First speaker: Vimala Herman
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
Third speaker: Mark Hansen


D. Neil Schmid
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Pennsylvania

Presentation Abstract

Conceptual Integration as a Buddhist Literary Genre

The literary imagination often exploits literature to conceptualize notions of the self and morality. In Buddhism, a distinct genre of literature exists specifically for this function. Fundamental to all Buddhist traditions in Asia is a genre of narratives termed avadâna (Skt.), piyu (Ch.) or hiyu (Jap.), which illustrates the doctrine of karma and rebirth. This genre of literature expressly highlights the process of conceptual integration in order to teach it. These narratives consistently use two overlapping stories to compress cause and effect. The first story, the story of the present, takes place during the time of the Buddha or another historical figure. Asked in this story how certain circumstances came to be, the Buddha or narrator recounts a story from a past life describing determinative acts. The two stories are combined, the story of the past with the story of the present. In the emergent story, the narrator instructively identifies the correspondences between the two input narratives, and elaborates the blended space in terms of Buddhist morality. Concluding the story is a moral drawn from the generic space. Thus, the individual spaces and the process of combination are all explicitly delineated. Numerous collections exist in a variety of Asian languages containing hundreds of these elaborated stories detailing the operation of karma and rebirth.

The comprehensible method of composing narratives, combining them, and then elaborating the resulting stories serves in turn as the basis for Buddhist adherents to formulate their own blends in conjunction with their individual life stories. In this manner an individual's blend, projected backward in time, provides possible explanation for one's current karmic status or, projected forward, allows one to understand and plan for results of particular acts. In this paper I will examine this distinct genre of literature and its specific rhetorical strategies that, through literary imagination, provide the fundamental means to understanding the self and society in Buddhism.


D. Neil Schmid is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation, "Yuanqi: Medieval Chinese Buddhist Narratives," is a study of semi-vernacular manuscripts from Central Asia dating from the 9th to the 10th centuries. These stories of karma and rebirth belong to a genre of Buddhist literature known as avadāna (also jātaka) which are found throughout Asia in every Buddhist tradition. Functioning as a primary means to teach basic Buddhist concepts, avadāna narratives exist in a number of styles (from colloquial to belletristic) and forms (prose, verse, and prosimetric), and are found in the modern vernaculars of South, South-East, and East Asia. What defines this genre is the narratives' explicit use of conceptual integration, and their role in teaching it as a means to understanding the self and one's standing in society.


Schmid, D. Neil. Tun-huang Literature. The Columbia Encyclopedia of Chinese Literature. V. Mair, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000 (forthcoming).

Schmid, D. Neil. Dunhuang Buddhist Narratives and Their Performative Contexts. Transactions of the International Conference of Eastern Studies 38 (1993): 113-24.

MLA 2000: The Literary Imagination


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First speaker: Vimala Herman
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
Third speaker: Mark Hansen