[Blog] A Reflection on Dr. Asuka Sango’s Yehan Numata Lecture at the University of Toronto, December 1 2016

By Julian Butterfield

In her 2015 book The Halo of Golden Light: Imperial Authority and Buddhist Ritual in Heian Japan, Professor Asuka Sango freshly acquainted readers with the dynamic, mutually influential relationships between the medieval Japanese imperial court and its priestly counterparts. Departing from conventional understandings of the medieval period’s imperially patronized ‘state Buddhism,’ Professor Sango’s critical analyses of court-based Buddhist rituals, for instance, reveal closer, more symbiotic, and often more tense arrangements of power between imperial and Buddhist institutions: in so doing, they show Heian Buddhist institutional power to be a far more complex phenomenon than merely the result of imperial patronage. Very significantly, this politically nuanced portrayal also complicates stiff, scholarly paradigms regarding Heian Buddhism’s transition into the Kamakura period’s ‘reformist’ Buddhism.

It was a great pleasure to host Professor Sango at the University of Toronto’s newly founded Centre for Buddhist Studies on December 1st as the second speaker in the University of Toronto and McMaster University’s 2016-17 Yehan Numata Lecture Series. Although only recently returned to North America from a research trip in Japan, Professor Sango travelled to us from Carleton College, Minnesota, where she has taught since 2007. While her current research has departed somewhat from the Heian imperial court and its themes of Buddhist ritual and kingship, her Numata lecture, “The Love of Fame and the Desire for Enlightenment: Life of the Scholar Monk in Medieval Japan,” gave further range and definition to the complex Buddhist-institutional terrain introduced in The Halo of Golden Light. Likewise, its findings brought fresh, critical challenges to some of the established scholarly heuristics regarding Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Drawing particularly from the life and writings of the powerful scholar monk Sōshō, Professor Sango showed that the conventional, clean distinction between the Heian period’s power hungry, courtly scholar monks and the reform-minded renunciant leaders of Kamakura Buddhism is too stiff to accurately describe the complex lives and legacies of many public Buddhist figures of this historical moment.

To open her talk, Professor Sango warned the darkened seminar room that what we were about to see might upset us. The images she projected—from a twelfth century painted scroll—were indeed striking. Showing several monks being butchered by large, grotesque hell-beings, the first image represented the Hell of Dissections: a realm of hell reserved for monks who during life killed or dissected animals. The second—representing the Hell of Boiling Excrement—showed monks being gruesomely punished for drinking saké and eating strongly flavoured vegetables. Professor Sango referred finally to another image, representing the Hell of Debates, in which Heian scholar monks were punished for pursuing fame rather than enlightenment. While she mentioned that the origin and purpose of this scroll are unclear, the possibilities she glossed suggest a variety of contemporary perspectives on the conduct and lifestyle of Buddhist monks. For example, while it may have been used by monks during repentance rites (Bustumyō-e) or for personal reflection, it may also have been made and displayed in critique of Heian courtly monastic elites, either from a secular source or across sectarian lines. In any case, the scroll’s images vividly communicate a degree of severity in its author’s appraisal of elite Buddhist actors’ lifestyles during this period.

Traditionally, such images may have contributed to the conventional narrative separating the worldly, fame-hungry scholar monks of later Heian Buddhism from the severely critical, world-renouncing Buddhist reformers of the Kamakura period. As Professor Sango began introducing us to the thirteenth-century monk Sōshō, however, she made it clear that the accuracy of such clean, categorical distinctions between Buddhist identities or lifestyles in late medieval Japan may be limited. While the scholar-monks’ love of fame and worldly affairs appears to have been increasingly idealized against during Sōshō’s time and beyond, his extremely frank, prolific writings demonstrate that individual monastics led complex lives, often spanning the period’s sharply opposed, idealized identity-categories.

To support this argument, Professor Sango led us through a number of components of Sōshō’s career and his semi-biographical, publicly circulated vow text, Kindan akuji gonju zenkon seijō shō. Having risen from modest origins to prominence in the imperial court and later to the leadership of Tōdaiji and the Kegon sect, Sōshō, on one hand, epitomizes the worldly, famous scholar monk—a fact which he appears clearly conscious of. His vow text, however, with its cavalier admissions to drinking saké, having sex, and seeking fame, complicates this impression. Indeed, although it attests to Sōshō’s worldly deeds, the book’s purpose is to discourage such behaviours, and thus evidences a considerable degree of renunciation. Throughout his career, Sōshō evidently became at once more endowed with worldly power and fame and more stringent in his discipline, revising his vows to make them more prohibitive. Similarly, as Sōshō gained status, the vow text shows him moving more frequently between Tōdaiji and Kasagidera, a remote Maitreya temple at which he was able to live a reclusive, studious lifestyle, if only for periods at a time.

Elaborating from these materials, Professor Sango showed us the level of troubling ambiguity Sōshō’s life represents when considered against the conventional binary of worldly scholar monk/Kamakura renunciant reformist. Similar to her work in The Halo of Golden Light, Sango’s discussion of Sōshō here challenges and demands the critical reconsideration of our interpretive, historiographical tools regarding Buddhist life in Medieval Japan, or perhaps even Buddhist lives in general. By closely examining Sōshō’s rich, strikingly candid personal text, Sango was able to show on one hand that Buddhist disciplinary attitudes may themselves have been differently active than materials such as the Hell images lead us to believe, and also that any life, in its natural complexity, tends to freely transgress the boundaries of clear, idealized identity categories. It will be a great pleasure to learn how Sōshō’s wonderfully complicated story fits into Sango’s upcoming book project, which—we can be sure—will bring us to a fresh appreciation of the dynamics of scholarly life and debate in Medieval Japan.

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