- Mūroji: Rearranging Art and History at a Japanese Buddhist Temple
Murōji, located deep in the mountains southwest of Nara, has captured the imagination of generations of monks and scholars. One who has recently come under the sway of the temple and its locale is Sherry Fowler, professor of Japanese art history at the University of Kansas. The results of her fascination with the site have been brought together in an exhaustive study, Murōji: Rearranging Art and History at a Japanese Buddhist Temple. Her book joins a group of distinguished temple histories that have been published over the past few years. (These include Donald McCallum, Zenkōji and Its Icon, Princeton University Press, 1994; Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Hiraizumi: Buddhist Art and Regional Politics in Twelfth-Century Japan, Harvard University Asia Center, 1998; and Andrew Watsky, Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan, University of Washington Press, 2004.)
As she indicates in her introduction, Fowler's interest in Murōji began with the statues housed in the Golden Hall. She soon realized, however, that their histories were so complex that to research them fully she would need to examine all aspects of the temple's long history. As her study expanded, she chose to focus on three main questions [End Page 275] regarding Murōji: why the temple was established in a mountain setting, why major works of ninth- and tenth-century sculpture are housed there, and why the religious affiliation of the temple changed over time. Her interests were thus not just in a fixed moment in the temple's history, but were focused on understanding the original context of the works of art at the temple and their later lives. This synchronic approach sets Fowler's work apart from that of many of her Japanese colleagues, who have been most often concerned with the inception of works of art, but pay scant attention to the ways objects take on new meanings over time.
As Fowler demonstrates, Murōji is an ideal place to apply such an approach, for little about the site in known with any certainty. To clarify the history of the temple and its objects, Fowler has had to work with a large number and varied range of primary sources. These she carefully tests against the extant artistic record in order to arrive at a balanced assessment of objects at the temple in both Murōji's history and the history of Japanese art. What she does not do is place the temple fully in a larger context of Japanese religious practice. Murōji was just one of a number of sanctuaries founded as isolated centers for religious devotions during the eighth century. Sites such as Hisoji near Yoshino and Mt. Katsuragi in Kawachi did not retain the religious vitality that has characterized Murōji, and more explicit comparison with other sanctuaries might help explain the reasons Murōji continued to flourish.
In the first chapter, Fowler introduces the early history of the site. The first Buddhist sanctuary was established at Murō in the eighth century; the reader also learns, however, that the locale had more ancient connections with cave-dwelling dragons associated with rainmaking. While Kengyō, the monk who founded the temple, is somewhat of an elusive figure, surprisingly Fowler chooses not to mention one of the most intriguing episodes of his career, his initial passionate opposition to the ordination system brought to Japan by Jianzhen (Jp. Ganjin; for a discussion of this episode, see Sakuma Ryū, Nihon kodai sōden no kenkyū; Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1983, pp. 167-81 and pp. 242-62). In addition, while she mentions Kengyō's association with one of the two pagodas at the jingūji at Tado in Mino province, she does not discuss the important tradition of rainmaking at that site as well, which might provide further explanation for Kengyō's selection of Murō as a place to worship. (On this point, see Takei Akio, "Shoki jingūji to busshari shinkō: Tō no zōei of...