Buddhist Asia: Traditions, Transmissions and Transformations

  An NEH Summer Institute ~ May 25 to June 26, 2015 ~ Honolulu, Hawai'i ~ Hosted by the Asian Studies Development Program

Week Three: Kami, Karma, Self and State: Buddhism and Japanese Identity. The adoption of Buddhism in Japan was deeply enmeshed with efforts to unify the archipelago politically and had a dramatic role in shaping Japanese cultural identity. On Monday, Peter Hershock will examine the complex involvement of Buddhist teachings, rituals and institutions in the formation of Japanese identity, beginning with the transmission of Buddhism from Korea in the 6th century—contested at first by those who believed this foreign religion would offend native kami (spirit forces)—and the symbiotic relationship that developed among scholastic Buddhism, the imperial state and aristocratic families during the Nara (710-784) period. Following this, he will discuss the early spread of Buddhism among the common people and set the stage for the Heian (794-1185) period emergence of Tendai and Shingon as distinctively Japanese Buddhist reform movements.


On Tuesday morning, Thomas Kasulis (Ohio State University) will pick up the discussion of Buddhist reforms, focusing on the esoteric (mikkyō) Tendai and Shingon traditions and their distinctive fusing of concerns for state security and prosperity with convictions that enlightenment can be realized “in this very body” (sokushin jōbutsu). On Wednesday morning, he will discuss the doctrinal and practical innovations of the Kamakura (1185-1333) period traditions of Pure Land, Nichiren and Zen, focusing in particular on Zen thought and practice and their impacts on Japanese aesthetics. In the afternoon, Kazuko Kameda-Madar (Hawaii Pacific University) will further discuss Buddhist influences on premodern Japanese aesthetics, art and architecture, making use of works from different periods, including temples, icons and ritual objects, calligraphic works, gardens and illustrations from popular Buddhist texts.


This will set the stage for Fabio Rambelli’s (UC, Santa Barbara) Thursday morning discussion of Buddhist material culture. In this session, he will outline the sizeable economic and social manifestations of Buddhist material culture, and then look more closely at how objects like Buddhist texts, ritual implements, tools and even natural objects like trees were sites of creative tension between the material and spiritual realms in Japanese culture. In the afternoon, Keller Kimbrough (Univ. of Colorado, Boulder) will explore how Buddhism shaped the Japanese literary imagination and aesthetic ideals, focusing on the roles of preachers, poets and women in expressing the meaning of the Buddhist path in premodern Japan.


The week will end with a close reading of three primary texts: Genjōkōan, a powerfully concise expression of the unity of practice and enlightenment by Dōgen Kigen (1200-1253), and Shinran’s (1173-1263) “Wisdom as Light” and “Good and Evil” (excerpts). These Zen and Pure Land Buddhist texts, respectively, encapsulate the Kamakura era contrast of “self-power” (jiriki) and “other-power” (tariki) approaches to liberation.