A Storied Sage Canon and Creation in the Making of a Japanese Buddha
by Micah L. Auerback
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-28638-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-28641-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.001.0001


Since its arrival in Japan in the sixth century, Buddhism has played a central role in Japanese culture. But the historical figure of the Buddha, the prince of ancient Indian descent who abandoned his wealth and power to become an awakened being, has repeatedly disappeared and reappeared, emerging each time in a different form and to different ends. A Storied Sage traces this transformation of concepts of the Buddha, from Japan’s ancient period in the eighth century to the end of the Meiji period in the early twentieth century.

Micah L. Auerback follows the changing fortune of the Buddha through the novel uses for the Buddha’s story in high and low culture alike, often outside of the confines of the Buddhist establishment. Auerback argues for the Buddha’s continuing relevance during Japan’s early modern period and links the later Buddhist tradition in Japan to its roots on the Asian continent. Additionally, he examines the afterlife of the Buddha in hagiographic literature, demonstrating that the late Japanese Buddha, far from fading into a ghost of his former self, instead underwent an important reincarnation. Challenging many established assumptions about Buddhism and its evolution in Japan, A Storied Sage is a vital contribution to the larger discussion of religion and secularization in modernity.


Micah L. Auerback is associate professor of Japanese religion at the University of Michigan.


“The life of the Buddha, which has served as the master narrative for most Buddhist traditions, has often been eclipsed in Japan by more celebrated celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In taking on this crucial, yet underanalyzed, topic, Auerback has produced an entirely original history of Japanese Buddhism. Insightful, sophisticated, and nuanced, A Storied Sage represents a major contribution to the field. This book is exemplary.”
— D. Max Moerman, Barnard College, Columbia University

“Auerback brings to the foreground a topic that Buddhist monastics and scholars alike have neglected and provides a compelling explanation for the contemporary Japanese interest in the historical Buddha at a time when institutional Buddhism appears to be dying. Eminently readable, A Storied Sage will become standard fare among specialists of the early modern and modern period and provides wonderful historical scaffolding for work being done on religion and Japanese popular culture.”
— Helen Baroni, University of Hawai'i at Manoa

"Auerback rightly asks whether the Buddha will outlive Buddhism in Japan....Highly recommended."
— Choice

“The point where this study blossoms with voluminous detail is when developments in historiography made biographies of the Buddha controversial in the early modern era. . . . Auerback’s coverage of these debates is exceedingly thorough.”
— Journal of Japanese Studies


