Bereavement and Consolation: Testimonies from Tokugawa Japan

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In this study, Harold Bolitho translates and analyzes some accounts written by three Japanese men of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries about the death of a loved one - testimonies which challenge the impression that the Japanese accepted their bereavements with nonchalance.

The three journals were written by a young Buddhist priest mourning the death of his child; by the poet Issa, who recorded his father's final illness; and by a scholar and teacher who described his wife's losing struggle with diabetes. They show that while convention may have inhibited the men from expressing their grief openly, they were able to give voice to their sorrow in their writing. The three not only found their losses painful but seemed unable to find consolation: neither the prospect of reunion in Paradise nor any other consideration seems to have given them solace.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300097986
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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Bereavement and Consolation

Testimonies from Tokugawa Japan
By Harold Bolitho

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09798-0

Chapter One

Zenjo the Priest


Those who wish for Paradise are truly delighted when they fall ill. -Rennyo, quoting Honen

The followers of the Ikko sect believe in just the one Buddha, Amida: they do not believe in other Buddhas or gods. Under no circumstances do they pray, and even when ill they do not take advantage of amulets or holy water.

This is what stupid men and women of the commoner classes and their servants all believe. Such is the influence of Shinran. -Dazai Shundai

Jodo Shinshu, the True Sect of the Pure Land-or, more familiarly, the Ikko (single-minded) Sect-was one of several new forms of Japanese Buddhism to emerge over the course of the thirteenth century. Its founder, Shinran (1173-1262), like others before him, had been persuaded by Amida's vow to refuse enlightenment until all mankind was assured of Paradise, and his promise that they could achieve it by invoking his name. Shinran had taught that anyone reciting the nenbutsu phrase-Namu Amida Butsu or "Hail to the Buddha Amida"-was assured of eternal life in the Pure Land, Buddha's Western Paradise. Given sincere faith, the mere repetition of the phrase was sufficient. A good and pious life, however praiseworthy, was not of itself enough to guarantee salvation. On the contrary, good works, with their temptation towards self-satisfaction and a sense of entitlement, could be a hindrance. Complete reliance on Amida's vow was the key, and anything detracting from that merely impeded progress towards the Pure Land. It was a simple message, and understandably, when compared to the mysteries and complexities of earlier varieties of Buddhism, it won a following, particularly amongst ordinary people, the "stupid men and women of the commoner classes," in Dazai Shundai's supercilious designation. The message was as spare as it was simple. Faith in Amida and his vow made all other forms of religious observance, and all other deities, Buddhist as well as Shinto, totally unnecessary and even potentially impious. As one priest expressed it, "our sect relies on Mida Nyorai alone, and does not pray to any other Buddhas or bodhisattvas; that is why other sects call it the Ikko (single-minded) Sect."

Jodo Shinshu's attractive message, reinforced by energetic proselytizing and vigilant supervision, made it a particularly successful variety of Buddhism. This, however, is not to say that it was universally popular. Its military and political posture during the unsettled sixteenth century had earned it the dislike of a number of warlords, to whom it was alternatively a threat and an irritant. Not surprisingly, therefore, it entered the Tokugawa period with a dubious reputation, although it was by this time far from a united movement itself, and was about to be further fragmented. Tokugawa Ieyasu took the strongest of its factions, the Honganji group, and split it in two, into an eastern (Higashi Honganji) and a western (Nishi Honganji) wing. Although a much chastened Jodo Shinshu quickly accommodated itself to the Tokugawa polity, there were nevertheless parts of the country where it was actually outlawed. Equally, there were some parts of Tokugawa Japan where it was conspicuously successful.

Kaga Province, which had spent most of the sixteenth century under Shinshu control, was one of these. So, too, was much of the rest of the Japan Sea coast. In Iwami Province-now part of Shimane Prefecture-where, with more than three hundred affiliated temples, it was of all varieties of Buddhism the predominant, and most obdurate, it met with constant criticism from less successful competitors. In 1978 a number of these joined in petitions to both the local lord and the government in Edo, complaining that Shinshu , with its aggressive proselytizing and its overzealous adherents, or monto, was as dangerous as Christianity. None of this made the slightest impact. Iwami was, and continued to be, a stronghold of the Shinshu faith, maintaining a number of notable ecclesiastical foundations. One of these was Josenji.

