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In the Mirror of Memory (Reflections on Mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism)

In the Mirror of Memory (Reflections on Mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism)
Item Code: NAC040
Author: Janet Gyatso
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Edition: 1993
ISBN: 8170303745
Pages: 307
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
weight of the book: 465 gms
From the Jacket

“Gyatso has put together a collection written by some of the indisputably top-ranking people in the field. All the contributors are internationally recognized scholars, and the level of their essays is uniformly very high: scholarly, erudite, but above all pioneering fresh, original. The collection is thought provoking and challenging, yet deeply responsible and responsive to the tradition of textual interpretation. It is very interesting, gripping from beginning to end.

This book studies and diverse array of species of memory which are discussed in Buddhist theoretical discourse, and which are thought to function in religious practice. Included are discussions of Buddhist meditation, visualization, prayer, commemoration of the Buddha, dharani practice, the use of mnemonic lists to condense lengthy scriptures, and the purported recollection of infinite previous lives that immediately preceded Sakyamuni’s attainment of buddhahood. Even enlightened awareness itself is said by some Buddhist school to consist in a mnemic engagement; with reality as such.

The authors also explore Buddhist views on mundane acts of memory such as recognizing, reminding, memorizing, and storing data. One of the most striking discoveries is that perception is said to be intimately related to certain types of memory. Such a relation is cultivated in Buddhist practices; yet even in the ordinary act of perception, memory is recognized as having an important role. Several essays investigate if, and if so, how, meditative mindfulness and recollection of the past-both of which can be designated by the term smrti-are connected within the Buddhist tradition. The question of whether recollection of the past can be explained without violating the foundational Buddhist notions of radical impermanence and no-self is addressed by several of the contributing scholars.

Among the primary sources for the studies in this volume are the northern and southern Abhidharma literature, the matrkas, Pali and Mahayana sutras, works of the Buddhist logicians, Yogacara materials, the Tibetan Great perfection (Rdzogs-chen) tradition, and Indian and Tibetan commentarial works. Affinities of Buddhist views on memory with those found in Western phenomenology, semiology, psychology, and history of religious are considered as well.

Janet Gyatso is Assistant Professor of Religion at Amherst College.


Buddhist discussions of memory range from epistemological analyses of the nature of recognition or the mind’s ability to store data, to spectacular claims concerning memory of innumerable past lives, memorization of vast volumes, and the reduction of those volumes into highly condensed mnemonic devices. In addition, meditative concentration, which requires that an object be held in mind, has been associated with types of memory by several Buddhist theorists. The special strings of syllables in the Buddhist dharanis, which are used as reminders of philosophical principles, also are associated with kinds of memory. The practices of devotion to, and visualization of, the Buddha involve a variety of memory akin to commemoration. Even the awareness that is enlightenment itself is considered by some traditions to consist in a “mnemic engagement” with reality, or ultimate truth.

Yet, despite this impressive array of phenomena and practices that involve distinctively Buddhist species of memory, many labeled by Sanskrit terms derived from the same verbal root smr or other roots displaying a similar semantic scope, very little has been written by Buddhologists on memory, with the exception of several articles on the recollection of past lives. This silence may be attributed to a certain tendency to consider as memory only that which consists expressly in the recollection of previous experience. And because discussion of this sort of memory, at least in theoretical discourse, apparently occurs in but few passages in Buddhist literature, Buddhologists seem to have concluded that Buddhism does not have much to say about memory at all.

But if memory is reduced to recollection, a wide range of mnemic phenomena that have a central role both in Buddhist practice and thought will be overlooked. Some of these phenomena involve forms of memory that work in concert with recollection; others can be shown to entail types of memory that are not primarily re-collective. As several of the studies in the present volume demonstrate, important but hitherto unstudied passages in Buddhist doctrinal literature address explicitly the question of how recollection of past experience is related to some of the other faculties and practices that are also de note by smrti or other terms. To fail to examine those mnemic phenomena in the Buddhist tradition that lie at the limits, or on the margins, of what is nor mall thought to be memory is to miss an opportunity to expand and to deepen our understanding of memory as a whole.

In fact, to restrict memory to recollection would be to reflect a bias that may be associated more with Western strains of thought than with Buddhist ones themselves. And yet, in several Western academic disciplines and areas of research, including philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, cognitive psychology, and anthropology, increasing attention is being paid to types of memory that do not consist mainly in the recollection of past events, particularly that aspect of recollection associated with the mental representation of an object or episode in the rememberer’s personal past. An outstanding example of a type of memory that is not at all re-collective is “primary memory,” recognized first by William James and Edmund Husserl and since observed in laboratory settings; such memory consists in the initial retention of experience that takes place in a brief stretch of time as the experience retreats from momentary awareness. Also receiving notice is the spectrum of types of memory that are habitual in nature, studied by Henri Bergson and others. Closely related to habit memory is what Edward Casey has called “body memory.” The “abstract, timeless knowledge of the world that La person] shares with others,” termed “semantic memory” by Endel Tulving is another form of non re-collective memory. Well known, of course, are Freud’s and his successors’ investigations of the vicissitudes of repressed memory traces in psychopathological symptoms; here again, the mnemic mode is not primarily re-collective. Deserving of mention as well are recent anthropological analyses of the embodiment of social memory in cultural processes, material media, and places, in which the emphasis is put upon the performative function of memory in the present, rather than on the mental storage or representation of past events.

