Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Eulogizing Kuya as More Than a Nenbutsu Practitioner: A Study and Translation of the Kuyarui

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Eulogizing Kuya as More Than a Nenbutsu Practitioner: A Study and Translation of the Kuyarui

Article excerpt

Kuya is widely known as a tenth-century Buddhist holy man who was the first to spread the nenbutsu practice among common lay people. The document that scholars regard as the most credible for understanding who Kuya was is the Kuyarui, which is a eulogy for Kuya written in Sino-Japanese (kanbun) in the 970s by the author of the Sanboe, Minamoto Tamenori. This article first elucidates the origins and influence of the text. Then it approaches the text as a piece of Buddhist biographical literature and examines its depiction of Kuya. It is argued that Kuya is depicted in the Kuyarui not primarily as a nenbutsu practitioner but as a selfless holy man who rejects any status in the world, yet serves it by promoting Buddhism in a variety of ways and by striving to relieve the suffering of others. Finally, a translation of the complete Kuyarui is provided.

KEYWORDS: Kuya - nenbutsu - rui - Minamoto Tamenori - religious biography - shonin

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Kuya's life has long been deemed worth remembering.1 For over a thousand years depictions of him have been produced by a wide range of people, including aristocrats, Buddhist priests, tea-whisk makers, playwrights, novelists, sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians, and comedians (Ito and Miura [1993, 49] refer to Kuya as a rapper of namu Amida butsu). Accounts about Kuya can be found in collections of religious biographies (ojoden and kosoden), temple foundation stories (engi), an illustrated biography (eshiden), a noh play, medieval tale literature (setsuwa), and in most textbooks on Japanese history used in Japanese high schools.

Historians today and much of the general public remember Kuya2 as the first to spread the recitation of the nenbutsu among common people, and many say he was the founder of the dancing nenbutsu (odori nenbutsu). He is thus seen as important for understanding the history of Japanese Buddhism, particularly Pure Land Buddhism. Because of his perceived historical significance, scholars have frequently tried to reconstruct a historically accurate account of his life. To do this, they have accepted only a few primary sources as credible: a description of a dedication ceremony held by Kuya in 963 written by Miyoshi Michimune ... that is included in the Honcho monzui ... (359-60); a brief biography of Kuya by Yoshishige Yasutane ... in the Nihon ojogokurakuki ...; and a eulogy titled the Kuyarui ... written by Minamoto Tamenori ... while a university student in Kyoto. Of these, scholars regard the Kuyarui as the most important source because it is the earliest text to give an overview of his life and much of its contents, as will be shown below, are repeated in Yasutane's later and briefer account of Kuya's life.

Using the Kuyarui (hereafter, Rui) as their primary historical source on the life of Kuya and on the basis of particular understandings of religion in the tenth century, historians have made claims about what type of person Kuya was. He is most commonly located in the tradition of wandering ascetics (hijiri), particularly nenbutsu hijiri. Frequently, he has also been seen as a shamanic figure, a perception that is based largely on a depiction of him in the Rui reciting the nenbutsu while burning skeletal remains and on an assumption that his nenbutsu was regarded as a magical practice (see, for example, INOUE 1975, 237-38; KITAGAWA 1966, 117; HAYAMI 1996, 11). The Rui, however, does not depict Kuya as exhibiting any of the characteristics most closely associated with shamanism, namely, ecstasy, spirit possession, or soul flight.

Some historians, rather than reading the Rui simply as a source to reconstruct the life of Kuya, have analyzed it as a document that provides insight into the religion of late tenth-century Japan. Hayami Tasuku, for example, has argued that the depiction of Kuya in the Rui reflects "the ideal image of a nenbutsu proselytizer held by the nobility" (Hayami 1996, 26). …

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