Entertainment and Performance

views updated


As an active missionary religion, Buddhism naturally fostered the attractive presentation of its tenets in the form of tales and dramas. It may well be argued that the Buddha himself encouraged the use of storytelling as a way to capture the attention of an audience and to convince them of whatever principle or precept might be conveyed through a given tale. Such an approach would certainly be sanctioned by the central Buddhist tenet of upĀya (skill-in-means or skillful means), whereby a teacher is expected to present his message in a manner that is readily accessible to his auditors, whatever their capacity. Furthermore, the Buddha's own sūtras (ostensibly, as invariably declared in their beginning phrases, all spoken by him) are full of interesting parables and legends. The Buddha also sanctioned the use of the local vernaculars so that the people of various countries and regions would be able to hear his message in their own language. It is clear that the Buddha is represented by the tradition as being intensely concerned about the mode of delivery employed by those who preached his doctrines.

A goodly part of the Buddhist penchant for storytelling and drama may be attributed to the general Indian love of fables and apologues. It is well known that many of the world's best-known tales—including a considerable number of those found in the collections of Aesop and the Grimm brothers—can be traced to Indian sources, such as the Pañcatantra (Five Frameworks) and the Kathāsaritsāgara (The Ocean of Streams

of Stories). The early Buddhists, however, were probably even more partial to memorable narratives than adherents of other Indian religious traditions; witness the mammoth assemblage of jĀtakas (birth-stories) and the skillfully elaborated tales of causation in the DivyĀvadĀna. Through the very telling of such avadĀna and nidāna (stories about causation), sophisticated Buddhist concepts are not only made apprehensible and palatable, they become enjoyable and memorable.

The exuberant Indian affection for unforgettable tales also traveled with Buddhism to Central Asia and Southeast Asia. A splendid example of Buddhist tales may be found in Xianyu jing (The Sūtra of the Wise and Foolish), which consists of hundreds of long and short stories recorded by Buddhist monks from China, who heard them in 445 c.e. in the oasis city of Khotan in eastern Central Asia (Xinjiang). While The Sūtra of the Wise and Foolish has not been successfully traced to a single Sanskrit source, it is full of delightfully edifying stories and also exists in a Tibetan recension.

Another noteworthy medieval Buddhist text from Central Asia, but of a quite different nature than The Sūtra of the Wise and Foolish, is Maitreyasamitināṭaka (Dance-Drama of the Encounter with Maitreya [the Buddha of the Future]). It is one of the few manuscripts written in the extinct language known as Tocharian. Among all the extant fragments, the Maitreyasamitināṭaka is by far the longest. Linguistically, Tocharian, which was rediscovered only in the early part of the twentieth century, is extremely important because it is the easternmost representative of the Indo-European family. Also discovered in the early years of the twentieth century was a translation of the Maitreyasamitinataka written in Old Uyghur, an extinct Turkic language. Thus, there is good primary evidence for a once flourishing tradition of Buddhist dance-drama in Central Asia. Judging from the stage directions in the extant texts, it must have been quite a spectacle.

The tradition of Buddhist drama goes back even earlier than the Maitreyasamitināṭaka, which dates to around the eighth century. Indeed, the earliest authenticated Sanskrit dramas are three plays written by Buddhists. Fragmentary manuscripts of these plays have been recovered from the sands of the Turfan basin in Eastern Central Asia. Among these plays is the nineact Śāriputraprakaraṇa (The Matter of Śāriputra) by the renowned Mahāyāna scholar and poet AŚvaghoṢa (ca. 100 c.e.). A full exposition of the elaborate dramaturgical

theory embodied in these plays may be found in the Nāṭyaśastra of Bharatamuni, which dates to around the beginning of the common era.

So proficient in thaumaturgy were many Indian and Central Asian Buddhist monks who came to China that some of them relied on their wonder-working skills not only to attract enormous groups of disciples but even to gain favor with the ruler. Perhaps the most famous of these was Fotudeng (d. 349), but many others were noted in historical and anecdotal literature. Buddhist monks were so renowned for their spell-binding powers of narration and prestidigitation that, by the Song dynasty (960–1279), there were various categories of professional storytellers and entertainers who masqueraded as monks. Already in the preceding centuries, the power of Buddhist narrators (of both lay and monastic status) to gather crowds was so great that government recruiters who wished to conscript hundreds of new soldiers would intentionally seek out a storytelling session, rope together those in attendance, and march them off to the front.

The affinity between Buddhism and storytelling also obtained in Japan, where many of the greatest collections of tales (the so-called setsuwa bungaku or tale literature), such as Sangoku denki (Stories of Three Kingdoms; i.e., India, China, and Japan) and Konjaku monogatari (Stories of Yesterday and Today) were permeated with Buddhist themes and concepts. In certain temples, there were monks (hōshi) who specialized in narrating legends with the aid of picture scrolls, and along the roads nuns (bikuni), some of whom were nuns in name only, engaged in similar activities. In Tibet, the itinerant maṇipa performer, with her thang ka (thanka) hanging on a wall beside her, likewise used to be a common sight.

Some of the grandest representations of Buddhist performance are to be found in the paradise scenes on the wall-paintings at Dunhuang in northwestern China. There one can see full orchestras depicted, often with a virtuoso lute player whirling on a small circular rug in the center. It would seem that to the Buddhist, pageantry and performance were as much a part of the celestial realm as they were of the sublunary world.

See also:Festivals and Calendrical Rituals; Folk Religion: An Overview; Languages


Idema, Wilt I. "Traditional Dramatic Literature." In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, ed. Victor H. Mair. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Mair, Victor H. "The Buddhist Tradition of Prosimetric Oral Narrative in Chinese Literature." Oral Tradition 3, nos. 1–2 (1988): 106–121.

Mair, Victor H. Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Mair, Victor H. "The Contributions of T'ang and Five Dynasties Transformation Texts (pien-wen) to Later Chinese Popular Literature." Sino-Platonic Papers 12 (August 1989): 1–71.

Mair, Victor H. "The Prosimetric Form in the Chinese Literary Tradition." In Prosimetrum: Crosscultural Perspectives on Narrative in Prose and Verse, ed. Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 1997.

McLaren, Anne E. Chinese Popular Culture and Ming Chantefables. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

McLaren, Anne E. "The Oral-Formulaic Tradition." In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, ed. Victor H. Mair. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Pellowski, Anne. The World of Storytelling (1977). Revised edition, New York: Wilson, 1990.

Victor H. Mair