- Right Thoughts at the Last Moment: Buddhism and Deathbed Practices in Early Medieval Japan by Jacqueline I. Stone
Over a decade ago, Jacqueline Stone began publishing a series of fascinating articles on Buddhist deathbed rites. Now the deep knowledge and nuanced insights that she has gained on this important topic have been brought together in a magnificent full-length study. Right Thoughts at the Last Moment is a big book, both in terms of its length (382 pages of text, a 10-page annotated bibliography of deathbed manuals, 114 pages of detailed and informative notes, a 23-page glossary of the Chinese characters for important terms, a 37-page bibliography of primary sources and Japanese and English secondary sources, and an index) and in terms of its potential impact on medieval Japanese studies and the comparative history of death and dying.
In numerous ways, Stone's study recalls Philippe Ariès's monumental and path-breaking 1977 L'Homme devant la mort (The Hour of Our Death). Although Ariès focused primarily on data spanning a thousand years of French history, his work opened up the study of death and dying as a historical field; it also invited a flurry of crosscultural and comparative inquiries. Right Thoughts at the Last Moment is chronologically more tightly focused than Ariès's study, however. Stone zooms in on what she calls the "early medieval period" in Japan, stretching from the late tenth century through the fourteenth century. Like Ariès, who devoted only limited space to suggestive comments on the reasons for the modern decline of the "tame death" of earlier centuries, in her final chapter Stone merely sketches out significant later shifts in Japanese Buddhist death-related beliefs and practices in the early modern and modern periods. It would be unfair to expect more in this already copious study. [End Page 275] Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that Stone's work will spur other scholars to pursue critical historical studies of developments in these later periods.
If Right Thoughts at the Last Moment is almost exhaustive in its depth and coverage, it is never exhausting. Stone writes clearly as she moves deftly over space and time. Moreover, she carefully leads the reader through the maze of medieval Japanese Buddhist sectarian thought and praxis on death and dying. Even as she points out sectarian differences, Stone notes that by the late tenth century "Birth in Amida's Pure Land was a generic goal transcending sectarian and lineage boundaries, and the [karmic] merit of any good act or religious practice might be directed towards its achievement" (p. 79). Written works from the elite level of society, including Genshin's Ōjō yōshū (986), helped spread the belief in the possibility of rebirth in the Western Paradise of Amida, but so did tales, circulated orally and in written form, of persons who had achieved this goal. As a textualist, Stone relies primarily on written documents for her evidence, but she is also aware of the importance of visual imagery: thirteen images in glorious color are beautifully reproduced here, an increasingly rare thing these days. Historians of religions, as well as art historians, could and should do much more with the rich visual imagery from early medieval Japan.
Stone clearly views herself as an intellectual historian. Thus it may not be surprising that she laments the decline in the number of Japanese Buddhist doctrinal studies produced over the past few decades in favor of "more culturally embedded approaches," although I find this tinge of nostalgia for the older style of doctrinal studies odd, especially in light of Stone's acknowledgment that the cultural turn has been in large part salutary. To her credit, however, Stone promises to "work toward a more balanced approach by showing how doctrinal understandings and social practice informed and shaped one another" (p. 3). In large part, she delivers on her promise, although one can always quibble about particular interpretations. But let me continue to talk...