So today, I thought I’d take a break from comic book or RPG geekery to talk about something way more obscure that comes up in some of my academic research.
One concern in Early Medieval China is the idea that disease and death could be caused by Sepulchral Plaint. That is by lawsuits from beyond the grave! In Chinese thought of this period the dead were involved in many of the same activities as the living. These activities included bringing legal suit against their peers. So someone’s dead Uncle would sue your dead relatives because he had been wronged by them.
How did this effect the living? Well you see the courts of the Underworld would be interested in summoning living relatives of the defendant as part of the suit, so they would grow ill and eventially die to be summoned before the court. This is not something you would want to happen, as it would be a one-way trip.
So what is someone affected by these spectral suits to do? Hire his own lawyer (In this case a Daoist priest). Such a practitioner would typicaly launch a counter suit, and use a combination of legal procedures, and if necessary call on his otherworldy soldiers to take charge of the situation. In practical terms this means the use of registers, talismans, chanting and so forth, and further in at least one case I’ve read of (In Bokenkamo’s Ancestors and Anxiety) the priest provided an appearance of the various deceased people (bandaged) who were the postmoerem figures in the story. It should be nited that in a region like China, with a long tradition of people becoming various spirits ritually, that was not an example of Scooby-Doo tactics in action.
I bring this up, because it’s one of the things in Chinese pre-Modern religion that catches my imagination. I’ve never been sure, quite why. Although surely part of me does on the basis of desiring a Chnese postmortem legal drama. That would be spectacular.
Over at Profbanks.com Jessica Banks has talked about how she got into the field of Religious Studies, so that seemed like a good excuse for me to do the same thing.
I was raised Catholic. And was relatively knowledgable about it (albiet from a confessional point of view) in the best intellectual traditions of that faith. Through a combination of instinct and my high school involvement in theatre I had drifted pretty far into the liberal side of Catholicism, but when I went to college still considered myself faithful (I was confirmed with the Confirmation name of Genesius; patron of actors).
I was in those distant days of the early 2000s still commited to the idea that I would pursue a career in the theatre, and then I took my first philosophy class “CHINESE PHILOSOPHY” with Dr. Stephen Eskildsen. I had read the odd book on popularized Zen or what claimed to be Daoism, and it sounded like it would be interesting. I deeply enjoyed the perspectives I was exposed to, and so, since I needed a minor, and Dr. Eskildsen was much more a scholar of Chinese religion than philosophy I took up Religious Studies as a minor. When I realized that I did not want to pursue theatre it became my major.
My deconversion from Catholicism to unaffiliated happened sometime after my third year of undergraduate study. I remember that I switched my “Religious Views” from the pure joke of “Yes, I can see Religion from here,” to “It’s like math.” This was actually a coyly expressed theoretical position on religion. That each religion, like mathematics, was a world of internal logic that supported itself and given features of the system may or may not map to anything in the real world. This isn’t how I view religion now, but it was an important perspective for me as I spent a year in China, and then moved back to the US, and then started grad school.
Graduate School was a big shock. It was, for me, about assaulting my preconcieved notions of the conceptual boundaries, and busting the historicity of Western historical myths about Asian religions. Now that I have a masters in Religion, unlike in undergrad, I don’t know what religion is. But I know that social phenomena are worth studying, including those that fall under the religion label.
I worry about how Western scholarship of foreign cultures can be performed without being a form of Orientalism where the Other is really a construction of scholar that exists to justify Western perspectives. Nevertheless I feel that it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I think the various “religious” cultures of Chinese history are worth study. Especially study that puts perscribed doctrines in the periphery in order to center on institutional history and ritual culture.
At another, more basic level, I will always be the geek who loves stories about supernormal beings like nagas, Transcendents, Bodhisattvas, ghosts, and so on. That was always a big part of the draw of “religion” for me, that it was where the “magic” stuff is. And even today that’s true. I spent some time at a highly modernized Buddhist Temple in Taipei, Dharma Drum Mountain, and they still chant the Heart Sutra, which tells of how Guanyin awakened to the emptiness of all Dharmas, and spoke the great Perfection of Wisdom Spell. The merit from this virtuous chant is dedicated to the liberation of beings in the six realms of existence.
So that’s it for right now. I definitely want to get into more of the stuff touched on in here, in addition to comic and game stuff.
Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions 1500-1700 by Jimmy Yu.
Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500-1700. Jimmy Yu [diacritics omitted due to technical limitations.]