Ritualized Writing

Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan

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Bryan D. Lowe
Kuroda Studies in East Asian Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , March
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824859404.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the field of the study of Japanese religions, Bryan Lowe’s first book, Ritualized Writing, has been anticipated for at least two reasons: First, it focuses on an infrequently studied period of Japanese history, between the late seventh and early ninth centuries (2). This is when Buddhism was introduced from the continent and started to be appropriated in Japan. Scholars working on Japanese Buddhism and religions will know very well how little has been published in Western languages on this important period, and how much yet remains to be done in terms of unpacking the processes obscured by time, modern categorizations developed within the disciplines, and the unevenness of surviving historical sources.

Second, Ritualized Writing casts light precisely on the aforementioned processes of appropriation, and from a fresh angle. Lowe reframes the whole discussion of this subject, diverting the reader’s gaze away from the grand narratives developed around the notion of “state Buddhism,” a paradigmatic term that became associated with studies of ancient Japan in twentieth-century scholarship. Instead, his argument is mostly about the writing practices of non-elite practitioners of Buddhism whose names and faces so often slip away in these grand narrative schemes: middle-ranking officials, scribes, individual patrons (both male and female), laborers and administrators. (An exception to this is chapter 6, the final chapter, focusing on the perspective and political needs of royal patrons; this chapter works logically within the broader structure of the book).

This micro-historical focus is more than welcome. Not only does the author connect the writing practices of early Japan to those of broader Asia and the world (3–11, 36–41), but his micro-historical, at times almost photographic approach to the study of ancient Japan, Buddhism, and religions per se becomes necessary if we are to understand and analyze the multiple meanings of religious practices in an anthropological sense, especially practices that are so far removed from our own post-postmodern, increasingly digital abodes in terms of time and space.

One could add several other reasons that makes Lowe’s study significant. Drawing on an abundance of historical sources from Japan, but also China, Korea, and occasionally, South Asia, Lowe adds new details to our understanding of the ritual copying of religious scriptures and what he calls “disciplinary regimes” and purity associated with such ritualized writings. His study focuses on a “belief that transcribing scripture was morally wholesome practice (Skt. sucarita; J. zengyō 善行) and could generate both material and spiritual rewards in this world and next” (3). But it also reveals that such belief was shared and acted upon by both male and female patrons, and sometimes, whole collectives of individuals (chapter 3, 83–105). To this end, Ritualized Writing mentions the cases of meritorious writing, such as prayers and copying of Buddhist scriptures as well as Chinese classics. These writings were taken on by Buddhist monks (74–75), nuns (95–96), scribes employed at the Office of Sutra Transcription (111­–13, 134–39, 151–69), middle-ranking officials living in the capital and provinces (140–44), royal women (108–109, 122–31), and groups of individuals pooling their resources together to sponsor a sutra or a canon transcription (89–105). Analyzed briefly or at length, these cases examine what one has suspected all along: that Japan’s historic appropriations of Buddhism were facilitated and configured by women just as actively as they were by men, and that these processes were unfolding not only at the level of state institutions but also within the broad swath of ancient Japanese society: that is, to borrow the words from an earlier study on Heian Japan, both within its power centers and at multiple peripheries (Adolphson, Mikael, Edward Kamens, and Stacie Matsumoto, eds. Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries, University of Hawai’i Press, 2007). Significantly, these cases altogether reveal new aspects and effects a ritual practice may have on a social or religious sphere, and how it can prompt new forms of social organization.

In its focus on the dynamic aspects of ritual practice that structure the constantly assembling and disassembling societies in early Japan, either through expressing the power relations binding them, or through inscribing the Buddhist notions of merit and friendship onto them, Ritualized Writing will be of interest to a broad circle of religion scholars and students. It clarifies the mutually reinforcing relations between purity and merit as well as between ritual and bureaucracy, thus demonstrating how new types of administrative structures and writing projects “enabled the frequent reproduction of the Buddhist canon and [helped to] transform Buddhism into a textual tradition” in early Japan (114).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anna Andreeva is Research Fellow in Japanese Studies and Buddhism at the University of Heidelberg.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bryan D. Lowe is assistant professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University.

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