"This Fathom-Long Body": Bodily Materiality and Ascetic Ideology in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Scriptures

Bull Hist Med. 2018;92(2):237-260. doi: 10.1353/bhm.2018.0026.


An outside observer might be excused for assuming that Buddhists, being focused on transcendence, would have little interest in investigating the body's structure or constituent parts in any detail. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Bodies and body parts have in fact long been ubiquitous subjects of contemplation, speculation, and veneration in Buddhist circles. This article discusses representative examples of Chinese Buddhist scriptures from the medieval period that forward an ascetic ideology, with special attention to how the corporeal body is spoken about in such texts. It shows that the very Buddhist writings that were most concerned with teaching ascetics how to transcend the material world in fact focused a great deal of meticulous attention on the corporeal body and drew heavily on Indian medical concepts in forwarding that agenda.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Buddhism / history*
  • China
  • History, Medieval
  • Human Body*