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  • A Storied Sage: Canon and Creation in the Making of a Japanese Buddha by Micah L. Auerback
  • Margaret H. Childs (bio)
A Storied Sage: Canon and Creation in the Making of a Japanese Buddha. By Micah L. Auerback, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2017. xii, 358 pages. $40.00, cloth; $40.00, E-book.

This study of the many various biographies of the historical Buddha written in Japan over the course of fifteen hundred years focuses primarily on what [End Page 403] sources and motivations were behind various visual and written texts that convey biographical information about Śākyamuni. The premodern biographies are dealt with in just one chapter because there was not much interest in the historical Buddha, insofar as he was just a provisional manifestation of a "much greater cosmic reality" (p. 23). Bodhisattvas and the founders of the various denominations of Buddhism in Japan attracted more attention than did Śākyamuni. The point where this study blossoms with voluminous detail is when developments in historiography made biographies of the Buddha controversial in the early modern era. Eventually European studies based on Sanskrit texts came to dominate the discourse in Japan and the supernatural elements of early biographies were dropped in favor of credible stories of Śākyamuni as a historical personage. Auerback's coverage of these debates is exceedingly thorough. The following remarks are what struck this reader as highlights.

The earliest Japanese biographies of the Buddha seem designed as teaching tools in which the Buddha himself is the teacher. Thus, the first chapter is titled "The Buddha as Preceptor." The oldest extant biography in handscroll format is the Kako genzai einga kyō (Illustrated sutra of past and present cause and effect) and the narrator is the Buddha himself. He tells of a former life and identifies personages from that prior life as people with whom he associated during his present life as Siddhartha (p. 40). This kind of handscroll copied its Chinese sources so closely that later scholars struggled to determine if they had been produced in China or Japan (p. 40). That conservatism continued to the extent that the format of eighth-century versions of this scroll, wherein illustration was presented parallel to and above the text, was still being followed in the sixteenth century. Biographical sculpture and paintings of this period were likewise produced in monastic environments and cited orthodox scripture (p. 60).

Chapter 2, "The Buddha as Local Hero," describes how, in the first half of the Edo period, storytellers took up the topic of the Buddha's biography for wider audiences than the ones clerical authors of prior centuries had addressed. In otogizōshi tales and puppet plays, the focus shifted to how the Buddha suffered rather than his salvific teachings. New subplots, such as conflict between the Buddha's mother and her sister, were invented. Important scenes, such as that of the demon Māra trying to tempt Śākyamuni to abandon his religious quest, were eliminated. Most interesting is the development in these versions of the idea that Śākyamuni gained enlightenment not through his own strenuous efforts but due to the power of the Lotus Sutra or simply because he was "in the right place and sitting still" (p. 71).

In reaction to the Edo-period vernacularization of the Buddha's biography in popular literature, a few reformist clerics wrote new, influential biographies using orthodox scripture. One of these, the nun Kōgetsu (1756–1833), wrote her biography of the Buddha in "elegant neoclassical Japanese prose" (p. 96) as part of her effort to reinvigorate clerical discipline, thus [End Page 404] the title of chapter 3, "Buddha as Exemplar." Her biography of the Buddha is notable for including a chapter on the founding of the first order of nuns, which had been neglected in Japanese biographies of the Buddha for several hundred years (pp. 109–11), and a chapter on the slaughter of the Śākya clan, probably for the sake of the lesson about karmic causality it presents (pp. 111–12).

Chapter 4, "Buddha as Fraud," delves deeply into the work of Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843), who demythologized the Buddha through critical analysis of classical Buddhist texts. Atsutane called Buddhist scripture lies...


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