The seminar's members, representing the full range of academic disciplines that bear upon the study of Japan and including Japan specialists from government, business, and the nonprofit sectors, meet regularly to discuss scholarly papers on all aspects of modern Japan, from history, literature, art, and the performing arts to politics, economics, social issues, and the US-Japan bilateral relationship.

Seminar: #445

Founded: 1960

May 22, 2008

February 6, 2009
Michael Como (Columbia)
Healer Monks and the Anthropology of Knowledge in Ancient Japan
Although it is commonly assumed that the introduction of the Buddhist tradition into the Japanese islands facilitated the transmission of continental medical practices and understandings of disease, there has been surprisingly little recognition of the degree to which fear of disease in turn shaped the agenda and status of the early Japanese Buddhist tradition. As the origins of disease were commonly understood in terms of malevolent spirits, it is perhaps not surprising that early Buddhist movements and institutions were frequently if not primarily concerned with the propitiation or pacification of hostile super-human entities that were believed to have the ability to bring plague and disaster across the realm. To paraphrase the old commercial, without the struggle against demons and disease, Japanese Buddhism as we know it would not have been possible.
This orientation produced a consistent bias within the Japanese islands for those forms of Buddhism that had most thoroughly absorbed non-Buddhist notions of healing and spirit-quelling that prevailed in China and on the Korean Peninsula. These in turn tended to be centered upon notions of yin and yang, purity and a class of astral deities that were believed to be responsible for the advent for many of the most pernicious ailments that afflicted the human race. Often they utilized texts that blended Indian astrological systems, which utilized divination and horoscopes to determine the fate of individuals based upon their distinctive relationship to astral figures at the time of their birth, with Chinese astrological techniques that were oriented towards understanding the fate of the ruler and the political health of the body politic.
In this paper I will suggest that to understand the early Japanese Buddhism we must therefore look beyond Buddhist scriptures and practices in two important ways. First, in terms of the content, we need to consider the role of what has come to be known as “the Way of Yin and Yang,” or onmyōdō, both within the Japanese Buddhist tradition and within broader cultural and technological spheres of the Japanese islands. In my understanding of this very broad term, I include all rites and legends associated Chinese medicine and astrology, as well as closely related rites of spirit quelling that were predicated upon the manipulation of yin and yang and the invocation of astral deities.
Equally importantly, however, we also need to consider the anthropological dimensions associated with the transmission of knowledge in ancient Japan. If, as seems likely, lineages served as the chief conduit through which knowledge was acquired, produced and transmitted within the Japanese islands, how did the flow of cults and rituals in ancient Japan relate to the transmission of technological knowledge? How was the Japanese Buddhist tradition shaped by lineages that were closely associated with healing rites and technologies? In this paper I will suggest that because lineage was inevitably tied up with issues of ancestry, rank and power, healer monks from a small coterie of lineages repeatedly reached the pinnacles of power in ancient Japan. Since power in turn produced intrigue, slander and retribution, this dynamic also helped produce a series of tragic, if highly interesting careers for some of the most notorious monks of the Nara period. By focusing on the careers of four such monks and paying attention to their lineal affiliations, I will suggest that we can gain new insights into some broader trends in the interactions between the early Japanese Buddhist tradition, onmyōdō and the fear of disease.

Discussant: David Lurie (Columbia)