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Encountering Newar Buddhism- An Introduction Through Its Rituals and Stories

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Item Code: UAD508
Author: Todd T. Lewis
Publisher: Vajra Books, Nepal
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9789937623810
Pages: 236 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 290 gm
Book Description
Back of the Book

Todd Lewis is one of a small group of scholars who have quietly been carrying out a revolution in our understanding of Mah?y?na Buddhism. We still find it stated that the Buddhism of Nepal is ‘inauthentic’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘unworthy of consideration by those wanting a better understanding of Buddhism because of its syncretistic nature with Hinduism’. Yet scholars like Todd Lewis have taught us to see the Buddhism of Nepal as a perfectly ‘orthodox’ expression of Mah?y?na Buddhism ‘in a place’, Buddhism which has to be understood - as Buddhism always should be - located in its authentic cultural situation rather than relying for our understanding of Buddhism mainly on elite doctrinal and philosophical texts torn from their historical context in real Buddhist life and usage. Not only this, but Todd Lewis and others have shown us that the Buddhism of Nepal, which was historically often esteemed by other Mah?y?na Buddhists for its purity and vigour, is capable of giving us an important insight into the nature of late Indian Buddhism, the Buddhism that was transmitted to Tibet and is absolutely crucial to understanding the development of Tibetan Buddhism. We now appreciate all the more - as we should have done all along - that no one can begin to understand the history of Tibetan Buddhism without frequent reference to Buddhism in Nepal.

This book by Todd Lewis has for some years been an essential work for those approaching Nepalese Buddhism. Lewis writes in a wonderfully clear and readable way, and the texts translated are not only centrally important for understanding the nature and day-to-day practise of Buddhism in Nepal, but they are also beautifully translated and great fun to read.

Todd Lewis’s book is a standard work. It is highly recommended as an essential resource for anyone wanting to understand real lived Buddhism ‘of a place’, Mah?y?na Buddhism in an Indic context rather than, say, the more frequently observed Mah?y?na Buddhism of China or Japan.


A missionary religion originating in sixth-century B.C.E. India, Buddhism profoundly influenced the historical development of all major Asian civilizations. At the center of this tradition is a compelling spiritual vision and a path that leads to enlightenment; but underwriting Buddhism's pan-regional expansion over the millennia, was an equally compelling popular tradition that motivated householders to support the monastic elite and to commit themselves to taking refuge in the Triratna (Three jewels): the Buddha, the dharma (teachings), and the samgha (monastic order). Most Buddhists have been farmers, artisans, or merchants, not monks or intellectuals. While Buddhism attracted ascetics with myriad meditative regimens and philosophers with vast doctrinal discourse, Buddhism's mainstream traditions were those that cultivated the great majority of the population: exemplary stories that defined living rightly in the world and rituals designed to help householders realize the good and spiritual life.

The goal of this book is to help illustrate this assessment and, by so doing, to suggest correctives to the ahistorical and idealized portrayals of Buddhism that have been conveyed, often unintentionally, by both academic writers and modern exponents. To accomplish this, I utilize research among the Newar Buddhists of Nepal to explicate how five important vernacular texts have been incorporated into this community. These Newar case studies from a Himalayan oasis of Indic Buddhism yield several sets of data: they illumine how certain popular and ritual texts contributed to a Buddhist's religious life; they serve as paradigms regarding the pragmatic adaptation of the faith, particularly (but not limited to) societies adhering to Mahayana Buddhism; and finally, in highlighting a host of comparative or historical issues that arise, the discussion seeks to advance the understanding of Newar Buddhist history as well.

This book responds to the need for locality-specific research in religious studies. Scholarship on Buddhism has been dominated either by philological-textual studies that usually have left texts unrelated to their community context(s) or by ethnographic studies that have often neglected local literati and their domesticated vernacular literatures (Cabezon 1995; Gomez 1995b). The result has been either highly idealized portrayals of Buddhism based upon a small elite's philosophical definitions and disputations or more anthropological representations with cursory concern with a society's doctrinal awareness or textual culture.

The texts presented in this study arose from my earliest ethnographic fieldwork in Nepal (1979-82) when I attempted to collect and read many "working texts" published by local pandits pertinent to my much larger effort of researching modern Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley. Hundreds were located and several have already been published either separately (e.g., Lewis 1989b 1994a) or as sources for thematic studies (e.g., 1993c 1996a). The five texts in this volume were among the many I worked through with my teachers and informants as I sought to learn Newari and to survey the labyrinth of surviving practices.

In pursuing the study of this vernacular literature on popular Buddhist narratives and rituals, I was finding the confluence of my own training in classical and Nepalese languages, the history of religions, and anthropology; in so doing, I came to realize the value of highlighting this vast and universal textual genre that has remained largely ignored by scholars specializing in the study of Buddhism. Over the last decade, the various disciplines comprising Buddhist studies (textual, historical, and anthropological) have converged in recognizing that the field needs to direct further attention to vernacular texts, ritual studies, and local expressions of devotion (e.g., Hallisey 1995b; Bowen 1995; Obeyesekere 1991; Strong 1992; Hoffman 1992). This book addresses the need for interdisciplinary scholarship, dialogue, and research in order to make progress in constructing Buddhist history with much more rigorous sociological and cultural imagination.

