Biography as Scripture: Ojoden in India, China, and Japan

Article excerpt

Records of individuals who achieved rebirth in the pure land of Amitabha Buddha began as a genre of hagiography in eighth-century China and began appearing in Japan in the late tenth century. Thereafter these ojoden were produced repeatedly throughout Japanese history in greater numbers than in China, and came to function as a form of prooftext for the establishment of the Pure Land school. Focusing on an apocryphal Indian ojoden created in the late Heian period, this paper evaluates the form and content of ojoden as a unique genre of Japanese religious literature exhibiting influences from monastic bibliography, miracle texts, and the category of adbhutadharma in Indian Buddhist literature.

KEYWORDS: ojoden - hagiography - biography - miracles - setsuwa - Honen - China - India - Heian

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It goes without saying that the literature of biography and its elaborate cousin hagiography play an important role in all religious traditions. A wellfunctioning religious system has many needs to provide for its community. One of those needs is to produce and maintain personal narratives that supportJ that religion's messages. In this paper I will consider the role of a unique form of biographical narratives known in Japanese Buddhism by the rubric ojoden ..., or biographies of people known to have attained a special rebirth outside sansara known as ojo, rendered here as "Birth," in which one has reached the paradisic Pure Land of the Buddha Amida (Amitabha/Amitayus). Within this genre, special attention will be given to a little-known text from the late Heian period called Tenjiku ojo kenki ... [Miraculous accounts of Birth in the Pure Land in India, zjz vol. 16, 337], which forms a rather unusual example of Birth stories located in India. After a brief overview of the history of ojoden and discussion of how they might be studied, I will show how this particular Indian ojoden is both typical and atypical of the genre, and what it suggests about the nature of the genre itself.

The term ojoden should perhaps be called properly ojo-nin-den ... because for all their depictions of the specific events of an individual's experience of ojo, the format is generally predicated on the frame of a biographical statement about individuals whose piety/diligence/praxis resulted in this specific religious attainment. While some refer to this form of soteriology as grace, the stories one encounters in the ojoden genre suggest another religious paradigm, for they always link ojo to praxis of one sort or another. The stories in ojoden may seem utterly imaginary or extremely mundane, and in combining these two aspects many resemble the magico-realism of contemporary South American literature. But in general they typically blend both the didactic and the doctrinal, mixing historiographic and hagiographic information in a way that skillfully brings the ideals of religion into the lives of what appears to be historical persons, and indeed many of the individuals are well-known historical personages. There are exceptions, however, because even though we know that the compilers of these texts often knew many of the people of whom they wrote and chose as exemplars of shared religious ideals, we also have examples of complete fiction purporting to do the same thing, as I will show below.

I cannot do justice to the rich heritage of this literature in China and Japan in the space available and bemoan the fact that no complete translation of any of these works has as yet been published. The following, somewhat limited discussion, is an attempt to come to terms with the the nature of the genre itself, asking why it arose, what motivating factors can we discern in its authors or compilers, why it persisted into the modern period, and where should this genre fit in to our general understanding of Buddhist literature in a Japanese cultural context.

Historical Overview of Ojoden

The idea of broad, inclusive biographical compendiums is essentially a Chinese rather than an Indian conception, the most famous being the Kosoden, or Gaosengzhuan [Biographies of eminent monks, t 50. …

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