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A fascinating figure of 13th-century Japan

by Paul Mccarthy

CHARISMA AND COMMUNITY FORMATION IN MEDIEVAL JAPAN, by S.A. Thornton. Ithaca: Cornell University East Asia Series, 1999, 290 pp., unpriced.

The “charisma” of the title of this carefully researched and impressively thorough work of scholarship refers, in the first instance, to the medieval Buddhist ascetic and itinerant preacher Ippen, while the “community” refers to the order that grew up around him and was maintained and expanded after his death.

This group was known variously as the Yugyo-ha (roughly, the “Practice of Itinerancy School”) and the Jishu (the “Times Sect,” referring to the group’s custom of reciting the Nembutsu, or invocation of Amida Buddha’s Name, at six fixed times each day).

A few major studies of Ippen himself have appeared in recent years, notably “No Abode: The Record of Ippen,” by Dennis Hirota, which offers translations of the major writings and includes commentary, and James Foard’s article on the “Ippen Hijiri-e,” an illustrated life of the holy man, included in “Flowing Traces: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan.” But this is the first major, book-length study in English of the relationship between the mystic-poet-preacher and the established Buddhist sect that looked upon him as its founder and came to play such an important role — religious, social, and aesthetic — in the Ashikaga, Sengoku and Tokugawa periods.

S.A. Thornton looks back to the historical founder of Buddhism, Shakyamuni, for an early model of the hijiri. Like his later followers in Japan, Shakyamuni traveled widely, preaching to a variety of audiences, seeking to convert large numbers of people to his Way. In time, monasteries grew up, at first as retreats during the three-month-long rainy season, and then gradually as permanent residences for monks and nuns who were full-time practitioners of the Buddha-dharma.

In a sense, then, the 13th-century Ippen was returning to the original model of Buddhist practice. On the other hand, the specific religious practice he engaged in, the recitation of the Name of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, in the faith that one might, despite one’s heavy karmic burdens, be reborn there and so attain perfect enlightenment, is a relatively late, purely Mahayana development that cannot be credibly linked to the teachings of the historical Buddha.

Be that as it may, the Pure Land teachings, originating in India and developing in China, attain their highest degree of elaboration and specificity in Japan. The teachings of Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shin (True Pure Land) sect are the most widespread and best-known form, but other Pure Land traditions, such as the Jodo sect going back to Honen, Shinran’s teacher, and the Jishu, going back to Ippen, both deserve to be better-known.

Ippen himself is a fascinating figure, born into a prominent warrior family troubled by land disputes (like Kumagai Naozane, whose story is recounted by Donald Richie in his recent novel, “Kumagai,” and by Umehara Takeshi in his “Lotus Collection”), abandoning the world without formally taking Buddhist orders or entering a temple, and spending the last decade and a half of his life wandering about Japan spreading the gospel of Amida in the late 13th century.

Of his charismatic appeal there is no doubt: After his death, several of his followers killed themselves in order to follow him to the Pure Land in the west. Other disciples, however, were prevailed upon to continue the mission, and so began the succession of patriarchs of the Yugyo-ha. The process whereby temples were established and resident abbots installed while still maintaining, on a vastly increased scale, the itinerant preaching of the Nembutsu is recounted in great detail and analyzed using the paradigm of “the routinization of charisma” that was established by the great sociologist of religion Max Weber.

Ippen’s first religious heir was Ta’amidabutsu Shinkyo, who carried on the distinctive practices of itinerancy, distribution of amulets bearing Amida’s Name as evidence of assurance of salvation, and performance of the Nembutsu in the form of song and dance. He also greatly emphasized his own power as patriarch, identifying himself spiritually with Buddhas and bodhisattvas. As the succession passed on over the years, there were rival claimants to the position of ultimate authority and a jockeying for power among various temples: the kind of unedifying struggles that mark, and mar, the histories of most religions. Nonetheless, the essential practices of Ippen were maintained; and the sect, though grievously weakened at the time of the Meiji Restoration, with its anti-Buddhist campaign, survives to this day.

Thornton’s study contains much else that deserves discussion: the way in which the sect’s clergy functioned as chaplains and dispensers of aid, spiritual and material, on the battlefields of Sengoku Japan; the relations of the sect with the military houses and especially the shogunates (Ashikaga and Tokugawa); contributions to both high and popular art forms; literary associations drawn between Ippen and the famous poet-priest Saigyo, to name a few.

The book as a whole will interest specialist students of Japanese religion, of course, but also students of institutional history, sociology and cultural history. The general, nonspecialist reader, too, will find much that is immediately comprehensible and appealing. Together with the earlier work of Hirota and Foard, it makes a splendid contribution to our understanding of a major, but too little known, school of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.