Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia

By Juliane Schober | Go to book overview

In the Presence of the Buddha Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahāmuni Image

Juliane Schober

In his discussions of cosmogony and the regeneration of time, Mircea Eliade1 has called attention to the pervasive tendency across religious traditions to define the present in terms of a pristine past. Eliade's observation has been borne out in studies of Theravāda Buddhism, many of which have focused, in some measure, on the tendency in this tradition to interpret the present in terms of ideal constructs of a "pristine" past. For example, much attention -- among scholars and within the tradition itself -- has been paid to the continual purification of the teachings (dhamma) and monkhood (sangha), two of the Three Refuges or tiratana in the Buddhist confession of faith, in order to recreate them in their pristine forms.

Contextualizing the present in the terms of an idealized past is a strategy also encountered in the sacred biographies of religious founders and saints whose lives become models for religious practice.2 This essay examines the ritual veneration of the first Refuge, the Buddha, as an alternative religious strategy for constructing or recreating a pristine past and field of merit for the Buddhist community. In particular, it analyzes the image of Mahāmuni in Burma as an icon and ritual expression of the Buddha's continuing biography. The popular veneration of this image illuminates the ways in which sacred icons 3 are used to create a presence of the Buddha in

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