These days Ichigi, which is where Josenji was (and still is) located, is a small country hamlet, part of the larger township of Mizuho, locked in the mountains on the Shimane side of the western border of Hiroshima Prefecture. Like many of Japan's rural communities, it is made up of small farms, still smaller shops, and a few inns and hostels catering to skiers in the winter months. Hardly anybody else goes there anymore, whether to visit or to pass through it on the way to somewhere else. The Chugoku Highway, now skirting the town, now soaring above it on monumental concrete pillars, has seen to that, as it shuttles trucks and automobiles to and fro between downtown Hiroshima and Hamada.

It was not always like this. Two hundred years ago Ichigi was an important post town, a well-known stop on a major route used by travellers winding their way through the mountains from the Japan Sea to the Inland Sea. The lord of the Hamada domain, on his annual journey to and from the shogun's capital in Edo, would always stop there, at an inn set aside for his convenience. Towards the end of the Tokugawa period Ichigi could have claimed a population of over three thousand-farmers, of course, but also laborers employed in one or other of the more than twenty iron smelters, or tatara, dotting the area. It was, too, at this time an administrative center in its own right, the seat of a resident magistrate sent out from the Hamada domain, of which Ichigi was then a part.

And it was a religious center, home to several notable temples of which Josenji was the largest and most significant. Indeed Josenji was one of the most substantial temples in the entire province, and this in itself was a reflection of its economic and intellectual standing. It was a chuzan, comparable perhaps to a diocese, entrusted by its honzan, or cathedral-Nishi Honganji, in Kyoto-with directing the affairs of, and, not incidentally, collecting fees from, some forty-three subordinate temples, twenty-four of them in Iwami, and the rest in adjacent provinces. It was also, from the eighteenth century, the seat of a theological seminary, later named the Mujokan. The priest who commanded the wealth and authority of such an impressive foundation was automatically a figure of consequence, not just in the immediate community, but in the entire province and beyond, extending even to the sect headquarters, Nishi Honganji itself.

Shinran, the thirteenth-century founder of Jodo Shinshu, had preached a message of comfort and salvation for all, confirmed by rebirth in the Pure Land, Amida's Western Paradise. This in itself was not so very unusual; several other of Japan's Buddhist sects, equally ancient, had proclaimed a similar message. But Shinran, in one respect, was far more radical than his Buddhist contemporaries. In other branches of Buddhism clergy were bound by a general rule of celibacy which, if not always observed as strictly as it might have been, at least precluded their leading openly married lives. Only in the latter part of the nineteenth century was this particular restriction relaxed. Not so Shinran, who, six centuries ahead of his time, enjoyed the company of women enough to father children by at least two of them. His disciples, and their disciples after them, simply followed the founder's example, taking wives, siring children, and ignoring those who asserted that married life and priestly function were incompatible. More than anything else it was the value Shinshu placed upon the family life of its priests that set Shin Buddhism apart from its competitors. And there was an important corollary involved. Shinshu clerics were generally succeeded by their children-sons, if they had them, sons-in-law, if they didn't-resulting in a priesthood which was almost exclusively hereditary. This was certainly the rule amongst the sect patriarchs, all of whom claimed direct descent from the founder, and who could find themselves in positions of eminence at extremely young ages if circumstances warranted it. It was no less the rule among country parishes.

Josenji, controlling its forty-three subordinate temples from its Ichigi site, was no exception. Gosei (1721-1794), the eleventh incumbent, it is true, did not inherit the post. His reputation as a doughty fighter for the truth had prompted his superiors to despatch him to Iwami in 1761 to counter a local schismatic, a task he handled so decisively that, later, when the living of Josenji fell vacant on the death of the childless tenth incumbent, the parishioners begged him to accept it. Even then, however, the prior claims of heredity were acknowledged. Tamaki, the dead priest's sister, was to legitimate the new lineage by marrying Rizen (1754-1819), the new priest's son.

Gosei, who served as Josenji's priest until his retirement in 1782, was nothing if not committed to his faith. With little enough tolerance for difference with fellow sect members, people with whom he would otherwise have had almost everything in common, he had still less for followers of other faiths, Buddhist or otherwise. He refused to allow monto to keep Shinto amulets in their houses, and attacked Japan's native religion in a tract entitled Hekinan taiben ("A Refutation of Willful Stupidity"). Little wonder that he was known locally as "'The Destroyer of Household Shrines." Little wonder, too, that it was shortly after his transfer to Josenji that the province's Shinto and Buddhist priests began their vociferous complaints against the kind of Shinshu intransigence he represented. Nevertheless, even if not popular outside his faith, Gosei had a distinguished career, as the author of several theological works and as an inspirational speaker, invited frequently to preach at Nishi Honganji and to lecture at its seminary. He is perhaps best known as the compiler of a collection of brief lives of pious Shinshu adherents, which, circulating at first in manuscript, was ultimately published under the title Myokoninden in 1842, almost fifty years after his death.

