Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Rice, Relics, and Jewels: The Network and Agency of Rice Grains in Medieval Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Rice, Relics, and Jewels: The Network and Agency of Rice Grains in Medieval Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Article excerpt

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MEDIEVAL Japanese esoteric Buddhism (mikkyo ...) is characterized by a great variety of beliefs, doctrines, and practices. Among these, one recurring theme assumes an interconnection between rice grains and body relics of the Buddha (busshari ...). This connection was based on a number of scriptural Buddhist doctrines, and therefore its appearance in medieval Japanese Buddhism should not be considered unusual. However, in Japan the thought evolved in various interesting ways. Some of the new developments are not unexpected, such as the extended relationship with the wish-fulfilling jewel (nyoi hoju ...), the latter after all being described in Buddhist scriptures as the alternate symbolic form of the relic, but others are quite surprising. For example, in the Kanjo inmyo kuketsu (Oral Instructions on the Consecration Mudras and Mantras), a Japanese medieval text, we read the following rather uncommon interpretation of the "rice-relic" concept:

"The relics of the Buddhas of the past change into rice grains, and the rice grains engage in sexual acts to perpetuate [the existence of] sentient beings."

(Kanjo inmyo kuketsu, sz 27: 128a)1

This phrase relates what seems at first to be a quite peculiar thought: that rice grains, as different forms of the Buddha's relics, engage in sexual acts and that this has some relation with the continuation of the existence of sentient beings. What exactly this means will be discussed below, but from this instruction we may already understand that rice grains in medieval Japanese Buddhism were viewed in connection to not only relics or jewels but also, for reasons yet unclear, to religious concepts related to the reproduction of life.

This article sheds light on the development of the "rice-relic" doctrine in medieval Japanese mikkyo by investigating some of the religious contexts and networks in which the concept was taken up and worked out. For practical reasons, I mainly focus on Shingon sect examples, with occasional reference to Tendai thought. One of the purposes of this investigation is to highlight the "agency" of rice. To explain what is meant by this, it is first necessary to briefly discuss the question of the religious character of objects.

Any object is first and foremost merely a thing; it does not possess any religious value unless its thing-like nature is conceptually turned into something supernatural. Fabio Rambelli recently demonstrated that ordinary things may be transformed into objects that surpass their limited material or functional value in two ways: theoretical operation and/or ritual action (Rambelli 2007, 264). In other words, a physical thing only becomes a sacred object endowed with animation, sentience, and soteriological effectiveness once it has been transformed by human agency in the form of a theoretical thought or a ritual performance. This rather unshakable observation emphasizes external causes for things becoming supernatural or sacred, suggesting that objects are usually passive receivers of human action.

However, as the articles in this volume illustrate, the process through which ordinary objects are changed into religious items may be complicated by additional factors. One of these factors is the "agency" of the objects themselves. This idea is underscored in the actor-network-theory of Bruno Latour and others, which describes the role of nonhuman actors such as objects in a given network as "interactional." In Latour's wording, nonhuman objects are "mediators making other mediators do things," similar to marionettes, which are not just being manipulated but also somehow making puppeteers move their fingers in a particular way (Latour 2005, 216-17). In other words, objects have material and conceptual properties that, when interacting with other factors, can have an effect on how they are used, perceived, or adapted.

Another way to explain the interactional agency of objects is to refer to Indra's Net, the well-known metaphor wielded in Kegon Buddhism to illustrate the interlocking and inter-reflecting nature of phenomena. …

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