Flowing Traces: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan

Flowing Traces: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan


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ISBN-13: 9780691603322
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #137
Pages: 290
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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Flowing Traces

Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan

By James H. Sanford, William R. LaFleur, Masatoshi Nagatomi


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07365-1


Symbol and Yugen: Shunzei's Use of Tendai Buddhism


The beauty of holiness
the beauty of a man's anger
reflecting his sex
or a woman's either,
or a little stone church
from a height
close to the camera
the apple tree in blossom
or the far lake
in the distance
are equal
as they are unsurpassed.

(William Carlos Williams, "View by Color Photography on a Commercial Calendar")

There is general agreement among both Japanese and Western literary historians that much of the verse of twelfth-century Japan is strikingly different from that written earlier, and that this change is best described as the presence of a new depth (fukasa) in the new poetry. According to Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner,

to some degree the depth derives from a complexity of technique, but the subjectivity lent poetry by the preceding period is absorbed by the new techniques, and charges them with a kind of resonance often belied by what on the surface is an easy intelligibility. When a poem seems to present us with description, we are apt to take the imagistic beauty of the poem at face value and to miss the deeper implications.

These "resonances" and "deeper implications" certainly included a multilayered sequence of allusions—not only to earlier Japanese verse but also to the literature of China. A great deal of earlier literary history could now be compressed into a single poem. In this way, an individual poem often reflected a variety and wealth of earlier poetic worlds. Brower and Miner are justified in concluding that "such allusive depth shows the extent to which a poem of this age is often neoclassical, since it may be fully appreciated and understood only through a knowledge of earlier portions of the Sino-Japanese literary tradition."

There is, however, another important ingredient that went into the development of the detectable "depth" in the poetry of this era, an element clearly drawn into poetry from moves and processes in the intellectual and religious world of the time. Noting its importance for poets such as Fujiwara Shunzei (1114–1204) and his son Teika (1162–1241), Brower and Miner write, "The adaptation of a religious ideal to poetic practice may seem remarkable, yet it is hardly surprising in this strongly religious age, when the art of poetry was regarded as a way of life and just as surely a means to the ultimate truth as the sermons of the Buddha."3 The truth contained in this apt observation deserves more attention than it has been given in literary histories of Japan. To explore its significance in some detail will help to clarify some of the intellectual issues behind the major developments in medieval Japanese literary aesthetics.

The twelfth century was one of great social and political upheaval in Japan—a circumstance probably not unrelated to the achievement of a new depth in the verse of poets such as Shunzei, Saigyo, and Teika. This century was also one in which the problems and propositions of Tendai philosophy had a direct impact on an emerging literary aesthetic, and this was clearly of fundamental importance for the new depth in poetry.

The effect on aesthetics was especially profound. Sen'ichi Hisamatsu, one of Japan's most important literary scholars, has described it as the key to understanding not only certain poems of the era but also the shape and particular character of the era as a whole:

The literary concept known as yugen is an important criterion in judging whether or not a thing is "medieval." Yugen as an aesthetic quality was esteemed throughout the medieval period. In the subtle overtones of its symbolic statements, one discerns the influence of Buddhist philosophy, to which men turned for solace during the tremendous social upheavals of the late ancient and medieval period. Buddhism is the basic element in medieval literature.

This chapter will focus on the Buddhist component in what I would call Japan's "high" medieval aesthetic and attempt to clarify some aspects of the much praised but always elusive aesthetic quality called yugen.

Understanding yugen involves entering a world whose intellectual presuppositions and values differ considerably from those of the modern West and also, in important and interesting ways, from those of the medieval West. To identify and clarify some of these values, we must take seriously the claim by poets such as Shunzei, Teika, Saigy, and Jien that their minds and their literary ideals were shaped by certain texts and religious practices. It is important to read and interpret works they read, such as the Lotus Sutra and the Mo-ho chih-kuan (Jpn: Makashikan; The great calming and contemplation). By so doing we may be able to reconstruct the intellectual and religious structure of this era; and by knowing better the mind of the era we will need to rely less on a host of separate, unrelated bits of information in our reading of ancient texts. The intention of this kind of study is to prevent rather than contribute to that dire state of affairs in which, according to George Steiner, "the 'text' is receding from immediacy, from vital personal recognition on stilts of footnotes, ever more rudimentary, ever more unashamed in their conveyance of information which was once the alphabet of reading." The kind of exercise undertaken here should make the texts of the era—both scriptures and poems—more accessible and immediate even though they represent a considerable departure from Western modes of thought.

