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  • Desire and DisgustMeditations on the Impure Body in Medieval Japanese Narratives
  • Rajyashree Pandey (bio)

If Christian eschatological hope is individual resurrection "on the last day," the Buddhist religious tradition offers no such comforting vision. According to the Buddhist perspective, there is no bodily redemption, no permanent self, and no soul that is resistant to change and destruction. The deeds performed in past lives, in this view, account for the many rounds of rebirth as animals, hungry ghosts, humans, devas (gods), and so on. While a good rebirth as a human or deva is relatively more desirable, the ultimate goal for the Buddhist believer is the attainment of unconditioned release (nirvana) from the cycle of births and deaths (samsara).

A central tenet of Buddhism is the belief that desire is the source of all suffering. Desire, it is held, produces a deluded sense of attachment to things and people and serves as an impediment to apprehending the essentially insubstantial and transient nature of all phenomena. Buddhism offers a thoroughgoing critique of desire in all its forms. The body and mind, both of which are seen as inextricably interlinked, generate desire. A key means to come to a realization of this, and thus overcome desire, is through meditation on the body as well as the states of mind and volition. Many of the scriptures place emphasis on cultivating mindful awareness of all aspects of daily life in which the body plays a central role, such as breathing, standing, sitting, talking, eating, resting, and so on. The meditational practices involving the body that emerged in early Buddhism also included contemplation of corpses in order to understand properly the foulness of the body. Recognition of the inevitable trajectory of human life, where the body deteriorates through illness and eventually meets with death, followed by the unsightly process of the putrefaction and dissolution of the corpse, was held to offer indisputable proof of the impurity and impermanence of the self and the deluded nature of one's attachment to it.

These circumstances resulted in the body becoming an important site for the discourse on impurity, impermanence, and the nature of desire and attachment. [End Page 195] Although these associations did not require that the body be marked by its gender, in Buddhist narratives there was often a significant shift or slide from a discourse on the impurity of the body in general to a more clearly gendered discourse on specifically the impurity of the female body. Once the body was identified with the female body, it became a sexual body. And among the many attachments to the body, it was sexual attachment or lust that became the prime object of discussion within Buddhist writings. Women became the targets of criticism as the generators of lust and attachment and as the root cause of male delusion. Meditating on the female corpse was a way of curing men who were seduced by the illusion of female beauty.

This article explores the ways in which the idea of meditating on the foulness of the body, and of the female body in particular, which received elaborate treatment in India, came to be interpreted in the Buddhist tale literature (setsuwa) of medieval Japan. It focuses in particular on two setsuwa collections, Hosshinshū (A Collection of Tales of Religious Awakening), attributed to the famous poet/priest Kamo no Chōmei (1155?-1216) and Kankyo no tomo (A Comparison in Solitude), believed to have been written by the priest Kesei (1189-1268) in 1222.

These texts are significant in that they stand alone among extant medieval Japanese prose narratives in dealing directly with the theme of fujōkan (Sk. aśubhabhāvanā), or meditation on the impurity of the body. In general, fujōkan does not appear as a recurring trope in Japanese texts in the same way that it does, for instance, in Indian Buddhist literature. I engage here with the Indian material not to offer a sustained comparison (which would require taking into account the trajectory of fujōkan from India to China and its subsequent reception in Japan), but rather as a heuristic device, to highlight, by means of a contrast, the distinctive features of the Japanese approach...


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pp. 195-234
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