Living karma: The religious practices of Ouyi Zhixu (1599–1655)
This dissertation examines the religious practices of an overlooked but influential Chinese Buddhist monk named Ouyi Zhixu (1599–1655) who lived in the late Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. Through a close analysis of his ritual writings, I argue that Ouyi viewed divination as a technique for determining his past karma, repentance as a method for redressing karma in the present, vow-texts as means of binding him to a good karmic future, and bodily practices as ways of marking that future commitment. I combine a diachronic study of the historical associations and resonances of such practices with a synchronic analysis of their representation in Ouyi's writings.
Unlike his contemporaries who wrote texts quantifying karma and fixing morality into controllable merits and demerits, Ouyi frequently portrays karma as organic and malleable—suggesting that karmic seeds depend on a variety of conditions in order to come to fruition. Whereas mechanistic understanding of karma lead people who have committed mistakes without any recourse but to anticipate with dread what awaits them in future lives, Ouyi claims that repentance has the power to eliminate karma entirely, suggesting one might be able to erase past actions instead of suffering their karmic consequences, with the help of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
I argue that Ouyi viewed his body as a vehicle for rectifying past karma. Since one can view bodily illness as retribution for previous sins, the body itself becomes a site for revealing and manifesting karma. Ouyi portrays bodies as fueling the cycle of birth-and-death and encourages a destruction and transformation of bodies. He urges people to discipline themselves not only through ritual activities but also ascetic practices such as burning themselves and writing texts in their own blood. Ouyi insists that one can only summon Buddhas and bodhisattvas in specific ritual contexts: one must engage one's body as “living karma”—using body, speech, and mind to stimulate their gracious response—if one hopes to reveal past karma, redress present karma, or generate good future karma.
0320: Religious history