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Session 1: Positioning Japanese Buddhism
Jolyon Thomas (University of Pennsylvania): Buddhism and the Politics of Public Education in Postwar Japan
This chapter uses contemporary Japanese Buddhist debates about public education policy and pedagogy to show how secularist legal arrangements place tax-exempt religious organizations in a paradoxical position between serving the public good and fostering private virtue. When policy makers began the process of formally revising the 1947 Fundamental Law on Education as a way of addressing perceived moral panics in the early 2000s, various transsectarian Buddhist organizations attempted to influence the process by calling for direct Buddhist training in schools, attempting to keep religion out of schools in order to protect Buddhism from state interference, or trying to carve out a new space for Buddhism between the public school and the private home. Classifying these as moral majoritarian, secularist, and voluntarist stances, I show that although many Buddhist stakeholders aimed to change Japanese education policy and pedagogy, ultimately the lobbying process changed Buddhists more than it changed actual educational practice.
Mark Rowe (McMaster University): On the Road with Temple Buddhism – Interstitial Practices in Obon
In August of 2018, I spent a day with a Shingon priest in rural Chiba as she visited parishioner households to conduct memorial services for the recently deceased (nibon). Over ten hours, no bathroom breaks, and a lunch of convenience-store rice balls, she ritualized the intimate spaces of twenty-two homes. This paper presents a phenomenological account of the day in an attempt to rethink the potential of in situ research on Japanese religions. This “ride-along” ethnography is an attempt to work through several moments of discomfort during the day, moments that broke with established patterns of priestly/parishioner relations in ways that speak to broader realities in Japanese temple Buddhism today. It is also an opportunity to break with certain conventions in the presentation of work on contemporary Japanese religions. What does it mean to allow emotion into our work? To what purposes can we apply our decades of training and research experience? How do we best honor our teachers?
Takashi Miura (University of Arizona): Negotiating for Compassion: Buddhist Priests as Arbiters in Tokugawa Peasant Protests
Thousands of peasant protests took place in villages across Japan during the Tokugawa period. In many of them, local Buddhist priests played a key function by serving as mediators between villagers and the local authorities. This paper examines the hitherto neglected role of Buddhist priests as arbiters in local conflicts in Tokugawa Japan. An analysis of extant records (both written and oral) presents a complex picture. In some cases, priests are praised as wise and compassionate negotiators who compelled the authorities to fulfill their promise of “benevolent governance” (jinsei 仁政). In other cases, however, priests are vilified as lazy and corrupt, failing to protect the interests of villagers. While the latter perspective seems to resonate with the now defunct framework of “degenerate Buddhism” (daraku Bukkyō 堕落仏教), the former helps to highlight the way in which Buddhist priests utilized their social capital to bring concrete change to their communities. This paper thus illuminates the positionality of Buddhist institutions and their representatives in Tokugawa villages through abundant resources made available through the study of peasant protests.
Timothy Benedict (Kwansei Gakuin University): The Merit of the Bath: Buddhist Charity in Early Medieval Japan
In this paper I seek to reappraise the practice of Buddhist charity (jizen 慈善) in early medieval Japan as a supposed precedent to modern projects of Buddhist social welfare (shakai fukushi 社会福祉). In particular, I will focus on the premodern practice of charity baths (seyoku 施浴) in the period leading up to and until the end of the early medieval period (ca. 1333). References to such baths, which were provided by Buddhist temples to the sick and poor in medieval Japan, are often cited by modern Buddhist historians as an early example of Buddhist social welfare. For Buddhists who are active in promoting a vision of Japanese Buddhist modernization, calling attention to such records is an important way to show how far modern Buddhism had fallen and is also part of a broader call for modern Buddhists to be more proactive in social welfare activities. However, while there is certainly no lack of examples of charitable activities on the part of Buddhists in premodern Japan, I would like to suggest that glossing these activities as early examples of Buddhist social work can obfuscate some key differences between the principles that guided premodern Buddhist charity and modern projects of Buddhist social welfare. Notably, labeling charity baths as early examples of Buddhist social welfare obscures their equal importance as merit making activities. This is not to say that the practice of making merit could not simultaneously be an act of charity. It is simply to say that it is questionable whether in the eyes of early medieval practitioners, these two acts could be distinguished. By drawing attention to how the logic of merit making was integral to charity baths, this paper will also seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation amongst scholars of Buddhism about the relationship between charity (Skt. dāna) and merit making more broadly.
