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  • Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kūkai and Dōgen on the Art of Enlightenment by Pamela D. Winfield
  • Fabio Rambelli (bio)
Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kūkai and Dōgen on the Art of Enlightenment. By Pamela D. Winfield. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013. xx, 207 pages. £70.00, cloth; £18.99, paper.

Generally speaking, one could argue that mainstream Japanese Buddhism is constituted, at least since the fourteenth century, by a triangulation of [End Page 480] Esoteric Buddhism, Zen, and Pure Land Buddhism. Each of these traditions has its own distinctive doctrinal discourse, vocabulary, ritual system, and soteriology; they also developed different visual cultures and systems of objects. Of course, these three traditions are not monolithic and separate entities: we can observe both important overlaps among them and significant differences within each tradition. Examples of overlaps include Esoteric (mikkyō) interpretations of Pure Land teachings (as in so-called “secret nenbutsu” or himitsu nenbutsu) and Shingon and Tendai adoptions of Zen vocabulary. The latter especially concern sudden enlightenment but also Pure Land adoptions of Esoteric ideas in heterodoxical sects (variously called ichinengi, hijibōmon, and ianjin) and mainstream Zen acceptance of Esoteric Buddhist ritual formulas (mantras and dhāraṇῑ). Examples of internal differences include the division of each tradition into several competing denominations: Esoteric Buddhism into Shingon and Tendai, Zen into Sōto and Rinzai, and Pure Land into Yūzū Nenbutsu, Jōdo, Jōdo Shinshū, and Jishū—each further divided into subsects separated by doctrinal and ritual differences. To further complicate the picture, this triangulation is enriched by interaction with other Buddhist traditions, both older (as in the so-called six Nara schools) and more recent (as in Buddhist “new religions”), as well as non-Buddhist religions and intellectual discourses (Confucianism, Shintō, Christianity, modern science, etc.).

This situation makes it exceedingly difficult to talk about “Japanese Buddhism” in a unified and coherent way. As a result, scholars in Japan and elsewhere have chosen not to discuss Japanese Buddhism in general but to focus instead on specific denominations, with the assumption that their denomination of choice is representative of Japanese Buddhism as a whole. For the past 30 years or so, such a sectarian approach to Japanese Buddhism has been supplanted by studies of each of these three large traditions (Esoteric Buddhism, Zen, and Pure Land) in their ramifications, but comparative studies across the triangulation are virtually nonexistent. The rare studies of more general scope avoid systematic, in-depth comparisons across these three traditions in favor of presenting separate instances of similar phenomena within them.

Another factor that complicates the study of Buddhism as a general cultural system is the structure and division of academic disciplines. Buddhist studies traditionally works on texts, not on images and related rituals, whereas visual culture is traditionally the province of art history, which studies visual objects without much reference to their doctrinal and ritual contexts. While this description of the field may sound more like a caricature today, authors and works trying to bridge successfully the visual, the textual, and the ritual are still a minority.

This new book by Pamela Winfield is an ambitious and successful attempt to cross the divide between two of these three traditions, namely, Esoteric Buddhism and Zen (the Pure Land tradition is never mentioned [End Page 481] in the book). This choice is not unjustified: Esoteric Buddhism and Zen do look like polar opposites in terms of doctrines, practices, and attitudes concerning visual matters, with the former emphasizing the proliferation of teachings, rituals, and images and the latter aiming at radical simplification. Winfield focuses her analysis on visual culture—more precisely, on the doctrines and rituals about sacred images (“icons”) as well as on relativizing attitudes about them (“iconoclasm”). In this way, Winfield is able to show how broader philosophical themes (ontology, space, time, semiotics, etc.) contribute to the formation of specific modes to deal with sacred images and how they together constitute discourses about salvation peculiar to Esoteric Buddhism and Zen.

As one can imagine, this book tackles a vast and complex material, so the author chose to limit its scope by focusing on the thought of the two founders...


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pp. 480-484
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