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Reviewed by:
  • Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery
  • Yukio Lippit
Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery. By Gregory P. A. Levine. University of Washington Press, 2006. 444 pages. Hardcover $60.00.

The monastery monograph has been a productive format for scholarly inquiry on Japanese art in recent years. Studies on Zenkōji, Chūsonji, Murōji, and the Tsukubusuma shrine have yielded far-reaching insights in part because they have conceived of religious institutions less as self-enclosed cultural repositories than as sites through which to investigate an array of issues concerning religious art, including the replication and signification of Buddhist icons, institutional identity, architectural reincarnation as a reflection of historical contingency, and the complex ways temples can express larger social and cultural formations.1 Now these works are joined by Gregory P. A. Levine's [End Page 198] Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery, a study that opens up new possibilities for the monastery as a medium of art historical inquiry.

Daitokuji is a particularly challenging site of interrogation because of its enormous cultural prestige and the degree to which modern commentators have portrayed it as paradigmatic of a Zen Buddhist environment.2 At its peak during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Daitokuji—once referred to by the art historian Jon Carter Covell as "the most important Zen temple in Japan"—included twenty-four subtemples and an additional forty-four subsidiary buildings sprawled out across the "Purple Fields" district of northern Kyoto. It boasted a formidable roster of lay patrons, including the wealthy merchants of Sakai and the archipelago's most ambitious warlords. Oda Nobunaga's funeral was held there in 1582, overseen by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

No religious institution of the era undertook infrastructural expansion more rapidly or impressively than Daitokuji, as attested today by the National Treasures found in the main precincts, such as the Sanmon gate, constructed in its current form in 1589, and the Abbot's Quarters (hōjō), completed in 1635 to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the monastery's founding. Daitokuji was also closely associated with the premier cultural practice of the period, chanoyu, and with many of its most influential practitioners, especially the tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591). Several of Daitokuji's abbots became symbols of political protest when they were exiled from the capital in the "Purple Robe (Shie) Incident" of 1629. And most germane to the present review, Daitokuji has been celebrated for one of the most impressive monastic treasuries in all of Japan, one replete with in-situ cycles of sliding-door panels, works of calligraphy, portraits, and Chinese ink paintings considered the greatest achievements of their respective traditions (so much so that reproducing a small, black-and-white image of any one of them in a scholarly publication can cost upwards of US$500). This corpus of material, the artifacts' original production and viewing contexts, and their subsequent discursive receptions serve as the focus of Levine's study.

Daitokuji problematizes the very notion of a monograph through its structure. Levine acknowledges at the outset the impossibility of capturing "Daitokuji" as a totality and the difficulty of positing meaningful parameters for its study. Eschewing a survey-style or chronological approach, he focuses on four case studies or "distinct episodes" in the monastery's history as ways of examining the role temple buildings and artifacts have played in mediating the master narratives of Daitokuji's identity. The four subjects taken up are the corpus of abbots' portraits that have accrued over the centuries at the monastery; the Sanmon gate and the removal of Sen no Rikyū's [End Page 199] sculpture in 1591; Kōgetsu Sōgan's (1574–1643) record of calligraphy by Zen monks, known as Bokuseki no utsushi (Copies of Ink Traces); and the custom of annual airings (mushiboshi or bakuryō) of temple treasures. Several chapters are devoted to each of these episodes, and an epilogue discusses the afterlife of one of Daitokuji's most celebrated cultural treasures, the set of thirteenth-century Chinese paintings known as Five Hundred Luohan. These subjects prove to be carefully chosen, not only for the varied aspects of monastic visual and...


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