- Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan by Charlotte Eubanks
Some years ago I visited Ryūkōji, a Buddhist temple near the Japanese city Aizu-Wakamatsu. My goal was to view a twelfth-century copy of the Lotus sutra, designated a national treasure by the Japanese government. The temple priest unrolled the scroll with great ceremony, revealing a text in which each Chinese character is shown seated, Buddha-like, on a lotus petal platform. “Each character is the Buddha,” he explained. The sutra, of course, purports to be words spoken by the Buddha; but in this eloquently written study, Charlotte Eubanks goes a long way toward explaining both the rhetoric and the underlying meaning of the priest’s claim. [End Page 337]
The book’s central theme is “the text-flesh continuum,” that is, the ways in which a sacred text can become an embodied being and a human body can reproduce, contain, and even make itself into a sacred text. Eubanks amply illustrates her arguments with examples from both sutras and medieval Japanese didactic tales called setsuwa. The setsuwa are clearly the junior partner in this pairing; setsuwa talk about sutras, but the reverse is not true. Eubanks does not limit herself to a medieval Japanese understanding of sutras, however, but offers insights into the construct of Buddhist textual culture as a whole.
After an introduction that explains her work’s theoretical underpinnings, Eubanks turns to sutras, which often act like sentient beings with a will to live. Specifically, they exhort their audience to preserve and propagate them. When transmitted per request, sutras benefit devotees in various ways, including physical ones; the most significant is the transformation of the human body into a container for the text. As Eubanks explains in a later chapter, this means that the body, originally a vessel for all sorts of impurities, is flushed of dross and holds the purest substance of all, the teachings of Buddhism.
Chapter 2 focuses on setsuwa, arguing that their presentation of sutra teachings fulfills the sutras’ request for propagation. Not only do setsuwa illuminate how sutras may be understood, but also, Eubanks argues, they claim to have some sense of their own being. Of course setsuwa, having been compiled in many cases by identifiable human beings, seem less miraculously embodied than the sutras, which may even claim existence before that of the Buddha who supposedly uttered them. However, when setsuwa are described by their compilers as food or medicine, they are shown to sustain or cure the human body. Thus they, like sutras, are intimately related to flesh and have a place along the “text-flesh continuum”; and when compilers assert that setsuwa perform the role of preacher, then their embodiment does seem to approach that of sutras.
Eubanks next focuses more closely on the body, treated in setsuwa as decaying flesh, the agent or object of sexual desire, and as potential sacred Buddhist text. Tales show the body at its most impure and disgusting yet demonstrate that bodily sacrifice can make the body into a container of the Buddhist dharma. Sacrifice could be extreme, as in the case of the thirteenth-century monk Myōe who cut off his ear as a sign of devotion, hoping that by doing so his deed would be miraculously inscribed in previously written sutras. Or it could be milder and a lot more practical: a sutra could be copied using one’s blood as ink or one’s hair to make a brush. Both types of action equate body and scriptural text.
Eubanks then turns to ways in which sutras can be reproduced by bodily action on the part of human devotees. Although this point may seem obvious, Eubanks gives weight to memorizing the sutras and to chanting and copying [End Page 338] them. In fact, memorization—the inscription of the sutra on the mind—becomes a primary way in which a human being can become a container for Buddhist teachings. Particularly striking examples of this trope are setsuwa tales...