Buddhist Hagiographies in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition

Buddhist Hagiographies in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition

Buddhist Hagiographies in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition

Buddhist Hagiographies in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition

Synopsis

Hagiographies or idealized biographies which recount the lives of saints, bodhisattvas and other charismatic figures have been the meeting place for myth and experience. In medieval Europe, the 'lives of saints' were read during liturgical celebrations and the texts themselves were treated as sacred objects. In Japan, it was believed that those who read the biographies of lofty monks would acquire merit. Since hagiographies were written or compiled by 'believers', the line between fantasy and reality was often obscured. This study of the bodhisattva Gyoki - regarded as the monk who started the largest social welfare movement in Japan - illustrates how Japanese Buddhist hagiographers chose to regard a single monk's charitable activities as a miraculous achievement that shaped the course of Japanese history.

Excerpt

The general trend among scholars of early Japanese Buddhism of the last few decades has been to regard the medieval accounts of Gyōki (excluding the Gyōki bosatsuden and the Gyōki nenpu) as fantastic legends that were based on popular beliefs. Although Fukuda Takashi and Yoneyama Takako aptly pointed out that new religious beliefs transformed Gyōki's biographies, to assume that the earliest Heian biographies recorded only what the imperial sources had confirmed would be a mistake. the Nihon ryōiki, for example, shows the existence already of numerous legends about Gyōki circulating within a few decades after his death.

What should be recognized is that the earliest hagiographic texts that narrate the life of Gyōki portray him as a poet, a shamanic figure, a tireless construction worker, and even a scholarly monk. the hagiographers of the Kamakura period chose which aspects of his personality to emphasize and which characteristics to downplay. in this chapter, we investigate why these hagiographers chose Gyōki to represent values and ideas that did not exist during his own lifetime and how his popular image was altered over the centuries. the accounts are examined in chronological order, so that one can assess how the earliest narratives affected the construction of Gyōki's image in the medieval period.

Gyōki's ancestry

During the earlier chapters, we have not discussed in detail the circumstances surrounding Gyōki's birth, because these accounts are mixed with numerous fantastic elements. in the last two decades, such scholars as Yoshida Yasuo have focused on Gyōki's Korean ancestry. We begin by considering how Gyōki's Korean heritage could inform us about the Korean kinship groups in Japan during the seventh century. the year in which Gyōki was born-668-coincides with the fall of the Koguryō dynasty in Korea. During the seventh century, the Korean peninsula was

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