Buddhism Material Culture
John Kieschnick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0002


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.

General Overviews

No general study of Buddhist material culture is available as yet, and the major encyclopedias of Buddhism do not include entries for “material culture.” Even encyclopedias of religion do not contain entries for material culture. Most of the best general work on religion and material culture has been done by scholars working on American religion. Representative works include McDannell 1995 and Morgan 2005. The journal Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief is the primary outlet for new articles on religion and material culture, and often includes scholarship on Buddhist material culture. Kieschnick 2008, while addressing the place of objects in religious emotion in general, also provides discussion specific to Buddhism. Regionally, Karlsson 2006 provides the best overview of the material culture of early Buddhism. Kieschnick 2003 and Rambelli 2007 provide brief overviews of Buddhist attitudes toward the material world in their introductions before turning to examine China and Japan, respectively. Thematically, Proser 2010 provides a broad introduction to the place of material culture in Buddhist pilgrimage, while Gerhart 2009 explores the role of material culture in the specific, but prevalent, area of death ritual in Japan. Bogel 2009 is especially useful for discussion of material culture in Buddhist ritual.

  • Bogel, Cynthea J. With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikkyō Vision. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.

    A wide-ranging study of esoteric visual culture in East Asia in the 8th and 9th centuries that covers free-standing icons, mandalas, robes, ritual implements and architecture, drawing on archaeology, ritual texts and—especially worthy of note—literary works.

  • Gerhart, Karen M. The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.

    Examines funerals of lay people and monks in medieval Japan with particular attention to objects employed in the funeral rites. While not exclusively Buddhist, much of the material presented here is tied closely to Buddhism.

  • Karlsson, Klemens. “The Formation of Early Buddhist Visual Culture.” Material Religion 2.1 (March 2006): 68–95.

    Overview of visual culture in early Indian Buddhism, including informed discussion of aniconism, ornament, and the first images of the Buddha, that takes into account competing theories and attempts to provide an overall chronology for the formation of a distinctively Buddhist visual culture.

  • Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    An overview of Buddhist attitudes toward objects along with case studies of the histories of particular Buddhist objects in China, including icons, relics, the monastic uniform, the rosary, the ruyi sceptre, books, monasteries, bridges, the chair, and sugar and tea, grouped under the headings of sacred power, symbolism, merit, and accidents and incidentals.

  • Kieschnick, John. “Material Culture.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion. Edited by John Corrigan, 223–237. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    A survey of the relationship between religious objects and emotions that includes some reference to Buddhism.

  • Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief.

    Established in 2005, publishing three issues a year, this is one of the major outlets for new research on religion and material culture, often containing articles on Buddhism.

  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

    Provides a useful introduction, with working definitions of material culture, and details the reluctance of scholars of religion to address material culture. This is followed by case studies on, among other topics, the Bible as object, a Christian cemetery, Mormon clothing, and Christian retailing, all of which have parallels in Buddhism.

  • Morgan, David. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

    Provides a thorough discussion of the term visual culture and the use of images in religion, including a perceptive analysis of idolatry and iconoclasm, as well as a discussion of gender and nationalism in the use of images. This work contains occasional references to Buddhism, but for specialists in Buddhism it is of interest primarily for comparative purposes.

  • Proser, Adriana. Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    Catalogue of objects associated with Buddhist pilgrimage from across Asia, including icons, illustrated manuscripts, banners, paintings, maps, monks’ staffs, prayer wheels, vajras, amulets, portable shrines, mementos, and votive objects. Opens with a series of brief essays on Buddhist pilgrimage in different regions. Entries for individual items are excellent, with reference to relevant scholarship.

  • Rambelli, Fabio. Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    Draws on a wide variety of sources to examine attitudes toward Buddhist objects and their role in the history of Japanese religion from medieval times to the present. Includes a detailed discussion of the debate in East Asian Buddhism on the soteriology of inanimate things, as well as on the role of objects in the sacralization of everyday life in Japan.

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