Ennin & the Heian Appropriation of Tang Culture


A review of Searching for the Law: Ennin’s Journal as a Key to the Heian Appropriation of Tang Culture, by Jesse Palmer.

Jesse Palmer’s dissertation uses the monk Ennin’s (794-868) record of his travels in Tang China (Nittō guhō junrei kōki 入唐求法巡礼行記) to explore the nature of Heian Buddhist ritual and cultural exchange with the continent, along with various aspects of the experience of traveling monks. Ennin’s eventful nine-year stay on the continent began when he accompanied the last official Heian embassy to the Tang in 838, aiming to bring back esoteric texts and initiation credentials to support the Tendai sect. On the embassy’s departure he had himself surreptitiously put back ashore at a Sillan cloister on Mt. Chi, where he managed to obtain permission to travel to the important sacred site of Mt Wutai (previously little-known in Japan) and to the capital of Chang’an, where he studied and received esoteric initiations. After being forcibly laicized during the Huichang persecution of Buddhism, he finally returned home laden with Buddhist texts, mandalas, and esoteric knowledge that shaped the subsequent development of Buddhist practices in Japan. Palmer argues persuasively for the value of journals like Ennin’s as embodiments of cultural capital that illuminate complex issues of cultural exchange; he is thus engaging with debates about the relative literary worth of premodern Japanese textual genres (with kanbun genres being historically undervalued) as well as with the ongoing debate over how to conceptualize interaction between Japan and the continent.

In the introductory chapter, Palmer gives an overview of the conceptual sources informing his work. He outlines the state of English-language secondary scholarship on Heian-Tang interaction, surveying older influence-based models and then firmly aligning himself with more recent work by scholars like Thomas LaMarre, David Pollack, and Charles Holcombe who have tried for a more nuanced understanding of the appropriation of continental cultural elements in premodern Japan. In terms of conceptualizing ritual practices and the social roles of East Asian monks, he particularly credits Ryuichi Abe’s work on the esoteric Buddhist paradigm and cultural roles of ritual, and Robert Buswell’s work on Buddhist monks in the Korean peninsula as purveyors of cultural technologies. To avoid imposing the framework of the modern nation state on his discussions of premodern East Asia, he emphasizes the points of cultural continuity between elites in the Japanese archipelago and the continent, using the terms Heian and Tang rather than Japan and China. His analysis is also informed by Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and potentially interlocking cultural fields, and by the key phrase ‘cultural technology’; by thinking of various kinds of cultural material as a kind of technology, valued for its practical functions and both shaping and shaped by its specific cultural moment, he seeks a fresh perspective on Buddhist ritual and other elements of continental cultural material in the context of Ennin’s journal.

Chapter 2 further explores the concept of ritual as cultural technology, as seen in Ennin’s accounts of shipboard rituals and his comparisons of Tang, Heian, and Sillan ritual events. Palmer argues that ritual in ninth-century East Asia was seen as universal (based on natural laws) rather than culturally relative, and as part of a broad and eclectic importation of cultural technology, rather than narrowly-defined ‘religion’. In Ennin’s accounts of the embassy’s sea voyage, ritual is treated as a form of practical problem-solving, with practices often selected by secular leaders to address specific dangers rather than for dogmatic or sectarian reasons. Ennin’s descriptions of Tang festivals also reflect an understanding of ritual as justified on functional grounds, reinforcing social order and creating symbolic capital for both the emperor and the people. Ennin’s comparisons of Tang and Heian ritual consistently emphasize parallels and continuities, while when discussing Sillan ritual practices he more often highlights the contrasts with Heian custom, reflecting his agenda in constructing the power relationships between cultural centers.

Chapter 3 continues the discussion of ritual as cultural technology in Ennin’s journal with a focus on Buddhist practices; the maigre feast as adapted to various contexts, Ennin’s account of his esoteric initiations, and Ennin’s study of Sanskrit. Although Ennin’s main purpose in traveling was to bring back esoteric texts, ritual information, and initiation credentials, his journal records relatively little about these activities (probably because he recorded such information elsewhere) and reflects little of the abstract doctrinal cohesiveness ascribed to him by later commentators. When he does discuss a Buddhist ritual, he tends to focus on technical aspects of ritual performance, including chanting style and Sanskrit pronunciation. Ennin describes various maigre feasts (ceremonial vegetarian meals) he attended; this ritual could be tailored to many different social contexts, from high state ritual to more spontaneous, local events, and his accounts demonstrate this versatility while providing detail to allow staging such rituals in Japan. His descriptions of Buddhist ritual fit into the same cultural-technology model as his other ritual accounts, with an emphasis on practicality, adaptability, and the similarities between Tang and Heian practice.

