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Unfolding Buddhism: Communal Scripts, Localized Translations, and the Work of the Dying in Cambodian Chanted Leporellos


This dissertation examines Cambodian leporellos, or folded-paper manuscripts, that contain chants for Buddhist end-of-life rites. Grounded in a catalog that details the provenance, materiality, and content of 70 such leporellos, as well as transcriptions, editions, and translations of the 195 Pali, Khmer, and Siamese texts they contain, this study reveals a corpus of chants that illuminates Cambodian Buddhism in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. This textual corpus and the paratexts furnished by the leporellos themselves combine to show how Cambodians made Buddhist chants locally relevant for the end of life. By reading these data alongside Siamese, Lao, and Lanna parallels, this dissertation also highlights Cambodia’s participation in a broader Khmer-Tai Buddhist world.

Part I presents the social function of Cambodian leporellos and their texts for chanting to the sick, the dying, and the dead. Chapter 2 argues that these manuscripts are communal objects, circulated between scribes and donors, annotators and performers, and monastics and laypeople. Chapter 3 outlines how they unfold a spectrum of melodic chants, including those recited for deathbed rites and for the postmortem consecration of buddha images. Chapter 4 shows how their sequences, illuminations, and annotations, like those of their Siamese counterparts, create scripts for performance.

Part II analyzes the translation processes by which texts in the leporello corpus became localized in Cambodia. Chapter 5 focuses on how some Sanskrit incantations were remade into Pali protective chants. Chapter 6 engages the grammatical techniques for precise and cogent translations in bilingual Pali-Khmer and Pali-Tai prose texts. Chapter 7 examines the ways translators crafted locally appropriate yet equally performable Khmer poems from Pali and Tai sources.

Part III considers the obligations placed upon those approaching the end of life, as witnessed in Khmer chants in verse. Chapter 8 focuses on poems that invite the dying to reflect on the inevitability of death, the process of dying itself, and what happens immediately after. Chapter 9 explores a second set of obligations for the dying, namely the absolution of evil karma and the aspiration for a more fortunate future existence, particularly for buddhahood itself.

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