Book Review: A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism

1405167009A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism

William E. Deal, Brian Ruppert
ISBN: 978-1-4051-6700-0
314 pages
June 2015, Wiley-Blackwell

Review by Jonathan Ciliberto

Intended for “upper-level undergraduate and graduate students as well as scholars,” A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism fills a gap by presenting largely recent work of Japanese and Western scholars on Japanese Buddhism. The authors consider prior books on Buddhist cultural history as largely from Indian and Tibetan viewpoints. The particular presumptions, intellectual models, or even prejudices of such positions (e.g., to view Japanese Buddhism as a distant reflection, or a corruption, of a continental original) are seen as obstacles to an accurate history of Buddhism’s influence and interaction with Japan.

The great value of the book is to direct readers to approaches and theories perhaps overlooked by more general histories of Buddhism. Each chapter includes its own bibliography and notes, making the book useful for study of narrow sections of Japan’s history.

Published in 2015, many summaries of and citations to recent scholarship are incorporated. Although a relatively short volume (~200 pages, absent notes and biolographies), it includes a great deal of purely historical information surrounded by “cultural history,” covering Japan from protohistory to the present. The book includes a character glossary.

Some themes that run through the book are: that Buddhism in Japan was not a monolithic “ism,” and that individual sects were not exclusive of one another but rather interacted in practice and doctrine; the complex interaction of indigenous religion with Buddhism; Buddhist lineages in Japan as the agents of cultural influence (e.g., “lineages had already begun to pursue the possibility of an ultimate deity”).

Many chapters include subsections on women and gender in Japanese Buddhism, including a fascinating section on the link between literary salons “established in women’s circles” and often held within monasteries and creating an environment for “the evolving and intimate connection between monastic Buddhists and their lay supporters” (102-4). More generally, these sections illustrate the important influence of women on Japanese Buddhism throughout its history. The book also devotes substantial attention to religion in Japan in the modern period, a much-needed resource.

One instance of a simplification of Japanese history that the authors seek to correct is the view that Shinto and Buddhism remained largely separate strands. While the doctrine of honji-suijaku is relatively well-known, the book reveals in greater depth the complex interplay between the two religions by reference to the writings of recent (and less-recent) scholars.

Another attempt to reveal subtlety beyond a stock scholarly view concerns (in the Heian period) the “limitations of the ‘rhetoric of decadence’ [that] some scholars attribute to ‘old’ Buddhism”. The authors offer Minamoto no Tamenori’s (d. 1101) Sanbo’e as an attempt “to incorporate other parts of the populace” beyond the aristocracy. This undercuts the claim that “practitioners of the ‘old’ Buddhism were completely unconcerned with those outside their walls” as a cause of the emergence of “religious heroes” (like Kukai and Nichiren) (88-90). (That said, the ongoing theme of Japanese Buddhists, unsatisfied with the quality of teaching in Japan, who sought original texts and more authoritative teachers in China, does support the basis of a kind of “decadent” Buddhism.)

It is important to have a sense of what “cultural history” is, or what it intends to do, before considering the authors’ approach to a history of Japanese Buddhism. Given that cultural history includes an extremely wide set of approaches, determining the present authors’ use of it as a method is largely about picking out strands from the mass of possibilities. (One author refers to “the notorious difficulty of organizing the disorderly profusion of intradisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and varying national-intellectual meanings and understandings of the “culture concept” into anything resembling consensual form” [Geoffrey Eley, “What Is Cultural History?”, New German Critique, No. 65, Cultural History/Cultural Studies, Spring – Summer, 1995, pp. 19-36].)

While the authors don’t set out their approach, generally in the present volume they tend to consider Buddhism in Japan less in terms of its religious or spiritual character or content and more as a generator of social and political forms. Or, rather, it is unspoken that religion was the driving force in developing myriad cultural effects in Japan, but the book doesn’t linger on religion itself, as it does on these effects.

It is unclear whether this approach is based on the position described by the scholar of medieval Japanese Buddhism Bernard Faure when he refers to an “absolute standpoint” as a “contradiction in terms” (Faure, Visions of Power (2000), 9). (Faure is frequently cited in A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism.) That is: there are no “religious” standpoints motivating individuals, in terms of absolute or ideal concepts, or at least that taking direction from such standpoints is delusional.

