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Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism

Jacqueline I. Stone & Mariko Namba Walter (eds.)

Publication Year: 2008

For more than a thousand years, Buddhism has dominated Japanese death rituals and concepts of the afterlife. The nine essays in this volume, ranging chronologically from the tenth century to the present, bring to light both continuity and change in death practices over time. They also explore the interrelated issues of how Buddhist death rites have addressed individual concerns about the afterlife while also filling social and institutional needs and how Buddhist death-related practices have assimilated and refigured elements from other traditions, bringing together disparate, even conflicting, ideas about the dead, their postmortem fate, and what constitutes normative Buddhist practice. The idea that death, ritually managed, can mediate an escape from deluded rebirth is treated in the first two essays. Sarah Horton traces the development in Heian Japan (794–1185) of images depicting the Buddha Amida descending to welcome devotees at the moment of death, while Jacqueline Stone analyzes the crucial role of monks who attended the dying as religious guides. Even while stressing themes of impermanence and non-attachment, Buddhist death rites worked to encourage the maintenance of emotional bonds with the deceased and, in so doing, helped structure the social world of the living. This theme is explored in the next four essays. Brian Ruppert examines the roles of relic worship in strengthening family lineage and political power; Mark Blum investigates the controversial issue of religious suicide to rejoin one’s teacher in the Pure Land; and Hank Glassman analyzes how late medieval rites for women who died in pregnancy and childbirth both reflected and helped shape changing gender norms. The rise of standardized funerals in Japan’s early modern period forms the subject of the chapter by Duncan Williams, who shows how the Soto Zen sect took the lead in establishing itself in rural communities by incorporating local religious culture into its death rites. The final three chapters deal with contemporary funerary and mortuary practices and the controversies surrounding them. Mariko Walter uncovers a "deep structure" informing Japanese Buddhist funerals across sectarian lines—a structure whose meaning, she argues, persists despite competition from a thriving secular funeral industry. Stephen Covell examines debates over the practice of conferring posthumous Buddhist names on the deceased and the threat posed to traditional Buddhist temples by changing ideas about funerals and the afterlife. Finally, George Tanabe shows how contemporary Buddhist sectarian intellectuals attempt to resolve conflicts between normative doctrine and on-the-ground funerary practice, and concludes that human affection for the deceased will always win out over the demands of orthodoxy. Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism constitutes a major step toward understanding how Buddhism in Japan has forged and retained its hold on death-related thought and practice, providing one of the most detailed and comprehensive accounts of the topic to date.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

No collection of essays sees publication without the help of many people. We are grateful, first of all, for the unflagging cooperation of our contributors, who have worked with us through multiple rounds of revision and patiently supported this project despite unforeseen delays. ...

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pp. 1-26

Providing funeral and memorial services represents the major social role of Buddhist priests and temples in Japan today. For many people, death may be the only occasion when they turn to the family temple, or, indeed, learn much of anything about Buddhism. In his introductory study of contemporary ...

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1 Mukaekō: Practice for the Deathbed

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pp. 27-60

Belief that at death one could be born in the Pure Land of the buddha Amida (Skt. Amitābha, Amitāyus) became common in eleventh-century Japan and has remained so to the present day. This is a source of great comfort both to the dying and to those surrounding them. ...

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2 With the Help of ‘‘Good Friends’’: Deathbed Ritual Practices in Early Medieval Japan

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pp. 61-101

With such words as these, suggests the monk Genshin (942–1017), the dying should be exhorted to focus their minds on the Buddha Amida (Skt. Amitābha, Amitāyus), in order to escape the round of rebirth and instead achieve birth in the Pure Land (ōjō). ...

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3 Beyond Death and the Afterlife: Considering Relic Veneration in Medieval Japan

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pp. 102-136

Although the cult of the saints in medieval Christianity is better known in the West, Buddhists likewise had their own saints.1 Early Buddhism featured arhats (Jpn. rakan), who trod the eightfold path in the footsteps of the historical Buddha, Sākyamuni. Arhats, like the saints of Christian traditions, left bodily relics. ...

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4 Collective Suicide at the Funeral of Jitsunyo: Mimesis or Solidarity?

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pp. 137-174

Jitsunyo (1458–1525) was the fifth son of Rennyo (1415–1499), and his reluctant successor as monshu (also called hossu), or head priest of the Honganji branch of Jōdo Shinshū, the True Pure Land sect. Jitsunyo was not his father’s initial choice of successor; that fell to the first son, but he died young. ...

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5 At the Crossroads of Birth and Death: The Blood Pool Hell and Postmortem Fetal Extraction

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pp. 175-206

In medieval Japanese Buddhism, the salvation of women increasingly came to be understood as the salvation of mothers.1 In the following pages, I will explore the conditions surrounding that salvation and the gendered meaning of the damnation that made the drama of redemption necessary. ...

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6 Funerary Zen:Sōtō Zen Death Management in Tokugawa Japan

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pp. 207-246

‘‘Funerary Zen’’ emerged in the late medieval and early modern periods as a combination of Chinese Chan/Zen, esoteric, and Pure Land Buddhist elements, along with localized death ritual practices. These funerary practices found an institutional base in the government’s temple certification ...

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7 The Structure of Japanese Buddhist Funerals

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pp. 247-292

It is often said, especially from a Western perspective, that modern Japanese hold ambivalent, even contradictory attitudes toward religion. Many Japanese go to a Shinto shrine to celebrate a birth and other rites of passage for their children, while young adults tend increasingly to have weddings in a Christian chapel, ...

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8 The Price of Naming the Dead: Posthumous Precept Names and Critiques of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism

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pp. 293-324

Today, the sects of traditional Buddhism are facing perhaps the most serious threat to their existence since the government’s efforts during the Meiji period (1868–1912) to forcibly separate a ‘‘Buddhism’’ and a ‘‘Shinto’’ from the fabric of premodern Japanese religion. The contemporary threat is tied directly ...

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9 The Orthodox Heresy of Buddhist Funerals

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pp. 325-348

The two legs on which Japanese Buddhism stands ritually and economically are funeral services and the practices of worldly benefits (genze riyaku), the one serving the dead, the other the living. Take away funerals, memorial rites, good luck charms, talismans, and prayers for good things, and Buddhism will topple over. ...

Glossary of Chinese and Japanese Characters

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pp. 349-362


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pp. 363-364


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pp. 365-382

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862152
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832049

Publication Year: 2008