Zen and Material Culture

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Pamela D. Winfield, Steven Heine
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Zen and Material Culture is a welcome addition to the growing arena of material studies of Japanese religions. Following the “Introduction: Zen Matters” by editors Pamela D. Winfield and Steven Heine, which provides a useful contextualization of the book within the field, the book contains chapters that cover two main areas: Zen monasteries (chapter 2 on the ontology of Zen temples, chapter 5 on the material culture at Manpukuji temple, and chapter 6 on the visual culture of Rinzai Zen convents), and specific objects related to Zen practice (chapter 1 on staffs, chapter 4 of prayer beads, chapter 7 on the monastic robe and its transmission in the Tokugawa period, and chapter 8 on the uses and meanings of rags in contemporary Zen practice). The two remaining chapters are “hybrid” in the sense that they deal with objects that are not directly part of the Zen monastic tradition and its practice (chapter 3 on tea bowls and the tea ceremony, and chapter 9 on the significations of retail at Zen temples in the US). Let us look at each chapter more in detail.

Chapter 2, “Materializing the Zen Monastery” by Winfield, is a fascinating account of the metaphysics of Zen temples, mostly based on writings by Dōgen and his textual lineage, which the author puts directly in relation to Dōgen’s idea that inert objects (mujō) can teach us how to attain enlightenment (seppō). By doing so, Winfield shows that Zen monasteries were conceived and realized as special soteriological spaces, in which an enhanced awareness of the features of architectural space and environmental surroundings of the monastery, united with doctrinal knowledge, could lead one to understand Dōgen’s ideas about mujō seppō.

Chapter 5 ,“The Importance of Imports: Ingen’s Chinese Material Culture at Manpukuji” by Patricia Graham, describes the peculiar images, rituals, and practices at Manpukuji from within the historical context of the establishment of the Ōbaku sect and the construction of Manpukuji by Ingen in the early 17th century. Some of those exotic features (the structures of the temples, the cult of the Rakan, elements of visual culture, etc.) spread and became popular in Japan during the Tokugawa period.

Chapter 6, “Visual Culture in Japan’s Imperial Rinzai Zen Convents” by Patricia Fister, studies devotional objects such as scripture copying, images, and poetry made by two prominent imperial abbesses, Daitsū Bunchi (1619-1697) and Tokugon Rihō (1672-1745). Bunchi engaged in multiple creations, implying a direct use of her body, such as blood writing of scriptures and liturgical invocations (an extreme practice that we tend today not to associated with aristocrats), using some of her skin to write passages from the sutras, and making needlework objects with hair, in addition to the production of votive paintings and statues. Rihō, in contrast, was engaged in more standard literati practices, such as making portraits of monks and nuns and writing poetry.

Coming to the chapters discussing specific Zen religious objects, “Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Discomfort Me: Zen Staffs as Implements of Instruction” by Heine, investigates a set of various objects identified as “staffs” that play a prominent role in Zen practice. In fact, the author creates this category, which encompasses diverse ritual implements such as “batons, boards, canes, clubs, crosiers, cudgels, fans, poles, rods, ropes, scepters, stakes, sticks, wands, whips, and whisks” (4), because all of these objects are characterized by being long and slender (3). One wonders if this category has an equivalent in actual Zen discourse; if not, that raises the question of the relevance for this non-native interpretive frame. In any case, the chapter is very useful for its extensive description of these objects based both on references to Zen canonical texts and actual uses at temples. It shows how these staff-like objects were employed to perform a number of different functions: as symbols of authority and authenticity, pedagogical tools, sounding devices, ceremonial implements, hitting sticks, and walking staffs.

Chapter 4, “Prayer Beads in Japanese Sōtō Zen” by Michaela Mross, is an informative discussion of the history and meanings of the Buddhist rosary, especially in the Sōtō tradition. The discussion of Edo-period kirigamidescribing the rosary as a mandala (111-20) is particularly interesting, as well as the brief account of post-Meiji transformations in the uses of prayer beads.

Chapter 7, “Golden Robe or Rubbish Robe? Interpretations of the Transmitted Robe in Tokugawa Period Zen Buddhist Thought” by Diane Riggs, explores the history and meaning of monastic robes in gold brocade, trying to answer “how it is that such precious fabrics…can be reconciled with the life of austere simplicity” (197) through a detailed exegesis of a number of Zen canonical texts. The robe becomes a polyvalent sign representing asceticism, authenticity, and authority.

Chapter 8, “The Zen of Rags” by Paula Arai, provides a practitioner’s exegesis of Zen rags. In her treatment, rags are not simple utilitarian cleaning tools or even soteriological tools. They acquire a metaphysics of their own and have agency. Rags are Zen masters (rōshi) (238-41); they practice enlightenment (242-44); and heal people’s hearts and bodies (249-51). This chapter is a demonstration of how Zen’s own rhetoric about material objects as related to salvation can be applied to one’s real-life experience.

The remaining two chapters explore territories outside of Zen monasticism, namely, traditional arts (pottery and the tea ceremony) and the religious economy respectively, and because of their approaches and the issues they raise, are among the best in the entire collection.

Chapter 3, “Form and Function: Tea Bowls and the Problem of Zen in Chanoyu” by Morgan Pitelka, is a fresh look at the connections between Zen and the material culture of tea ceremony. Interestingly, Pitelka shows how the features of ceramics used in tea ceremony, including aesthetics and design, were not directly related to Zen, but seem to have been vernacular appropriations in Japan of Chinese tea bowls (88-89). As Pitelka puts it, “to totalize tea by subsuming it into the objectives of Zen is to flatten a textured practice, a diverse community of practitioners, and a complex history” (96).

Chapter 9, “Zen Sells Things: Meditation Supply, Right Livelihood, and Buddhist Retail” by Gregory Levine, is a fascinating exploration of the little known world of what the author calls “Buddhist retail” and its implications for Zen practice, including ideological positions about profit and the economy in general. While all Zen objects described in this book were immersed in an economy, often of huge proportions, “the late capitalist flood of Zen (or, perhaps, Zenny) products… is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of corporate advertising…and materialistic…self-fashioning, especially…in the Global North” (257). The chapter studies The Monastery Store run by the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism in Rochester, New York, examining its management, the merchandise it sells, and how it all fits with a standard image of enlightened, “right livelihood.” 

The chapters in this collection are mostly descriptions of objects, their uses, and their histories; in some cases, the authors reflect traditional Zen exegesis or provide their own versions of it, thus trespassing the line separating external observation from insider participation. Only in rare cases do the authors go beyond the study of material culture and provide theoretical insights on Zen materiality, its significance, and how it relates to broader religious matters. Most chapters ignore the production processes of the objects they study and the economic dimension surrounding them. Still, by directly engaging the material culture of Zen Buddhism in multiple forms, this book is an important contribution to the study of Zen and Japanese culture. It can be used productively in the classroom, both in undergraduate and graduate courses, and it will surely generate further investigations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Fabio Rambelli is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pamela D. Winfield is associate professor of religious studies at Elon University, NC. She specializes in Japanese Buddhist art and doctrine in the esoteric and Zen traditions. Her previous book Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2013) won the annual Book Prize from the Association of Asian Studies Southeast Conference in 2015.

Steven Heine is professor of religious studies and history, and director of the Asian Studies Program at Florida International University in Miami, FL. A 2007 recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun Award from the Japanese government, Heine is the author of more than two dozen books and one hundred articles and book chapters on East Asian religions, especially the role of Zen in China and Japan and the relation between religiosity and society.


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