Right Thoughts at the Last Moment

Buddhism and Deathbed Practices in Early Medieval Japan

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Jacqueline I. Stone
Kuroda Studies in East Asian Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , November
     2016.
     616 pages.
     $68.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824856434.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her book, Right Thoughts at the Last Moment: Buddhism and Deathbed Practices in Early Medieval Japan, Jacqueline I. Stone seeks to display the extreme sociality of dying in late Heian and early Kamakura period Japan. Far from being a private moment, Stone successfully demonstrates how Buddhist deathbed rituals aimed at achieving rebirth in a celestial Pure Land or heaven—ōjō—were in fact socially-performed, socially-interpreted, and socially-contextualized phenomena. As the first book devoted to the topic of Japanese deathbed practices, Stone’s impressive work represents an important step in advancing our understanding, not only of the development of Buddhism’s relationship with the dead and dying, but also of the contours of “popular Buddhism” in Japan.

Drawing on a vast array of source materials, Stone presents her argument through seven chapters, each of which serves as a self-contained discussion of a particular aspect or history of the deathbed rituals and making them particularly useful for classroom settings. Chapter 1 outlines the beginnings of deathbed practices in late tenth-century Japan, demonstrating how the goal of birth in a pure land or heaven—as determined by one’s correct mindfulness at death—developed within the Tiendai school. Considering Japanese conceptions of the ontological status of pure lands in relation to the samsaric human world, chapter 2 presents a discussion of the sometimes-conflicting attitudes towards a successful rebirth in the Pure Land and this-worldly values, relationships, and responsibilities. Chapter 3 defines the contours of an ideal death, describing the variety of premonitions, actions, and thoughts exhibited by a successful ōjō. This chapter provides an invaluable resource for collating and summarizing the attributes of an ideal death, while also demonstrating the extreme alterity of those who successfully complete ōjō. In prior works, Stone has used Peter Brown’s term, the “special dead,” to refer to those Buddhist deceased who exist apart from the normative processes of death and decay; Right Thoughts at the Last Moment extends this work to reveal the striving of individual Japanese Buddhists to make, for themselves, a “special” death.

The second half of the book moves its focus away from the individuals dying to those who surround the dying person and interpret his or her death. Chapter 4 analyzes in detail how bystanders read the success or failure of a specific ōjō through the interpretation of the dying person’s last moments. Considering in many ways the reverse issues of chapter 4, chapter 5 examines the anxieties surrounding one’s ōjō being unsuccessful. In this chapter, Stone reviews both how people worked to ensure their own death practice effectively led to a rebirth in a pure land, as well as how those individuals who remained behind interpreted deaths that, so to speak, did not go according to plan. While all of Stone’s chapters are insightful and illuminating, most interesting perhaps is chapter 6—where Stone explores the role of the zenchishiki or “good friend”—who assists the dying person in their final moments. She discusses in detail the development of this position and its status within the larger Buddhist institutional establishment, as well as who may or may not fill the role. Chapter 7 ends the book with a broadening of Stone’s lens to examine the long durée of deathbed practices through the end of the Tokugawa period and their decline in the modern era.

Stone has pulled together an incredible amount of material which she weaves into a compelling discussion of deathbed practices. What is most remarkable about Stone’s work, however, is that in the midst of her expansive examination of these practices—existing in many ways as an almost unattainable ideal—one finds beautiful, tiny windows into the very real world of death, and those who live on after it. As a few examples, Stone describes the endless regret of a daughter who wakes her dying father at just the inopportune moment, causing his last word to be a careless question; Stone writes of how the death manuals employed by zenchishiki and others include an ever-increasing amount of hands-on information of how to act as hospice and caregiver for those dying; she then relates the anxieties of warriors entering the battlefield and the resulting impossibility of maintaining a mind focused on the nembutsu at death. Through Stone’s writing, the people of early medieval Japan come into view as above all, people. This humanity of her object of study supports her claims in the book’s conclusion that these deathbed practices were not trivial or mere rhetoric but rather, were something deeply consequential for medieval Japanese Buddhists. In making an implicit argument for the importance of studying death practices more generally, Stone artfully connects these very real concerns of early medieval Japanese Buddhists to the ever-present desire in our own society for a “good death”—free from pain, suffering, and lack of preparation, despite its own incredible unlikelihood.

As the first monograph devoted to Japanese Buddhist deathbed practices, Stone’s work is an important resource. She understandably includes extensive and rich detail, which is welcome in light of the book’s previously neglected topic. This detail may make this book rather overwhelming for an introductory course or an undergraduate audience with little prior exposure to Japanese religious history, or Buddhist history more generally. For advanced undergraduates, graduate students, or researchers of Buddhist history, and death history more generally, however, the work proves a wonderful addition. To benefit future research, Right Thoughts at the Last Moment also includes an invaluable annotated bibliography of Japanese deathbed manuals and other deathbed instructional works.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Natasha L. Mikles is an instructor in Buddhist religious history and thought at Texas State University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacqueline I. Stone is professor of religion at Princeton University.

Keywords: 

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