Both Like and Unlike: Rebirth, Olfaction, and the Transspecies Imagination in Modern Chinese Buddhism
Animals are born, are sentient and are mortal. In these things they resemble man. In their superficial anatomy—less in their deep anatomy—in their habits, in their time, in their physical capacities, they differ from man. They are both like and unlike.—John Berger, Why Look At Animals? (Berger  2009)
2. The “Dorsal Turn” and Modern Hierarchies of Sense
The evolutionary transition from quadrupedalism to bipedalism is thought to have also occasioned a shift in sensory organization: away from dependence on olfaction to trace scent trails close to the ground, to instead privilege the newly expanded visual field, making sight the “human” sense par excellence. This shift was quite famously theorized by Freud—whose writings were themselves influenced by the contemporaneous work of Charles Darwin8—who argued that humans differentiate themselves from animals precisely through the unconscious repression of their “primitive” sense of smell. This, according to Freud, explains the “sanitized” sexual practices of civilized family life, in which it is the visual rather than the olfactory that is eroticized, the latter being the driving force of animal sexuality.9Accounts of the emergence of anthropoid species understandably have consistent recourse to that event [the dorsal turn], to a bending of the spine by straightening it, as a defining factor of the human…. It abandons the animal, refines the senses by downgrading smell and hearing, and reconfigures the knowable other within a frontal visual perspective.
Although anthropologists in recent decades have begun to study alternate sensory hierarchies found in small-scale societies and certain urban subcultures11, this Western hierarchy of the senses—with its denigration of olfaction and privileging of sight—has, for better or worse, reached far beyond the West to shape the global sensory episteme of modernity itself.12Freud’s valorization of the human who sees at the expense of the animal who smells is sustained (even if transvalued) in the figure of vision that runs from Sartre’s discourse on the look in Being and Nothingness through Foucault’s anatomy of panopticism in Discipline and Punish. This critical genealogy tells us that the figure of vision is indeed ineluctably tied to the specifically human.
3. Transgressive Olfaction: Boundaries of Matter, Space, and Body
In other words, as McHugh explains, “one can (supposedly) see father than one can hear. One can smell an object, such as a flower, at a distance, but not to the same extent that one can see and hear it; in order to taste an object it has to be placed in the mouth; and, finally, one is capable of feeling sensations throughout one’s whole body” (McHugh 2012, p. 230). Worth noting for our purposes is that this Buddhist taxonomy of sense places smell at the boundary of distance and contact: although it belongs to the category of contact senses like taste and touch, and thus has a decidedly material basis, olfaction can operate at a distance, like vision and hearing. In this respect, smell bridges the two modes of sensory perception, distance and contact. As McHugh notes, one of smell’s most unique properties arises from this liminality: it is the “only sense that allows one to partake of an object’s particles at a distance” (ibid.), a significant point to which we will return shortly.The eye and hearing have a distant field… and of those two, the operation of the eye is at a greater distance: though you can see a river from a distance, you cannot hear it. Thus that one is mentioned first …. Because of a more rapid operation, the sense of smell is mentioned [before taste]: because you can perceive the odor of food that has not yet reached the tongue.
4. The Agency of Olfaction: Moral Worlds of Smell
The sūtra continues to list various types of incense and their salvific aromas which, to name but a few, include the “Elephant Treasury” incense. If a tiny piece of this incense is lit, it creates a great cloud that can cover an entire city and turn everything it touches the color of gold. Living beings who smell it are filled with bliss, and all of their illnesses are cured. There is also the “Oxhead Chandana” incense, the fragrance of which can make a person impervious to fire. Or consider the incense called “Invincible” which, when smeared on a conch shell and then sounded, will cause enemy armies to disperse of themselves (ibid.).curing the myriad illnesses… cutting off all evil… producing happiness… destroying afflictions… caus[ing] one to produce disgust and the wish to separate from that which is conditioned… renouncing all arrogance and self-indulgences… bringing forth the resolve to be mindful of all buddhas [and] the incenses of certification.