We are well aided in this by the superb scholarship of the Japanese. Konishi Jin'ichi, for example, has reminded us that there is a good deal of continuity between the Tendai Buddhism of the Heian period and the much more famous Zen Buddhism of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. The point is significant since the periodization of history places the accent on change and discontinuity, with the direct consequence that we tend to attribute to Zen the aspects of the medieval aesthetic that we find most fascinating and culturally distinctive. Nevertheless, the crucial aesthetic value, yugen, really had its matrix in the Heian period—that is, before the end of the twelfth century—and in the Buddhism of the Tendai school. It was already a part of the Japanese experience before the institutional implanting of Zen and the massive impact of Sung culture on Japan during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Konishi has called special attention to Shunzei's and Teika's use of a Chinese text, the Moho chih-kuan by Chih-i (538–597), for the forging of their contributions to the evolving medieval aesthetic. A number of scholars concur with this judgment; the thought and practice of Tendai, especially as expressed in this major treatise, cannot be dismissed or regarded lightly in any attempt to grasp the flowering of the arts in medieval Japan.

The Tendai school has been among the least studied by Western scholars, and within the spectrum of Buddhist schools our knowledge of it seems to have a special degree of imprecision and obscurity. It is often thought of as merely eclectic and amorphous. We tend to portray it as a matrix, frequently by the metaphor of a mother known chiefly through her sons—the dynamic and much more sharply etched historical personalities of Dogen, Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren. For a variety of reasons, these "sons" of Tendai and the "new" forms of Buddhism they established—forms that had their growth in the Kamakura era—have much more readily captured the attention of Western scholars and have been the subject of extensive research and study. The result has been that the Tendai "mother" out of which they all emerged has remained in relative obscurity, a figure whose role as genetrix is acknowledged but whose own specific character has elicited little serious attention. The following discussion will not, to be sure, entirely redress this imbalance, but it should help to bring this very important school of Buddhism into somewhat sharper focus, as we attempt to understand the evolution of the medieval Japanese literary aesthetic.

The texts to be considered in this chapter are, first, the Lotus Sutra, the foundation of the Tendai school and the most important Buddhist scripture for the people of the Heian period; second, the Mo-ho chih-kuan, the major treatise of the Chinese thinker Chih-i; third, a key section of the Korai futeisho (Poetic styles past and present), the only full-length treatise on poetry by Fujiwara Shunzei; and, finally, a number of specific poems in which the new depth, the yugen, of later Heian and early Kamakura verse is detectable. By demonstrating the interpretative continuity throughout these texts, perhaps both Tendai philosophy and the medieval Japanese aesthetic will be brought more clearly into view.

It is not difficult to understand why the literate people of the Heian period cherished the Lotus Sutra. It is still commonly regarded as a literary gem, and it was the stimulus for much later literature. Rich and varied, it functions on what Umehara Takeshi calls a level of high drama. A number of its extended metaphors and parables are widely admired for their vividness of narrative and finesse of detail. The work is, in fact, so colorful and picturesque that modern readers have occasionally wondered if it is not mostly froth, with no substantial or philosophical dimension. Though the question is a valid one, the suspicion is, I think, unfounded. This sutra is both a literary tour de force and expressive of a fundamental philosophical perspective in Mahayana Buddhism.

In both its original intention and its subsequent uses, the Lotus Sutra was a harmonizing text; that is, it was useful in bringing unity and order into situations that were rife with conflict or in danger of disjunction. The text's origins in India seem to have been in an attempt to unite and pacify the Buddhist community at a time when there was serious disagreement over which of three "vehicles," or saintly ideals, was to be pursued. That is, it addresses itself to a situation in which some Buddhists claim to follow the path of the bodhisattva by aiming at both their own and others' salvation; a second group pursues the way of the pratyekabuddha by trying to save oneself solely through one's own efforts; and a third group holds to the ideal of the sravaka, according to which one listens to the Buddha's sermons and, on the strength of these, works for self-salvation. Each recognizably different vehicle must have had its defenders as well as its detractors at the time the Lotus was composed in India—probably sometime during the first century C.E. In this context, the Lotus unhesitatingly declares the underlying unity of all three vehicles; it argues that all are variants of the one way, the way of Buddhahood. It was thus probably intended to serve a broadly ecumenical purpose by bringing greater unity to the Buddhist community. Later on, and in a very different way, it again served a harmonizing purpose when it was taken as the text that alone could bring order to the vast array of sutras in T'ang China, sutras that, at least in their modes of discourse, often seemed incompatible and contradictory.

