Śākyamuni (Jpn. Shaka) is the “Japanese Buddha” at the heart of Micah Auerback’s impressively researched and illuminating book. It is widely accepted that Śākyamuni, or Siddhārtha Gautama, preached the fundamentals of Buddhism in northern India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Auerback’s purpose, however, is to show how this Indian sage was represented centuries later in Japan, where he was first portrayed as “just one enactment of an unchanging, cosmic formula” (12) but ended up a demythologized historical figure located “within a pantheon of globally recognized great men” (239). By analyzing written and artistic depictions of Śākyamuni from ancient to modern times, Auerback not only enhances our understanding of Buddhism’s long-term development in Japan but also provides a valuable case study for those interested more generally in how shifting—and often competing—agendas of both clerics and laypeople have shaped the biographies of major religious figures worldwide. At the outset of his book, Auerback acknowledges Śākyamuni’s “generally marginal place in the devotional life of Japanese Buddhism” (2), which has traditionally lavished far more attention on other divinities in the Buddhist pantheon, such as Amitābha Buddha (Jpn. Amida) and the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Jpn. Kannon), as well as on Japanese luminaries like Prince Shōtoku and the Shingon school founder Kūkai. Why focus, then, on Śākyamuni rather than one of these other popular figures in examining changes to Japanese Buddhism and its place in Japanese culture? In chapter 1, “The Buddha as Preceptor,” Auerback begins to answer this question by demonstrating that the “relative lack of Japanese biographic interest in Śākyamuni” (23) is in itself an important indication of how ancient and medieval Japanese Buddhists viewed the cosmos and the possibility of salvation within it. Adhering to canonical sources transmitted from the continent, these Buddhists situated Śākyamuni’s life within a cosmic scheme spanning vast reaches of time and space and populated by a multitude of sacred beings worthy of devotion. Particularly influential was the Lotus Sutra’s teaching that Śākyamuni was the “emanation body” (nirmanakaya) of an eternal Buddha who manifested in human form as an expedient to deliver sentient beings from suffering. So while Śākyamuni Buddha did merit reverence in the form of relics, iconographic portrayals, and written narratives, the stories of other salvational figures, whether Buddhas or not, subsumed and de-centered his own. A good example of this phenomenon is a painting of the “eight phases” of Śākyamuni’s life that was situated “as a gateway to a hall enshrining a main image of the cosmic Buddha Mahāvairocana [Jpn. Dainichi]” in the Hōjōji, a temple built in 1022 and destroyed by fire a couple of centuries later. As Auerback puts it, this spatial arrangement “implies that the life of Śākyamuni was important less on its own terms than as one element within a visual program positioning him as a temporary manifestation of the cosmic Buddha” (47). Given his close attention to how Śākyamuni was located in a wider field of belief and practice, it is curious that Auerback mentions just once in his entire book, and only in passing, the Mahāyāna Buddhist concept of “the last age of the dharma” (Jpn. mappō). The third of three periods following the death of Śākyamuni and widely thought by ancient and medieval Japanese Buddhists to begin in 1052, it was defined by moral decline and an inability to find salvation in the Buddha’s teachings. In describing the contents of a biography of Śākyamuni written by the Chinese monk Sengyou (445–518), Auerback notes that the work concludes with Śākyamuni’s “prediction of the demise of his dharma and of the advent of Maitreya [Jpn. Miroku], the Buddha of the future” (26), but he neglects to explain to the reader how this historical narrative of decline and then redemption in the form of a future Buddha related to Japanese attitudes toward Śākyamuni. Only so much can be covered in a book that spans over a thousand years (and Auerback is to be applauded for writing one that does), but this omission is especially striking when one considers that the last chapter of his book focuses on how Japanese Buddhists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reconfigured the biography of Śākyamuni to fit within a new historical framework adopted from the West. After explaining Śākyamuni’s place in ancient and medieval Japanese Buddhism, Auerback uses chapter 2, “The Buddha as Local Hero,” to trace the process of his “vernacularization” in Edo-period (1600–1868) popular culture. Noncanonical elements had begun creeping into narratives of the Buddha’s life as early as the fourteenth century, but this trend accelerated dramatically during the seventeenth century with the advent of commercial printing and new forms of theatrical performance. Especially influential from the mid-seventeenth to late nineteenth century was the Tale of Śākyamuni in Eight Phases, which “reworked the account of the Buddha’s birth as domestic drama, concocting an elaborate, sororicidal rivalry” between his mother and his aunt (75). It also placed the story in an “unmistakably vernacular Japanese setting” (82) and left out any mention of the attempts of the demon Māra to derail Śākyamuni’s pursuit of enlightenment, “a scene at the heart of most narratives of his life” (85). Inspired in large part by the Tale of Śākyamuni in Eight Phases, commercial storytellers like the famous playwright Chikamatsu (1653–1725) continued to eschew canonical accuracy in favor of sensational entertainment, adding action scenes, comedic episodes, and other dramatic elements to their own accounts of Śākyamuni, both written and theatrical, for the remainder of the Edo period. If print could be used to market unorthodox versions of Śākyamuni’s life, it could also be used to push back with canonical ones. In chapter 3, “The Buddha as Exemplar,” Auerback examines the efforts of several Buddhist clerics to do just that, with a particular focus on the work of Kōgetsu Sōgi (1756–1833), a court-lady-turned-nun who trained under Jiun Onkō (1718–1804), a monk famous for