- With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icon and Early Mikkyō Vision
In this hefty, beautifully illustrated volume, Cynthea Bogel takes on a broad subject of great significance for anyone engaged in the study of Japanese Buddhism and its visual culture, the creation of esoteric Mikkyō doctrine [End Page 420] by the Shingon sect founder Kūkai (774–835) and related ritual imagery in the late eighth and early ninth century. Her bibliography reveals her survey of an astonishingly wide range of sources, including primary and secondary texts in Chinese, Japanese, and English languages, on Buddhism and religious art in both China and Japan. She also attempts new interpretations of these materials from the perspective of contemporary theoretical writings on topics ranging from scientific thought to visuality, material culture, and religiosity. Much of her information appears in English for the first time and represents an important contribution to the field. Bogel’s poetic title underscores her assertion of the significance of the visual to Kūkai’s teachings, being excerpted from his writings: “with a single glance [at the images] one becomes a Buddha” (p. 5). She concentrates on the relationship of text, ritual, and image, highlighting the latter because, she notes, although prior studies of Kūkai’s teachings and art (related to the early days of Mikkyō and its role as an aid to ritual) have been undertaken by both Japanese and foreign scholars, hers is the first study to make “Kūkai’s new emphasis on the visual an underlying theme” (p. 4).
Bogel lays out her ambitious goals and the organization for the book in her introduction, indicating at the outset that one of her main intentions is to assess how the visual and visionary impact of Mikkyō was transformatory, “not only to the adherent but at a broad cultural level” (p. 4). She posits that adoption of Mikkyō represents a paradigm shift in the Heian period that “stimulated representation of Buddha realms or Pure Lands in secular sources” (p. 10). Above all, though, she repeats, in various contexts in the introduction and in subsequent chapters, the importance Kūkai placed on icons and visual culture, stressing that “Mikkyō images were not only illustrations of the divine agents of power, but were the power of the divinity itself” (p. 5). She explicates this by noting that “the practitioner is an agency, but so too is ritual and, by implication, the material and visual components of ritual. Esoteric material culture is the transformatory grid for the liberating and creative energy of the Dharmakāya Buddha, and can thus be understood as the substance of that energy” (p. 6). She continues her justification for emphasizing Mikkyō’s visual materials by stating that “the visual particulars of Mikkyō Buddhist culture and realizing enlightenment ‘in this body’ are fundamentally linked as conceptual, philosophical, and structural equals, at once participating in a logic of similarity within a ritual program and drawing from the broader visual culture of eighth- and ninth-century Japan” (p. 11). These quotes are representative of the language employed throughout the book that wraps her discussion in theoretical terms, which, though at times eloquent, often becomes somewhat opaque.
Following the introduction, the book is divided into five parts, with 11 chapters. Part 1, “Definitions and Dynamics,” defines her conceptual framework. Chapter 1 (“Esoteric Buddhism and Mikkyō”) explains terminology [End Page 421] and related issues, beginning with the word “Esotericism” in relation to the word “Mikkyō.” Bogel prefers the latter because it “reminds the reader of the Japanese sectarian construction of an East Asian Esoteric tradition and its visual culture” (p. 19). Chapter 2 (“A Religion of Images”) discusses the relationship between theory and practice (“cultural praxis”), with emphasis on the essential role of imagery. Chapter 3 (“The Function of Icons and Visuality as Function”) discusses the importance of the discipline of visual culture to assessment of Mikkyō imagery, because it “challenges the authoritative status of the text” (p. 58). She highlights the fact that aesthetic appreciation of religious...