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0000
[Guoqu xianzai yinguo jing;bhumisparsa mudra;jataka]
Despite the long-term decline in institutional Buddhism in Japan, retellings and reworkings of the life of the Buddha there remain prominent in the public eye. The Introduction explains that this apparent paradox may be addressed by tracing its deep historical origins and development. From its start, the life of the Buddha in Japan was unusual: even the earliest scriptural versions of the life of the Buddha to become influential in Japan, such as the Guoqu xianzai yinguo jing, vary significantly from the humanist Buddha well known in the Anglophone world; nor does the Buddha in Japan necessarily appear in poses familiar elsewhere in Buddhist Asia, such as the bhumisparsa mudra; and jataka tales of the former lives of the Buddha reached Japan, but largely ceased to be important after its medieval period. The Introduction concludes with a summary of the book structure and individual chapters.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0001
[homiletics;Horyuji;Konjaku monogatarishu;Myoe Koben;Seiryoji;Shiza koshiki;Tendai Buddhism;Yakushiji]
This chapter argues that, across the first millennium of representations of the life of the Buddha in Japan, writers and artists tended to hew closely to accounts received from the Asian continent. Individual scriptures in Chinese translation and encyclopedic Chinese compilations of scriptural material provided major sources for Japanese homiletic texts and their related tale literature, such as the long biography of the Buddha in the Konjaku monogatarishu. Likewise, material and ritual recreations of the life of the Buddha adhered closely to precedents that may be identified, or posited, for the clay dioramas at the temples Horyuji and Yakushiji; ancient illustrated handscrolls and medieval hanging scrolls; the illustrated “biography” of the “living” image of the Buddha at the temple Seiryoji; and the Shiza koshiki liturgy, composed by the monk Myoe Koben. These diverse works consistently expressed a “will to canonicity,” adducing authoritative sources to punctuate and support their narratives. Doctrinally, these biographies recapitulated the classification of Buddhist scriptures characteristic of Tendai Buddhism. Their Buddha was principally a pedagogue.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0002
[Chikamatsu Monzaemon;commercial publishing;puppet theater;Shaka hasso monogatari;Shaka no honji;Shaka nyorai tanjo-e]
By the close of Japan’s medieval period, the great Buddhist temple complexes lay shattered, along with their hegemony over cultural production. Improvements in printing technology and the growth of cities stimulated a new demand for entertaining tales, both printed in commercial publishing and performed in the new puppet theater. This chapter demonstrates that tales of the life of the Buddha thrived within this body of work, but now as popular literature, and their deference to canonical texts ebbed. Key bodies of this work include the Shaka no honji corpus and its elaboration in Shaka hasso monogatari. Exemplified by Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s puppet play Shaka nyorai tanjo-e, increasingly free retellings of the life dominated commercial storytelling about the Buddha through the end of the nineteenth century. These works transform the Buddha’s life into an entertaining and moving story, and the Buddha into a suffering hero, in a mode responsive to distinctly local concerns.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0003
[Chofukuji;Gentei;Jiun Onko;Kogetsu Sogi;Miyo no hikari;precept revival]
As this chapter shows how some individual clerics in early modern Japan attempted to reassert the traditional biography of the Buddha in print. The nun Kogetsu Sogi, disciple of the reformist monk Jiun Onko and one founder of the convent Chofukuji, produced the most important late-orthodox retelling of the life of the Buddha, Miyo no hikari. Unlike her predecessor, Gentei, Kogetsu did not assume the uniformly equal value of the various scriptural accounts of the Buddha’s life. Rather, she engaged in the critical adjudication of conflicting texts. She also labored to restore orthography, scriptural quotations, and episodes absent from the more recent vernacular versions of the life of the Buddha. Nor was Kogetsu’s work, composed in elegant classicizing prose, a straightforward rehashing of orthodoxy: She used the episodes recounted in it as evidence for her support of Jiun’s movement for precept revival, and her attention to the exemplary nature of the Buddha’s practice enabled her to critique the Buddhism conventional to the Japan of her day.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0004
[demythologization;Higuchi Ryuon;Hirata Atsutane;Indo zoshi;Ryogetsu;Sakura Azumao;Shutsujo shogo]
This chapter reveals an anti-Buddhist, Shinto scholar as one of the Buddha’s most important biographers across premodern East Asia. Convinced that the real Buddha was a lying scoundrel, Hirata Atsutane argued that large parts of the traditional Chinese-language accounts of the life of the Buddha were fabrications. In a series of lectures, titled Shutsujo shogo, Atsutane excoriated the traditional textual accounts of the Buddha’s life for their mendacity. But in drafts for his vast unfinished compendium of sources and notes about India, the Indo zoshi, Atsutane labored less to debunk those same accounts than to demythologize them, and thereby to extract historical truths that they concealed. Published in pirated editions by the fanatic Sakura Azumao, Shutsujo shogo circulated widely in the final decades of Japan’s early modern period. Though it alarmed such Buddhist clerical intellectuals as Higuchi Ryuon and Ryogetsu, they proved unable to refute it persuasively.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0005
[Anesaki Masaharu;character;heroism;Inoue Tetsujiro;Joseph Edkins;Nihonga;Nonin Hakugan;Okakura Kakuzo;Takahashi Goro;Takayama Chogyu]
After the Meiji Restoration, Japanese Buddhist intellectuals confronted writings by such Christian missionaries as Joseph Edkins, and such Japanese converts to Christianity as Takahashi Goro, which deployed new historical evidence to cast doubt on traditional versions of the life of the Buddha. Again, traditionally educated monks, such as Nonin Hakugan, proved unequal to the task of refuting them. By the turn of the twentieth century, artists and intellectuals outside Buddhist institutions began to reimagine the Buddha Sakyamuni as a historical individual who nonetheless remained a locus of timeless value. Organized by Okakura Kakuzo, artists in the newly constituted painting style of Nihonga portrayed scenes from the Buddha’s life, treating them not as objects of devotion, but as motifs for “historical painting.” Three secular intellectuals connected through the Department of Philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University—Inoue Tetsujiro, Takayama Chogyu, and Anesaki Masaharu—not only explored the Buddha’s life in its historical context, but also reframed that life within a universal pantheon of globally recognized great heroes. The source of the Buddha’s greatness, they concluded, lay in his transcendent “character.”

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286419.003.0006
[cultivation;Shinkai Taketaro;substitution]
The history of depictions of the Buddha across Buddhist Asia, including Japan, is typically a history of substitution, or efforts to bringing the Buddha closer through art and narrative. By contrast, the Conclusion reminds readers that this study focuses on ways in which the historical Buddha grew increasingly distant in post-medieval Japanese history, even as he was elevated to the status of universal sage and his life became appropriate material for the distinctly modern program of “cultivation” (Bildung). The critical trajectory traveled by the life of the Buddha is exemplified in a series of bas-reliefs created by the early-twentieth-century sculptor Shinkai Taketaro, who was trained as a traditional craftsman of Buddhist icons, but who ultimately represented the Buddha in a demythologized form owing more to European art than to any traditional Asian iconography.