Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Illustrating the Mind: "Faulty Memory" Setsuwa and the Decorative Sutras of Late Classical and Early Medieval Japan

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Illustrating the Mind: "Faulty Memory" Setsuwa and the Decorative Sutras of Late Classical and Early Medieval Japan

Article excerpt

This article explores the overlap between descriptions of sutra devotion that appear in setsuwa narratives and graphic traditions of sutra decoration popular in classical and medieval Japan, particularly from the eleventh century onward. Drawing on material from two Heian-period setsuwa collections, Hokke genki (1040-1044) and Konjaku monogatari shu (ca. 1120), the article focuses on the visual elements of written sutras, especially as elaborated in tales concerning "faulty memory." The article considers particular setsuwa as written stories which can be embodied in performance (preaching) and which attempt to activate the visual imaginations of their reader-listeners. Furthermore, the article argues that these setsuwa posit the memory, the page, and the human body as intertwined locales for the inscription of sacred Buddhist text.

KEYWORDS: setsuwa-sutra decoration-memory-material culture-reading- preaching

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Setsuwa ... (literally "explanatory tales") represent the earliest attempt in Japanese Buddhism to find a popular literary genre capable of expressing complex aspects of abstract doctrine in concrete, sensually verifiable, and compelling narrative terms. Although their subject matter overlaps with that of other genres such as kosoden ... (hagiographies of high priests) and ojoden ... (accounts of rebirth in the Pure Land), Buddhist setsuwa collections differ from these wholly textual enterprises in that they are also linked intimately to performance, to the public and popular venue of the sermon (Fukuda 1981, Ikegami 1984, Hirota 1990). Some collections (Nihon ryoiki ... [ca. 823]) state their desire to act like a preacher, "pull[ing] people forward" with their words and guiding them onto the Buddhist path (nkbz 10: 245). Others (Sanboe ... [984] and Kankyo no tomo ... [1222]) bring sermon material to recently-tonsured women. Some (Hyakuza hodan kikigakisho ... [1111]) represent the transcription of multi-day sermonizing events, while yet others (Shasekishu ... [1284]) comprise compilations of a preacher's favorite material. While their language of composition and literary quality vary, one commonality that binds Buddhist setsuwa as a recognizable genre is their attempt to engage the popular imagination with the teachings of Buddhism by shaping short narratives that are in turn emotionally gripping, erotically titillating, forcefully violent, and frankly miraculous.1

The word setsuwa, as used to signify a literary genre, is modern scholastic shorthand. The term refers to a diverse body of extremely brief, prosaic stories, compilations of which were particularly popular during the Heian and Kamakura periods. Typically the stories are linked to one another, sometimes tangentially, around a theme (such as religious awakening) or a revolving set of themes (for instance, aristocratic arts and pastimes). Some collections are composed in Japanese, and some in Chinese, and their authors employ a number of quasi-generic terms for them, describing their works as monogatari ... (narrative tales), ki ... (records), shu ... (collections), and even tomo ... (companions). The debate about whether setsuwa comprise a distinct genre is a vibrant one, and I do not wish to wade too deeply into those waters here.2 To state my position briefly, I concentrate on specifically Buddhist collections and I understand them as intimately related to the performance venue of preaching. In a preaching context, setsuwa occur as part of sometimes lengthy sermons which are aimed at elucidating the meaning of sutra passages. In this sense, they act as a bridge, ferrying meaning from classical Chinese to the vernacular and describing a connection between sacred texts and the human body.

Setsuwa collections were written and disseminated in such a way that they transcend class boundaries. Though most collections stem from the immediate environs of the aristocratic capital and its elite culture, setsuwa authors nevertheless do attempt to move Buddhism beyond the cloister or villa and into the broader population, and they attempt to move popular audiences of mixed social classes from the streets into the temples. …

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