Category Archives: Japan

Talk at Penn: Modern Japanese Buddhist Art

October 27, 2016, University of Pennsylvania

Modern Japanese Buddhist Art; Paula Arai, Louisiana State University; 3 p.m.; rm. 204, Claudia Cohen Hall (Religious Studies).



Los Angeles, CA


This extraordinary exhibition was envisioned by world-renowned collectors, Etsuko and Joe Price. It features silk scroll paintings depicting the everyday life of the Edo period (1615–1868) and divine images from the Buddhist world with an ikebana flower arrangement installation by three ikebana schools – Ikenobo, Ohara-Ryu, and Sogetsu School.

Japanese Painting: From the Zen Mind

ma-842259At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
June 11, 2016–December 18, 2016

Japanese Painting: From the Zen Mind explores various approaches to Zen subjects, from the teachings of Zen and the experience of enlightenment to personal interpretations of Zen masters or paragons. The practice of Zen consists of meditation and direct transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil, leading through personal effort toward enlightenment. As an active, participatory religion based on discipline, it appealed to military government leaders and others of similar mindset in Japan from the 13th century forward. The main practitioners of this genre of painting were enlightened monks, who were asked by their followers to create a work of calligraphy or painting that was often displayed for the practice of tea. Professional artists were also drawn to Zen ideals. The paintings and calligraphies in the exhibition, dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries, demonstrate how the experience of the artist produces different qualities in their painting.

This exhibition is included in General Admission.

Several Types of William Empson

A lost study of Buddhist art reveals a hidden side of a great literary critic.

The Nation

By Chenxin Jiang

When William Empson took a job as a university lecturer in Tokyo in 1931, his star was rising. The previous year he had published his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. A guide to the close analysis of poems, the book upended literary criticism in Britain and would soon do so in the United States. In Japan, Empson developed a fascination with Buddhist art that grew into a monograph, The Face of the Buddha; this book, too, became famous, but for entirely different reasons. Empson worked on the project intermittently for a decade, only to discover that his sole copy of the manuscript had mysteriously disappeared, along with a collection of irreplaceable photographs assembled throughout his travels. His friend John Davenport eventually admitted to having left it in a cab.

Critics have long known of the lost manuscript, but its rediscovery a few years ago was wholly unanticipated. Happily for Empson’s readers, Davenport was mistaken about what he did with the manuscript: It turns out that he gave it to the Tamil poet M.J. Tambimuttu, who in turn gave it to Richard March, his coeditor at Poetry London. March died shortly thereafter, in 1955, and the British Library didn’t purchase his papers until decades later. In 2005, a half-century after Empson had given up the manuscript for lost, a watchful curator named Jamie Andrews came across it in March’s papers and identified it as the mislaid book.

The Face of the Buddha may not rewrite the study of Buddhist art the way that Empson and other New Critics rewrote 20th-century literary analysis, but for Empson’s many readers, it will go some way toward revising their view of him. In the book, judiciously edited by Rupert Arrowsmith, Empson notices a peculiarity of Buddhist sculptures—that the left and right sides of the face are sometimes asymmetrical, showing two different expressions—and attempts to explain why this deliberate asymmetry exists. Empson collected instances of it over many years, surveying statues throughout Asia. Maybe, he speculated, the asymmetrical faces made the Buddha seem more realistically human, so that practitioners would find it easier to relate to him. By comparing the expressions on each side of a statue’s face, Empson came to believe that the two sides embodied different aspects of the Buddha’s nature: The left-hand side typically expresses the Buddha’s “detachment from the world after achieving peace,” while the right-hand side conveys “power to help the worshipper.”

Empson never claimed to have more than a serious amateur’s interest in Eastern art, but he wasn’t the sort to be deterred by a lack of expertise, having launched his career in literary criticism as the kind of amateur who gives professionals a run for their money. When he began studying 17th-century English literature at Cambridge after completing a degree in mathematics, his tutor, the formidable I.A. Richards, wrote that Empson “seemed to have read more English Literature than I had…so our roles were soon in some danger of being reversed.” The essays that Empson wrote for his undergraduate tutorials with Richards provided the kernel for Seven Types of Ambiguity, which quickly became a cornerstone of the New Criticism.

In Japan, Empson didn’t waste any time acquainting himself with Buddhist teachings and iconography, studying the origins of Buddhist art in India and tracing its spread throughout East and Southeast Asia. He borrowed the technique, then favored by psychologists studying facial expressions, of creating “split photographs”—images with a reverse-symmetrical version of the right half of a face appearing on the left side, and vice versa. He took drawing lessons to be able to make accurate sketches of the Buddhas he saw. He even developed a habit of doodling Buddhas in notebooks, perhaps in a nod to the Buddhist practice of drawing as a meditative discipline. “Even boys in their play who draw the Blessed One with their fingernails are gradually acquiring merit and becoming pitiful in heart,” reads the Lotus Sutra, in Empson’s paraphrase. Continue reading

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 dwell much on religion itself, as it does on these effects. While explanation of religious ideas is largely absent, a few instances exists (for instance, the brief description of the bodies of the Buddhism is perhaps the first I’ve read that I immediately understood).

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.



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

Excavated item is perhaps from the tallest Buddhist pagoda in Japan


The fragment was found at Kinkakuji temple and is probably from a part placed atop of a pagoda. Photo Credit: The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network.

from Archaeology & Arts

The pagoda was legendary but no traces had been found so far

A fragment discovered in Kinkakuji temple at Kyoto, Japan, is thought to be of the tallest pagoda ever built in Japan. The announcement was made last week by the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute.

The fragment is part of a sorin, a decorative part placed at the kurin, a circular part at the top of a pagoda. The item is made of bronze, it is 37.4 cm wide, 24.6 cm long, 1.5 cm thick and weighs 8.2 kilos. It is therefore estimated that the diameter of the kurin was about 2.4 metres.

The pagoda that experts believe the fragment belonged to was called Kitayama Daito, and it was found during excavations at a parking area. It is from the Muromachi period and the pagoda is thought to have been built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Muromachi shogunate. He is said to have built two huge pagodas, one 109 metres tall, at Shokokuji, and another one, Kitayamaoto, where later Kinkakuji temple was built. Both structures were burnt by lightning.

This is the first fragment of the structure found, and researchers hope it will yield useful information regarding the size and appearance of the pagoda. Three bronze fragments were found in total that seem to have broken off from a circular objects, but the one described here is the largest. It is made of copper with gold leafing.

According to Yoshiaki Maeda, deputy director of the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute, Kitayama Daito was perhaps the tallest Buddhist pagoda ever built in Japan.

According to a document from the Muromachi period, the tallest known pagoda built in Japan was about 110 metres. The new fragments suggest that Kitayama Daito was about the same size. However, no remains of its foundation have been found, and it is not known where it was located. So, according to Yoshiyuki Tomishima, associate professor of architectural history at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Engineering, it is necessary to uncover the location of the tower before we can say for sure that the fragments are from Kitayam Daito.

The parts will be on special exhibition at Kyoto City Archaeological Museum from July 9 through November 27.

1. Asia One, (10/07/2016)
2. The Asahi Shimbun, (09/07/2016)
3. The Japan News, (14/07/2016)