[Blog] Yuima-e (維摩會) in Sixteenth-Century Japan: Recently Acquired Manuscript Now Available in McGill’s Rare Book Collection

By Jingjing Li.

This March, a sixteenth-century Japanese manuscript arrived in the Rare Book Collection room of McGill’s McLennan Library. Currently the most ancient East Asian resource preserved at McGill, the text, which dates back to 1539, documents the Yuima-e (維摩會), a popular ritual conducted among monks in the School of Hossō (法相). On March 8, Prof. Mikaël Bauer, Professor of Japanese Religions, and graduate students from McGill’s School of Religious Studies went to visit this ancient text. Upon adding the collection of rare books from East Asia, this text will serve as a possible resource for future research. Librarians will digitize the text, to preserve the delicate manuscript and make it accessible to the general public.

Prof. Bauer and SRS Graduate students visiting the Rare Book Collection (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

Prof. Bauer and SRS Graduate students visiting the Rare Book Collection (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

Prof. Bauer described to the students the fascinating story of how McGill came to acquire this old text. Prior to the Meiji Restoration, these texts were revered in monasteries for centuries. Upon embarking on its modernization, the Japanese government separated Shinto from Buddhism, for the purpose of championing Shinto as its state religion. At the time when Buddhism was persecuted, many preserved texts were sold to private collectors. Last year, after seeing this manuscript in an online auction, Prof. Bauer contacted the library of McGill University immediately, to inquire if the university would be interested in making a bid. In recognition and appreciation of the text’s research value, librarians of the Rare Book collection supported the cause, yet only to be informed by the auction house in Japan that they would not consider bid made by unlicensed participants. Since McGill did not have the required licence, it was not eligible to participate in the auction. Not being discouraged in the least, the librarians soon contacted a third party in New York City who had the licence and placed the bid on McGill’s behalf. Eventually, this sixteenth-century Japanese manuscript, which witnessed the history of Buddhism in Japan from ancient times to the present, made its way to the other side of the Pacific Ocean, travelling through three countries and finding its new home in the city of Montreal.

The Sixteenth-Century Manuscript from Japan (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

The Sixteenth-Century Manuscript from Japan (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

This text documents several debate sessions during the Yuima-e (維摩會) in Kōfokuji (興福寺). These debate sessions were participated by Buddhist monks, as part of their monastic training, through which they would engage one another in a back and forth of question and answer, to ameliorate and perfect their understanding of the Yogācāra doctrine of consciousness. This particular text was written by a Hossō monk Eishun, in homage to The Mahāyāna Dharma Garden and the Forest of Meaning (大乘法苑義林章) composed by Kuiji (窺基, 632-682), the first patriarch of the Hossō school. When reading the manuscript, Prof. Bauer and graduate students were surprised to discover that the text, once being composed, was also used for chanting. Phonetic symbols and markers could still be seen on the pages, in spite of damages from bookworms.

The first page of the manuscript (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

The first page of the manuscript (Photo courtesy of Jingjing LI)

For a long time, the Yogācāra school of Buddhism, also known as the Hossō School in the Japanese context, has been interpreted as a philosophy of consciousness. This master narrative, however, has flattened out discussions over the ritual aspect of Yogācāra Buddhism. As suggested by this recently acquired text, for Yogācāra followers, the doctrine of consciousness-only not only served as their doctrinal philosophy, but also set the stage for clerics to conduct a wide range of rituals from debating to chanting. It is the expectation of Prof. Bauer that the newly acquired manuscript will be able to provide researchers another novel perspective towards understanding Yogācāra Buddhism in Japan.

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