In the spring of his thirty-second year, the wandering monk Hanshan Deqing (1546–1623) returned to the monastery of Mount Wutai after a period of absence. “At this time,” he later wrote in his autobiography, “I recalled the benevolence of my parents and the care they had given me. I also thought of all of the obstacles that stood between me and the Law.” But his thoughts were so fixed on the debt he owed to his mother and father that he was no longer able to make spiritual progress along the path to enlightenment. In his pain, Deqing resolved to undertake an act of extraordinary penance: copying out the sūtra known as The Flower of Adornment using ink made from his own blood. “Above, this would tie me to the karma of prajna [wisdom],” he explained, “and below it would repay my parents for their benevolence.”
Among the constellation of ascetic practices in Chinese Buddhism, one of the most common was blood writing. According to The History of the Chen Dynasty, blood writing began in the year 579, when a prince known as Shuling used his own blood to make a copy of the Nirvana Sūtra. The practice continued into the early twentieth century; men and women, laypeople and clergy copied texts in this manner, pressing to the page brushes dipped in blood, mixed with gold or soot ink or nothing at all. Cutting themselves in ritually potent places—at the tip of the finger, the root of the tongue, or above the crest of the heart—scribes would painstakingly execute stroke after stroke in a medium that, it was believed, represented the state of the soul: a dark color indicated sinfulness while a paler shade of ink betokened the writer’s purity. The production of religious texts was not the only end of bloodletting—early Chinese chronicles furnish many accounts of solemn pacts secured with blood. Ouyi Zhixu (1599–1655), a patriarch of the Pure Land sect, is said to have used it to compose a letter to his mother. Approval for the practice was hardly universal: the poet-monk Jiaoran (730–199) found the mingling of sacred text with profane material blasphemous, while others argued that the necessary self-harm constituted grave filial impiety, even if undertaken for the salvation of one’s parents. And yet blood writing received broad enough acceptance that when Deqing made up his mind to copy out The Flowers of Adornment, the paper for the task was furnished by the Empress Mother herself.
Until relatively recently, commenters on the practice have been prone to dismiss it as gruesome; contemporaneous accounts, which often underscored the theatrically macabre and the masochistically self-sacrificial aspects of blood writing, play into this interpretation. Guanxiu (832–912) poetically describes a monk with “ten fingers drained [of blood] to complete seven scrolls”; another monk, Dinglan (d. 852), was said to have “punctured himself in order to copy out scriptures in his own blood, made burns on his arms, and eventually went so far as to cut off his ears and gouge out his eyes in order to feed them to wild birds and beasts.” In his influential 1937 essay “The Indianization of China: A Case Study in Cultural Borrowing,” the philosopher Hu Shih denounces such acts of ascetic self-mutilation as a “barbaric” and “irrational” foreign incursion into more sensible, mainstream, native Chinese religious views. But Shih’s theory, with its nationalistic, anti-Indian tilt, is not borne out by the surviving historical record, which does not offer the Indian antecedents his idea presupposes. Chinese apocrypha, not Indian originals, were most often cited as the scriptural basis for blood writing; even in the cases when such texts can indeed be traced back to the subcontinent, there is no evidence that their words were taken literally until they crossed the border into China. Casting aside Shih’s interpretation, with its repulsed focus on strangeness, we must then ask what motivated the practice of blood writing, what it meant to those who undertook it, and what it can tell us about the relationship between text and body in the larger scope of Buddhist thought.
It was not merely enough to write in blood: those who copied out texts in this manner frequently announced as much in explanatory addenda. Blood writing is a mode of inscription that gave birth to its own body of literature. “Copied by an old man of 83, who pricked his own hand to draw blood [to write with], on the second of the second month of bingyin, the third year of Tianyou,” reads the colophon to a sūtra, from the caves of Dunhuang in western China, that looks, on first inspection, to have nothing out of the ordinary about it. Other addenda are more philosophical in nature; one such piece from the same site simply closes with the lines, “[Since] original nature is truly empty, there is no pleasure for which to pray.” Whatever their character, whatever their end, the existence of these appendices highlights a certain theatricality to the penance they were recording. To be was not enough—such acts had also to be known.
Chinese Buddhists seeking to justify such mortification of the flesh would have had a number of scriptural sources from which to draw. The Flower of Adornment, the same text that the sixteenth-century monk Deqing copied out for the sake of his parents, tells of how the buddha Vairocana “peeled off his skin for paper, broke off a bone for a pen, and drew his own blood for ink,” while in the Brahma Net Sūtra he urges adherents to “cut away your skin for paper, draw your blood for ink and use your marrow for water. Break off a piece of your own bone for a pen and copy out the Buddhist precepts.” If such exhortations seem extreme, they serve to demonstrate the emphasis Buddhist scripture places on the production and reproduction of images and teachings related to the faith—and how such actions were widely believed to merit a better rebirth for oneself or one’s family. What’s more, a number of sūtras advocate directly for not merely spreading the message of the Buddha but specifically doing so in book form. The Lotus Sūtra praises all those who “embrace, read, recite, expound, and copy” it, in a passage that also describes honoring these books by “presenting various offerings of flowers, incense, necklaces, powdered incense, paste incense, incense for burning, silken canopies, streamers and banners, clothing and music, and pressing [one’s] palms together in reverence.”
In a religion that is otherwise deeply skeptical (to say the least) about the material realm and its attachments, to understand the holy love paid to physical copies of texts is to understand one specific essence of Buddhism. According to the notion of trikāya, the Buddha is perceived as having three natures, or bodies (kāya): the sambhogakāya, or bliss body; the nirmānakāya, or created body; and the dhārmakāya, or truth body. The nirmānakāya is taken to mean the Buddha’s body and its physical relics. While some Buddhist traditions have a very abstract understanding of the dhārmakāya, other schools interpret it, generally, as the Buddha’s teachings—up to and including their physical embodiment in image and manuscript form.
The idea of those teachings (and the books that contain them) as a sort of “body” of the Buddha finds scriptural support in a passage from the Vakkali Sūtra, in which the Buddha upbraids the titular ill monk for desiring to see him. “‘Why do you want to see this foul body?’” the Buddha asks rhetorically. “One who sees the Dhārma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhārma.” Viewed in this context, blood writing seems to operate between two notions of form, using corruptible worldly material in order to inscribe the transcendental, collapsing the distinction between word and flesh in the same manner as the Buddha’s response to Vakkali. This idea is echoed in Chinese apologias for blood writing that argue for its usefulness as a tool to understanding Buddhist law. In praise of a lay blood writer, the Chan monk Zibo Zhenke (1543–1603) argued that blood writing surpassed simply hearing the teachings—even if from a great teacher—as a means of coming to know the dhārma. The body is construed as a necessary means of instruction for the mind, which alone would be unable to understand the Buddha’s message. Far from exhibiting the “irrationality” that Shih ascribed to them, those who undertook blood writing did so with a calligrapher’s steady hand and a theologian’s depth of thought. Latent in their works is the deeply human desire to, in Deqing’s words, “exchange this illusory body for one that is permanent and adamantine.” It’s a wish that continues to drive creative endeavors far beyond the bounds of the Buddhist world.
Erica X Eisen holds an M.A. in Buddhist art history and conservation from the Courtauld Institute of Art and an undergraduate degree in history of art and architecture from Harvard University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Guardian, Hazlitt, The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares Blog, Electric Literature, the Harvard Review, Little Star, Pleiades, Even, Salamander, Artnet, and elsewhere.