Behold the Buddha

Religious Meanings of Japanese Buddhist Icons

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James C. Dobbins
  • Honolulu: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Buddhist statues and figures are omnipresent in Japan. One can meet them on crossings and house altars, in forests, museums, and temples, and they come in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. However, when trying to find out more about their significance and role in religious practice in Japan, one reaches a dead end. Travel guides and plaques in temples and museums name well-known statues and usually only provide information about the date of origin and special artistic features of the Buddhist icon. Often, this information leaves one with a big question mark, since the initial question was and is what their relevance is from the perspective of the Buddhist actors. What do the actors see when they look at the Buddhas? What ascriptions do they make to them? And, perhaps most interestingly, what are Buddhas capable of from the perspective of Buddhist believers?

In the last two decades, elaborate literature was published on the past and present of Buddhist icons. Behold the Buddha: Religious Meanings of Japanese Buddhist Icons draws on this rich literature and discloses how Buddhist agents interact with these icons from their perspective. In a light-footed, easily comprehensible, and well-informed way, James C. Dobbins gives insight into the world of Buddhist icons.

The book is divided into three large parts and an afterword. The introduction takes recourse to the experience of looking at Buddhist statues in a museum and sets the foundation for demarcating the typical view of an object in a museum from the dynamics of its treatment in religious practice. The first part, “Making Sense of Buddhist Images,” starts with a chapter that discusses the problematic Western gaze, which either criticizes Buddhist icons as inferior or aestheticizes its art. In both cases, this view prohibits one from seeing the Buddhas the way the majority of actors in the religious history of Japan have predominantly seen them: as “living religious entities” (24). The second chapter is dedicated to these icons, viewed as living beings, in relation to the life story of the Buddha. The third chapter, titled “The Expressive Detail” provides an introduction to Buddhist symbolism and iconography. The second part of the book presents various types of Buddhist icons in three chapters, ranging from Shakyamuni and other Buddhas to Bodhisattvas and other mythical figures. In the third part, Dobbins discusses the role of icons in religious practice (chapter 7), also giving an insight into the rich vastness of other Buddhist materialities, such as relics, sutras, and portraits of masters, which religious power is ascribed to (chapter 8). The afterword, “Museums Revisited,” addresses the transforming role of museums. Dobbins suggests understanding them as a “contact zone” (212) in which various attributions to icons stand side by side and in which new interpretations can form.

The monograph distinguishes itself by its readability and its great attention to detail. The author embeds the meaning and function of materialized Buddhas in Buddhist thought almost in passing, as this example shows: Dobbins builds on categories such as the concept of “emptiness” and the emergence of mutual dependency to make the understanding of Buddhist materialities as living entities comprehensible (73–74). He thereby generates associations of a world in which—accordingly with the cognitive and emotional state of the actors—Buddha and dharma seemingly appear out of nowhere and become visible, only to evaporate into the mist of the this-worldly sphere.

The ninety images on 269 pages enable the reader to comprehend and plainly follow the explanations of the author. The image credits neatly summarize the arguments once again. Lists of the temples named in the book and lists of the primary and some of the secondary sources, as well as an index, make the volume very practically useable.

Behold the Buddha is a highly successful introduction to Japanese religious history and therefore perfectly suited as seminar literature. Despite being printed on thick paper, it is still handy (15x21cm) and can also be recommended as a travel guide. I hope the volume will also attract members of the general public who are interested in Japan or religious materialities. Dobbins presents the Buddhist icons as living entities that can be interacted with in various ways by actors of all sorts. This way, he strips the icons of their mysterious, exotic, and impermeable mystique. Through this de-orientalization project the icons turn into something familiar—while still leaving inspiring riddles about the Buddhist world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inken Prohl is professor of religious studies at Heidelberg University.

Date of Review: 
July 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James C. Dobbins is Fairchild Professor Emeritus of Religion and East Asian Studies at Oberlin College.


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