Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

by Charlotte Eubanks

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Miracles of Book and Body is the first book to explore the intersection of two key genres of sacred literature in medieval Japan: sutras, or sacred Buddhist texts, and setsuwa, or “explanatory tales,” used in sermons and collected in written compilations. For most of East Asia, Buddhist sutras were written in classical Chinese and inaccessible to many devotees. How, then, did such devotees access these texts? Charlotte D. Eubanks argues that the medieval genre of “explanatory tales” illuminates the link between human body (devotee) and sacred text (sutra). Her highly original approach to understanding Buddhist textuality focuses on the sensual aspects of religious experience and also looks beyond Japan to explore pre-modern book history, practices of preaching, miracles of reading, and the Mahayana Buddhist “cult of the book.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520265615
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/01/2011
Series: Buddhisms , #10
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Charlotte D. Eubanks is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature , Japanese, and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

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Miracles of Book and Body

Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

By Charlotte Eubanks


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94789-4


The Ontology of Sutras

THE FINAL CHAPTER OF THE LOTUS SUTRA opens on a very curious scene. The bodhisattva Fugen (Sk: Samantabhadra), long abiding in the eastern quarter of the cosmos, has heard that a buddha is preaching the Lotus Sutra on Earth. He arrives, with a multitude of beings trailing him, at the foot of the historical Buddha. After circumambulating the Buddha seven times, he announces, "I have come to listen receptively. I beg of the World Honored One to preach [the Lotus Sutra] to us!" He immediately follows this request with a question: "After the extinction of the Thus Come One, how may a good man or good woman attain this" Lotus Sutra? The Buddha provides a brief answer to Fugen's question, and the bulk of the remainder of the chapter is then given over to the various vows Fugen makes to guard and protect anyone who accepts, keeps, reads, recites, copies, explains, or practices this scripture. In the course of these lengthy praises, Fugen goes so far as to maintain that if a person "forgets a single phrase or a single gatha [verse] of the Lotus Sutra, I will teach him, reading and reciting together with him," so that he is able to remember it.

What is curious about this scene is that Fugen asks for something he clearly does not need. He arrives in great excitement and requests to hear a sutra that he presumably has not heard before. And yet a mere paragraph later—and still having heard nothing of the sutra—he vows to help other beings study the sutra, which he clearly already has completely memorized, down to the last phrase and verse. In the tiny gap of white space between Fugen's request and his question there is narrative slippage, a textual fissure that allows us to peer more deeply into the motivating concerns and pivotal themes of the sutra. On a narrative level, Fugen's false request produces a litany of desperation rather than the expected preaching of the Lotus Sutra. Each of Fugen's vows begins with the prefatory phrase, "In the last five hundred years, in the midst of a muddied, evil age ... if there is anyone ... "

Thus, Fugen's dramatic last-minute appearance underscores two fundamental things about the Lotus Sutra. First, it will be exceedingly difficult for any of us who live in this degenerate later age to encounter the sutra, and, second, we can never be certain that the text we have encountered is precisely the Lotus Sutra because what we have of the sutra consists largely of narrative about the sutra: we hear of its powers and its rarity, we hear bodhisattvas and buddhas from other lands praise it, we hear what happens to those who slander it, and so forth. Many of these narrative gestures concentrate on increasing readerly desire while constantly obscuring the object of that desire. Is the sutra called the Lotus Sutra—the book I can hold in my hands and read aloud—the same thing as the teaching called the Lotus Sutra—the thing Fugen was so eager to hear? I would argue that by denying the simple satisfaction of readerly desire, texts like these involve their readers in an insatiably desirous relationship to writing and, in doing so, the matize the reader-text relationship, marking this as one of the crucial concerns that the text is trying to explore and for which it is trying to script the rules of engagement.

Other scholars, on whose work I build here, have explored the various complicated and compelling ways that Mahayana sutras cut across oral and written modes of discourse, navigate between aural and visual sense worlds, and perhaps even disrupt various norms of mainstream Buddhist traditions. This last point, concerning a distinction between Mahayana and "mainstream" Buddhism, is tied into an abiding concern in modern scholarship with the origins of the Mahayana in India—not the intellectual focus of this book, but an issue that requires some clarification before we can move forward.


The last half century has seen multiple attempts to theorize or generalize the origins of the Mahayana and to define the core concerns that caused it eventually to split from the Buddhist mainstream. Survey materials, textbooks, and encyclopedia entries often characterize the Mahayana as a reform movement that arose out of "dissatisfaction" with perceived "shortcomings in the Theravada tradition," such as a primary concern with "individual salvation" rather than the liberation of all beings. Hirakawa Akira, starting in the 1950s, offers a second approach, stressing the importance of laity and the centrality of stupa worship in the formation of the early Mahayana. Though his theses have been heavily criticized and largely disproved, his work may be credited with generating sustained academic conversation about the shape of early Mahayana. Responding to Hirakawa, several scholars, particularly beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, advanced a third argument: that the Mahayana was "the work of a predominantly monastic order of meditators engaged in strenuous ascetic practices, people asserting, in short, that theBuddha is to be found in and through the realization of the dharma, not the worship of relics." Importantly, this third position re-centers the focus, from stupa to dharma, and reasserts the centrality of the Buddhist teachings as contained in the written sutras. In this sense, it bears a surface similarity to Gregory Schopen's early work on the "cult of the book," which provides a fourth angle on Mahayana origins: that the Mahayana distinguished itself by establishing cultic centers organized not around stupas, but rather around written sutra texts that were recited, worshipped, honored, and circumambulated.