Faure’s view (following from Le Goff) is that “literary and artistic works of art (and, in the case of religion, ritual practice) do no represent any eternal, unitary reality, but rather are the products of the imagination of those who produce them” (Faure, 10, emphasis added). A similar view of religion advocates a “History of Religions approach – trying to figure out how and why certain forms of religiosity took shape the way they did instead of assuming that it was religious experience that made religion” (Alan Cole, Fathering Your Father  (2009), xi).

Thus, Faure and historians who follow his approach write religious history absent of religion as an internal activity, aimed at self-improvement, transcendental, or altruistic. Or perhaps this approach simply considers individual “religious” experiences too personal, too psychologically opaque, to form the basis of historical inquiry, and thus discards consideration of such experiences as “religious” in nature, and instead consider them in mainly terms of materiality and politics.

The authors of A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism follow more directly the historian Kuroda Toshio’s sociopolitical functionalist approach. While occasionally offering descriptions of Buddhist practice and doctrine, the book largely focuses on: state-control over and connection with Buddhism in Japan (“Buddhism was firmly controlled by the state” during the early period (66)); art as narrative or purely visual, rather than a function of practice (99); Buddhist practice as a means of gaining influence or power at court, and the claim that “undoubtably” the introduction of esoteric lineages was related to the royal court’s interest in such power(106); that the court drove ritual (“Pivotal organizational and philosophical changes begin to arise in the royal court with the consolidation of the annual court ceremonies” (88, 106)).

Throughout, the authors take pains to connect influential Buddhists with the court: “The Daigoji halls, like those in other major monasteries, primarily housed scions of Fujiwara and Minamoto heritage” (107); “The Shingon lineages, from a very early point, […] had a special connection with the royal line” (108); “the intimate association between Tendai’s Enryakuji (Hiei) and the leading Fujiwaras” (108). Every monk who was a member of a royal family is identified in such a manner.

The author’s de-emphasis on “religious” explanations for religious history in Japan is intended to counterbalance writers who rely too much on such explanations. Citing the notable effect of D.T. Suzuki’s presentation of Zen Buddhism to the West (absurdist, gnomic, iconoclastic), and pointing out that “few Japanese Zen adherents, except those in the modern period and particularly those with access to the writings of Suzuki translated into Japanese”  would recognize it, the author’s more social-science approach finds some justification. (146-7).

Performance theory is connected with the authors’ approach. A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism doesn’t lay any groundwork for the reader as to what the doctrine or technique of applying performance theory are. It is a notoriously amorphous field of inquiry. One description of the approach states that “the performative nature of societies around the world, how events and rituals as well as daily life [are] all governed by a code of performance,” and one sees how this aligns with Deal and Ruppert’s approach in the present volume: religious acts are not generated by authenticity, but rather are ritualized and “for show.” Performance theory is difficult to understand as contributing much to an analysis of history, since all human action is outward, and thus all actions are, in a literal sense, “performed.” The negative application of the theory is applied in the present volume: performance theory supports the strategy of  avoiding examination the motivations, hearts, or minds of individual in Japanese Buddhist history.

This is a strategy for writing history, and indicates the above-mentioned scholarly caution, perhaps, but also it tends to paint individuals as acting according to a plan (or with hindsight), rather than by caprice, calling, sincerity, compassion, or irrationality. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, in terms of cultural history, whether or not an effect was caused by religion or some other motivation, but only that the effect did occur.

With regard to Buddhist art, the authors acknowledge – particularly as to poetry – that the “undoubted” motivation for including Buddhist themes was a recognition of the contrast between non-attachment and the “intoxication of those who made use of or found beauty in the linguistic arts” (102). Oddly – although in keeping with the author’s “non-religious” approach to religious art – the idea that such an aesthetic intoxication is meant exactly to advance individuals’ practice (e.g., through visualization) is never mentioned, with respect to poetry or any other art form.



By Kaewta Ketbungkan, Staff Reporter – July 7, 2016 3:59 pm

BANGKOK — Having captured the everyday lives of Thais through his three previous films, director Boonsong Nakphoo is releasing his latest effort “The Wandering” Thursday to explore the real essence of Buddhism, reflecting the tranquil journey of a man who decided later in life to become a monk, something rarely seen in films nowadays.

With six new films coming to theatres this week, “The Wandering” is the only Thai film that dares to open against Spielberg’s “The BFG” and Blake Lively struggling to survive a shark attack in “The Shallows.”