Rizen, Gosei's son and successor, was just as talented, energetic, determined, and, no doubt, opinionated as the father he succeeded. He, too, was a scholar, and, no more tolerant of perceived heresy than his father, was prepared to pursue it-at great risk to himself-into the very heart of his sect's hierarchy. In 1798 Rizen was to emerge as a commanding figure in one of Shin Buddhism's most serious, sensational, and violent doctrinal disputes, the Sango wakuran. In the third month of that year he had travelled to sect headquarters in Kyoto to attend ceremonies on the three hundredth anniversary of the death of Rennyo (1415-1499) who, next to Shinran, the founder, was the single most powerful figure in Shinshu history. There Rizen heard a sermon which both amazed and infuriated him. The preacher, rector of Nishi Honganji's theological seminary, declared that those who truly believed in the power of Amida's vow would naturally bear witness to their faith in the three forms (sango) of thought, word, and deed. To Rizen, as to many others, this injection of personal responsibility into the matter of salvation was a heresy, undercutting the sect's fundamental emphasis on the nenbutsu, the phrase which, if uttered at the end of life, would redeem even the most wicked. He reacted immediately, with a list of hostile questions, and then, to free himself for the struggle, announced his retirement at the age of forty-three. Over the next seven years, as the issue festered, and riots broke out both in the theological seminary and Nishi Honganji itself, Rizen threw himself into a polemical campaign, emerging, in 1805, on the winning side. In that year the bakufu, the shogun's government, intervened to settle the issue, sentencing the chief instigators to exile, and the Nishi Honganji patriarch, who had done nothing to control the situation, to one hundred days of house arrest.

Rizen's early retirement in the late summer of 1798 left Josenji and its many dependent temples in the care of his son Zenjo, then twenty-six years old. Any other career for the young man, destined as he was for the priesthood by both birth and training, would have been unthinkable. First, he was directly descended from Rennyo. Then, too, his claim to the Josenji living was two-fold. After all, his maternal grandfather had been the ninth priest, and his paternal grandfather the eleventh. His training, which began in 1782, when he was eight, simply confirmed that birthright. By the age of twelve he was already preaching, an activity that seems to have kept him busy for the rest of his life. In 1796 he was elevated to the status of koku ho jushoku, and finally, two years later, replaced his father as Josenji's chief priest. Zenjo was never to be the theologian his father and grandfather were. The pastoral responsibilities of his parish, together with its forty-three subordinate livings, kept him too busy for that. His main claim to attention seems to have been his artistic skill, one example of which, his portrait of his grandfather Gosei, still exists.

By the early summer of 1798, when he was abruptly thrust into the position his father had left vacant, the young priest was already married, and a father himself. As was common with Jodo Shinshu clergy, the wife chosen for him was-like her husband-a child of the manse, although in this case, an adopted one. At the time they had two sons, Mutsumaru, a little over three years old, and an infant, the just-born Toshimaru. It was, therefore, a happy Zenjo who assumed his new responsibilities, a prosperous young man, with a young wife and a young family. Jodo Shinshu, which had given him his livelihood, had also favored him with an opportunity unique among the sects of Japanese Buddhism-the chance of domestic happiness. Before the year was out, however, Zenjo was to learn the message of the Four Noble Truths in the cruellest way. What follows is his account.


An Account of Mutsumaru's Death

[This entry, from Zenjo's journal, dated 1798/9/18 begins with the young priest some twenty miles away from home. He has been preaching to the congregation of one of his subordinate temples at Kuki, then a small copper-mining town near what is now the border of Hiroshima Prefecture, and is spending the night in the house of a parishioner.]

After my evening sermon, I met with the ten parishioners who were to help collect for the temple roofing fund. With one thing and another, midnight came around, and I went to sleep. However, at what must have been about two in the morning, somebody began knocking at the door. I heard it immediately, and called "Where are you from?" "I'm from Ichigi," was the reply.


Excerpted from Bereavement and Consolation by Harold Bolitho Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Bereavement in Tokugawa Japan 1
1 Zenjo the Priest 31
2 Issa the Poet 61
3 Kyokuso the Scholar 103
Conclusion: Consolation in Tokugawa Japan 163
Abbreviations 189
Notes 191
Bibliography 211
Index 219
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