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  • 懺悔 Zange/Confession
  • Christine Marran (bio)

The use of zange in Meiji “confessional” literature shows that a native Buddhist term came to be used to describe secular narratives of the self. The range of writers who engaged the concept of zange in expressing an individual secular life is so wide that zange appears to have been significant in the development of the modern confessional novel. My look at zange will illustrate that the use of the term had expanded significantly beyond Buddhist practice and conversion to become an essential frame for speaking of the self in the early 1900s among female writers and male literati and that these zange show that the writing of the self differed along gender lines.

Sange in Early Japanese Buddhism

The Chinese term that would later be rendered keka in its Japanese reading, meaning “repentance for trespassings,” was used in translations of Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit from the years 148-170 CE, but from around 300 CE, the term sange was introduced in sutras to denote repentance. In using the term sange, the Buddhist sutras and stories emphasized not just the disclosure of evil deeds (hotsuro) but also the correction of them by seeking forgiveness and cleansing the self. For example, in the Ceremony of Repentance as described in the Kan fugengyō (trans. 424-41 CE), sange was an opportunity to purify the “six organs of sensation.”1 In his book Ancient Buddhism in Japan, Marinus Willem de Visser cites numerous sutras translated from Sanskrit as early as 384 CE that describe the act of repentance (sange).2 He states that the first character of sange (san) in this Buddhist context is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit word ksamayati meaning “to ask for forgiveness” and the second character ke or ge refers to the utterance of repentance (to be accompanied by a sense of shame). By repenting and feeling shame, the penitent can become pure and stainless. In considering both Indian and Chinese Buddhist texts, however, de Visser is concerned to note that Indian [End Page 33] and Chinese Buddhism placed different emphases on the goal of repentance: “Evidently the Indian Buddhists laid stress upon the value of confession and asking forgiveness, whereas in China repentance, as the cause of confession, was deemed the main point.”3 In other words, in the Chinese case, it is the desire to repent that leads to the confession whereas in the Indian case, it is the confessional aspect and asking of forgiveness from the listener that is the goal.

These translations of Sanskrit religious texts led to an increase in native sange practices and texts. In Japan by 838 a repentance festival, the Butsumyō Sange, had been instituted in which rites for asking forgiveness were performed. Numerous sutras emphasize the confession as a “rite” that must be performed multiple times per day. Alternately, the living being may repent upon hearing a sange sutra. Different sects required different types of sange rites. For example, the Tendai sect differentiated five kinds of repentance to be performed six times in the space of 24 hours. The rites also could be accompanied by a sangemon or text of repentance. One such sangemon read: “All my evil deeds of the past / Were based upon beginningless greed, anger and stupidity. / The evil, born of my body, speech and thought, / I now repentantly confess it all.”4 These limited examples of early Buddhist sange are given here to show that in ancient Buddhism, where the term sange was introduced initially through translation into Japanese, sange was both confession and repentance and was performed in a ritual context. Repentance provided rebirth, enlightenment, and escape from the prison of the world in a strictly Buddhist context. Practitioners of Buddhism performed these rites in order to reject this world, live virtuously, and eventually reach an enlightened state.

Zange in Medieval Japan

Stories of those who performed sange appeared in ancient Buddhist sutras and texts. In her study of zange narratives from Japan’s medieval period, Margaret Helen Childs has looked at longer repentance narratives called zangemono. Childs translates zangemono as “revelatory tales” rather than “confession” or “repentance” tale. This choice highlights the idea of resolution in storytelling and listening...


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pp. 33-42
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