“As I had ordained for ten years, I’ve been wanting to make a movie about Buddhism,” said Boonsong. “I waited for the right time to become more mature and proficient in filmmaking. This is the right time to tell the story as society decays morally and most monk movies are slapstick comedies, dark, or presented in a styleless manner.”

After graduating with a degree in Dramatic Arts from Chulalongkorn University, Boonsong began his film career in 1996 by establishing Plapen Wai Thuan Nam film studio. In 2003, the director started making films with big studios before returning to become an independent filmmaker in 2010. Continue reading

Afghanistan’s giant Buddhas rise again with 3D light projection

Lion’s Roar blog

From VOA TV Ashna, via Facebook.

The giant Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan have been rebuilt — this time with light. On Sunday, fourteen years after the ancient statues were destroyed by Taliban militants, artists animated the Buddhas with 3D light projection technology, filling the empty cavities where the Buddhas once stood.

The Atlantic reports that the $120,000 projector used for the installation was donated by a Chinese couple, Janson Yu and Liyan Hu. Yu and Hu were saddened by the destruction of the statues in 2001. Wanting to pay tribute, they requested permission from UNESCO and the Afghan government to do the project. 150 local people came out to see the unveiling of the holographic statues on Sunday, observing and playing music through the night.

The two statues, built in the sixth century, were 115 and 174 feet tall. Before their destruction, the statues were a treasured feature of the local culture. Earlier this year, the BBC interviewed Mirza Hussain, one of the men who was forced by the Taliban to destroy them. “I regretted it at that time, I regret it now and I will always regret it,” he said. “But I could not resist, I didn’t have a choice because they would have killed me.”

In February, UNESCO unveiled designs for a new cultural heritage center at Bamiyan, to showcase not only the monuments that were lost in 2001, but also the vibrant culture that still thrives in the region. Earlier this month, the region was named South Asia’s Cultural Center for 2015.

For more on the Bamiyan Buddhas, read our feature article, “Buddhist Treasures of Afghanistan,” watch this interview with Danny Fisher and Brent Huffman about Mes Aynak — the historic region near Bamiyan that is now facing destruction — and look at conceptual drawings of the new cultural center to be built at Bamiyan.


Spooky beasts keep haunting Japan’s art

'Night Parade of a Hundred Demons' (16th century), an Important Cultural Property, attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu. | SHUNJUAN, KYOTO

‘Night Parade of a Hundred Demons’ (16th century), an Important Cultural Property, attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu. | SHUNJUAN, KYOTO

JUL 19, 2016

Seething masses of people crushed together in searing heat; empty-eyed wraiths, heads drooping in despair, shuffling to and fro — waiting for the time when they will be released their suffering. Tokyo can be hell in July and August. It isn’t all bad though; there’s an excellent exhibition on yōkai, the various devils, demons and spirits of Japanese folklore, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

As a subject of Japanese folkloric studies, yōkai have been defined in different ways, but could broadly be described as “supernatural creatures.” A fairly well-known example is the shapeshifting tanuki, the friendly racoon dog whose figure can often be seen outside restaurants and liquor stores in contemporary Japan. He appears in the exhibition smothering someone with his famously oversize scrotum in an 18th-century manga illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni. Admittedly, suffocation by a giant pair of hairy balls is not the best way to go, but the manga is purposefully comic and what is evident from the substantial number and great variety of exhibits is that the iconography of yōkai is extremely versatile.

In “Screens of Hells and Paradise,” attributed to the Pure Land Buddhist Genshin (942-1017), yōkai are used to remind the viewer of what awaits the profane people who lack faith in Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Fanged, wild-eyed demons can be seen beating and burning the impious in a didactic representation aimed at communicating the cosmology of the Tendai sect in an easily understandable format. Among the most gruesome images, is an anonymous 12th-century scroll painting for Buddhist novices of the “Hell of Dissections,” which shows the bodies of unbelievers being butchered and eaten by furious devils.

By contrast, there are several examples of relatively light-hearted taxonomies from the 18th and 19th century. Most likely influenced by the organizing principles of scientific classification introduced to Japan through rangaku (Dutch studies), these scrolls and handbooks of different types of monsters and goblins range from being crypto-medical manuals to ambiguous mixtures of schlock horror and comedic entertainment.