The present volume is in some respects continuous with the growing fascination with the range and manifold nature of memory, of both the re-collective and non re-collective sorts, although the Buddhist traditions treated here are often concerned with mnemic modes distinct from those that have received the most attention in the West. But even such Buddhist traditions that speak of the commemoration of buddhahood, or that would characterize enlightenment as a memory of ultimate truth, have long had counterparts in Western discussions of memory, from St. Augustine’s reflections on human memory of God to Heidegger’s discussion of memory as “the gathering of the constant intention of everything that the heart holds in present being.”4 On another note, a certain mistrust of memory can also be observed to be shared by Western theorists—from Descartes to Nietzsche to Freud—and by Buddhist ones, particularly the Buddhist logicians discussed in Alex Way- man’s article in this volume, who consider some types of memory to be unreliable and deceptive. In the Buddhist case, the devaluation of certain kinds of memory, particularly mundane recollection and the recognition of objects of the past. is to be attributed ultimately to the conviction that these are obstacles to progress on the Buddhist path. Yet once again, when recollection’s privileged position as the researcher’s paradigm of memory is revoked, it become possible to identify other varieties of memory, varieties suggested in a significant number of areas in Buddhist thought and practice, which are considered beneficial for soteriological development and are deliberately cultivated for that purpose.

The following essays have as their focus the many kinds of memory—be they deemed detrimental, beneficial, or neutral—that have been identified in the Buddhist tradition. The sources utilized in these essays include Abhidharmic analysis, sutraic discourse and exegesis, meditation instruction, myth, allegory, and prayer. One of the striking themes emerging from these essays is the alliance that some Buddhist thinkers forged between types of memory, and the manner in which a present object is noted, identified, and registered during the perceptual process. Such a link is asserted both in theoretical descriptions of ordinary states of mind and in discussions of religious practice in which special sorts of memory are made to inform the act of perception so as to transform it into a salvific experience. Of considerable interest too is the variety of Buddhist traditions in which types of reminders, both linguistic and imagistic, are cultivated in order to engender religiously valued realizations. Commemorative ritual is shown to have a central role in Buddhist practice as well. The issue of how the Buddhists account, or fail to account, for the ability to remember the past also occupies several of the volume’s contributors. It is the investigation of these diverse modes and uses of memory in various Buddhist contexts that is the primary aim of this book.

An essay by Edward Casey, author of a recent book entitled Remembering that studies memory from a phenomenological perspective, has also been included in the collection.7 In Remembering Casey contends that memory, once investigated in its philosophical, literary, psychological, and social manifestations, turns out to be far from univocal; hence his treatment in separate chapters of the phenomena of recollection, reminiscing, recognition, reminders, body memory, commemoration, and what he calls “place memory.” Casey’s response to the papers in the current volume was invited not only because his treatment of the varieties of memory in the West complements the exploration of the multiplicity of the phenomenon in Buddhist terms. It was also thought to be valuable to have a Western philosopher, one who has worked on the subject of memory at length, respond to the distinctive meanings that notions like smrti have in the Buddhist context, notions that might point to some fundamental peculiarities about Buddhist philosophy and religion. Comparative reflections are needed all the more insofar as Buddhologists are still very much engaged in the project of arriving at satisfactory translations and interpretations of primary texts, where the problem of which Western word should render a Buddhist technical term is frequently a vexing one: the translation of many of the most foundational concepts is still not standardized. Sustained investigation of divergences between basic assumptions in Buddhism and other traditions is critical if one is to assess the appropriateness of a given translation. Such investigation is also important if scholars of Buddhism are to engage in the larger and even more challenging project of entering into genuine conversation with other traditions on philosophical, religious, psychological, or social issues. It is with these various concerns in mind that, in addition to Casey, several of the Buddhologists writing in this volume have considered non-Buddhist Indian and Western traditions in a comparative mode.


Acknowledgments vii
Memories of the Buddha
Smrti in the Abhidharma Literature and the Development of Buddhist Accounts of Memory of the Past

The Omission of Memory in the Theravadin List of Dhammas: On the Nature of Sanna
Mindfulness and Memory: The Scope of Smrti from Early Buddhism to the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma

Memory in Classical Indian Yogacara
Buddhist Terms for Recollection and Other Types of Memory
The Matikas: Memorization, Mindfulness, and the List
Letter Magic: A Peircean Perspective on the Semiotics of Rdo Grub-chen’s Dharani Memory
Commemoration and Identification in Buddhanusmrti

The Amnesic Monarch and the Five Mnemic Men: “Memory” in Great Perfection (Rdzogs-chen) Thought
Remembering Resumed: Pursuing Buddhism and Phenomenology in Practice
Glossary 299
Contributors 305

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