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The Dōshu: Clerics at Work in Early Medieval Japanese Monasteries

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 67, Number 2, 2012
pp. 263-282 | 10.1353/mni.2012.0028

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The monasteries of late Heian and Kamakura Japan were vast organizations that not only comprised a variety of groups and classes, but also changed considerably over time. From head abbots and monk-princes to land managers, menial workers, and shrine servants, the composition of the large religious complexes seems so diverse as to defy a comprehensive description. Moreover, individual monasteries often had their own peculiarities, and the sheer number of people living within the largest temples-amounting to as many as several thousand within a single monastery at their peak-makes it even more difficult to form meaningful generalizations. To further complicate matters, the modern tendency to separate secular people and monks into distinct and exclusive categories has created and sustained among some scholars a notion of an almost impermeable boundary between religious and secular worlds in early medieval Japan, thus causing evidence that monastics had roles and identities both inside and outside the monasteries to be ignored. This penchant for simplified categories has obscured the complex nature of medieval monasteries, and indeed of premodern Japan in general. As Amino Yoshihiko 網野義彦 has argued, historical categories such as "farmers" (hyakushō 百姓) and "warriors" (bushi 武士) have been used far too uncritically by modern observers and historians. In fact, both of those categories refer to a range of people who do not easily fit into the standard narrative of Japan as a warrior society based mainly on rice farming. Similarly, most narratives of Japanese religious institutions and their members continue to operate under the assumption that the demarcation between the religious and the secular was clear-cut. Such assumptions have led to a focus on sectarian founding figures and a general neglect of people associated with or living in premodern monasteries. In fact, there have been few treatments in English of the general clergies or lower level clerics within premodern Japanese monastic complexes. The current study focuses on one particular group, the dōshu 堂衆 (literally meaning hall cler­ics or temple companions), and endeavors to add one more dimension to Amino's claims by demonstrating the wide range of activities those clerics were involved in.

The dōshu are one of many "voiceless" groups in historical documents, as we have no records produced by them. This does not mean that they were inconsequential in shaping the society in which they lived, or that they should not be considered histori­cal agents, even if their contributions have been overshadowed by a focus, to date, on larger-than-life monks. Nor does this mean that they do not appear in historical records. On the contrary, the dōshu are frequently referred to in a range of sources-diaries, temple chronicles, ritual manuals, miscellaneous documents, and literary works-albeit those authored by higher-ranking people. The online database of the University of Tokyo's Historiographical Institute (Tōkyō Daigaku Shiryō Hensanjo 東京大学史料編纂所) has made original sources easily accessible and searchable, allowing scholars to quickly survey thousands of entries from a variety of sources in just a few seconds. These sources include diaries, chronicles, and Buddhist records in the Dai Nihon shiryō 大日本史料 series as well as documents from the Heian ibun 平安遺文 and Kamakura ibun 鎌倉遺文 collections. By examining and correlating what is now a substantial body of historical records, scholars can more thoroughly unpack the range of tasks performed by the dōshu. Numerous other groups and terms, such as daishu 大衆, shuto 衆徒, and jinnin 神人, to note just a few, will need more in-depth exploration before a fuller understanding of the monastic communi­ties in early medieval Japan can be reached. This focused study on the dōshu seeks to clarify and document the diverse roles played by the members of this group, revealing the complexity and interdependence of the worlds inside and outside the monasteries.

The Dōshu as Workers, Administrators, and Warriors

The term dōshu itself presents scholars, especially those outside Japan, with a number of problems, since there are few, if any, comparable religious categories in English. In her translation of the Heike monogatari 平家物語 (The Tale of the Heike), Helen McCullough established what has become the standard interpretation:

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