The Xu Dishan Collection » Buddhism and Buddhist texts

Buddhism and Buddhist texts

Buddhism is one of the major religious denominations in Asia. Besides the religious aspect it also offers a deeply profound philosophy dealing with human existence in a world of suffering. The Buddha, known as Siddhārtha Gautama, is considered the founder. The historical dates are subject to speculation but are placed into the 5th century BCE. His teachings, which were never written down but passed on orally, form the basis of both the religious and philosophical tradition. Buddhism spread from India into all neighbouring countries and developed several schools. Translations of teachings, sutras and commentaries were manyfold, and reconstructing the “original meaning” of what Buddha actually said is difficult.

In general Buddhism tries to find ways for the individual to leave the realm of suffering in the real world. The source of this suffering is man alone, and thus needs metaphysical methods and philosophical handling of everyday life to improve the nature of persons – the individual believer. The “Four Noble Truths” state that 1. There is suffering. 2. There is the origination of suffering. 3 There is cessation of suffering. 4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.[1]

Sentient beings need to realise that suffering, impermanence, and non-self lead to appropriation, which is expressed in terms of “self” and “I” or “me”. Thus, desire and aversion are formed, which hinder the recognition of the true nature of the sentient existence. So, desire, aversion, and ignorance all lead to the cycle of old age, disease, and death – a cycle than can be potentially escaped from through methods taught and followed by the different schools.

Our collection of Xu Dishan's East Asian language books contains approximately 150 Buddhist texts. They are reprints from the original woodblocks or new prints published between 1740 and the 1930s. The largest part was published around 1870-1920, at a time when the printing of these items experienced a large uptake in Shanghai, Nanjing and other places. The fact that many religious prints were destroyed in the PRC in the Cultural Revolution makes the collection much more valuable for researchers today.

Author: Friederike Schimmelpfennig (July 2021)

Buddhism highlights from the Xu Dishan collection

 Within these items there are some extraordinary ones:

瑜伽燄口施食儀範 Yu qie yan kou shi shi yi fan (printed in 1739)

This is a manual to perform the ritual of feeding hungry ghosts – spirits of deceased people who are, due to their evil acts in life, reborn as a hungry ghost (餓鬼e gui). This version of the manual was compiled in 1693 by the monk Yiyu Dingan, shortening the all over time of the ritual to three hours, and was republished in Qianlong 4, i.e., 1739.

This handbook shows the according mudras that need to be performed by the leading monk. The ritual is still performed in several versions today, and the mudras are still the same.

A video showing how the ritual is performed can be found on YouTube.