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  • Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan
  • R. Keller Kimbrough (bio)
Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan. By Charlotte Eubanks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 288 pp. Cloth $49.95.

In the last several years, the early modern history of Japanese commercial publishing (ca. 1600-1868) has become something of a hot topic in East Asian area studies. Nevertheless, scholars have shown little interest in exploring and explicating Japanese textual culture—particularly Japanese Buddhist textual culture—prior to the widespread adoption of woodblock-print technology in the early seventeenth century. In Miracles of Book and Body, Charlotte Eubanks does this and more, excavating the practices and theoretical implications of reading, reciting, transcribing, and transmitting sacred Buddhist texts in the ancient Indian and Chinese realms and in ninth- through thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist bibliographic spheres. Eubanks's book is comparative in all the best ways. Writing with wit, grace, and exceptional clarity, she draws on a range of Japanese setsuwa, or "explanatory tales" (short didactic [End Page 485] stories that were typically employed in preaching), to explore the premodern Japanese reception of Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts, allowing her, as she explains, to consider "the particular ways in which one culture, distant in both time and place from the classical Indian subcontinent, made sense of and continued to build upon the rhetorical figures and life cycles of Buddhist textual culture" (61).

Eubanks's analysis is sophisticated and well informed, expertly drawing on a large number of primary sources in classical Chinese, Japanese, and Sino-Japanese (kanbun), as well as secondary sources in English and modern Japanese. One of her abiding concerns is the notion of "embodiment," or, as one of her section titles has it, "puzzles of embodiment" (167). As Eubanks explains in her introduction, each of her four main chapters "approaches the relation between book and body from a different angle, with the central question remaining: how does Buddhist rhetoric, as materialized on the written page, work on human bodies?" (16). After an illuminating and highly self-reflexive introductory chapter ("The Cult of the Book and the Culture of Text"), Eubanks takes up the purported nature of Buddhist sutras as "living textual entities" (60) and the consequences of that conception for the reader-text relationship in the first chapter, "The Ontology of Sutras." In chapter 2, "Locating Setsuwa in Performance," Eubanks turns to a discussion of Japanese "explanatory tales" (setsuwa), providing an overview of nine major setsuwa collections from ca. 823 to ca. 1283 and examining them "in their medieval performance context, articulating a sense of how monks (and very occasionally nuns) sought [to use these didactic tales] to explain the complexities of Buddhist doctrine to lay audiences" (63). Of particular interest is her consideration of "the prefaces and colophons of setsuwa collections: those places where the compilers speak most openly about their intentions and motivations" (64). Continuing her exploration of embodiment issues, Eubanks argues that these setsuwa collections were "often figured as food or medicine, that is, as substances to be ingested by the human body and that then perform the work of sustenance or healing" (133).

In chapter 3, "Decomposing Bodies, Composing Texts," Eubanks pursues her concern "with the interrelationship of physical corpus and textual corpus in medieval Japanese literature," focusing on "exploring setsuwa of bodily sacrifice and corporeal dissolution as instances of performative writing" (98). For me, Eubanks's application of Michael Riffaterre's notions of intertextuality to a thirteenth-century setsuwa anthology and a series of possibly ninth-century Sino-Japanese poems on the nature of bodily putrefaction is especially intriguing (131-32). It is in places like this, in which she reads premodern texts in the strange and powerful light of [End Page 486] contemporary theory, that Eubanks really shines. Eubanks builds on these discussions in chapter 4, "Textual Transubstantiation and the Place of Memory," in which she turns her attention to "the various ways in which setsuwa collections elaborate an understanding of sutras as living substances capable of affecting the memorial and physical processes of the human body and, ultimately, of incorporating themselves into human form" (133). Finally, in her conclusion...


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