Esoteric Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Literature


A review of The Joy of the Dharma: Esoteric Buddhism and the Early Medieval Transformation of Japanese Literature, by Ethan David Bushelle.

Scholars have long agreed that medieval Japanese literature was profoundly influenced by Buddhism. How exactly Buddhist thought and practice impacted the composition of verse, on the other hand, is still a matter of debate. Scholarship on medieval poetics and literary theory tends to concentrate on the moral implications of secular writing. In particular, scholars of Japanese literature point to the problem of composing “wild words and fanciful phrases.” First employed by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (772-846) in a plea that his words might be transformed to “turn the wheel of the Dharma,” among Japanese clerics and literati this phrase became synonymous with the sin of “ornate speech” (kigo). This conundrum, according to the normative view, required poets to defend the composition of Japanese verse (waka) and tales of fiction (monogatari) against a “puritanical orthodoxy” (William LaFleur, The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, p. 91).

In his 2015 dissertation, Ethan Bushelle offers an alternative view. Rather than cast the nexus of Buddhism and literature as a moral conflict, Bushelle argues that the composition of waka and monogatari were justified through “a discourse on Dharma joy” (p. 18). Bushelle begins the first chapter, “Songs of Dharma Joy: Esoteric Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Poetry,” by outlining the genealogy of the discourse on Dharma joy (hōraku). The most explicit manifestation of this discourse was the development of Dharma joy waka. These poems were composed on classical topics, but their defining characteristic was that they were recited at shrines as offerings to local kami. By the thirteenth century, Dharma joy waka became their own genre of poetry and were often adopted by renga poets. Less explicit, however, is the origin of these poetic offerings to the kami and the doctrinal foundation of Dharma joy.

In the first section, Bushelle proposes that Dharma joy waka can be traced to theories of mantra and hymns in the writings of Tendai exegetes. In the most narrow sense, Dharma joy denotes the ecstatic state of obtaining buddhahood, when the practitioner has successfully cut off all attachments and ended the suffering caused by the cycle of rebirth. Therefore, Dharma joy is strictly internal. However, the Buddha’s preaching functions to guide sentient beings to this goal, meaning the experience of Dharma joy must be accessible through this preaching. As Bushelle notes, the Tendai school upheld the Lotus Sūtra as the supreme manifestation of the Buddha’s preaching. With the introduction of new ritual technologies and development of recitation practices referred to generally as “esoteric,” Tendai exegetes such as Ennin (784–864) and his disciple Annen (841–885/915) endeavored to integrate these practices with the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra. This Lotus-Esoteric discourse, Bushelle argues, was the doctrinal basis for the recitation of hymns in Buddhist liturgies and repentance rites.

The remainder of the chapter clarifies how this Lotus-Esoteric discourse informed the interpretation of hymns and nenbutsu used in a new style of liturgy that emerged in the late tenth and eleventh centuries. The most influential of these assemblies was the “Assembly for the Promotion of Chinese Learning,” or Kangakue, established in 964 by Yoshishige no Yasutane (933–1002) and Minamoto no Tamenori (941–1011). The format of the assembly followed a Tendai liturgical program. However, in addition to the monastic formula of lectures on the Lotus Sūtra in the morning and nenbutsu practice in the evening, Yasutane incorporated a late-night session for the composition and recitation of Chinese verse. Although these poems were strictly on topics from the sutra or paeans to the Buddha, Bushelle suggests that the liturgical process, whereby the literati utilized Buddhist chants as a model for composing verse, established a precedent for reciting waka within a Buddhist liturgical structure.

The second chapter, “The Poet’s Repentance: Shikan Contemplation and Love Poetry in Shunzei’s Korai Fūteishō,” reassesses the moral dilemma of composing “fanciful phrases.” The twelfth century witnessed some of the most famous poets and literary commentators in Japanese history. Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114–1204), his son Teika (1162–1241), and his friend Saigyō (1118–1190) generated a new mode of composing waka on profane topics, especially on the topic of love, by imbuing them with hidden Buddhist implications. Scholars of Japanese literature overwhelmingly consider Shunzei’s Korai Fūteishō to be the definitive poetic treatise of his time, suggesting that it was written to justify the blurring of the sacred and profane in waka. In particular, Shunzei’s reference to “Tendai shikan” in his preface has been the subject of a number of studies on Japanese poetics. Scholars have described this reference in philosophical terms or as an allusion to meditation. However, Bushelle contends that previous treatments of Shunzei’s preface have ignored the historical and practical context within which he understood “Tendai shikan.” For instance, William LaFleur concludes in his study of the preface that this reference to Tendai practice alluded to a mystical quality (yūgen) in Shunzei’s poetry (LaFleur, p. 94). Rather than a form of “Zen” meditation or an aesthetics of poetry, Bushelle demonstrates that Tendai repentance rites provided the interpretative framework for Shunzei’s concept of Buddhist practice and his doctrinal justification for composing waka consisting of “floating words and fanciful phrases.”