When bunmei kaika (enlightenment and civilization) became a key objective of the Meiji government, yōkai were a hugely popular form of visual culture but were also marked for extinction. In the effort to create a modern nation, belief in the supernatural was deemed retrograde and counter-productive. The academic, and ordained priest in Pure Land Buddhism, Inoue Enryo, attempted to reconcile his religious beliefs with the developing modernity of Japan by establishing yōkaigaku, sometimes translated as “mystery studies.” While studying psychology in the late 1880s, Inoue stated that he wanted “to bring about a rational explanation of mysteries in order to eradicate people’s superstitions, so that they are not the opposite of civilized people,” according to his own notes. You could call Inoue the original Japanese ghostbuster. Continue reading

“Dalai Lama’s Mantra” Video Released by Rebel Pop Singer Songwriter Katie Costello, N.Y., July 6, 2016 /PRNewswire/ — Rebel Pop Singer Songwriter, Katie Costello is releasing a beautiful, heart-warming music video in honor of the 14th Dalai Lama’s long life. Titled, “Dalai Lama’s Mantra,” this original song is the first time his mantra has been set to music.

Katie Costello, at the behest of a Buddhist monk, collaborated with Tibetan artist, Tenzin Gocha to put Buddhist mantras to music, among them the “Dalai Lama’s Mantra.” This collaboration resulted in the REBEL POP Records Special Release of meditation music, the EP, “Universal Spread of Compassionate Wisdom.” The “Dalai Lama’s Mantra” music video is being released in time for his 81st birthday, today, July 6th.

At a time of unprecedented violence and discord, the “Dalai Lama’s Mantra” music video is sure to raise the spirits of all who view it. This video is not just for Buddhists, it will bring a smile to all walks of life and age groups.

Founded in 2008, REBEL POP Records is an Independent Label and Music Publisher (Rebel Pop Songs/BMI), founded by Katie Costello and Vivekan.Its mission is to bring quality popular music from the heart of sincere Artists, straight to music fans all over the world. Along with “Universal Spread of Compassionate Wisdom”, its catalog of releases include, “Rebel Pop Singer Songwriter”, “Kaleidoscope Machine”, “Lamplight”, “The City in Me” and more. For more information, contact: REBEL POP Records.

Related Files

Press Release – Dalai Lama’s Mantra.pdf

Somtow’s chariot halfway to Heaven

A scene from Somtow Sucharitkul's 10-part opera epic 'DasJati'. Photo/Siam Opera

A scene from Somtow Sucharitkul’s 10-part opera epic ‘DasJati’. Photo/Siam Opera

The Nation
Janice Koo
July 18, 2016 1:00 am

Work proceeds on history’s most ambitious opera cycle, and there’s every indication of glorious success

Ii seems to have happened overnight, but Somtow Sucharitkul is at the halfway point in composing his 10-opera epic “DasJati” (“Tossachat – Ten Lives of the Buddha”), collectively touted by trade publications as the “biggest opera of all time”. It will be, too – provided that the composer survives to realise his extraordinary ambition.

Opera Siam’s compilation of scenes from the first five installations in the cycle – staged at the Thailand Cultural Centre on June 25 and 26 in honour of His Majesty the King’s 70th year on the throne – afforded a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the more unusual highlights from Somtow’s fevered imagination.

Presented once again in wondrous fashion were the shipwreck and angelic rescue scene from “Mahajanaka”, the animals in the forest mourning the death of “Sama: The Faithful Son”, and the temptation of the Death-God from “The Silent Prince”, as well as the wittily electrifying Baby Dragon Dance from “Bhuridat”.

These musical dramas were performed in Bangkok over the past four years, but most interesting of all was the “sneak preview” of the next entry, “Chariot of Heaven”, from which the audiences at the Cultural Centre were treated to the scene “Tavatimsa Heaven”.

One of the problems in setting these 10 beloved Jataka tales of the Buddha’s incarnations to music is the sheer variety of storytelling techniques involved. Some of the stories are intimate and simple. Others have complicated, generation-spanning plots, and “Chariot of Heaven” derives from one of the latter. It’s based on Nimi Jataka, the story of King Nemiraj, who was so noble that the gods invited him to preach to them in Heaven. Continue reading

Lion’s Roar asks “What is your Favorite Buddhist film?”

Jeff Bridges, Peter Coyote, bell hooks and others offer their choices here.