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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.



Book Review: Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan

Review by Jon Ciliberto
Kamakura Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan
Ive Covaci (Editor)
Asia Society/Yale U Pr, Feb 9 2016, HC, 192 pp, 65 color illus, 8.75 x 11.75 in

General awareness of the ceremonies and rituals that attend the creation of Buddhist art has grown in recent years. This attention to more purely religious (rather than aesthetic or material) aspects of Buddhist art gives laypersons and those who have approached such works from the Western “fine art” perspective intimate and meaningful detail of how the scared infuses the material in Buddhist art. The Asia Society’s current exhibition through May 8, Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan, focuses both on ritual acts connected with image creation, and the intense realism of Kamakura art – the latter also a method of enhancing the practitioner’s spiritual interaction with images.




This realism is in somewhat contrast to art of immediately preceding periods in Japan. Ive Covaci, the editor of the fine and approachable catalogue accompanying the exhibition, directly links this realism to the “living” aspects of Buddhist art, thus connecting realism with the practices that brought such objects to life. Buddhist art was considered alive, both in terms of the ability of such objects to interact with living beings, but also in that Buddhist art embodies actual, currently living (or, present) Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other entities.

Buddhist art, particularly images of the Buddha, encounters a paradox. As examined in detail in Robert DeCaroli’s Image Problems (2015), since the Buddha upon enlightenment was wholly absent from this world, images of the Buddha are a seeming contradiction of that absence. Given this obstacle, the idea of “living” images of the Buddha is doubly confusing. More generally, since Buddhist philosophy questions the nature of what is real, what does it mean for an image to be ‘realistic’?

Living images of bodhisattvas don’t raise these questions, since a bodhisattva’s nature is to be active and engaged in the world, working for the salvation of all sentient beings. Continue reading

A photobook in search of context and sequence: The Monks Of Rural Thailand

monks rural thailandReview by Jeffrey Martin

Cracker, Lee. The Monks Of Rural Thailand. San Francisco: Blurb, 2014.

While American photographer Lee Cracker’s images have appeared in mass circulation publications, he has taken lately to self-publishing a number of Thai-based projects, including books on the 2014 coup and a collection of Bangkok street images.  If these are in any way similar to this volume on Buddhist monastics, they would benefit greatly from an editor familiar with the topic, and more fundamentally with visual narration.

The electronic version of The Monks of Rural Thailand is a 71-page pdf containing several lovely images of Thai bhikkhus engaged in typical monastic behavior. The images are accompanied by a brief description of Thai monasticism and a handful of Buddha quotes on the nature of suffering and liberation.  

cracker 04

One of the impressive images featured in The Monks of Rural Thailand.

But the story, such as there is, feels incomplete and lacking direction.  Most of the images appear to have been taken at public events.  There are few private moments, such as monks in their quarters, or monks studying, or monks meditating.  But even if there were, it might be difficult for viewers unfamiliar with their world to understand what they are seeing.  Perhaps Cracker prefers a visual presentation that doesn’t require text, but I suppose the average viewer coming to this book would like to know what is pictured.  As someone who has studied Buddhism formally, as well as practiced among Asian Buddhists, I have some familiarity with Buddhist monastics, but even so a few of the images in this collection left me wondering exactly what was happening.  Cracker doesn’t even tell us in what part of Thailand these photos were taken.  In addition, sequencing is opaque.  There appear to be a set number of activities – praying, walking alms rounds, receiving donations, and taking part in ordination ceremonies – but the images are not suitably grouped and some seem to have no particular value in telling a story. Continue reading

Book Review: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam (2013)

Review by Jeffrey Martin

illumbuddhaAppleton, Naomi, Sarah Shaw, and Toshiya Unebe. Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam. Oxford, England: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2013. Print. 142 pp.

This brief book describes and illustrates (in 86 photographs) an 18-century samut khoi, an illuminated Thai manuscript now in the collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

The manuscript’s format is traditional to Buddhist texts in many countries: a stack of long sheets of paper bound between planks of leather, wood, lacquer, or other hard material as covers.  This particular manuscript was made of several sheets of paper joined into one long piece, folded fan-like, into a stack 660mm long by 95mm wide. Each fold in the fan contains two flanking illustrations, with text in the center, but the content of the paintings and the text are only loosely related.   The text is an assortment of canonical material, from Vinaya to Abhidhamma to Qualities of the Buddha.  The illustrations depict the last 10 Jātaka stories, the early life of the Bodhisatta, and the Life of the Buddha.  It is possible this text was created in Thailand specifically for Sri Lankan monks and thus contains what were considered essential texts to help restore what was then a lapsed monastic tradition.


A visual map of the manuscript

A textual map of the manuscript

A textual map of the manuscript

Continue reading