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  • Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan by Bryan D. Lowe
  • Charlotte Eubanks (bio)
Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan. By Bryan D. Lowe. University of Hawai'i Press, 2017. xiv, 272 pages. $60.00.

Performance studies scholar Diana Taylor has argued for the coexistence of (at least) two systems of knowledge transfer, which she calls the "archive" and the "repertoire." For Taylor, the archive is a type of memory that exists [End Page 409] in the form of documents, maps, literary texts, manuscripts, and the like, while the repertoire is its crucial coconstituent: a form of memory embodied in performance, gesture, ritual, orality, movement, and so forth. Taylor's concern is to show how these two epistemological modes contest and shape one another, in her case, as relevant to the formation of identity and memory in the pre- and post-Colombian Americas.1 Though Bryan Lowe does not refer to Taylor's work in his study of Ritualized Writing, his fresh approach to Buddhist canon formation, scribal practice, and manuscript cultures comprises a masterful examination of the interplays between archive and repertoire in ancient (seventh- to ninth-century) Japan.

Lowe's primary archive is the Shōsōin collection, which consists of "more than ten thousand documents detailing the activities of a scriptorium" (p. 7), all housed at the storehouse (shōsō) northwest of the Great Buddha Hall at the temple Tōdaiji in Nara. The scriptorium (the Office of Sutra Transcription) closed its doors in 776 CE and the related collection of manuscripts remained "as they had been left over a millennium ago, until they were rediscovered in the nineteenth century" (p. 24), thus providing an unparalleled window onto textual practice in ancient Japan. Lowe's study is the first in English to delve into these precious materials, newly available as photographic reproductions. In addition to his exploration of the Shōsōin materials, Lowe has also performed exhaustive research into collections of ancient Japanese Buddhist manuscripts across the world, from Tokyo and Nara to London, Paris, Seoul, Beijing, Dunhuang, and several points in between.

Reading creatively and inventively, with an impressive eye for detail and a keen sense of story, Lowe carefully recreates for us a wide variety of embodied repertoires which, enacted by a wide range of actors from sovereigns to scribes, created, adjusted, maintained, and imagined this archive. Lowe uncovers, for instance, the career of the heretofore unknown scribe Karakuni no Hitonari (721–?), following his career track to administration and his eventual assumption of monastic orders. He reconstructs for us the varied commissioning activities of the Kuni-no-Miyatsuko group of local chieftains, showing how ritualized writing drew together "fellowships" from across clan lines. And, in a truly compelling section of scholarship, Lowe mines archival materials to reimagine Queen Consort Kōmyōshi's (710–60) and Emperor Shōmu's (r. 724–49) transcriptional campaign to combat demonic threats and venom-based witchcraft (!) in the eighth-century court, building an argument about how dependent sovereigns actually were on Buddhist protections and how subject they were to its restrictions on behavior. Lowe's scholarship is thus a radical departure from the "state Buddhism" [End Page 410] models that have long been dominant in our understandings of Nara religious practice.

In short, as Lowe notes, his study attends to the "non-hermeneutic aspects of texts" and to the "connection[s] between the content of the texts and the practices directed toward them," as well as those practices involved in creating them (p. 7). Combining the strengths of archival and repertoire-focused approaches, and acknowledging debts to Japanese scholars (chief among them Sakaehara Towao and Miyazaki Kenji,2 who facilitated his access to, and helped him learn to evaluate, Shōsōin documents), Lowe has given us a fresh, vibrantly new examination of ancient Japanese Buddhist culture.

A central argument of the book is that "writing is an inherently social endeavor" (p. vii). More particularly, Lowe concerns himself with sketching a history of "ritualized writing" in ancient Japan as a complex sociological network which "shaped the human and heavenly order … structured communities and instilled identities … [and] provided opportunities...


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pp. 409-413
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