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Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan (review)
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Any book treating Buddhist setsuwa 説話, or “explanatory tales,” as Charlotte Eubanks calls them, has a lot going for it. For one thing, there just are not many good books in English that offer substantial and sophisticated treatment of this rich, highly varied, pungent, and revealing literary corpus as a whole. There is in fact no comprehensive study of them in a Western language, as Eubanks notes when she claims that her book is the “first synchronic view in English of setsuwa as a genre” (p. 8); nor are there many studies that focus particularly, as does Eubanks, on the Buddhist-related facets of setsuwa in specific collections, whether those collections are wholly, or mostly, devoted to Buddhist matters (such as the earliest, Nihonkoku genpō zen’aku ryōiki 日本国現報善悪霊異記, often abbreviated as Nihon ryōiki 日本霊異記) or place Buddhist stories alongside accounts of non-Buddhist and secular but equally impressive, memorable, or instructive events (as does the most massive of the setsuwa collections, Konjaku monogatari shū 今昔物語集). Of late, we do have Michelle Osterfield Li’s Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales (reviewed in this Journal)1 as one notable effort to analyze and synthesize salient aspects of this material, and parts of R. Keller Kimbrough’s Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan (also reviewed in this Journal)2 and Elizabeth Oyler’s Swords, Oaths, and Prophetic Visions: Authoring Warrior Rule in Medieval Japan3 also are concerned with texts that have been classified as setsuwa or bear some close relation to that literary tradition. The appearance of these and a few other monographs published in the last couple of decades indicates the vitality of current interest in this area of Japanese premodern literary scholarship as practiced outside Japan; meanwhile, setsuwa and related studies thrive in Japanese academe, under the intellectual leadership of several outstanding scholars, of whom the best known is Komine Kazuaki 小峰和明 of Rikkyō University. Setsuwa studies outside Japan have also produced a variety of English (and other) translations of a few complete setsuwa collections as well as selections from some others in both articles and a few books, of which the most recent example is Burton Watson’s The Demon at Agi Bridge and other Japanese Tales4 (with selections from Konjaku monogatari shū and Uji shūi monogatari 宇治拾遺物語).

But more than their rarity, it is above all else the content and character of setsuwa tales themselves that make any serious study of them likely to be rewarding to the reader, in much the same way that such tales—and in particular Buddhist setsuwa and the scriptures and beliefs that animate them and are re-animated in them—almost always offer explicit guaranteed rewards to their readers, in the form of examples and instruction as to how to realize the benefits of those same Buddhist teachings and practices, in some cases through the very act of reading those setsuwa themselves. The setsuwa corpus is vast and varied, yet Eubanks has a keen sense of how to select examples from it to illustrate the particular kinds of relationships between the sutras and certain tales that especially capture her imagination and that provide her, and her reader, with stimulus to critical analysis of their forms, content, reception, and more. She is especially good at finding and sharing (through translation or paraphrase) an array of vivid instances that allow her to develop her particular interest in the treatment of bodies, the phenomenon of embodiment, and the physicality, vulnerability, and contingency that books and (human) readers share. Thus, she makes effective use, inter alia, of such tales as that (found in both Hokke genki 法華験記 and Konjaku monogatari shū) of Riman 理満, a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, who dreams that he sees his own dead body being consumed by one hundred thousand dogs but, upon awakening, learns from a celestial voice that the attackers were not dogs but “members of the assembly that gathered to hear the Buddha’s sermons at the Jetavana monastery” long ago, and who have now “taken on canine form and eaten Riman’s body in order to symbolically establish a karmic link to him” so that they may...

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