The reason for the sutra's ready utility in situations of disunity or disparity is that, from its opening sections, it directly addresses the problem of the relationship of the one and the many—that is, the relationship of unity and diversity. Its primary proposal, offered early in the text, is the notion of upaya, which Chinese call fang pien and Japanese, in their reading of the Chinese characters, hoben. This term has usually been translated into English as "skillful devices" or "expedient means," although it might be better, in order to disallow the notion of a duality, to translate it as "modes." The core idea is present in the following excerpt from the chapter on hoben. (These words are supposed to have been spoken by The World Honored One to his disciple.)

Sariputra, since becoming a Buddha, I, in a variety of modes and through many kinds of metaphors, have been conversing and preaching very widely, thus in countless ways leading living beings and helping them abandon their attachments.

The idea is that the various vehicles, even when they have resulted in sectarian developments, are compatible and fundamentally united on a deeper level. The different modes are the consequence of a genius for adaptability that translates the Dharma into a variety of forms for a variety of people.

What follows in the sutra is perhaps its most exciting, unique, and interesting development. The brief statement about hoben is followed by a sequence of chapters that exfoliate with parables and allegories, each purporting to be another way the sutra's message can be concretely and dramatically grasped. The most famous example is the third chapter, on parable (hiyu). It narrates the story of a rich man who, seeing his children trapped in a burning house but so enchanted by their toys that they are oblivious to their own danger, promises them even more extravagant toys, of three types (corresponding to the three vehicles). These successfully entice the children out of the house and into safety. In a later chapter, another, almost equally famous, simile compares the three different vehicles to shrubs, plants, and trees of different heights, all of which receive the rain equally.

A dense cloud, spreading over and everywhere covering the whole three-thousand- great-thousandfold world, pours down its rain equally at the same time. From the rain of one cloud each according to the nature of its kind acquires its development, opening its blossoms and bearing its fruit. Though produced in one soil and moistened by the same rain, yet these plants and trees are all different.

Know, Kasyapa! The Tathagata is also like this; he appears in the world like the rising of the great cloud.

Thus, the point about a single message mediated through a variety of modes is made again and again in the text.

All this seems quite straightforward, and for that reason, it is tempting to interpret the role and purpose of the parables and allegories in the Lotus as similar to those of rhetorical forms in Western sacred and secular literatures. But to do so is to miss the main point of the Lotus, as well as the opportunity to see how the text is both a literary and religious tour de force.

A direct comparison with the role and use of literary allegory in medieval Europe serves to highlight the difference. In recent decades scholars have produced some excellent studies of the history of interpretation and the use of literary modes in Europe. In his brilliant work Mimesis, Erich Auerbach called attention to the fact that "figural interpretation," while completely alien to what had been the literary norm in classical antiquity, was the principal mode in medieval Christendom. In figural interpretation, "sensory occurrence pales before the power of figural meaning" and there occurs "an antagonism between sensory appearance and meaning, an antagonism which permeates the early, and indeed the whole, Christian view of reality." In his lucid discussion of the importance of allegory in the aesthetics of medieval Europe, D. W. Robertson, Jr. cites and approves the succinct definition of allegory given by Isidore of Seville, according to whom it is "the art of saying one thing to mean another." For the medieval Christians, the important thing was to be able to decode literal and historical messages because these represented "a shadow of something else more real or more significant." This decoding was thought to be possible through the faculty of reason; Robertson notes that in this context, "To eat the chaff is to be a beast of burden; to eat the grain is to be human. He who uses human reason, therefore, will cast off the chaff and hasten to eat the grain of the spirit." As mediated through the hermeneutics of Augustine, the influence of Plato—especially of the Republic—was deep. And since, according to Iris Murdoch, it is in the Republic that "the forms are transcendent and the objects of opinion diminish near the lower end of the scale from 'being' toward 'not being,'" we can understand how it happened that in medieval Europe there was "an hierarchical mode of thought which emphasizes the reality of abstract values."


Excerpted from Flowing Traces by James H. Sanford, William R. LaFleur, Masatoshi Nagatomi. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1Symbol and Yugen: Shunzei's Use of Tendai Buddhism16
2Nature, Courtly Imagery, and Sacred Meaning in the Ippen Hijiri-e47
3Prefiguration and Narrative in Medieval Hagiography: The Ippen Hijiri-e76
4Coping with Death: Paradigms of Heaven and Hell and the Six Realms in Early Literature and Painting93
5Seeing and Being Seen: The Mirror of Performance131
6"The Path of My Mountain": Buddhism in No149
7Chujohime: The Weaving of Her Legend180
8Multiple Commemorations: The Vegetable Nehan of Ito Jakuchu201
9Holy Horrors: The Sermon-Ballads of Medieval and Early Modern Japan234

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