Here we have a Buddhist variant of the familiar maxim that you are what you eat, namely, that you smell like what you eat!22 We should note that in this case, smell is operating on more than a merely descriptive or symbolic level. Instead, smell is physically and materially related to the moral infraction itself. Here the logic goes deeper than the abstract notion that eating an animal causes one to become karmically entangled with it; rather, one actually becomes physically entangled—literally “incorporated”—with it.23People smell like the food they eat. If they eat onions, they smell like onions. If they eat garlic, they reek of garlic. If they eat fish, they smell fishy. If they eat pork, they smell like pork. If they eat mutton, they smell like mutton. Whatever type of food you eat, you’ll become incorporated with that food”.(emphasis added, Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society 1980c, p. 127)
Note that in this description, the bad odor of the kaṭapūtana ghost “connects with” (gou chu lai 勾出來) the bad odors within the human body. This follows a principle Hsuan Hua often brings up, “shan yi huo, e jiu yi qun (善一夥, 惡就一群)”, which roughly means, “the good form a group and the bad gather together,” or as we might render in colloquial English, like attracts like. The physicality of the connection between similar smells is further emphasized by the intense somatic reaction caused by their coming together: it causes one to vomit. In other words, through smell the ghost actually enters the human body, another example of how smells in Buddhism are indeed both “internal” and “external”. Once again, we see how olfaction deconstructs boundaries, not only bodily boundaries between self and other, or between internal and external, but also between two very different kinds of beings hailing from different realms of the Buddhist cosmos.a stench that is extremely strange, unlike anything you’ve ever smelled before. It reeks! This is what is described by the phrase, “a smell so strange one cannot bear to breathe”! If you smell this odor, you instantly throw up everything in your stomach—that is how badly it stinks. It connects with the foul-smelling stuff inside your body and makes you regurgitate everything. That is how strong it is. But the fevers it causes are even worse. They burn throughout your entire body—with fevers up to 200 degrees—until your bones turn to ash.(my translation, Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society 1968)
5. Karmic Continuities: Smell as Temporal Mediator
Hsuan Hua goes on to explain the connection between vāsanā and smell, stating, “just as incense permeates with fragrance so too wholesome habit energies permeate with goodness, whereas bad habit energies permeate with an evil air” (Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society 1981, p. 101). Thus, smell—which propagates precisely because of its ambivalent materiality—is an apt metaphor for how karmic habits can persist through time while resisting reification. On this point, McHugh comments on the close association between Yogācāra theories of karmic predispositions (vāsanā) and the olfactory metaphor of vāsana:incenses are symbolic of the fragrance of Dharma. The fragrance of precepts, samadhi, wisdom, kindness and compassion saturates the cultivator so that he gives rise to good and gets rid of evil habit energies accumulated from beginningless time…. The saturation of incenses is another name for the saturation of habit patterns or habit “energies”.
Because of smell’s ambivalent materiality—which in perfumery enables odorant molecules to invisibly pass from one medium to another, from a flower to an oil, for example—smell is an apt metaphor for how karma can propagate over time without having to posit a reified or unchanging self. The metaphor, in other words, allows for the coexistence of continuity and difference in how karma transfers from one medium—a being, person, or “apparent person”—to another being, lifetime after lifetime.in philosophical contexts, such as the Buddhist Yogācāra philosophy and the Sāṃkhya philosophy, vāsanā refers to the phenomenon—sometimes translated as “perfuming”—of the production of certain characteristic, latent dispositions in a person (or apparent person) by which future states are generated for that person. If we understand the essential process of vāsana in perfumery to consist of the diffusion of a particular quality from one independent entity to another, contiguous, independent entity to be experienced at a later time, this would explain why it would make a good model for the transfer of dispositions across time in various more metaphysical contexts.
