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The Diamond Sutra is an important Mahāyāna sutra, which remains to this day one of the most influential Buddhist sutras in East Asia. Little is known about why it began to gain widespread popularity in the Tang even though it had been translated two centuries earlier. Extant records, however, indicate that a substantial body of narratives relating to it appeared, circulated, and were compiled in the Tang, reflecting the extent to which it featured in the lives of people in that period. This study of Diamond Sutra tales aims to shed light on the cult of the Diamond Sutra and the state of Buddhism in medieval China. By broadly contextualizing the sutra and its narratives within their socio-historical milieu, it discusses the ways it was engaged by monastics, how it was given recognition by members of the Tang monarchy, and how the interest of literati might have popularized it. I argue that these developments, when conceived within a web of human interactions, impacted people's knowledge of the sutra and prompted their increasing engagement with it, resulting in the multiplication of religious experiences related to it and the proliferation of Diamond Sutra narratives as people shared their experiences. The compilation of these accounts throughout the Tang attests to the strong presence of the Diamond Sutra cult. It not only indicates the allure of storytelling as a medium of communication, but also underscores the role played by social relations and interactions in religious culture. This study thus focuses on how people and communities might have conceived of the sutra and devoted themselves to it, and the effects of the cult on medieval Chinese religiosity. Diamond Sutra tales reveal how the experiences recounted therein were conceived as proofs of the efficacy of the sutra, bearing a particular significance to the protagonists and answering the concerns of medieval Chinese, as illustrated by the major themes, motifs, and ideas of the tales. Geared toward propagating the sutra, the tales determined attitudes, beliefs, and Buddhist practices of medieval Chinese by framing their conception of and engagement with the Diamond Sutra, and thus shaped Chinese religiosity. As they bear witness to the cult of the Diamond Sutra, these narratives also constitute part of a history of the religious life of people, and of Buddhism on the ground in Tang China. Additionally, these tales indicate the transition that took place in the religious landscape between Six Dynasties and the Tang, especially how Buddhism evolved and became part of the social fabric of China. Unlike the apologetic concerns of earlier tales, these narratives reflect a period in which Buddhism had permeated medieval Chinese society, and portray lay devotees of the Diamond Sutra as empowered practitioners who experienced the efficacy of the sutra and gained access to wonders and powers traditionally associated with the monastic. This lay confidence is discernible from the writings of the tale compilers, who assumed responsibility for propagating Buddhism and articulated their understanding of the religion as they created the lore of the sutra. The empowerment of the laity is further illustrated by the autonomy with which lay Buddhists modified, produced and distributed religious texts of the Diamond Sutra, which even prompted the monastic establishment to accommodate itself to the changes they brought about.
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||Chiew Hui Ho