As part of my dissertation research, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the biographies of many famous poet-monks from the Tang dynasty. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep all the names straight, so a few months ago I began jotting down the basic information of these biographies for my own reference. It occurred to me that this information might be useful to others, so I cleaned up these notes and sent them in to Charles Muller at the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, who published them in his extremely handy and useful resource.
In all, I wrote twenty entries this time, on the following figures: Jiaoran皎然, Qiji 齊己, Shangyan 尚顏, Lingche 靈澈, Lingyi 靈一, Tanyu 曇域, Huguo 護國, Fayan 法眼, Guangxuan廣宣, Wuke 無可, Xuzhong 虛中, Xiumu 修睦, Sengluan 僧鸞, Wenxiu 文秀, Kepeng 可朋, Kezhi 可止, Qichan栖蟾, Qibai 棲白, Qingsai 清塞, and Chumo 處默. I plan to write at least three more (on Guanxiu 貫休, Jia Dao 賈島, and ‘poet-monk’ 詩僧) in the next month.
The reference manual entry is a curious genre of scholarly writing. First, there is the question of how much “original research” to include. At the moment, I am probably one of 1–2 dozen people in the world with any expertise on these monks, and I do want these entries to be accurate. Therefore, I need to look at the original sources and other scholars’ work with a critical eye. However, if I start doing too much original research, the proper venue is not a dictionary, but a peer-reviewed journal.
Second, there is the question of tone. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are supposed to be authoritative, commanding. But if they adopt a rhetorical stance of pure objectivity, they’re often boring to read. In this spirit, I’ve chosen to include colorful details from the monks’ lives to grab the reader’s attention.
Another threat to the entries’ authoritative tone is the fact that many of the original sources for these monks’ biographies are notoriously unreliable: anecdote collections, hagiographies, inferences from poetic allusions. But to question the biographical details within the dictionary entry itself distracts from the main narrative, the simple facts that the reader is hoping to get. My strategy has been to allude occasionally to the sources’ questionable nature and to stress how little of these monks’ works have been preserved to the present day.
Nevertheless, writing these entries was a very useful exercise in ordering my own thoughts, and I hope they can be of some service to other scholars. Please click the image above to visit the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism.