Bryan D. Lowe
Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan
University of Hawaii Press 2017
New Books in AnthropologyNew 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 December 4, 2017 Luke Thompson
In his recent monograph, Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2017), Bryan D. Lowe examines eighth-century Japanese practices that ritualized writing, or, in other words, conceptually and practically set sutra-transcription apart from other forms of writing. Drawing on a rich trove of eighth-century documents that describe everything from donation sums and sources, to the types of paper used, to the purification rites practiced prior to transcription, to records of which scribes had borrowed or returned their brushes, Lowe provides us not only with an expert analysis of the religious meaning of various aspects of sutra-copying, but also with a detailed description of the fascinating ritual and material culture of public and private scriptoria and intimate glimpses into the lives of the patrons and laborers of these institutions. More broadly, Lowe’s book asks us to rethink our assumptions about ritual, for in the case studies found within we see ritual used not simply symbolically–as a representation of a pre-extant cultural or political system–but rather as a social and ethical practice that generates new communal identities and offers opportunities for individual cultivation. Ritual, Lowe shows, is not just a result, but also a cause.
In the first part of the book Lowe looks at the ritualization of writing. Here we learn of the way in which sutra-copying and purification rites executed prior to copying are simultaneously ethical, soteriological, and ritually efficacious. That is, copying a sutra in the ritually correct and pure way was conceived as morally upright, but also as an act that would bring about the rituals intended results and by which one would make soteriological progress. In this part of the book Lowe also introduces a type of prayer text called a ganmon, and shows how these texts drew on Buddhist and non-Buddhist language to create a uniquely East Asian genre that was unquestionably Buddhist even as it incorporated norms and imagery from non-Buddhist sources.
In the second part of the book we learn about the ways in which ritualized writing was produced by certain forms of social and institutional organization, but also about the ways in which this practice in turn affected those forms of organization. Lowe discusses grassroots fellowships of pious friends that were formed for the purpose of commissioning sutra-transcriptions, and also examines private and public scriptoria, which were highly bureaucratic. A key theme in this part of the book, and indeed throughout this work, is that taking a closer look at the networks of people and institutions involved in the production of ritualized writing calls into question the stark divisions between state, aristocratic, clan, and popular Buddhism, divisions that are often assumed in research on this period. Many of the fellowships that Lowe examines, for instance, were created by individuals who had strong ties to the state and to certain clans, but whose intentions, while in part political and aimed at forming new social ties between groups, were also deeply personal, pious, and religious.
In the third part of the book Lowe provides us with two carefully crafted microhistories. First, we read about the career of a scriptorium worker who served as a scribe, proofreader, and administrator, and find that rather than simply being a cog in a sutra-copying bureaucracy, through his work this individual developed his own religious, literary, and calligraphic sensibilities, which enabled him to eventually embark upon a monastic career. Second, we learn of an imperially-commissioned sutra-transcription project from 748. On the face of it, this project appears to be concerned first and foremost with protection of imperial family members. However, by paying close attention to the details of the process, particularly the contents of the sutras copied and the dates on which certain stages of the project were begun or executed, Lowe shows that this project was just as motivated by fear of divine punishment and attacks by sorcerers, threats considered quite real in the eyes of the court. Here, then, we have an instance in which those at the pinnacle of state power used ritual (here, ritualized writing) not as a means of displaying power, but rather as way to repent, and they did so specifically on those days when they believed the Buddhist four heavenly kings would be observing their conduct most closely.
One of the book’s many strengths is its use of non-Japanese examples to show the way in which the nitty-gritty of eighth-century Japanese Buddhist ritualized writing exhibits a great number of similarities with examples from Korea, China, Central Asia, and India. Indeed, Lowe has gone out of his way to situate his object of study within the larger worlds of Buddhist manuscript cultures and Buddhist ritual. A delightful read for the Japan specialist, it is also accessible to those with no knowledge of Japan. Besides being indispensable for those studying pre-modern Japanese Buddhism and religion, Lowe’s book will be particularly rewarding for anyone interested in religious ritual in general, the use of Buddhist ritual by the state, the influence of calendrics on Buddhism, ideas about purity and pollution, Buddhist writing practices, and debates about semantic vs. performative uses of texts.