It is absolutely essential, however, to decouple the question of origins from the culture of books. In his later work, Schopen moves beyond the analysis of the linguistic record (what sutras say) to an analysis of the material record (what given, datable sutra texts look like). He points out that sources do provide evidence of a working "book-cult" in India—manuscripts whose "covering boards or first leaves were often heavily stained and encrusted from continuous daubing with unguents and aromatic powders," for instance—but that this "evidence is almost a thousand years later than it should be" (at least according to his earlier thesis). That is, although the linguistic text of sutras, composed between the first and fifth centuries C.E., seems to call for book worship, material evidence for such worship dates to no earlier than the eleventh to fifteenth centuries C.E. in India. Arguing in a similar vein, Jan Nattier has noted that passages concerning sutra worship are often interpolations, sections and phrases that were stitched into the sutras in their later versions, and she concludes that "the emergence of the Mahayana ... does not begin with the cult of the book, but rather culminates in it at some point." The book-cult, then, while perhaps not part of the story of Mahayana origins, is nevertheless an aspect of Mahayana that became increasingly important over time, and which achieved particular significance in Chinese-language translations of the sutras and in East Asian cultures (such as Japan) that relied on these translations. An examination of the Mahayana "cult of the book" thus will tell us not about the Great Vehicle's origins in India but about the movement in some of its localized, East Asian forms.

In addition to distinguishing between the early years of Indian origins and later developments in the sinophone Buddhist sphere, we also need to make a distinction between "what sutras want" and "what sutras were given." Answering the question of what sutras want (for the purposes of this study) is a matter of examining what they ask for, in the Chinese translations that were consulted most often in medieval Japan—what they ask for, but may or may not have gotten. Inquiring into what sutras were given is a matter of examining the material record, which will provide evidence concerning when, where, and how sutras' desires were actualized. In response to the first question—"What do sutras want?"—we know that the Chinese translations of Mahayana sutras that were circulating in medieval Japan asked for a wide variety of things, including worship, circumambulation, and offerings; they asked to be read, recited, memorized, and held. In response to the second question—"What were sutras given?"—we know that by at least the tenth century in Japan they were being worshipped, read, recited, copied, expounded upon in sermons, and memorized. A similar array of praxes surrounding Mahayana sutras may have developed as early as the third or fourth century in China and as late as the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in India. As will become clear, throughout this study references to sutras treat only the first of these questions, the one concerning the abstract, idealized nature of desire as discernable in the linguistic record, while I use Japanese sources (texts written in Japan, using either the Japanese or the Chinese language) to examine questions about the actualization of sutras' desires and traces these actualizations leave in the material record.

To be clear, then, I come to Mahayana sutras specifically from the vantage point of medieval Japanese explanatory tales (setsuwa). My general purpose in this and succeeding chapters is to outline the textual attitudes of a certain body of literature that began in India, was translated into Chinese, and was then reinterpreted in Japan. Rather than speaking of the Indian origins of the Mahayana, I am interested in the idea of Mahayana textual culture as constructed by the authors of Japanese setsuwa. As a medieval genre, setsuwa are an often-miraculous form of literature that assumes sutras are living beings who may incorporate themselves into human form. Thus, my main interest in sutras has to do with exploring three questions. First, how did sutras come to be alive, that is, what narrative tools propel them into life? Second, now that they are alive, what do they want: as living beings, what are their requirements, their equivalent of food and shelter? And finally, what is the nature of the reader-text relationship they propose; in other words, what happens to human beings who decide to give sutras what they ask for? In short, I aminterested in examining the rules and the stakes of sutra engagement and how we, as humans and as readers, play into them.

First, how is it that sutras come alive? Mahayana sutras use a variety of literary techniques that modern readers might most readily associate with metafiction. Taken collectively, these metafictional strategies impact the ontological status of Mahayana sutras in some importantways. The issue of textual ontology can be generally glossed with the oft-quoted question: "If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where [is] Hamlet?" In other words, where, how, in what plane of action does a literary text exist? I suggest that by obscuring the authorial hand and complicating any notion of a simple origin in oral discourse, Mahayana sutras cut themselves off from their point of creation and establish a unique ontology for themselves. Instead of mooring themselves to an external source, as most literature does, Mahayana sutras seek to take the authority that might otherwise be invested in an author or in a speaker and invest it in themselves. We see this most plainly in the argument that sutras contain the entire body of the Buddha, and that they are, in fact, the entity that gives birth to buddhas. Mahayana sutras thus frame themselves as textual constructs that are alive and eerily self-aware.