In outlining the ritual context of Shunzei’s poetics, Bushelle first notes that the preface to the Korai Fūteishō was written in response to a question from his student, Imperial Princess Shikishi (1149–1201). According to Bushelle, Shunzei’s comparison of waka to shikan was directed specifically toward Shikishi. Like Shunzei and other tonsured literati, Shikishi was very familiar with the textual basis of this practice, the Mohe zhiguan attributed to the Tiantai patriarch Zhiyi (538–597). Along with Shikishi, Shunzei’s circle of poets included several members of the Tendai clergy who extensively studied and lectured on the Mohe zhiguan and its system of shikan practice. These same tonsured poets composed waka, and Shikishi in particular was renowned for her love poetry. Therefore, as Bushelle points out, the fact that she was the addressee of the Korai Fūteishō suggests Shunzei was attempting to reconcile the composition of love poetry with Buddhist teachings and practices.

Furthermore, Bushelle argues that Shunzei’s knowledge of shikan was mediated by Tendai repentance rites. He credits the Waka Mandokoro, a literary gathering of clergy and aristocrats for the purpose of composing and reciting waka, as the source of Shunzei and Shikishi’s knowledge of shikan. The Waka Mandokoro began with an invocation administered by another member of Shunzei’s circle, the Tendai preacher Chōken (1126–1203). After invoking the vow of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva to protect those who recite the Lotus Sūtra, Chōken called for the composition of waka as a Japanese form of recitation and manifestation of the Buddha’s teaching. These waka differed from those of the Kangakue, however, because they were not centered on a specific topic; even profane themes, such as love, were permissible if composed as offerings. Bushelle notes that this loosening of the restrictions on Buddhist poetic themes was a radical move, explaining, “In the Waka Mandokoro offering, then, repentance constitutes the ritual practice that underpins Chōken’s affirmation of the potential for any and all forms of waka poetry to serve as a condition on the path to enlightenment” (p.247). In other words, the ritual process of repentance made it possible to fulfill Bai Juyi’s hope that his “fanciful phrase,” even those concerning the subject of love, might be transformed to “turn the wheel of the Dharma.” Therefore, Bushelle concludes that Shunzei applied the term “fanciful phrases” to serve “a rhetorical function as a liturgical shorthand for a prayer invoked at Buddhist ceremonies for the offering of court poetry, both Chinese kanshi and Japanese waka” (p. 212).

In the third chapter, “The Afterlife of Murasaki Shikibu: Genji Offerings and the Imagination of the Female Author,” Bushelle redirects his analysis of liturgy and literature to the issue of monogatari. The composition of monogatari, or tales of fiction, was a violation of the lay precepts prohibiting the dissemination of false language. This condemnation of monogatari was not limited to moral prescriptions dictated by clergy. For instance, in his collection of Buddhist stories, the Sanbōe, Tamenori deemed monogatari to be the “root of sin.” Chōken, who in his invocations to the Waka Mandokoro declared love poetry to be praise to the Buddha as long as composed in the context of repentance rites, adopted Tamenori’s position on monogatari, focusing his contempt particularly on Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. For Chōken, Shikibu’s masterful work was particularly sinful due to its popularity and literary skill. Summarizing Chōken’s judgements of Genji, Bushelle writes that “both she and her readers have formed the roots of sin that are the basis for their mutual damnation in hell” (p. 299), because of the work’s power to capture its readers in desires that distract them from the Buddhist path. Bushelle suggests that this condemnation of monogatari and Shikibu was a product of misogyny rather than a moral defense of the precepts. Tamenori also seems to have been opposed to monogatari for their female association, and, as a founding member of the Kangakue, he was generally antagonistic toward waka for the same reason.

