Archive for July, 2007

Off Topic: ‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

I’ve been reading this wonderfully dry travel memoir from early 1980s China for the last couple of days. It’s basically the story of a dissident artist who flees Beijing to escape political oppression and the pressures of his messed-up personal life and goes on a journey all over China. Think “On the Road” plus some extra bitterness, minus all the pretensions to artistic merit, plus off-hand descriptions of really, really weird food. In fact, it’s not like “On the Road” at all, but what the heck. Here’s a taste:

Finally, I reach Suida and go to find Sun Xi’s friend, the poet and doctor Yan Hu. He lets me stay in his room in the hospital dormitory block, and in the evening invites his literary friends over to meet me. We finish four bottles of rice wine and litter the floor with cigarette stubs and owl bones. We stole the bird this afternoon from a glass jar in the hospital dissection lab. It reeked of formalin, but after after braising it in ginger and soya sauce the taste was quite bearable. We embrace for jovial group photographs, then everybody starts accusing me of being a fake and a scrounger. ‘Swanning down here from the big city looking for your bloody roots. What a joke!’ Then Yan Hu mumbles from the floor, ‘I’m the only real poet in this room.’ His ambition is to secure a transfer to a Xian hospital.


Sokushinbutsu (即身仏)

Say hello to Arisada Hōin 宥貞法印, a monk of the Kanshū-ji 貫秀寺 in Asakawa (Fukushima prefecture)!

In reading up about Kūkai and the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism for my thesis, I stumbled upon about the somewhat creepy practice of self-mummification called sokushinbutsu. The mummy pictured above wasn’t embalmed posthumously as Egyptian mummies were, but rather started out as a healthy man who slowly mummified himself alive over the course of eight years. The first step to this was to burn away all his body fat through a special diet and ascetic practice, and in the final phase, he would be entombed alive in a stone room just big enough for him to sit lotus style in for thousand days. As long as the man could ring a bell each day a tube remained in place to supply air; but when the bell finally stopped, the tube was removed and the tomb was opened. If the preservation was perfect (i.e., the monk was still sitting in his lotus position) his body was removed from the tomb, and put on display. Those who failed to preserve themselves were sealed into their tombs. Read more about the process of self-mummification here.

Self-mummification was practiced from the 11th century up to the early 20th century among monks in Northern Japan; some claim that the foundations of the practice can be traced back to the esoteric belief system of sokushin jōbutsu (attainment of Buddha-hood in this body) developed by Kūkai in the 9th century. However, it should best be regarded as an extreme form of Shugendō practice. Sokushinbutsu was not regarded as suicide by its practitioners, but rather as a slow process of divorcing oneself from the material world in order to attain Buddha-hood.

Hori Ichirō, best known in the West as the author of a classic work on Japanese folk religion, was among the first to do field research and publish about this phenomenon in English in the early 1960s. I am not aware of any more recent academic writings on the subject, but check out this well-written article by CJ Mathews, which is just a few days old, and this website. Also, Gabi Greve has put together a site with a lot of information about the various mummies found throughout Japan. There are between 16 and 24 well-preserved sokushinbutsu left today.

Buried in a PDF file on Prof. Christoph Kleine’s home page I found a short bibliography on sokushinbutsu and similarly extreme rituals in Japanese religion. I will take the liberty to reproduce it here, for anybody interested in reading more about this topic:

Benn, James A. “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Premodern Japanese Buddhism.” In The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, edited by Bryan J. Cuevas, Jacqueline Ilyse Stone and Kuroda Institute, x, 491 p. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.

Earhart, Byron H. “Ishikozume: Ritual Execution in Japanese Religions, especially in Shugendō.” Numen 13, no. 2 (1966): 116-27.

Faure, Bernard. Der Tod in den asiatischen Religionen, Domino; 15. Bergisch Gladbach: BLT, 1999.

Hori, Ichiro. “Self-Mummified Buddhas in Japan: An Aspect of the Shugen-dō (‘Mountain Asceticism’) Sect.” History of Religions 1, no. 2 (1961): 222-42.

Kabanoff, Alexander. “Buddhism and Popular Religion in the Tokugawa Period.” In Enkū (1632-1695); Timeless Images from 17th Century Japan, edited by Jan Van Alphen. Antwerpen:
Etnografisch Museum Antwerpen, 1999.

Kleine, Christoph. “Sterben für den Buddha, Sterben wie der Buddha: Zu Praxis und Begründung ritueller Suizide im Ostasiatischen Buddhismus.” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 11, no. 1 (2003): 3-43.

Kleine, Christoph. “‘The Epitome of the Ascetic Life’: The Controversy over Self-Mortification and Ritual Suicide as Ascetic Practices in East Asian Buddhism.” In Asceticism and Its Critics: Historical Accounts and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Oliver Freiberger, 153-77. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Pinguet, Maurice. Der Freitod in Japan: Geschichte der japanischen Kultur. Translated by Beate von der Osten; Makoto Ozaki; Walther Fekel. 2. ed. Frankfurt a.M.: Gatza bei Eichborn, 1996.

Juche as Kokutai?

I’ve been reading up on Japanese pre-war ideology and its postwar permutations for my thesis for quite some time now, so I’m always interested in new approaches to explain the workings of kokutai thought. Here is is a fascinating excerpt from a new book by Michael E. Robinson on 20th century Korean history, via ‘Far Outliers’: North Korean Ideology: Juche as Kokutai. The most interesting part reads as follows:

Some speculate that Kim Il Sung developed the idea in reaction to the vague and virtually indefinable concept of kokutai (kukch’e in Korean) used to evoke “national essence” in Japanese ideology before 1945. All North Koreans are enjoined to hold Chuch’e in their minds and hearts, as only in so doing will their actions be appropriate. Since Chuch’e is the leader’s core inspiration, all his subjects carry the leader in their hearts when they hold fast a consciousness of Chuch’e. Just as the emperor embodied the essence (kokutai) of the nation in pre-World War II Japan, so does the leader, now Kim Jong Il, embody the very essential principle that guides all thought and action in North Korea today.

Unfortunately, the excerpt doesn’t give any sources, so I’ll have to order the book to find out just what this theory is based on. Of course, the idea of Kim Il Sung (who is usually celebrated as an anti-Japanese partisan by North Korea’s massive propaganda industry) borrowing his one contribution to Marxist theory from militaristic Japan is deeply ironic. But setting aside the question of whether Juche really does have historical roots in Kokutai, the personality cult so pervasive in North Korean society certainly does bear some similarities to the emperor system of Meiji Japan. Most political scientists explain the North Korean regime as a form of Totalitarianism rooted in the Stalinist tradition, but perhaps they should have a look at those old Mitogaku pamphlets first?

German Podcast on Japanese Studies

Netter Podcast: unter dem Titel “Japanologie: Zwischen falscher Tradition und heutiger Realität” stellt Prof. Manfred Pohl von der Uni Hamburg auf sympathische Weise den Studiengang Japanologie vor.


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