- Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism
The study of Japanese Buddhism, with its origins in textual and doctrinal studies, has rarely been concerned with material culture. Only recently have scholars of Japanese Buddhism, paying attention perhaps to their colleagues in art history or following the visual turn in the humanities, shifted their attention from ideas to objects and begun to recognize the materiality of the traditions that they study. Robert H. [End Page 555] Scharf and Elizabeth Horton Scharf ’s Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context1 and Karen M. Gerhart’s recent The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan,2 for example, suggest what the study of Japanese Buddhism might look like if it were to focus not only on texts and doctrines but also on images and artifacts. Fabio Rambelli is similarly concerned with the history of Japanese Buddhist material culture but, perhaps even more profoundly, also with the meaning of materiality itself in Japanese Buddhist thought and practice. His important and provocative book addresses the Japanese Buddhist understanding of things—of their substantial, semiotic, and soteriological status— and the ideological and institutional implications of this understanding for Japanese history. His analysis addresses doctrinal texts about the nature of the phenomenal world, the ontology and performativity of sacred objects, the conceptualization and exploitation of material resources and human labor, and the ritual treatment of everyday objects. Within a chronological arc reaching from the medieval to the modern, Rambelli takes up individual topics—texts, trees, tools, and memorialized materials—to investigate the economy of objects in Japanese Buddhist culture. Wide-ranging in subject matter, his work is marked by a theoretical depth and a consistent attention to the social effects of Buddhist theory and practice.
Rambelli begins, in Chapter 1, by situating his inquiry within a general Buddhist theory of objects and showing how an understanding of the physical world was predicated on an understanding of the metaphysical: the degree to which inanimate objects were believed to share in the Buddha nature. This Buddhist philosophy of objects, Rambelli argues, was neither settled nor singular and remained a contested subject of debate throughout centuries of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist discourse. Presenting the history and scope of this discourse, Rambelli concentrates on the innovations of Japanese esoteric Buddhist lineages and their ideological effects in the social realm.
In Chapter 2, Rambelli suggests a general typology of sacred objects within the Japanese Buddhist tradition and categorizes their roles within systems of meaning and use. He examines the ambivalent attitude toward materiality in the Buddhist tradition, a tradition in [End Page 556] which objects are both renounced and celebrated. Rambelli identifies the salient qualities of such commodities as implements, altars, icons, and amulets, which are crucial to the mechanics of ritual production, lineage maintenance, and institutional identity. He explores the ontology of buddha images within the doctrinal discussions of Shingon monks and through the rituals by which such images are produced, visualized, consecrated, and animated.
Chapter 3 addresses the objects most often discussed by Buddhist scholars—sutras—but does so in an unprecedented manner. Reading for meaning—what modern scholars do when reading texts—is not, Rambelli argues, what Buddhists necessarily do when reading texts. Exploring the role of sutras in ritual and devotional practices—what he terms their “nonhermeneutic” dimension—Rambelli expands our understanding of the ways in which scripture operates within religious communities; and, by attending to the materiality and performativity of sutras, he argues for a new approach to the social life of Buddhist texts.
In Chapter 4, Rambelli situates the doctrinal discourse about the Buddha nature of plants and trees (sōmoku jōbutsu) explored in Chapter 1 within a wider social and historical context. Drawing on popular tales, artistic practices, and legal disputes, he examines the history of Japanese concepts of the natural world in order to challenge common assumptions about Japanese religion and the environment. He historicizes the universalizing assertion of an indigenous, intrinsically Japanese appreciation of nature and shows that this assumption...