for Buddhist practitioners today, it’s perhaps the equivalent of a Fabergé egg.

In other words, I’m not sure how this aspect of Buddhism would be welcomed by Engaged and Green Buddhists, let alone those on the XR Rebellion Buddhists end of the spectrum. There aren’t any essays in the book about contemporary re-examination of classical Buddhism considering our current Anthropocene overshoot crisis and the changed paradigms it has brought with it.

Perhaps if you are an afficionado of travel books, housebound because of pandemic restrictions and looking for some armchair adventure into a forgotten past world, this is one way to transport yourself there.







Older Post Newer Post