6. Cosmological Conclusions: Who Are Animals?
Adopting even stronger language, in his comparative study of rebirth cosmologies, Imagining Karma (Obeyesekere 2002), Gananath Obeyesekere argues that a structural consequence of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist rebirth cosmologies is the homology of human and animal life. He describes this “homology of species sentience” as a “homology of a physical and spiritual nature between humans and animals… manifest in the constant transformations, the boundary crossings, and the blurring of categorial distinctions between the two” (Obeyesekere 2002, p. 44). Because all beings are constantly circulating through the cycle of samsara—being born and reborn as creatures from all the different walks of life—it follows that humans are not really humans in any ultimate or enduring sense, they simply happen to be humans now. In the same vein, we must conclude, nor are animals really animals in any ultimate or enduring sense, they simply happen to be animals now. I suggest, therefore, that when Fajie Buddhists interact with animals—like Xiaohe the rabbit or the monkeys at the animal sanctuary—they imagine them as double-beings. On one level they are animals, but on another level, inhabiting the animal is an amorphous being who, like us, is subject to rebirth and who simply happens to be in a particular body due to the same karmic vicissitudes to which we ourselves are also subject.it is no accident that a circle is used to lay out the Six Paths of rebirth. Arranging the six forms of life within a wheel relativizes the distinctions between them. The circular design suggests that gods and other inhabitants of the top part of the wheel are no different from those who suffer at the bottom: to the extent that their status is impermanent, they suffer, and after death they will be reborn in another body.(emphasis added, Teiser 2006, p. 8)
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Although the man I am calling Wanglei explicitly requested that I share his story, following standard ethnographic writing practice, I have changed his name in this piece.
The “precept sash” or outer robe (僧伽胝, Skt. saṃghāṭī) holds special significance for the Fajie organization. Unlike Chinese monastics of other organizations, Fajie monastics wear the precept sash at all times, rather than only for ceremonial occasions as is now generally the custom in Chinese Buddhism. This practice has become a heated point of critique, real or perceived, of Fajie by other Buddhist organizations, in response to which Fajie has insisted even more uncompromisingly on its adherence to “tradition”. Given that robes are such an overdetermined symbol and conspicuous marker of identity, as Kieschnick (1999) notes, this practice has become central to the identity politics involved in Fajie’s self-understanding as a conservative organization concerned with safeguarding “authentic” monastic standards against the influence of change.
As many have noted, the centrality of vegetarianism in Chinese Buddhism is not uniformly shared throughout the Buddhist world. Kieschnick (2005) discusses the particularities of the historical development of Buddhist vegetarianism in China, which he argues was popularized in the fifth and sixth centuries, citing textual accounts appearing in the Gaoseng zhuan (高僧轉). More recent work by Greene (2016), however, suggests Buddhist vegetarianism may have been adopted in China as early as the third century. Both Kieschnick and Greene note the salient connections between Chinese Buddhist ideas about the virtuousness of vegetarianism and antecedents in pre-Buddhist Chinese culture, including Confucian mourning rites in which the foregoing of meat was considered a filial act of self-restraint (Kieschnick 2005, p. 193).
The centrality of vegetarianism in Fajie cannot be overstated. Fajie unequivocally condemns as heretical (wai dao 外道 or e dao 惡道) other Buddhist orders who do not forbid the eating of meat or who adopt lax positions with regard to the precept against killing, for instance by tolerating eggs, dairy, honey, or other animal-based products. Indeed, many Fajie members adopt a vegan diet that excludes dairy since calves are often hurt or killed when separated from their mothers in the course of dairy production. They also follow the Buddhist injunction against wearing or using products made from animals (silk, wool, down, leather, etc.). The concern for animal welfare as a motivating factor for vegetarianism, as in the case of dairy calves or honey, is a relatively modern innovation. As Kieschnick notes, the early Buddhist proscriptions against meat-eating were primarily concerned about the impacts of “killing karma” (sha ye 殺業) on humans, rather than about the animal’s loss of life per se. Issues of animal welfare and quality of life, he notes, were “for the most part absent from discussion of vegetarianism in Indian Buddhism” (Kieschnick 2005, p. 192).
A recent example is Reiko Ohnuma’s Unfortunate Destiny, in the preface to which she writes, “human beings can only define themselves … in opposition to that which is nonhuman. Thus, in Buddhist literature from India, the vision of the human is constantly shaped and expressed through comparison and contrast with a variety of nonhuman beings” (Ohnuma 2017, p. xiv), chief among whom are animals.
Although the limited scope of this essay does not allow for a comprehensive overview of these emerging trends, a few notable examples include Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History: Four Theses (Chakrabarty 2009), Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Kohn 2013), Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (Braidotti 2013), Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Bennett 2010), and the work of Donna Haraway. All of these works—which have had far-reaching impacts beyond their immediate areas of specialization—argue in their own ways for a philosophically-grounded ethics rooted in an expanded ontological continuity between the human and non-human. The latter includes not only animals, but also plants, matter, and technology. All resolutely post-modern in flavor, the theoretical approaches in many of these works can be seen, ironically, to recapitulate many very old Buddhist ideas.
