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The Face of Jizō: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism by Hank Glassman (review)

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 68, Number 2, 2013
pp. 284-289 | 10.1353/mni.2013.0028

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Jizō (Sk. Kṣitigarbha; Ch. Dizang) has arguably been the most popular bodhisattva in Japan for some centuries now. His effigies can be found frequently both at religious sites and in secular surroundings, and his image is particularly close to the hearts of Japanese believers. Jizō’s acclaim in Japan is surprising, as he was a latecomer to the Buddhist pantheon: his cult first flourished in ninth-century China, where he was the somewhat remote lord of the underworld. Hank Glassman’s The Face of Jizō traces the medieval roots of Jizō’s renown. This ambitious study is extremely well researched and inspiring, and it makes a major contribution to our understanding of Japanese religious culture—while necessarily leaving some areas open to debate and further inquiry.

The book’s title plays on the double meaning of the word “face” as both an external appearance and an indication of an inner feeling, spirit, or character. As such, the title elegantly introduces the concept of “iconology” (p. 5), the main methodological tool used in the study. Following art historian Aby Warburg’s (1866–1929) view that the “doctrinal, political, economic, and social dimensions of a culture are most clearly expressed through the images it creates” (p. 3), Glassman uses representations of Jizō as the starting point for his inquiries. Amid the “visual turn” seen in recent years in cultural studies as a whole, Glassman pursues this iconological approach with a consistency that is pioneering in terms of the contribution it makes to the field of Japanese religious history.

The publisher, too, deserves mention for its inclusion in the volume of eighteen color plates and sixty-four black-and-white figures of mostly excellent quality. These add an aesthetic dimension and provide the reader with an almost firsthand experience of the multifarious representations of Jizō. More importantly, these illustrations stand as primary sources on which Glassman bases his arguments, thus functioning in a manner similar to quotations from written sources. It is through a close reading of visual representations of Jizō that the author illustrates the stories of these images’ production and reception.

The introductory chapter, “The Iconology of Jizō,” analyzes the major common attributes of the many written and visual representations of Jizō that have been produced over the centuries. Jizō, in “his iconographical identity as a monk,” emerges first as a “convenient and powerful stand-in for the human clergy and . . . for Buddhism itself ” (p. 11) and second as a figure essentially characterized by his ability to cross boundaries and to reconcile what would appear to be contradictory notions: despite his identity as a Buddhist monk, for example, he proved to be easily associated with local, non-Buddhist deities. Glassman shows that figures of Jizō also mediated the opposition between the static and the kinetic. For instance, many representations of Jizō were conceived of as icons of an individualized and strictly localized deity. However, even these “still life” Jizōs were often imagined as moving back and forth to help their devotees, with their iconography emphasizing ambulation. And just as importantly, Glassman argues, Jizō appeared in multiple emanations—usually either six or one thousand—that allowed him to be present simultaneously in the various realms of transmigration to assist all beings. Jizō’s ability to reconcile contradictory notions culminated in his identification with Enma (Sk. Yāma), the king of hell—or, according to some descriptions, the most important of the Ten Kings of hell—who passed judgment on the dead.

While not completely unknown in China and Korea, this identification became most prominent in Japan, based on the well-known honji suijaku (original ground and trace manifestation) paradigm. The image of the compassionate Jizō as the honji, or true nature, of the frightful Enma suijaku was canonized in the thirteenth-century Japanese apocryphon, Bussetsu Jizō bosatsu hosshin innen jūō kyō (The Sutra of Jizō and the Ten Kings; often referred to as Jizō jūō kyō), a sutra that was instrumental in the development of the mortuary rites performed for Buddhist clerics of almost all denominations during the medieval period. Furthermore, in this apocryphal sutra and related texts, Jizō is described as having installed the hells as purgatories, with torture...



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