Women’s Work: Inventing Buddhist Rituals and Recycling Material Culture

Event time: 
Tuesday, April 30, 2024 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Rosenkranz Hall (RKZ), 202 See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

With the cataclysm of death, what happens to those remaining fragments of a life, which appear disposable to others but become the mourner’s heart-breaking distillations of both loss and trace? While a fading practice today, handwritten letters in medieval Japan were the primary form of communication between long-separated lovers, parents unlikely to reunite with their children, and distant friends, artists, and poets. In this rich epistolary culture, letters – reused, recycled, and reframed – figured prominently in Buddhist memorial rituals. With the death of a loved one, family members gathered the dead’s letters and transcribed sacred scripture on their surface, transforming the original missive into a letter sutra (shōsokukyō). Adorning these scrolls with gold, silver, and indigo dyes, women were the first to make memorial palimpsests. Indeed, they invented a wider cultural practice in which mourners tempered grief by transforming the everyday traces of loved ones into potent objects. This talk explores the creative methods deployed by women in coping with death and loss, the ephemerality and afterlives of letters, paper’s fragmentation via reuse and recycling, and the haptic engagement with layered manuscripts.

Halle O’Neal is a Reader in Japanese Buddhist art in the History of Art department and Co-Director of Edinburgh Buddhist Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is also chair of The Art Bulletin. Previously, O’Neal worked as a Mellon Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University. Her research and teaching explore areas of word and image, relics and reliquaries, invisibility in material culture, reuse and recycling, performativity, and the spectacular visualizations of Buddhist embodiment. O’Neal is an Associate in Research at Harvard University, Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and sits on the editorial board of Art in Translation. In the winter of 2022-2023, she served as the Ishibashi Foundation Visiting Professor of Japanese Art History at the University of Heidelberg.

She was a recent recipient of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship and an ACLS Ho Family Foundation Fellowship in Buddhist Studies, during which time she researched her current monograph project, “Dead Letters: Reuse, Recycling, and Mourning in Japanese Buddhist Manuscripts.” This project explores the materiality of mourning, the visualization of memory, and the haptic experience of Japanese palimpsests as seen through the reuse and recycling of handwritten letters.

Halle O’Neal - Reader in Japanese Art, The University of Edinburgh