See Classen et al., Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (Classen et al. 1994), for a discussion of the historical shifts in sensory epistemes.
For Freud’s interest in biology and the work of Charles Darwin, see Judith Roof, “From Protista to DNA (and Back Again): Freud’s Psychoanalysis of the Single-Celled Organism” in Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Roof 2003).
As Cary Wolfe discusses at length, “There is no better known and more powerful embodiment of that discourse [of human superiority to animals], perhaps, than Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. There the origin of humans is located in an act of ‘organic repression’ whereby they begin to walk upright and rise above life on the ground among blood and feces. These formerly exercised a sexually exciting effect but now, with ‘the diminution of the olfactory stimuli,’ they seem disgusting, leading in turn to what Freud calls a ‘cultural trend toward cleanliness’ and creating the ‘sexual repression’ that results in ‘the founding of the family and so to the threshold of human civilization.’ All of this is accompanied by a shift of privilege in the sensorium from smell to sight, the nose to the eye, whose relative separation from the physical environment thus paves the way for the ascendancy of sight as the sense associated with the aesthetic and with contemplative distance and sensibility” (Wolfe 2003, p. 2).
Indeed, this connection between visuality and epistemology continues today, exemplified by the many everyday idioms that implicitly connect sight to understanding. As in the above sentence, in which I describe occularcentrism as a “perspective,” we frequently appeal to visual metaphors to describe abstract mental processes: I see what you mean, I looked into the issue, etc. Even the etymology of the verb to speculate, as in “to think”, comes from the latin specere, “to look”.
As Michael Herzfeld notes, there has been a “reluctance on the part of scholars to engage with what their recording equipment cannot fix in time and space” (Herzfeld 2001, p. 248).
See Silvio A. Bedini, The Trail of Time: Time Measurement with Incense in East Asia (Bedini 1994).
The word “visualization” itself is problematic here, because its narrow focus on vision excludes the multi-sensory nature of supernatural revelations, often described as miraculous “responses” (gan ying 感應) in Chinese. Throughout my fieldwork, nuns described what we might call “olfactory visualizations,” especially during the daily recitation of the “Incense Praise” (lu xiang zan 爐香讚), during which devotees imagine an infinitude of Buddhas throughout the Dharma Realm inhaling a fragrant incense offering. Devotees also frequently report that gan ying (supernatural revelations or “responses”) are olfactory in nature, manifesting as sudden and inexplicable aromas.
Although beyond the scope of the present essay, which centers on the mediatory role of olfaction in Buddhist cosmologies of rebirth, conceptions and practices of olfaction are also richly theorized throughout the wider context of Chinese religious culture. As Sterckx (2011) discusses, for instance, olfaction played a key role in early Chinese conceptions of sagehood and the performance of sacrificial rites. There is also an abundance of fascinating olfactory motifs in Daoism and so-called “popular religion,” ranging from the fragrances produced by the bodily manipulations of inner alchemy (nei dan 內丹) to the sweet smells said to emanate from grotto-heavens (dong tian 洞天) and to portend the appearance of Daoist Immortals (xian 仙). For more, refer to Livia Kohn, The Taoist Experience: An Anthology (Kohn 1993) and Shawn Arthur, “Wafting Incense and Heavenly Foods: The Importance of Smell in Chinese Religion” in Body and Religion (Arthur 2018), among other sources.
For a salient comparative perspective of Jain and Buddhist taxonomies of smell, see Phyllis Granoff’s “The Stench of Sin: Reflections from Jain and Buddhist texts” (Granoff 2011).
It is unsurprising but worth noting that a community like Fajie—with its neo-traditionalist rhetoric, tendency toward asceticism, and strong emphasis on conservative notions of orthodoxy (zheng fa 正法)—would be so drawn to the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, a text James Benn has described as representing a brand of “Mahāyāna asceticism that one might be tempted to characterize as at least militant and perhaps even fundamentalist” (Benn 2008, p. 62).