Session 2: Transmission and Change in Japanese Buddhism
Asuka Sango (Carleton College): “Buddhist Debate (rongi) as Embodied Textuality in Early Medieval Japan”
While Buddhist debates (J. rongi) are still practiced as an integral part of monastic training in many Buddhist cultures (most notably in Tibet), modern scholars and Buddhists in Japan today tend to dismiss debates as heavily exegetical and highly rehearsed—hence a dull show of pedantry and memorization with no room for spontaneity and innovation. However, this view reflects the modern notion of authorship as well as corollary views of writing as creative, on the one hand, and reading and memorization as passive and repetitive, on the other. I will analyze the records of debate generated by scholar monks in early medieval Japan, and argue that at the heart of Buddhist textuality in premodern Japan lies what Paul Griffiths calls “religious reading,” characterized by the acts of commentary and memorization. Debate was an exegetical exercise memorized and performed by scholar monks, and was a major means of knowledge production in the Buddhist monastic society. This paper will closely examine the style of argumentation in debates, which fostered a particular set of attitudes toward the Buddhist tradition. While commentaries did assume an epistemic importance for faithfully elucidating the tradition-specific knowledge, they were also sites of new interpretations that aimed at etsū or reconciling various conflicting doctrines into an inclusive and coherent understanding. Thus I will challenge the print-centric notion of texuality, and describe Buddhist knowledge production in early medieval Japan as lived and embodied, not by the intellectual giants and their famous doctrinal treatises, but by ordinary scholar monks and their regular scholarly practices such as debates.
Brian Ruppert (Bates College): The Lotus Sutra Rite (Hokkehō, Hokekyōhō) of Shingon Lineages: A Tendai Rite, Tōmitsu Performance, and the Early Medieval Cultures of Secret Transmission
This paper explores the transformation of the esoteric Lotus Sutra Rite (法華法・法花法・法華経法) in Shingon traditions and their relationship with Tendai-lineage precedent. In particular, I examine the notes (shōmotsu 鈔物) scriptural traditions of Taimitsu and Tōmitsu of the eleventh to thirteenth century to understand the early development of the rite and its transformation by Shingon-lineage clerics. In doing so, I focus on the rite’s representation in Tendai texts such as Chōen’s (長宴, 1016-1081) set of esoteric transmissions from his master in Shijujōketsu四十帖決, which had impact not only on Tendai esoteric traditions but also on a series of Shingon-lineage milieux, especially those associated with Ninnaji (aka Hirosawa Branch) and those of the so-called Ono Branch to the southeast of the Kyoto capital, such as the monasteries Zuishin’in (Mandaraji), Daigoji, and Kajūji. I examine the formal quality and contents of the notes collections Betsugyō 別行 by eminent Ninnaji prelate Kanjo 寛助 (1052-1125), Maka shō 摩訶鈔 (Ninnaji Tatchūgura archives) by Kōzen 興然 (1121-1203) of Kajūji 勧修寺, and multiple extant medieval versions of the collections of his student Kakuzen 覚禅 (1143-ca. 1217; Dainihon bukkyō zensho ed., Taishō zuzōbu ed., and Mantokuji archives ed.); Kakuzen shō 覚禅鈔). We will see that the Shingon lineages acknowledged their debt to Tendai transmissions but developed a series of distinctive traditions that built on Tendai precedents while moving in multiple, diverging ritual directions. In doing so, we will come to a clearer understanding of the relationship between ritual innovation, scriptural practices, and the dissemination of Dharma-lineage traditions.
Levi McLaughlin (North Carolina State University): Discipleship Strategies: How Members of Soka Gakkai in Japan Navigate an Era of Liminal Leadership
For almost a decade, members of the Japanese lay Nichiren Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai have been called upon to formulate themselves as disciples of a leader whose status remains ambiguous. Ikeda Daisaku (1928- ), Soka Gakkai’s Honorary President and its absolute authority in all matters, has not appeared in public since May 2010. In his absence, Gakkai administrators and individual members alike have been carrying out complex combinations of institutional strategy formation and personal doctrinal interpretation that have produced a proliferating array of competing orthodoxies. Individual members, as Ikeda disciples, are called upon by the Gakkai administration to shoulder personal responsibility for institutional expansion. However, in the absence of clear direction from Ikeda himself, members are initiating forms of discipleship that are spilling out of administrative control, and their multitudinous orthodoxy claims are transforming Soka Gakkai.
This presentation suggests that Soka Gakkai’s decade of leadership aporia serves as a case study for a specific analytical category: a charismatic leader who is simultaneously a living presence and also absent. Research presented here draws on ongoing ethnography within a range of Soka Gakkai communities in Japan, as well as recent and historical archival sources, to take into account changes in Gakkai worship and liturgy; ways the biographical model set by Nichiren continues to inform members’ contestations over doctrinal interpretation – of Nichiren, the Lotus Sūtra, Ikeda’s writings, and the figure of Ikeda himself – in emerging battles over orthodoxy; and stark generational shifts in conversion efforts, electioneering, cultural practices, and other staple Gakkai activities. Insight into these dimensions will illuminate what Soka Gakkai as a whole tells us about the life course of a religion and what individual members’ life course histories indicate about the potential future of this influential group.
