Professor Robert Campany: Remembering Past Lives in Early Medieval China

The International Sinological Center at Charles University is happy to invite you to the last guest lecture of this term:

Prof. Robert Campany, Ph.D. (Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, USA):



Buddhism famously teaches that we are born not once but repeatedly and that our rebirths are a function of our karma—the sum of our past deeds. But the ability to remember former lives was at first attributed only to Buddhas and other very advanced practitioners. Over time, as Buddhism spread northward from India, this mnemonic feat came to be more widely attributed. My paper analyzes some stories from China between 300 and 550 C.E. in which ordinary people—not Buddhas or bodhisattvas—are represented as remembering or learning about their own past lives.

What interests me about such stories is what they tell us about how people in early medieval China chewed over the implications of rebirth, requiring them to rethink indigenous notions of memory, selfhood, and justice. The interlinked notions of rebirth and karma posed a number of thorny existential questions: In a largely patriarchal society, what followed from the fact that we might be reborn across genders? In a religious culture shot through with animal sacrifice, what followed from the fact that our recently deceased relative might next be reborn as a domestic animal? In a society in which divine or afterlife retribution for misdeeds was widely assumed to be hard to dodge, what followed from the fact that although our deeds in previous lives massively determine our present and future fortunes we normally have no memory of those lives and deeds and thus no way of knowing what our current karmic balance sheet may hold? Might someone else help us out of his anxiety-ridden situation, or must we face it alone? What followed from the fact that, in a society deeply organized around patrilineal kinship, one’s present relatives were almost certainly someone else’s relatives in the past—and one’s ancestors almost certainly members of other clans in the past? And what were the implications when an individual suddenly remembered those past-life family connections? What followed from the fact that one used to be other people for how other people might view one now? And how ought one to view oneself now, in light of that? What happens to selfhood, memory, agency, moral responsibility, and justice when the self is stretched across multiple lives? Given the ubiquity of forgetting previous lives, how and why and through whose agency were certain individuals portrayed as regaining memory of them?

Event detail

Event start
24. 6. 2015 15:30
Faculty of Arts, Celetná 20, room 118
Organizing Institution
The International Sinological Center at Charles University
Event type