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  • Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art by Halle O'Neal
  • Anna Andreeva (bio)
Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art. By Halle O'Neal. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge MA, 2018. xviii, 292 pages. $75.00.

Perhaps there is no shame in admitting that even a scholar of medieval Japan can easily find the jeweled pagoda mandalas (kinji hōtō mandara) perplexing and overwhelming. Dark, inscribed on blue or purple paper, these religious objects of Buddhist art are composed of glowing-gold but barely legible Sino-Japanese characters, which form an architecturally precise shape of a pagoda. The pagodas convey the meaning of influential Buddhist sutras, often with the help of elaborate vignette images placed alongside the vertically shaped building structure. These mandalas are akin to an oasis mirage in the desert: first they draw you in by the sheer opulence of their composition and detail, but then they rebuff by their complexity and incomprehensibility of the direction of writing of a supposedly familiar sutra text. A museum tag explaining the date of their composition and rough contents may provide a temporary consolation to a modern viewer, but that alone is not enough to fully appreciate the religious significance and experiential meaning of the jeweled pagoda mandalas. In order to decipher the essence of these objects, viewers must remain in motion and experience a certain sense of displacement. They sway back and forth, tightening and widening their eyes while straining to see the minute detail, and step in and out of their comfort zone, trying to expand their perception horizon in order to absorb the totality of the viewed object. These motions make the encounter with the mandalas intimately personal but also urge viewers to abandon their station and ascend to a certain level of macrocosmic reading.

Halle O'Neal's new book untangles these mandalas' visual and performative complexity. Impressively researched and broadly conceived, the [End Page 123] five chapters of this study investigate the key aspects of the jeweled pagoda mandalas' composition, their textual and visual content, and the historical and cross-cultural contexts of their production, searching for evidence far and wide, within both medieval Japan and premodern Asia. Going far beyond a descriptive study, the book raises bold theoretical questions about the relations between text and image employed by these objects, for example, by challenging an influential Foucauldian theory holding that there exists at best only a "fractured communication" between a graphic image and the written word (pp. 229–30). The study argues that it is precisely the indivisibility of word and image, or what it calls (on its dust jacket) "the revolutionary use of text as picture" encountered in these medieval Japanese objects of Buddhist art which allow the viewer to engage in a whole range of acts of pious "reading" and which embody the religious merit, that was novel for a medieval society. It shows how the jeweled pagoda mandalas both partake in and construct broad networks of relations between the theories of the Buddha-body documented in Pāli, Sanskrit, and Chinese Buddhist sources, the diverse sutra texts, architecture, image, and devotion, discovering in the process the multiple meanings that these intricate works of art offered to their makers, patrons, and viewers in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Japan. But not only that: we learn of the practicalities of the mandala's drawing, the scale of preparatory work necessary for their completion, and, ultimately, of the wealth, time, and technical effort required for the production of the elaborate jeweled pagoda mandala sets. The study focuses not only on medieval Japan but extends its horizon to the seventeenth century when the restoration of at least one medieval mandala set was commissioned by a woman from a samurai family linked to a Nichiren temple.

There should be no surprise that the book's introduction begins with a short homage to the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, an early twentieth-century lover of calligrams, or images consisting of words (pp. 1–3). This is an invitation to look at phenomena broadly, a sign of things to come. In the course of her study, O'Neal time and...