Genealogies of Mahayana Buddhism

Genealogies of Mahayana Buddhism : Emptiness, Power and the question of Origin

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Genealogies of Mahayana Buddhism offers a solution to a problem that some have called the holy grail of Buddhist studies: the problem of the "origins" of Mahayana Buddhism. In a work that contributes both to a general theory of religion and power for religious studies as well as to the problem of the origin of a Buddhist movement, Walser argues that that it is the neglect of political and social power in the scholarly imagination of the history of Buddhism that has made the origins of Mahayana an intractable problem. Walser challenges commonly-held assumptions about Mahayana Buddhism, offering a fascinating new take on its genealogy that traces its doctrines of emptiness and mind-only from the present day back to the time before Mahayana was "Mahayana." In situating such concepts in their political and social contexts across diverse regimes of power in Tibet, China and India, the book shows that what was at stake in the Mahayana championing of the doctrine of emptiness was the articulation and dissemination of court authority across the rural landscapes of Asia.

This text will be will be of interest to undergraduate and postgraduate students and scholars of Buddhism, religious studies, history and philosophy.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 288 pages
  • 159 x 235mm | 726g
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 1138955558
  • 9781138955554
  • 1,043,348

Table of contents


Part I: Genealogies of Mahayana

Introduction: On Origins and Genealogies

Mahayana in Retrospect: From My House to the Dalai Lama (looking back from 2017 - 1930)

Assessing the Essence

Tibet as Buddhist: Tracing the Lines of Power

Emptiness and the Analytic of Power

Inculcating Dispositions to Authority: the Kalacakra

Mahayana in the Republic, Mahayana in the Empire: Tracing "Religion" from Republican China to the Early Qing Dynasty (1920's - 1723)

Religion vs. Superstition in 20th Century East Asia

The Fin de Siecle Turning Point

The Qing Imperium and the Usefulness of Mahayana

The Yonghegong Temple in Beijing and the Political Work of Monuments

Emperor Qianlong: the Tantric Initiate and the Tantric State

Tantra, Emptiness and the Reincarnate Emperor/Lama, or why it's never too late to have a venerable past.

Yongzheng Emperor and the Great Ming Debate

The Image of Emptiness across the Landscape of Power (China: 11th Cent. B.C.E - 15th Cent. C.E.)

The Ancestor Image

The Image of Emptiness: Di, Space and the Celestial Pole

The Image of the Earth and control of the cults

Exorcism and the State: When possession is nine-tenths

Religion in the Service of Taxation

Buddhist Exorcism and the Heart of Mahayana


Buddha Veda: an Indian Genealogy of Emptiness (20th century - 6th century CE.)

Emptiness and Power in Orissa: From Mahima Dharma Sampradaya to Jagannatha of Puri

Buddhism and Brahmanism in Maitripa (ca. 1010-1097 CE)

Bhaviveka's 6th Century Mahayana

Bhaviveka, Mahayana and Yogacara

Bhaviveka, Mahayana and Brahmanism

Preliminary Conclusion

Part II: The Genealogy of the Perfection of Wisdom

What did the text of the Perfection of Wisdom look like?

The Versions

The Quest for the Ur-Sutra

The Core Pericope

The Ending

Subhuti's Non-Apprehension

The Mindlessness Section

The Message of the Original Perfection of Wisdom



What's missing?

Mahayana Sutra as Palimpsest: Discerning Traces of the Tripitaka

Beyond "origin" as mere event

Heteroglossia and Textual Rationale

Intertextuality and Adaptation in Buddhist Literature

The Non-Apprehension section and its Intertexts

Sermon on Selflessness?


Cessation of Cognition

Selflessness... but differently

The Perfected as Untraceable


Abhidharma echoes

Conclusion: The Perfection of Wisdom

Palimpsest Part Two: Brahmanical Writings on the Tripitaka

The Importance of Incoherence

The Context of Abhidharma Literature?

The Context of Other Schools?

The Context of Luminous Thought and Varieties of Unaware Thought

The Context of Acitta Neither Existing nor Not Existing as Anti-Brahmanical Dependent Origination

The Context of Absence of Mental Construction (avikalpa)


Brahmanical Intertexts and their Implications

Placing Early Mahayana

Placing the Perfection of Wisdom in the Early Mahayana Suite

Manjusri's Inquiry Concerning the Office of the Bodhisattva

Placing the Early Perfection of Wisdom

Mistaken Sounds

Subhuti's Aranavihara: Preaching or Penetration?

Emptiness, Brahmin Nuns, Tulkus and the Power of Possession

Putting it together


On Sites and Stakes: Meditation on Emptiness and Imperial Aspirations

Shifting Contexts, Shifting Interpretations

The Unnabhabrahmanasutta and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad on cosmic foundations

The Horse Sacrifice

Piling the Fire Altar and Legitimation Regress

Buddhist Brahmins

On Power and Reproduction

Sovereign Echoes: on Manhood and Celibacy; On thrones and Crowns

Buddhist Brahmodya as court debates

The Mahayana Genealogy from The Vedas to the Sutras to Tantra to Zen

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Review quote

"This book is a compelling argument to rethink the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. Approaching this perennial puzzle within Buddhist Studies from a different angle, tracing it from the present toward its genesis, Walser masterfully draws together material from a broad and complex cultural context to rethink the approach to understanding the earliest expressions of the idea of emptiness". Matthew Sayers, Lebanon Valley College Annville, USA.

"A bold new theory of what the Mahayana is and how it "began," Genealogies of Mahayana Buddhism is a paradigm shift in our understanding of one of the most important traditions of Buddhism. Written in clear and accessible prose, Walser's work is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Buddhist thought." Jose Ignacio Cabezon, Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies, UC Santa Barbara, USA.
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About Joseph G. Walser

Joseph Walser is Associate Professor of Religion at Tufts University, USA.
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