Material Culture

John Kieschnick

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online March 2012 | | DOI:
Material Culture

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  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Zen Buddhism



The study of material culture belongs to a relatively young discipline that examines artifacts as well as ideas about, and practices related to, artifacts, with artifacts defined as material objects created or modified by people. Aspects of research in material culture overlap with art history, archaeology, and anthropology, but studies in material culture approach the subject from a different perspective, focusing on areas not necessarily emphasized in these disciplines. Unlike traditional art history, material culture studies concentrate on the function of objects, devoting little attention to their aesthetic qualities, with more emphasis, for instance, on miracles associated with icons than on the style or iconography of icons; unlike traditional archaeology, material culture studies do not necessarily focus on extant artifacts, giving as much attention to references to objects in texts as to extant objects; and, unlike traditional anthropology, material culture studies often give great emphasis to historical development, often over vast expanses of time. While the field of material culture studies has flourished for decades, religious studies have been slow to recognize the importance of material things. Many areas of religion in which material culture plays a prominent role remain largely unexplored, including the place of objects in ritual, religious emotion, pilgrimage, and doctrine. Readers interested in the material culture of Buddhism will want to consult entries for Buddhist art, archaeology, and anthropology as well; in the entries below, the focus is on areas of material culture not necessarily emphasized in these disciplines as well as on studies within these disciplines that are especially relevant to the study of material culture. The term visual culture overlaps with much of what is considered material culture, but excludes objects associated with other senses, such as taste, smell, and touch, which are covered by the term material culture. The material culture approach is particularly well suited for exploring the qualities of particular classes of objects. What is it about relics as body parts that accounts for their appeal? Why are miracles so often associated with physical representations of holy figures and how do these differ from textual representations? How do clothing and food differ from language as a medium of communication? To highlight this aspect of research in Buddhist material culture, the scholarship listed below is divided according to type of object. At the same time, material culture studies also offer an opportunity to examine attitudes toward the material world as applied to a wide variety of objects normally separated by discipline. The doctrine of merit inspired the creation of a wide variety of different types of objects, and the monastic ideal of renunciation permeates many different areas of Buddhist material culture.

Article.  5656 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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