Editors' Introduction: Vernacular Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Literature

By Kimbrough, Keller; Glassman, Hank | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Editors' Introduction: Vernacular Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Literature


Kimbrough, Keller, Glassman, Hank, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


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In March of 2008, the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Colorado, Boulder, hosted a small interdisciplinary conference titled "Illustrating the Dharma: Popular Buddhism in Medieval Japanese Fiction." The conference featured ten presentations and one keynote speech devoted to exploring aspects of "popular" (as opposed to monastic, elite, or orthodox doctrinal) Buddhism in the illustrated fiction of the Kamakura, Muromachi, and early Edo periods.roughly the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. Participants considered a variety of hand-illustrated and woodblockprinted texts from an array of methodological perspectives.literary, historical, Buddhological, and art historical.concentrating in particular on issues of religious doctrine, practice, and representation in the literary genres of setsuwa ... (tales), otogizoshi ... (Muromachi-period fiction), ko-joruri ... (early puppet theater), jisha engi ... (temple and shrine histories), and kowakamai ... (ballad-dramas).

The present thematic issue of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies is an indirect result of that 2008 conference. Five of the seven essays included here were first presented at the Boulder event, which also inspired our underlying (and, it was intended, unifying) approach: to consider premodern Japanese religious culture through the lens of literature, rather than more traditional Buddhist scriptural, historical, biographical, and exegetical sources. Our two corollary desiderata have been, from the start, to explore the roles of Buddhist sectarian and/or didactic concerns in the production of late-Heian and medieval literature, and to consider the place and significance of "visuality" in the illustrated textual media of medieval and early-Edo Japan (including illuminated sutras, emaki ... picture scrolls, nara ehon ... picture books, and woodblock-printed books and maps).1 The seven contributors to this volume have approached these issues in different ways, but each engages the three topics of Buddhism, literature, and visual representation.

Terminological Considerations: Popular Buddhism, Folk Buddhism, Vernacular Buddhism

Medieval religious culture in Japan was fundamentally trans-sectarian, constituting a rich amalgam of diverse and occasionally incompatible elements, rather than an organized or internally consistent universe of practice and belief. Specialized cults dedicated to particular deities, bodhisattvas, and celebrity icons flourished in the cities and surrounding communities, dominating the religious landscape and competing for a limited pool of potential devotees. Itinerant preacher-entertainers plied the roadways, frightening audiences with stories and images of hell, extolling the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas, and collecting temple donations. Insofar as many works of medieval Japanese fiction are understood to derive from the proselytizing and fund-raising activities of these street-level preacher-entertainers, including biwa hoshi ... (biwa-playing priests), etoki hoshi ... (picture-explaining priests), Kumano bikuni ... (nuns of Kumano), kanjin hijiri ... (fund-raising priests), Koya hijiri ... (priests of Mt. Koya), shomonji ... (low-caste chanters), miko ... (female mediums), and the like, their study promises insights into popular medieval religious culture in a way that the study of sutras, commentaries, and learned treatises does not. At least, such was the idea that inspired the Boulder conference.

The reader will notice, however, that what was "popular Buddhism" in the conference title has become "vernacular Buddhism" here. In the course of working on this special issue of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, we the editors came to feel that the former term did not accurately reflect the diversity of the works discussed in the articles. After all, a number of the texts treated by our authors originated in the highest circles of ecclesiastical authority, rather than in the world of street preaching. …

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