advocating a revival of the original Buddhist precepts. Adopting Jiun’s fundamentalist perspective on the study and practice of Buddhism, Kōgetsu paid special attention to “the earliest layer of texts among those translated into Chinese from South Asian accounts of the life of the Buddha” (107) as she wrote Light of the Three Ages, an orthodox biography of Śākyamuni’s life that served to critique the decadent state of Buddhism in her own day. Kōgetsu’s historicist approach is now unremarkable, but it made her book stand out from the other, more freewheeling, accounts of Śākyamuni that circulated during her time. While Kōgetsu used the philological study of the Buddhist canon as a tool to revitalize Buddhism, nativist scholar Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) wielded it as a weapon to attack what he considered a barbaric faith. A proponent of “national learning” (Jpn. kokugaku), Hirata lamented the fact that Buddhism had led Japanese astray from what he argued were the pure, timeless, and distinctly native beliefs and practices of Shintō. While plenty of scholars have written about Atsutane and his anti-Buddhist polemics, Auerback makes an innovative contribution in chapter 4, “The Buddha as Fraud,” by arguing that we should in fact view Atsutane as “a key biographer of the Buddha” (164). Following the example of renowned scholar Tominaga Nakamoto (1715–1746), who had used philological inquiry to show that the Buddhist canon was composed of texts that “had been created by different parties, at different historical moments, to different ends” (131), Atsutane did not dismiss Buddhist scriptures out of hand but instead closely engaged with them to expose internal contradictions and falsehoods. The end result of this hostile historicism was an earth-bound—and more specifically, India-bound—Śākyamuni stripped of divine status and exposed as a mere huckster. The spread of Atsutane’s ideas, particularly via his Mocking Discourse upon Emerging from Meditation, incited prominent Buddhist clerics to write rebuttals in which they attempted to discredit Atsutane and defend their faith, but their efforts were unable to stem a rising tide of anti-Buddhist sentiment that crested immediately after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Restoration brought an end to the ruling shogunate and ushered in a new government that, in the name of the newly enthroned Meiji emperor, worked to build a modern nation-state that could compete with the Western imperial powers. Sympathetic to the anti-Buddhist views disseminated by Atsutane and likeminded thinkers, leaders in the new government also instituted a number of measures that not only severed state support for the Buddhist establishment but also inspired the outright persecution of Buddhism in many parts of Japan. On top of that, Buddhists had to contend with the new threat of Christianity, which had been outlawed during the Edo period but was legalized by the Meiji regime. In chapter 5, “The Buddha as Character,” Auerback turns attention to Christian critics of Buddhism, and in particular to the arguments of Joseph Edkins (1823–1905), whose Correction of the Errors of the Buddhists was widely republished in Japan. Like Atsutane, Edkins highlighted the unreliability of the Buddhist scriptures, but was more generous in his portrayal of Śākyamuni, writing that he was a wise man whose intentions were good. The demotion of Śākyamuni to a mere human, albeit a virtuous one, was unacceptable to establishment clerics who tried to refute the arguments made by Edkins as well as Japanese Christians, but their appeals to canonical proof of Śākyamuni’s exalted status—his 32 major marks of a Buddha, for example—were clearly doomed to fail in persuading those who did not already subscribe to Buddhist teachings. Around the turn of the twentieth century, influential “new Buddhists”—in particular, lay intellectuals like Inoue Tetsujirō (1856–1944) and Takayama Chogyū (1871–1902)—decided instead to follow the lead of Eugène Burnouf (1801–1852), Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843–1922), and other European Buddhologists in celebrating Śākyamuni as an exemplary “great man” of global significance. A best-selling example of this humanist vision was Takayama’s Śākyamuni, which in 1899 inaugurated “Tales from World History,” a series from the Hakubunkan publishing house that included books on Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, George Washington, and Joan of Arc (227). Admitting in the preface that it was impossible to write a wholly accurate biography of the Buddha—or Jesus or Muhammad, for that matter—Takayama did include “strange and unbelievable episodes” found in traditional narratives. He noted, however, that these were not to be taken literally, characterizing them instead as a means to get at the “real spirit (shin seishin) of Śākyamuni” (228). Writers were not alone in reassessing the life of Śākyamuni. To his credit, Auerback enters the realm of the visual arts to show how painters used new techniques and thematic choices to create a historical Buddha who inhabited “a real-world environment” (216). Since Śākyamuni lived in India, many Japanese artists who painted scenes of his life in fact made the voyage to the subcontinent, using on-site observations to create a greater sense of authenticity in their work. What Auerback has given us, then, is a thought-provoking history of the changing ways Japanese authors and artists found meaning in Śākyamuni’s life that will be of interest not only to Buddhologists and scholars of Japanese religion but also to those interested more broadly in the processes of sacralization, vernacularization, and historicization that have shaped religious traditions around the world. In the conclusion to his book, Auerback previews a future study that will focus in depth on the cultural appropriation of Śākyamuni’s life story over the past one hundred years. I hope the project is well underway, because I certainly look forward to reading it. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. 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Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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