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Materiality, Labor, and Signification of Sacred Objects in Japanese Buddhism

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Recent studies on Buddhist materiality tend to focus on specific objects and their ritual uses, without dedicating much attention to processes of production of those objects and their actual makers. This article begins to redress this situation by outlining a general theoretical framework for the study of Buddhist objects and material culture in general through their continuous transformations—a framework that takes into account not only the ontological status and phenomenological features of individual objects, but also their signification and the various types of labor involved in their production and fruition. After proposing a general typology of objects, in order to gain a better sense of the ontological extension of Buddhism, the article also discusses the types of labor and practical activities involved in the production and use of Buddhist objects. Next, it deals with different aspects that determine the value of Buddhist sacred objects, and addresses modes of transformation affecting Buddhist objects through time and space, envisioned here as instances of broader processes of semiotic transformation (semiomorphosis). While this paper mostly examines objects within the Japanese Buddhist tradition, it hopes to offer a contribution to the study of practical materiality and labor in other Buddhist traditions as well.

Affiliations: 1: University of California, Santa Barbara, USA


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