Pregnant Metaphor: Embryology, Embodiment, and the Ends of Figurative Imagery in Chinese Buddhism

Kevin Buckelew*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Nurturing the embryo of sagehood was a widespread trope in premodern Chinese Buddhism. From its inception in the fifth-century apocryphal Sutra of Benevolent Kings, medieval Chinese Buddhist exegetes, Chan Buddhists, and Daoist inner alchemists all used this trope as both a metaphor for enlightenment and a metaphysical figure of supernatural embodiment sometimes within the same textual passage. This trope's historical use reveals an overlooked commitment on the part of many Chinese Buddhist thinkers to the notion that liberation entails the conception, gestation, and birth of supernatural bodies. The case of the embryo of sagehood demonstrates the capacity of figurative language to move fluidly across the boundaries of metaphor and metaphysics, a capacity I argue was a constitutive feature of premodern Chinese Buddhist soteriology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)371-411
Number of pages41
JournalHarvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2018

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