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  • Gods of Medieval Japan: Vol. 1, The Fluid Pantheon; Vol. 2, Protectors and Predators by Bernard Faure
  • Steven Trenson (bio)
Gods of Medieval Japan: Vol. 1, The Fluid Pantheon; Vol. 2, Protectors and Predators. By Bernard Faure. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu, 2016. Vol. 1: xii, 482 pages; Vol. 2: x, 497 pages. $55.00 per volume.

At the beginning of volume 1 of the Gods of Medieval Japan, an illustration is included of the “esoteric pantheon,” showing a hierarchical arrangement of the gods with the buddhas occupying the upper tier and the kami the lowest stratum. There are also a number of interconnecting lines indicating relations between gods of different strata. These lines are important because what the author certainly does not intend to promote is the idea that the vertical structure represents a static reality. Although it is rather common to imagine the gods as having a fixed hierarchical position and a specific mythological character, in actual practices or belief systems many are often either connected to other gods or serve as epiphanies of different deities. For [End Page 173] example, anyone desiring to trace the paths trodden by the wrathful wisdom king Fudō Myōō (Skt. Acala, Acalanātha) on the medieval religious landscape will soon discover that those paths intersect those of many other gods, in such a seemingly chaotic way that one could easily be discouraged in trying to grasp the deity’s identity. The same goes for most gods of medieval Japan and this makes it difficult, if not fruitless, to try to pigeonhole each of them in a neatly constructed hierarchical framework, for, as the author asks, if a deity appears under different names and changes all the time, can we still claim it is the same deity (1, p. 27)?

Bernard Faure, the author of landmark works in Japanese Buddhist studies such as The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (1991), Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism (1996), and The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality (1998), has produced two new superbly illustrated volumes in which he shares his astute and valuable insights on the intricate nature of medieval deities in Japan. He sets out on a journey to discover the multiple nodes that constitute the network of interconnections between the gods and tries to make sense of them, all the while avoiding what he terms a common pitfall: the tendency to individualize a god’s character by producing a fixed or linear narrative of its characteristics. Importantly, Faure argues that the position each deity occupies in the network of relations is not a fixed place but instead a “fluid” one.

In essence, Faure regards the identity of gods as something linked to a network of relations. The gods themselves represent multiplicities and networks, their linguistic appellation being only shorthand for a given symbolic configuration existing at a certain moment (1, p. 15). They are nodes in an ever-changing net (1, p. 10), “floating” signifiers (1, pp. 9, 26), or “fluctuating” centers (1, p. 319) and as such do not possess a fixed character or essence. To describe this ambivalent nature of the gods, Faure uses the metaphor of a liquid, running from a center to a margin and back. As nodes or networks in and of themselves, the gods act like fluids largely “overflowing” the limits of their allotted slots in the pantheon (1, p. 48; 2, p. 73). Seen from this viewpoint, there can be no “pure” gods or buddhas, only a ceaseless fluidity of forms and functions, a continual shift between center and margin (2, p. 345).

The choice of the term “fluid” to describe the pantheon derives from the fact that such is apparently the state in which the gods in medieval Japan seem to appear in practice, but it also stems from the content of certain anthropological theories the author relies upon to clarify his point. Faure considers the strengths and weaknesses of the major theoretical approaches to the study of human culture, that is, the historical, structuralist, and poststructuralist approaches, as well as critical theories influenced by poststructuralism. Accordingly, he selects from the theories those parts that seem...


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