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Healing with merit: Buddhist rituals of curing in medieval Chinese liturgical manuscripts

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When regular medicine failed or acted too slowly in medieval China, many people sought recourse to a form of healing based on making merit and confessing sins. In the Buddhist worldview all current conditions are the result of prior deeds, therefore a lingering sickness or discomfort could be cured by the commission of new cleansing actions. The most efficacious karma was generated through the basic Buddhist ritual of dāna: the donation of possessions and burning of incense created merit, which the liturgy directed towards the curing of the patient and other boons.

The lectures introduce some seventy-five small booklets and scrolls discovered among the trove of manuscripts unearthed in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang (Gansu province in northwest China) in the early twentieth century. Compiled, copied, and chanted by local monks acting as healers, the liturgies open a window onto the local religious practice of monks, nuns, and laypeople. The first lecture explores the philosophy of illness and the logic of merit-making ritual in Buddhism and attends to the literary style of the liturgies. The second lecture draws conclusions about the authors/users of the texts and their audience by examining the layout of words on the page, the different formats for binding books, the ritual repertoire of individual monks, and the logistics of copying liturgical texts.