Miracles of Book and Body
Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan
University of California Press 2011
New Books in Buddhist StudiesNew Books in East Asian StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network February 6, 2015 Luke Thompson
In Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan (University of California Press, 2011), Charlotte Eubanks examines the relationship between MahÄyÄna Buddhist sÅ«tras and the human body, using Japanese tale literature (setsuwa) as a lens through which to understand this particular aspect of Buddhist textual culture and the way in which text and body are not as separate as we usually assume. Two of the questions she wants to answer are “What do sÅ«tras want?” and “What do sÅ«tras get?” She examines Buddhist scriptures of continental origin to answer the former, while she turns to Japanese tale literature (setsuwa) to answer the latter. Two ideas central to the book are that bodies can become texts, and that texts can become bodies. Concerning the first, through reciting, reproducing, and in some sense embodying a sutra, an individual can in effect turn his or her body into the text itself (a result that the sÅ«tras themselves encourage through various admonishments, a move that can be seen as their own quest for survival). As for the second–the idea that texts can become bodies–Eubanks shows that in the Japanese context sÅ«tras literary materialize, becoming independent actors in their own right. While it was largely through setsuwa and other such filters that medieval Japanese understood Buddhist scripture, the ease with which sÅ«tras and bodies moved back and forth along what Eubanks terms “the text-flesh continuum” was dependent upon MahÄyÄna sÅ«tras’ concealment of their authorship. Indeed, certain sÅ«tras went so far as to suggest that their origins are to be found prior to the Buddha himself, the figure who in traditional Buddhism would have been considered the author of these texts. This move allowed MahÄyÄna sÅ«tras to claim agency for themselves, and thus for Japanese setsuwa to later depict sÅ«tras as willful, motivated actors rather than mere containers for the teachings of the Buddha. Besides using setsuwa as a source for understanding the Japanese reception of Buddhist sÅ«tras, Eubanks examines the prefaces and colophons of setsuwa collections in order to understand how the compilers or authors of these tales intended this didactic literature to interact with human bodies (e.g., as food or medicine), showing that in the ideal relationship between setsuwa and reader/listener, the latter not only received ideas and ethical norms but also came to embody (both literally and figuratively) those very ideas and norms. Beside being rewarded with a stimulating reinterpretation of the way in which sÅ«tras and setsuwa make their messages heard and felt, the reader will be treated to a plethora of fascinating accounts from nine medieval setsuwa collections. In addition, Eubanks addresses gender at various points throughout the work, showing how Japanese and non-Japanese scholars alike have treated this genre as an erotic object, and the way in which setsuwa were conceived by their own authors and compilers as elderly female matchmakers (to give but two examples). And in the final chapter Eubanks discusses the relationship between material form and the practice of reading, seeking to understand the development of the revolving sÅ«tra library and the persistence of the scroll in East Asian Buddhism long after the codex has come into use. This book will be of particular interest to those researching medieval Japanese Buddhism, MahÄyÄna sÅ«tras as a genre, setsuwa, Buddhist textual culture, gender symbolism in Japanese Buddhism, medieval traditions of preaching and proselytization, and the body in religious thought and practice.