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  • The Gift of the Body and the Gift of DharmaAuthor(s): Reiko OhnumaSource: History of Religions, Vol. 37, No. 4 (May, 1998), pp. 323-359Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 11:39

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    Indian Buddhist narrative literature of all ages and schools is full of stories involving paradigmatic acts of generosity in which an animal or human character gives away his entire body or a part of his body to whomever requests it: King Sibi gouges out his eyes and gives them to a blind man; Prince Mahasattva throws himself off a cliff in order to feed a starving tigress; a hare jumps into a fire in order to feed a hungry trav- eler; and an elephant removes his own tusks and presents them to an evil hunter.1 The majority of such stories are jatakas, or accounts of the Buddha's previous lives, and serve to demonstrate the great selflessness and compassion cultivated by the Buddha during his long career as a bodhisattva. In terms of the bodhisattva's cultivation of the perfections (paramita), they are almost always classified as preeminent examples of the perfection of generosity or giving (dana). Stories of the bodhisattva's gifts of his body to others were extremely popular in Indian Buddhism, appearing in innumerable variations throughout the history of the literary tradition and exerting a profound influence on Buddhist art, philoso- phy, and culture. They exist in the literature of all Mainstream Buddhist schools2 and (unlike many other types of stories) seem to fully retain their popularity within the literature of the Mahayana.

    I would like to thank Gregory Schopen for helpful comments and corrections on an ear- lier draft of this article. Any errors that remain are wholly mine. 1 For a full list of references for each of these four stories, see Leslie Grey, A Concordance of Buddhist Birth Stories (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1990), s.v. "Sivi," s.v. "Vyaghri" or "Mahasattva," s.vv. "Sasa" and "Sagaka," s.v. "Saddanta" or "Chaddanta," and s.v. "Has- taka" or "Saddanta."

    2 I borrow Paul Harrison's term "Mainstream Buddhism" to refer to non-Mahayana Buddhism (see Paul Harrison, "Is the Dharma-kaya the Real 'Phantom Body' of the Buddha?"

    ? 1998 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0018-2710/98/3704-0002$02.00

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  • Gift of the Body

    I refer to all such stories collectively as "gift-of-the-body" or dehadana stories. I have borrowed the term dehadana from one such story in par- ticular, which refers to itself as a dehadanavadana, an "avaddna deal- ing with the gift (dana) of one's body (deha)."3 As far as I can tell, dehadana is not a common term in Indian Buddhist literature, and gifts of the body are more frequently referred to with other terms, such as atma-parityaga (self-sacrifice), sarira-parityaga (renunciation of the body), or adhydtmika-dana (internal gift). By using the term dehadana, I mean to focus specifically on those stories in which a gift of the body (deha) is emphasized or explicitly stated, and the predominant theme is generosity (dana). In truth, however, the category is an artificial one. Bud- dhist stories involving self-mutilation and self-sacrifice fall into several different categories that should ultimately be treated as one large and in- terweaving thematic group, with the various types playing off each other in interesting ways. In order to limit my material, however, I have chosen to focus on those stories in which a gift of the body or a part of the body is emphasized, and to designate such stories as gift-of-the-body or de- hadana tales.4

    Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15, no. 1 [1992]: 44-94, pp. 77-78, n. 2). 3 The story in question is the Sarvamdadabhiddnamahaiirjavadana (Mahajjatakamala no. 45), which involves a king who offers his head to a Brahmin supplicant. The story has been edited in Michael Hahn, Der Grosse Legendenkranz (Mahajjitakamald): Eine mit- telalterliche buddhistische Legendensammlung aus Nepal (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1985), pp. 532-50; the phrase dehadandvaddna appears on p. 550.

    4 For example, not included in the category of dehadana would be the following, closely related types of tales. (1) Stories involving the altruistic self-sacrifice of one's life for some- one else, but without any explicit conception of the act as a gift of the body; e.g., the Ni- grodhamiga Jdtaka (Pali no. 12), in which a deer-king offers his life to the king of Benares in order to spare a pregnant doe. (2) Stories involving the loss of a body part and its religious ramifications, but without explicitly conceiving of this loss as a gift; e.g., the Kundldvadana (Divydvadana, chap. 27), in which Asoka's son Kunfla has his eyes gouged out at the com- mand of his evil stepmother and thereby attains enlightenment. (3) Stories in which a char- acter gives away his body in exchange for a Buddhist teaching; e.g., the Suripa Jakata in the Mahavastu, in which the deer-king Surupa offers his body to a hunter in exchange for a Buddhist verse. (4) Stories in which a character uses his body to make a religious offering; e.g., chap. 22 of the Lotus Sutra, in which a bodhisattva burns his body as an offering to a Buddha. I reserve the term dehadana for those stories in which the gift of the body is ex- plicitly stated or otherwise emphasized, and the predominant theme is generosity. Such sto- ries can generally be classified into two types. (1) One type involves the spontaneous gift of the body or part of the body to whatever recipient asks for it, the recipient usually being someone who is not particularly worthy, which serves to highlight the themes of generosity and compassion. Classic examples include Prince Mahasattva's gift of his body to a starving tigress; an elephant's gift of his tusks to a hunter; King Maitribala's gift of his flesh to can- nibalistic yaksas; and King Candraprabha's gift of his head to an evil Brahman. (2) A second type proceeds similarly to the first, except that the recipient of the gift is really the god Sakra in disguise, the request for the body part being intended by Sakra as a test of the donor's gen- erosity. Classic examples include King Sibi's gift of his eyes to a blind man, King Sibi's gift of his flesh to a pigeon, and the hare's gift of his body as food to a weary traveler. For a fuller


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  • History of Religions

    Perhaps what I have found most striking in the course of my research on these tales is the incredible richness of the dehadana theme and the sheer number of issues important in the study of Indian Buddhism for which these stories open a door and offer a springboard. Although gen- erally presented and classified as if they were straightforward illustra- tions of the virtue of generosity (dana), these stories, in fact, touch on a wide array of topics, often striking one as a melting pot of subtexts bub- bling just underneath the surface structure devoted to dana. In addition to the obvious contribution they make to the Buddhist discourse on dana, I have found these tales to be a rich source of material for Buddhist con- ceptions of the body, of gender, of kingship, of sacrifice, of ritual pollu- tion and purification, of worship, and so forth.

    But such interesting topics will have to wait for a future occasion. In this article, I wish to deal with a single topic only, one that is limited, moreover, to a particular subset of these tales. In the course of my read- ing of many stories of dehadana, it struck me that a limited number of dehadana stories preserved in Sanskrit and Tibetan seemed to be engaged in a particular project that was not characteristic of dehadana stories in general. These stories seemed to be using the theme of the bodhisattva's gift of his body in a particularly interesting way that was unique to them alone. It is this use of the theme that I wish to examine here.

    It is my contention that within this particular subset of stories, the bo- dhisattva's body is clearly intended to serve as a symbol for the Buddha's dharma, and thus, the bodhisattva's gift of his body (dehadana) is made parallel to the Buddha's gift of dharma (dharmadana). Although scholars have long recognized the paradigmatic status of these two gifts within the Buddhist discourse on giving,5 no one, as far as I know, has ever posited a parallel or an identification between the bodhisattva's gift of his body in the past and the Buddha's gift of dharma in the present. Yet it is my con- tention that this is precisely what these particular stories are doing. In the first half of this article, I will demonstrate three different ways in which this parallel is suggested: through the identification of past and present characters, through the invoc