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Adapting the Buddha's Biographies: A Cultural History of the Wish-Fulfilling Vine in Tibet, Seventeenth to Eighteenth Centuries


This dissertation is a history of an Indian Buddhist biographical collection--the Wish-Fulfilling Vine--in the cultural imagination and discourse of Tibet during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Wish-Fulfilling Vine of Bodhisattva Avadanas (Skt. Bodhisattvavadanakalpalata, Tb. Byang chub sems dpa'i rtogs pa brjod pa dpag bsam gyi 'khri shing) by Kshemendra is an eleventh-century Sanskrit anthology of stories about the previous existences of the Buddha and his disciples, along with events from the Buddha's final life. Translated into Tibetan and incorporated into the Tibetan Buddhist canon, by the seventeenth century the Vine occupied a place of high prestige in Tibet. I argue that adaptations of the Vine--condensed literary digests, paintings, and woodcuts--constitute sophisticated forms of commentary that reveal the ingenuity and concerns of their producers. In addition to didactic and iconic functions in Buddhist practice, cultural productions of the Vine served as sites of discourse about knowledge, authority, ideal Buddhist exemplars, and authentic Indic origins. With prominent monastic intellectuals and rulers as producers and patrons of its editions and adaptations, the Vine offers perspectives into the elite culture of Tibet, in its monastic and courtly aspects.

Each chapter is organized around a prominent figure who designed, sponsored, or otherwise promoted cultural productions of the Wish-Fulfilling Vine. In Chapter One I trace how the Fifth Dalai Lama and his court popularized the Vine through public instruction, paintings, and literary activities. These conspicuously cultured displays promoted renewed interest in Sanskrit and the Indic origins of Buddhism, while contributing to broader projects of knowledge production and state-building. In Chapter Two I demonstrate how the lay Pho lha dynasty appropriated the Vine, sponsoring two large-scale multimedia productions while developing models for lay kingship and patronage. In Chapter Three I argue that Si tu Pan chen, an influential monk of Sde dge in eastern Tibet, articulated his vision of the ideal monastic through the design of Vine paintings and other literary and visual productions on the Buddha's life. In Chapter Four I study Zhu chen, court chaplain of Sde dge, and his work on the Vine as commentaries on cultural production.

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