Chapter 4 examines Ennin’s interactions with the Tang bureaucracy, which he records in detail both as practical information for future travelers and as a form of cultural capital. Ennin pays close attention to specific local information like bureaucratic titles, descriptions of regalia, taboo words, and government ritual procedures. He also records his correspondence with Tang officials, which demanded careful attention to current standards in letter-writing form and etiquette (as encoded in the flourishing genre of shuyi, or letter-writing manuals). As Palmer shows, Ennin’s ability to participate correctly in the exchange of highly formulaic letters not only allowed the cultivation of official connections that were necessary to obtain permission and material assistance for travel, but also demonstrated his membership in a literate community bound by shared social ritual. Palmer also discusses Ennin’s perspective on the relationship between Buddhist and imperial-bureaucratic worldviews, noting that monks were largely integrated into Tang bureaucracy and entitled to governmental support. Despite the occasional serious conflict between Ennin’s Buddhist goals and the imperial bureaucracy, as when he was refused permission to travel to Mt Tiantai, Ennin does not explore these conflicts in abstract, preferring to emphasize the compatibility of Buddhist and imperial systems.

Chapter 5 deals with the construction of sacred space; the development of Mt Wutai as a Buddhist site, the descriptions of landscape (and particularly the sacred sites of Mt Wutai) in Ennin’s journal, and the implications for ideas about sacred space in Heian Japan. Palmer argues that the concrete travel information in Ennin’s journal might practically benefit future travelers, but also works to reinforce the interconnected Buddhist and imperial symbolic systems. Ennin’s descriptions of Mt. Wutai also provide a blueprint for the conceptualization of a sacred mountain, and were influential in the development of Mt Hiei as a Buddhist site.

Chapter 6 concerns Ennin’s account of the Huichang persecution of Buddhism, a period in which Emperor Wuzong and his Confucian advisors imposed escalating restrictions on the Buddhist clergy culminating in large-scale forced laicization and the confiscation of monastery property. Palmer first summarizes the background of this crisis, its political and economic motivations, and the way in which Buddhism became a lightning rod for general tensions within the imperial system. He then turns to Ennin’s account, which criticizes the emperor and his Daoist favorites and includes some descriptions of popular resistance to the edicts, but largely ignores the potential challenge to an understanding of Buddhist and imperial systems as complementary, making no attempt to claim an independent authority for the Buddhist establishment.

Finally, Chapter 7 surveys the broader genre of journals as it both informed and was informed by Ennin’s journal. Working from a concept of literature as responding to a specific political and cultural context rather than necessarily lyrical or personal, Palmer sketches the early history of court kanbun diaries as semi-private handbooks of ritual precedent, then outlines the way that Ennin’s journal influenced the travels and writings of monks who came after him and also suggests some possible parallels in the kana journal tradition.

This dissertation benefits the field in several ways. First, it upholds a recent trend towards  nuanced understanding of premodern Japanese adaptation and appropriation of cultural material from the continent, demonstrating that such a perspective can yield interesting readings of premodern texts. Its discussion of ritual as cultural technology suggests a model that accounts for the practical importance placed on importing continental ideas and allows us to look beyond a compartmentalized understanding of Buddhist monks and their agendas. It also makes a strong case for the value of monks’ travel journals, especially when read carefully in terms of authorial subjectivity and the creation of cultural capital within dynamics of Heian-Tang cultural exchange. Reading Ennin’s journal as his effort to turn his experiences in the Tang into concrete cultural capital adds layers of meaning to the text, allowing it to stand as commentary on a complex set of cultural dynamics as well as a record of one traveler’s experience.

Primary Sources

Ennin’s journal, Nittō guhō junrei kōki 入唐求法巡礼行記

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine, 2009. 318pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Klein.

Jennifer Guest
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Columbia University

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