Shikibu appears to have been well aware of the hostilities toward her writing. As Bushelle notes, she addresses this anti-monogatari view in the “Fireflies” chapter of Genji. In a discussion with Tamakazura over the merits of monogatari, Genji, mimicking Tamenori, renounces fiction as mere “fanciful phrases.” However, Shikibu has Genji change his opinion and assert that they were in fact a skillful means (hōben) for preaching the Dharma. As Bushelle deduces, “Shikubu’s character Genji, in contrast to Tamenori, set forth a discourse on monogatari that, though condemnatory in the beginning, ultimately reveals the true character of monogatari as a technique of enlightenment” (p. 289). Although also critical of monogatari, Chōken, writing centuries later, took a slightly different approach to Genji. Chōken, like Genji, adopted a highly double-edged rhetorical strategy of condemnation and redemption. Shikibu’s piece offered a parody of this kind of male discourse on women’s writing, pointing out how it functions as a subterfuge for male desire, namely, Genji’s desire for Tamakazura. Repentance rites provided Chōken with a model for transforming this desire into a skillful means for obtaining Dharma joy.

Shikibu’s argument, Bushelle claims, was the basis for a later justification of monogatari in the Imakagami. In this tale, the speaker, depicted as an old nun, points out the double standard posed by the praises for Bai Juyi’s poem in literary assemblies, which he admitted were “wild words and fancy phrases,” and condemning Shikibu for doing the same thing in Genji. Rather, the nun argues that Shikibu was a form of Avalokitêśvara Bodhisattva, just as Bai Juyi was said to be a manifestation of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva. In contrast to Chōken’s language of redemption, requiring the initial condemnation of Shikibu before her writing could function as a skillful means, the Imakagami episode presents Shikibu as an avatar of the bodhisattva of compassion, whose words were a vehicle of the Buddha Dharma. Bushelle contends, however, that the nun interpreted Shikibu’s transformation within a ritual context of memorial services, concluding that even voices critical of misogynistic moral prohibitions drew on Buddhist discourse of repentance to overcome a Buddhist discourse of condemnation.

In three thoroughly researched chapters, Bushelle elucidates the elements of Buddhist thought and practice at the heart of medieval Japanese poetics and literary criticism. Specifically, he demonstrates that debates regarding waka and monogatari as sinful “fanciful phrases” occurred in the context of Tendai repentance rites. Moreover, he connects these ritual procedures to a Lotus-Esoteric discourse on hymns, which rationalized the transformation of human desire for joy into the “joy of the Dharma.” The scope of scholarly debates on multidisciplinary subjects and array of textual sources engaged in the dissertation makes it an essential read for anyone interested in Japanese Buddhism and/or literature. Bushelle’s study is also a boon for research on the intersection of ritual and poetics with implications reaching far beyond the fields of Buddhist and Japanese Studies.

Matthew D. McMullen
Ph.D. Candidate in Buddhist Studies
Group in Buddhist Studies
University of California, Berkeley

Primary Sources
Bodaishin gishō 菩提心義抄. By Annen 安然. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō, no. 2397, 75:451–560.

Hōbutsushū 宝物集. Edited by Koizumi Hiroshi 小泉弘, Yamada Shōzen 山田昭全, Kojima Takayuki 小島孝之, and Kinoshita Motoichi 木下資一. Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei, 40.

Hōmon hyakushu 法門百首. By Jakuzen 寂然. Jakuzen hōmon hyakushū zenshaku 寂然法門百首全釈. Edited by Yamamoto Akihiro 山本章博. Tokyo: Kazama Shobō, 2010.

Honchō zoku monzui 本朝続文枠. Shintei zōho kokushi taikei, 29.

Kemonshū 花文集. By Chōken 澄憲. In Hokke kyō kochūshaku shū 法華経古注釈集, edited by Abe Yasurō 阿部泰郎, Yamazaki Makoto山崎誠, et al. Vol. 2 of Shinpukuji zenpon sōkan 真福寺善本叢刊. Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten, 2000.

Dissertation Information
Harvard University. 2015. 356 pp. Primary Advisor: Ryūichi Abé.

Image: Hokke mandara. Zuzoshô 図像抄. By​ Eiju 恵什 and Eigan 永厳

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