What’s important? Look at the midpoint: Ritual and Literary “Centrality”

Last year, talking with my friend and colleague Gil Fronsdal, he used a word unfamiliar to me to describe an exciting discovery he had made about the Pāli text he has been working on. The word was “chiasmus,” and when I asked him about it, he explained that it is a literary term for symmetrical structures in literature, poetry, and rhetoric (I paraphrase from memory). I found this very exciting, because now I had a word for the ritual structures that I’ve been observing in Shingon, tantric, and other Buddhist rituals for over three decades. And in many cases it is easier to see something, or the importance of something, if you have a word for it.

In my dissertation, drawing on Staal’s syntactic analysis of rituals, I identified two kinds of ritual symmetry: mirror image, and sequential symmetry.

In mirror image symmetry, ritual actions are performed in reverse order during the second half of the ritual as they were performed in the first. Thus, in rough diagram:


In sequential symmetry, ritual actions are performed in the same order during the second half of the ritual as in the first. Thus,


Usually both of these patterns are found, with for example a “phrase” being sequentially symmetrical within a larger mirror image symmetry. Thus, where for some symbolic reason, B-C-D constitutes a “phrase,”


or more schematically, in which case the mirror image symmetry that frames the phrase is made more evident,

A-X-E—I—E-X-A, where X represents the phrase “B-C-D”

One of the conclusions that I drew from this is that the ritual action at the center, or pivot point of the ritual is the most important one. In this way, for example, one can distinguish Buddhist tantric rituals in which the central action is ritual identification of the practitioner with the chief deity (the I in the diagrams above), from other kinds of votive rituals in which giving offerings of various kinds to the deities evoked is the central action.

More recently I happily encountered Lewis Lancaster’s page on Academia.edu, and found a substantial number of what he seems to be calling “opera minora.” One of these, “Chinese Buddhism: Its Character and Established Limits,” discusses a number of issues, including the value of electronic processing of large amounts of textual information from the Chinese canon. The particular instance he cites is Ven. Huifeng’s dissertation “Chiasmus in the Early Prajñāpāramitā: Literary Parallelism Connecting Criticism & Hermeneutics in an Early Mahāyāna Sūtra” (University of Hong Kong, 2012). This study examines the 8,000 line Perfection of Wisdom (Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāparamitā), which is considered to be one of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, and was also the subject of Lancaster’s own dissertation.

Lancaster notes that the study

“brings to light the information that the chapters of the text form a ring composition. This is known as chiastic structure where the rhetoric first lists a series of statements with a shift at the central point. The shift is represented by the appearance of the series of statements in reverse order.”

Lancaster highlights the importance of seeing a chiasmic structure, saying

“The importance of this pattern is the fact that it identifies the major topic which appears at the point where the series of statements are reversed and restated. From [Huifeng’s] work, we see that it is Chapter 16 of this text that represents the major focus and the topic is tathatā not Śūnyatā as we have thought before.”

In passing Lancaster notes that this represents a shift away from an earlier scholarly stance “that rejected structuralism on all levels.” Indeed, post-structuralist concerns over the imposition of structure as an interpretive scheme, the putative autonomy of structures, and an over-emphasis on the analysis of oppositional pairs were justifiable criticisms. However, to deny the significance of structure as an important factor in the construction of meaning, ignores creative intentionality of the authors/compilers of both rituals and texts.

For our understanding of early Mahāyāna, Huifeng’s analysis suggests the need for rethinking the doctrinal “trajectory” in much the same way that Gil Fronsdal’s Dawn of the Bodhisattva Path does, and as Jan Nattier’s A Few Good Men did earlier. That trajectory has largely been constructed as linking the Perfection of Wisdom and Nāgārjuna’s thought, and as a consequence has made emptiness foundational, when at least according to Huifeng’s structural analysis of the 8,000 line Perfection of Wisdom, the central theme of both the text and the bodhisattvamārga is suchness (Huifeng, p. 299). While it may be tempting to simply displace emptiness with suchness, what is much more likely is that there are many streams that eventually flow together, rather than a single trajectory.

While computers may assist in such analyses, it is finally the ability of the researcher to ask the right questions that is essential for the realization of new ways of thinking about our subject matter. Perhaps the coherence of structural centrality and centrality of significance will continue to provide insights into the coherence of ways in which Buddhists have conceived of both doctrinal texts and ritual performances. An obvious further extension of this chiastic analytic would be visual structures (art and sculpture) as well as spatial structures (architecture).

2 thoughts on “What’s important? Look at the midpoint: Ritual and Literary “Centrality”

  1. That’s very interesting – – I was talking with my colleague the other day, who is commenting on a chaistic structure he was just discovering in the Gospel of John. It’s a structure that you find in the Gospels pretty regularly, from what I understand,

  2. Yes, it seems that the Johannine pericopes are chiastic. Which reinforces my sense that this structuring device originates in oral culture. I would imagine that it is a very effective public speaking device, both for the speaker and the listener, as an aide mémoire. As such it would also suggest a strong link between action (liturgy and ritual) and speech, being a cognitively fundamental structuring device–even beyond the simple matter of repetition.

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