Japanese Buddhist Art and Literature


The religion of Buddhism, first imported from Korea and China in the sixth century CE, has had a huge impact on every aspect of Japanese culture from ancient times to the present. The sponsorship of monks and monasteries belonging to different schools of Buddhism has been a major factor throughout the history of Japan in struggles for political and economic power, resulting in an outpouring of related art and architecture. In the eighth century, the Emperor Shomu constructed a massive bronze buddha image in the capital city of Nara in an attempt to consolidate the fledgling imperial system (modeled on that of China) by mobilizing his followers in an awesome display of wealth and power. Throughout the Heian period (794-1185), courtiers and landowning aristocrats patronized the Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism with their elaborate Tantric rites for worldly benefits, and Buddhist ideas informed the poetry writing that was a favorite pastime of the elites. The Kamakura period (1185-1333) was ushered in by samurai warlords, who seized power and sponsored an entirely new style of monastic institution imported from China, under the name of “Zen,” to legitimize their rule and foster an elite artistic culture based on that of the Confucian literati. Around the same time, Buddhism filtered down to the common people who, by faith in the saving power of Amida Buddha, were assured of rebirth in his Pure Land (paradise). That faith, spread via paintings and folktales, led to peasant revolts and helped to produce yet another wave of temple building on a grand scale. During the Edo period (1603-1868), every family in Japan was required to patronize a Buddhist temple and its mortuary rites, and the religion reached its apogee of cultural influence. The Meiji period (1868-1912) saw a severe persecution of Buddhism, as Japan rushed to modernize on the Western model; but it bounced back in a number of new cultural formulations (e.g., as Japan’s only native tradition of “fine art”) and has survived to the present. In the modern period, Japanese novels, films, and animated cartoons have continued to be informed by Buddhist themes. This course focuses on the Buddhist art and architecture of Japan and on various genres of Japanese literature that have promoted or been influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. Subjects covered include: paintings and sculptures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and monks; styles of monastery architecture produced in different historical periods; ink painting and calligraphy; tea ceremony; landscape gardens; Noh theatre; martial arts; classical poetry; folklore and popular narratives; sutra literature; and doctrinal treatises produced by the monk founders of various schools of Buddhism. No prior knowledge of Japanese is required; all readings are in English or English translations of primary texts. The course is designed, however, to accommodate students with established interests in things Japanese, including those who wish to continue their Japanese language study at an advanced (fourth year or higher) level. Such language study will be organized on an individual basis in the context of conference work.