The Sūtra passage reads, “After I heard the Buddha’s instruction, I sat in repose in the quiet of a pure dwelling. When I saw the bhikshus light sinking incense [skt. agaru], the fragrant scent quietly entered my nostrils. I contemplated this fragrance: it did not come from the wood; it did not come from emptiness; it did not come from the smoke, and it did not come from the fire. There was no place it came from and no place it went to. Because of this, my discriminating mind was dispelled, and I attained the absence of outflows. The Thus Come One certified me and called me ‘Adorned with Fragrance.’ Defiling scent suddenly vanished, and wonderful fragrance was both secret and all pervasive. It was through the adornment of fragrance that I became an arhat” (Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society 1980a, p. 31). Note that agaru incense (a qie lu 阿伽嚧) is a rare incense produced from the heartwood or resin of aloe wood trees. Because it sinks in water, it is also known as “sinking incense” (shen xiang沉香 or 沈香).
To cite but one representative passage, in his commentary on the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, Hsuan Hua writes, “The bodies of those who uphold the precepts always emit the fragrance of precepts. No matter how many days they go without bathing, they still do not stink. Why? Because they uphold the pure precepts. [They] don’t need ‘Nighttime in Paris’ perfume, their bodies naturally emit a pleasant odor. This is the fragrance of precepts” (my translation, Hua and Buddhist Text Translation Society 1979).
We might note that many of the early Buddhist justifications for vegetarianism refer specifically to smell. Several such arguments occur in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, which warns that the smell of meat inspires fear in all manner of beings: “Those who do partake of meat, whether they are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, will produce an odor of meat that all living beings will smell and this inevitably creates a sense of fear in them…. Any living being who smells the scent of meat will become afraid and will be filled with the fear of death. All forms of life, whether they live out their lives in water, on land, or in the air, flee from [this smell]. They will all say, ‘This person is our enemy.’ For this reason, bodhisattvas do not customarily eat meat” (Blum 2013, p. 112). Smell also works metaphorically as a justification for vegetarianism, as when the Buddha notes that “just as people despise men who smell like garlic, so too do [creatures] despise and fear the ‘smell of murder’” (Kieschnick 2005, p. 190). A common reason for the prohibition against consuming the five pungent plants (wu xin 五辛), moreover, is their foul and impure odor (ibid., p. 191).
On connections between materiality, the body, and notions of virtue in early China, see Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China (Csikszentmihalyi 2004).
Incidentally, this task most likely became my assignment because it is among the least desirable of the daily chores, and thus usually the responsibility of the lowest-ranking novice in the monastic hierarchy. It not only requires hiking on an empty stomach to each of the different shrines that dot the mountainside, but is also very time consuming: one has to give each statue enough time to eat before moving on to the next location. Since the Buddhas and bodhisattvas eat through smell, it is impossible to see when they have finished their meal. I was therefore instructed to set a timer to give each statue five to seven minutes to enjoy their food. After that, I could retrieve the offerings from the altar and bring them back to the refectory where they would be reincorporated into that day’s lunch. On broader Buddhist notions of beings who eat through smell, see gandharvas (Buswell and Lopez 2014)—literally, those who subsist on fragrance (gandha)—sometimes translated into Chinese as “fragrance eaters” (shi xiang 食香) or “fragrance seekers” (xun xiang xing 尋香行). In the wider context of Chinese religions, see also Campany’s (2004) discussion of spirits who eat through smell in the Lunheng jiaoshi (論衡校釋).
For further discussion of the connection between vāsana, “enfleurage,” and vāsanā (Ch. xi qi ji 習氣集), “habit patterns,” see (McHugh 2012, p. 141).
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Verchery, L. Both Like and Unlike: Rebirth, Olfaction, and the Transspecies Imagination in Modern Chinese Buddhism. Religions 2019, 10, 364. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060364
Verchery L. Both Like and Unlike: Rebirth, Olfaction, and the Transspecies Imagination in Modern Chinese Buddhism. Religions. 2019; 10(6):364. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060364Chicago/Turabian Style
Verchery, Lina. 2019. "Both Like and Unlike: Rebirth, Olfaction, and the Transspecies Imagination in Modern Chinese Buddhism" Religions 10, no. 6: 364. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10060364