Moving forward, now that sutras have a certain sentience, what do they want? I argue that sutras are, in essence, a nervous genre. Aware of their vulnerabilities to the ravages of time and convinced they are always in danger of dying, they evince a strong reproductive drive. Mahayana sutras are careful to include within themselves instructions about how they should be propagated, promises of reward for those who agree to do the propagating, and threats to inflict pain on those who do not comply. In short, having successfully placed themselves in a position of agency, sutras speak from this position, demanding very particular things from their readers, only one of which is actually to be read.

Finally, what is the nature of the reader-text relationship that Mahayana sutras propose? Here I explore the persistent rhetoric of the "vessel" or "container" through which the mind (Jp: kokoro) of the devotee becomes metaphorically linked to two other Buddhist sites: the stupa and the scroll. This word "mind" needs some explanation. Buddhism recognizes six "sense organs" (Jp: rokkon, literally the "six roots"): the eye is the sense organ that perceives form; the ear, sound; the nose, scent; the tongue, flavor; the body, the "touch" of external stimulus; and, finally, consciousness perceives dharma, itself a multivalent term that in its more specific instances indicates the Buddhist teachings, and at its most expansive encompasses the true nature of reality, the "laws" of the universe. The salient point here is that "consciousness" is embodied, firmly situated in the flesh. This means that the "mind" (Jp: kokoro) is at once the rational and logical center of thought (what in English we might associate with the "brain"), and it is part and parcel of the fabric of our bodies and sensual perceptions (what in English we might associate with the "heart").This "mind" has a physical locale: it resides somewhere in the region of the chest, a detail that will prove important in the discussions that follow. Whenever I use the word "mind" in this book, this is the entity to which I refer. Considering the reader-text relation, then, ultimately I argue that what Mahayana sutras seek is nothing short of a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the human body. In this relationship, the human body serves as a host organism for the sutra-as-symbiont. It is precisely this symbiotic relationship that establishes the ground rules of Mahayana textual culture and that becomes the subject of so much miracle literature in medieval Japan.


In this chapter I will be toggling between several early Mahayana sutras with the aim of creating a synchronic sketch of the genre as a whole and paying particular attention to what sutras say about their own textuality. All of the sutras I survey here were known in medieval Japan through their classical Chinese translations. My point in treating them as a group is to suggest the degree to which their themes and strategies overlap. I treat Mahayana sutras as a literary genre rather than as the intellectual property of any given spiritual school or group of schools. This approach reflects my grounding in setsuwa, a genre that transgresses sectarian bounds.

My basic criterion for deciding what sutras to include in this chapter is whether or not a given sutra appears in setsuwa. The Lotus Sutra clearly receives the lion's share of attention, with the Pure Land sutras following in a collective second place and the others considerably further behind. Properly speaking, the Flower Ornament Sutra, which I discuss at length below, did not attract much attention in Japanese setsuwa literature, possibly because its length made many forms of popular devotion (memorization, for instance) quite difficult. Nevertheless, when it does appear in the literature, it makes a powerful impact: Myoe (the monk who severed his ear) was a devotee of the Flower Ornament Sutra. Further, the sutra is particularly germane to this discussion because it is largely given over to describing the special characteristics of bodhisattvas, distinctions that helpfully illuminate the function of memory in the preservation of sacred text. The only other anomaly is the Heart Sutra. Because of its extreme brevity, this sutra was widely memorized and chanted even by illiterate believers. Although the Heart Sutra appears frequently in setsuwa literature, its 276 written characters say little about textual culture, so I omit it from my discussion in this chapter.

One distinguishing characteristic of Mahayana sutras is that they were composed in the early centuries of the Common Era, nearly half a millennium after the historical Buddha's death. Nevertheless, they all stage themselves as oral discourses, generally with the historical Buddha serving as the main character. The Lotus Sutra is typical in this regard and begins by placing the Buddha at Vulture Peak on the Indian subcontinent addressing a vast audience. The sutra centers on a series of lengthy dialogues between the Buddha and various interlocutors, the course of which produces a number of famous parables such as the parable of the burning house, which I mention in passing below. The Lotus was translated into Chinese a number of times, most famously by a team of translators led by Kumarajiva (344–413), and it is his translation (T 262) that I refer to in this study.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Sutras
Note on Setsuwa
List of Abbreviations

Introduction: The Cult of the Book and the Culture of Text

1. The Ontology of Sutras
2. Locating Setsuwa in Performance
3. Decomposing Bodies, Composing Texts
4. Textual Transubstantiation and the Place of Memory

Conclusion: On Circumambulatory Reading

Works Cited


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