Exemplary Lives: Form and Function in Pure Land Sacred Biography

By Bathgate, Michael | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Exemplary Lives: Form and Function in Pure Land Sacred Biography


Bathgate, Michael, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


As a literature of exemplars, Pure Land sacred biography presents the reader with the ideals of a community as much as the events of individual lives. The models for the religious life advanced in sacred biographies, however, include not only the religious practices of their protagonists, but the discursive practices of their authors, as well. The work of biography, after all, is concerned not only with depicting characters and events, but with configuring both in a meaningful form. Through a comparative reading of ojoden and myokoninden, this study explores some of the ways in which changes in literary form encourage different perspectives on the nature of time, causality, and community in the constitution of the religious life. These exemplary orientations to the religious life, I suggest, are a fundamental aspect of the didactic functions of these texts, and thus of their contribution to the history of Pure Land religious imagination.

KEYWORDS: Pure Land Buddhism - Buddhist hagiography - biography as literary form - Ojoden - myokoninden

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I can only answer the question "What am I to do?" if I can answer the prior question "Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"

Alasdair MACINTYRE (1981, 201)

SACRED BIOGRAPHY is perhaps first and foremost a literature of exemplars, expressing a community's religious ideals through the lives of those who embodied them. As Peter Brown (1987, 14) has suggested, to read these lives is to find oneself "perchedbetween particularity and grandeur," as the events of an individual life intersect with the images and ideals of the collective religious imagination.

Reflecting this basic tension between the individual and the collective, the study of hagiography has generally been shaped by two fundamental methodological approaches, which Frank Reynolds and Donald Capps (1976, 28) have described as "history-oriented" and "myth-oriented." In scholarship of the first sort, traditional religious biographies have been examined for the clues they provide in reconstructing the lives of historical figures. In these studies, the conventions of hagiography can often appear as obstacles to be overcome, obfuscating the historical record with pious mythmaking.1 Studies of the second sort, however, have focused their attention precisely on those hagiographic conventions, using the lives of religious founders, saints, and devotees as case studies in the history of the religious imagination, charting the religious and cultural ideals of a community through the lives of those said to have exemplified them (for example Kieschnick 1997). As REYNOLDS and CAPPS have argued, these two methodological orientations are ultimately complementary, and a number of studies have begun to explore the complex intersection of the actual and the ideal in the telling (and in the living) of exemplary lives.2

In each of these cases, however, the study of sacred biography has been largely shaped by what Dominick LACAPRA (1983, 33-35) has called a "documentary approach" to textual sources. Indeed, the field of Buddhist studies has benefited from a growing awareness of the role and significance of extra-canonical literary sources as a documentary resource. In studies of materials ranging from Indian avadana to Japanese setsuwa bungaku ..., scholars have employed sacred biographies as a complement (and sometimes a corrective) to the evidence of worldviews, values, and practices contained in ritual manuals or scriptural commentaries (for example Strong 1992, Faure 1996, Heine 1999). Even as it has yielded invaluable insights into the history of the tradition, such an approach nevertheless tends to extract the content of narratives from their discursive contexts, obscuring the specifically narrative functions of those documents. In so doing, it has the potential to lose sight of the distinctive character (and, frequently, the declared intent) of the texts themselves. …

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