- Sacred High City, Sacred Low City: A Tale of Religious Sites in Two Tokyo Neighborhoods by Steven Heine
Over the span of his career, Steven Heine has been concerned primarily with the textual histories of Eihei Dōgen and the kōan traditions of Zen Buddhism. One could certainly place the majority of his works within these two areas of scholarship. At the same time, however, this line of inquiry has also drawn him toward the interpretive matters of Japanese religiosity more broadly, where he has attempted to uncover the meaning of the cultural dimensions of Buddhist praxis on a more phenomenological level. Evidence of this direction first began to emerge in Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan (1999), where he attempted to reconcile the apparent tensions between Zen’s assertions about the nature of reality and its confirmation of supernatural truths and practices. On one level, Shifting Shape served as an alternative to Bernard Faure’s critical appraisal of these tensions in the latter’s groundbreaking works on Chan during the 1990s, offering an interpretive model that affirmed the cultural contributions of East Asian spirituality to the Buddhist promise of liberation.
These themes continued to show up in Heine’s work, as in Opening a Mountain: Kōans of the Zen Masters (2004) and most recently in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up? (2007), where he presented a mediative analysis of the current divide in Zen studies between the defenders of tradition and the historical-cultural critics by turning to a middle-way examination of text, ritual, and ethics. But in his latest work, Sacred High City, Sacred Low City: A Tale of Religious Sites in Two Tokyo Neighborhoods, Heine seems, on a number of levels, to be entering wholly new territory. Here, fully immersed in the contemporary religious practices of modern urban Japan, Heine leaves the realm of textual studies altogether, and attempts to reveal the often elusive meanings of Japanese religiosity in practice.
But is this really new territory? In what is perhaps the most personalized writing in Heine’s body of work, he places the foreground of the current study in the very beginning of his career while researching his dissertation at Komazawa University in Tokyo. As a pleasant diversion, Heine would at times explore the various Japanese neighborhoods along the Ginza subway line between his residence in Mabashi and the University, located near Shibuya. It was through this early “Tokyo pilgrimage” (p. 38) that he first came in contact with the sacred spaces of Akasaka in Yamanote and Inarichō in Shitamachi, two areas of Tokyo he would revisit numerous times over the next thirty years. Gradually this led to a greater interest in contemporary religion and society, ultimately resulting in the comparative study presented in Sacred High City, Sacred Low City. [End Page 656]
Playing off the title of Edward Seidensticker’s Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (1984), Heine alters the perspective of the original text by privileging the sacred in his study of Tokyo’s modern history. In so doing, Heine, first, takes on the contradictions of contemporary Japanese urban life, which, on one level, suggests a high level of secularity with little value for religious identity, and, on a number of other levels, seems to reveal a high regard for the religious, given the noticeable density of sacred spaces throughout a city where real estate comes at a premium, and the high level of ritual participation occurring among people who are fully immersed in a modern urban lifestyle of fast-paced competition and consumerism. Second, Heine attempts to clarify for Western readers how the two primary traditions of Shinto and Buddhism are navigated among contemporary Japanese, without resorting to the all-too-common and overly simplistic dichotomy of life-affirming Shinto festivals and death-supporting Buddhist rituals.
In what is a rather provocative methodological assertion, Heine argues that a greater understanding of Japanese religiosity can be...