I have indicated that this book has been written in collaboration with two Newar men of letters from the Kathmandu Buddhist community, Labh Ratna and Subarna Man Tuladhar. These two individuals are distinguished members of the Uray merchant community in which I have conducted most of my research. Both became friends and colleagues during my first year of fieldwork and their continuing association has enriched all of my subsequent investigations. Besides being learned about their own cultural heritage and authors of Newari short stories and religious poems, Subarna Man has been a decorated career civil servant and Labh Ratna has been a leading merchant.

We initially spent considerable periods of time reading through a variety of texts that they (and others) brought to my attention. Subarna Man and I initially read the texts in Chapters 2, 4, 5, and 6 and Labh Ratna read through the long Simhalavadana text with me. When I returned to these texts during a 1987 post-doctoral year in Nepal, I thoroughly revised these very rough translations and consulted with them again. I also made additional inquiries on the various ways in which these texts were utilized in community practice. Without their initial guidance, patience, and insight, I would not have been so wisely directed to these important sources or so expertly instructed in understanding them. To use Buddhist language, this book involves a large portion of Subarna Man and Labh Ratna's karman and I express here my immense gratitude to them as friends, scholars, and now as published collaborators. I must also note that the historical and analytical interpretations that I have wrapped around these texts are the responsibility of my own scholarship and authorship.


It is a curious fact that scholars interested in Mahayana Buddhism in India have paid so little attention to Nepal-indeed it may actually be perverse. It was Nepal, after all, that first revealed, and continued to supply, most of the Mahayana literature we have in Sanskrit. We have read, and continue to read, texts like the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita , which have been judged significant, in editions based solely on manuscripts from Nepal. But we have used these texts-and here's the rub-in our own peculiar way: we have only read them (and that very selectively), as if this were the only thing they were for. We have not, moreover, approved-in fact likely seen as silly-what the Nepalese themselves did with these same texts: some, but very few, read them, too; most however, recited or had them recited (and recitation is not at all the same thing as our 'reading'), copied or had them copied when their mother died, worshipped them with aromatic powders, unguents, and pastes, or carried or saw them carried in procession. Such behavior implies a very different conception of the nature and function of sacred texts in a culture other than our own, but it is characteristic of South Asia. Mr. Edward Dimock, for example, in a delightful little book entitled Mr. Dimock Explains the Mysteries of the East (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1999), has recently described an amusing meeting between our values and those long held in South Asia. After repeated attempts to get access to (read: "capture") and old and therefore, for us, particularly valuable Bengali manuscript, this is what occurred at the moment of success:

When they reached the village, there, sure enough, were the village headman and the communist official, all smiles and affability. They led the way to the temple, where the priest greeted them as if they were long-lost relatives and brought out the manuscript, in its cover of fine cloth (for it was a sacred object, deserving of care and respect), to have its picture taken. Such, in fact, was the veneration in which the manuscript was held that the top folios were unreadable, as it had for three centuries been smeared daily and reverently with the hands of the devout. As a matter of fact, of the 360 folios that the manuscript contained the top 359 were unreadable. The bottom one, with the colophon, was quite clear. (61-2)

But what Newars (and Bengalis) do with or to sacred texts is not just characteristic of South Asia. It is also the continuation of something very old: the Newar Buddhists who do what we do not approve of to their texts are doing precisely what these texts themselves explicitly say should be done. The Astasahasrika-to keep with the same example-has several long passages directing both monk and layman to worship books with aromatic powders, unguents, and paste, and detailing its great value. And this work is supposed to date back to the beginning of the common era. Here, then, 'late' Newar practice allows us to see clearly the enactment of `early' Mahayana ideas in south Asian culture. To get a sense of how they would have looked, this otherwise would simply not be possible.

The Newar treatment of books, moreover, is not an isolated example. Some years ago I thought I was able to determine on the basis of canonical Mahayana texts that rebirth in sukhavati was a "generalized" religious goal for those who wrote and read these texts. But I had no idea of how this would play out in actual culture, or what it might have meant in practice, until I read Todd Lewis' "Sukhavati traditions in Newar Buddhism," (1996a) and then a whole range of possibilities opened up. There is, quite clearly, no substitute for living contexts and for Mahayana Buddhism in South Asia there is nothing else and nowhere better than the Newar communities of Nepal.

Ironically, while some students of the Mahayana have understood this, they have generally not looked in the most obvious places. One of the best of these has, for example, said: ". . . I find it extremely helpful to utilize the insights of Buddhist anthropology, the work of Buddhist culture on the group, as it were, especially in Southeast Asia. In this record I have profited greatly from the researches of Stanley Tambiah, Melford Spiro, Richard Gombrich, Gananath Obeyesekere, Sherry Ortner, Geoffrey Samuel, and various others . . ." [Paul Harrison, "Searching for the Origins of the Mahayana: What are we Looking for?" The Eastern Buddhist (New Series), 28, 1995, 53) But where, one wonders, are the names of those who are working in an actual South Asian Mahayana culture-John Locke, David Gellner, and Todd Lewis? There is something rather strange here and it is time-indeed long overdue-that Newar Buddhism assume its rightful place in Buddhist studies. Todd Lewis' collection of both textual and ethnographic sources represents a major step in an important direction.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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