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  • Not Seeing Snow: Musō Soseki and Medieval Japanese Zen by Molly Vallor
  • Yukio Lippit (bio)
Not Seeing Snow: Musō Soseki and Medieval Japanese Zen. By Molly Vallor. Brill, Leiden, 2019. xiv, 264 pages. $119.00, cloth; $25.00, E-book.

As Molly Vallor writes in the introduction to her new book, the Zen monk Musō Soseki (1275–1351) "has been largely overlooked in the modern era" (p. xi) and continues to be "shrouded in mystery" (p. vii). This despite the fact that he was, at least in institutional terms, perhaps the most influential figure in the history of medieval Japanese Zen, whose disciples would go on to play key roles in shaping Gozan monasteries and Ashikaga politics, while developing standards for cultural forms such as Gozan poetry and poem-picture scrolls (shigajiku). This neglect is the result of Musō's "tarnished reputation" as an overly political figure who has been unappealing to scholars seeking "pure Zen" (p. xi), as well as the manner in which his reputation as the designer of Saihōji garden has obscured other aspects of his life and cultural production. Vallor's book is thus highly welcome. In "[reconsidering] this noteworthy figure and his representative works apart from these longstanding biases" (p. x), it illuminates not only Musō's texts and historical circumstances but also a great deal about Zen and politics in fourteenth-century Japan.

The scholarly study of Musō is no easy task. His life spanned a complex historical era that witnessed political upheaval and the rapid evolution of Zen institutions. Musō constantly moved back and forth between regions and mediated distinct spheres of influence, whether they be monastic, imperial, or shogunal. Even among the Ashikaga, Musō served as a go-between for the [End Page 127] conflicted brothers Takauji and Tadayoshi. The sources that survive to document his doings are anything but straightforward; his biographical chronology (nenpu) and numerous other texts were favorably redacted by followers such as his nephew and closest disciple Shun'oku Myōha (1311–88). Vallor is attentive to the heavy editorial bias in these sources. Just as importantly, her training as a literary scholar enables her to carefully parse his literary works, most notably his widely read kana sermon Muchū mondōshū (Dialogues in a dream, 1342) as well as his personal waka anthology Shōgaku kokushishū (Anthology of poems by National Master Shōgaku), in order to paint a fuller picture of Musō's patterns of discursive thought, self-fashioning, and engagement with patrons. The result is a highly interdisciplinary approach that "borrows from the disciplines of religious studies, literary studies, art history, and history" in order to "clarify [Musō's] wide-ranging influence on different areas of medieval culture" (p. x).

The introductory chapter provides a succinct overview of Musō's life as gleaned from his biographical chronology. It follows his upbringing in Ise as a distant imperial descendant and initial training in esoteric Buddhism, through his taking of precepts at Tōdaiji; his early Zen apprenticeship at Kenninji and then in Kamakura under Yishan Yining and eventually Kōhō Kennichi, who would formally become Musō's master; his various peregrinations and stays in northeastern Japan at Unganji temple as well as small hermitages and temples in Kai and Mino Provinces; his acceptance to serve as abbot of Nanzenji upon Emperor Godaigo's invitation; his association with the Ashikaga and the Northern Court; his oversight of the bakufu project to build or designate a state temple (ankokuji) and stupa (rishōtō) in each province; and the founding of Tenryūji in Kyoto before his own death in 1351. As those who have researched the lives of Zen monks know well, such chronologies, often included in the recorded sayings (goroku) of a given monk, can be laconic and difficult to bring to life, but the author does an exemplary job of reading between the lines to essentially convey two narratives, one centered on the circumstances of Musō's life, the other on the ways in which entries were strategically shaped to elevate the partisan claims of his succession lineage. A good example concerns the account of Musō's unsuccessful encounter with Yishan Yining, which the...