Session 3: Distilling the Dharma in Medieval Thought and Practice
James Ford (Wake Forest University): The Bodhisattva as Moral Exemplar: Reflections on Zagzebski’s Exemplarist Moral Theory
In recent years, Linda Zagzebski (George Lynn Cross Research Professor, University of Oklahoma) has developed a comprehensive moral theory based on identifying moral exemplars and exploring how they are constructed and function in a particular religious and philosophical traditions and socio-cultural contexts (Exemplarist Moral Theory. Oxford University Press, 2017). She and others have developed this theory through the study of historical figures and particular exemplarist types, most specifically the hero, the saint, and the sage. No one, to my knowledge, has applied Zagsebski’s theory to the Mahāyāna bodhisattva ideal. After a basic introduction to Zagzebski’s theory, this paper proposes the bodhisattva ideal as a distinct category of moral exemplar–relative to heros, saints, and sages–that offers an instructive paradigm for moral virtues, spiritual development, and manifold functions. It also suggests that Japan, medieval Japan in particular, might be a plausible place to test Zagzebski’s theory and examine the complex role of the bodhisattva ideal as an ethical exemplar within Mahāyāna Buddhism. It sketches a vision of what such an analysis might look like and concludes with a critical assessment of the applicability and merit of Zagsebski’s moral theory.
Lori Meeks (University of Southern California): The Upside-Down Lotus: Tendai Views of Women in Medieval Commentary and Narrative
Some of the earliest commentaries on the Blood Bowl Sutra are found in Tendai texts dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One, which is rather short, is embedded within the Kawarayazenji Taishiden, a Tendai hagiography of Prince Shōtoku that dates to 1466. The other, Ketsubonkyō dangishi, is a standalone text of which a 1599 copy remains. It offers a much lengthier analysis of the Blood Bowl Sutra. Both texts suggest a great deal about late medieval views of pollution, sexual difference, and uterine blood. It is believed that Ketsubonkyō dangishi, at least, was a product of a medieval dangisho, or Tendai seminary. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, dangisho produced many texts aimed at distilling the complexities of Tendai doctrine for ordinary laypeople. The ideas found in many such works made their way into popular narrative genres as well. Indeed, ideas about women and the female body found in the Kawarayazenji Taishiden and Ketsubonkyō dangishi correlate with those evident in medieval narrative forms ranging from itinerant storytelling to otogizōshi and jōruri. For example, the idea that women are inferior to men because the lotus flowers within their hearts face downwards instead of upwards (as men’s are said to do), which appears in Ketsubonkyō dangishi, was a common trope in medieval literature. This paper will offer detailed analyses of the Kawarayazenji Taishiden and Ketsubonkyō dangishi in an effort to understand the roles that Tendai priests and dangisho may have played in the dissemination in medieval Japan of certain views about women and their bodies.
Bryan Lowe (Vanderbilt University): Contemplations of Self, Other, and an Awakened World: An Alternative Account of the Japanese Beginnings of Original Enlightenment Thought
The Contemplation of Suchness (Shinnyo kan 真如観) represents a core source in Jacqueline Stone’s research on medieval Japan. My paper will put this text in dialogue with a similar manuscript from the ninth century. In doing so, I will build upon two insights from her magisterial Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism in which she utilizes the Contemplation of Suchness. Like Stone, I hope to move beyond sectarian narratives to show vibrancy in forms of Buddhism typically thought to be corrupt and dormant. Second, I will highlight how doctrines of absolute nondualism do not necessarily deny the need for practice. At the same time, I will offer an alternative historical narrative for early Heian Buddhism’s contribution to the emergence of original enlightenment thought (hongaku shisō 本覚思想). In Stone’s account of the “Japanese Beginnings” of hongaku shisō, she focuses on the writings of Kūkai and Saichō, the reputed founders of the Shingon and Tendai sects. In contrast, my paper will move from founder narratives to a collection of anonymous notes preserved on the verso of a manuscript now known as the Draft of Tōdaiji Homilies (Tōdaiji fujumon kō 東大寺諷誦文稿). This text, authored by an unnamed ninth-century wayfaring priest, shares stylistic similarities with the Contemplation of Suchness including the usage of a mixture of kanji and kana and an intended lay audience composed of individuals of diverse social classes. It also introduces contemplative practices to provincial villagers and advances doctrines that treat the entire world ranging from the sun to the rice paddies as the body of the Buddha. I will compare these teachings to those in the Contemplation of Suchness to highlight doctrinal commonalities between the two works. While I will suggest that Stone’s medieval paradigm for liberation should remain intact, I will argue that key features of medieval original enlightenment thought including an affirmation of the phenomenal world, the promotion of simple contemplative practices accessible to anyone, and the denial of ontological differences between non-enlightened and enlightened people and pure and mundane worlds already appear in this early ninth-century text. I will argue that from this time these doctrines and practices were likely preached in the provinces. This undermines standard narratives centered on Heian-period founders as the drivers of change and the Kamakura period as a time of popularization.