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#asianow speaks with bryan d. lowe

bryan d. lowe is an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at vanderbilt university and author of ritualized writing: buddhist practice and scriptural cultures in ancient japan, published by university of hawai’i press and the kuroda institute for the study of buddhism and winner of the 2019 aas john whitney hall book prize.

to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

the book studies how and why people transcribe buddhist scripture in ritualized ways. i trace how scribes often engaged in purification practices prior to and while copying texts and how patrons sponsored dedication ceremonies upon completion. they did this based on an idea that reproducing buddhist texts could create merit capable of saving the damned and bringing benefits to the living. i argue that ritual practice represents one way that humans transform a particular body of texts into scripture—works set apart as uniquely special, venerable, and powerful.

but the book is also a rethinking of buddhism in ancient japan (seventh through ninth centuries). it rejects the dominant state buddhism narrative, a framework that reduces early japanese buddhism to the promotion and regulation of the religion by the state for primarily ideological and apotropaic purposes. instead, i adopt a dynamic bottom-up perspective to uncover the practices of people from diverse walks of life, including scribes of humble origins, provincial fellowships, and aristocratic women. i highlight shared concerns about self-cultivation, ritual practice, and post-mortem fates among believers to blur boundaries between categories of “elite” and “folk” and to call into questions standard narratives in the history of japanese buddhism.

what inspired you to research this topic?

i was initially suspicious of the state buddhism model, which is part of a larger teleological narrative that culminates in the “popularization” of buddhism in the kamakura period. according to this narrative, earlier periods were a corrupt age to be overcome by kamakura innovators, who were credited with bringing “authentic” buddhism to japan for the first time. i should note that it is perhaps not coincidental that these so-called innovators founded the sects that are most prominent in modern japan, the time when this narrative emerged. i wanted to go back and revisit what was usually dismissed as a corrupt era that required a reformation. what i found was anything but dormancy and degeneracy. buddhism in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries was vibrant and embraced by diverse individuals throughout the archipelago for reasons irreducible to the state project.

i became attracted to sutra copying because outside of a study of excavated objects, it offered the best evidence into the buddhist practice of individuals from diverse walks of life. our narratives have often been limited by the sources we use; for ancient japan, people have relied primarily on court chronicles to argue that buddhism was limited to the court. this says more about the texts selected than the period itself. fortunately, japan boasts rich manuscript collections that allow for a fuller view. my original historiographical interests led me to delve into literature in manuscript and ritual studies, endeavors i found stimulating and fields that continue to shape my research moving forward.

what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

the shōsōin documents are remarkably complex. even in japan, it is a bit of a specialized and insular field. shōsōin documents have been frequently cut apart and reassembled. this first occurred in the eighth century and then again in the modern era. as such, the original order of the documents has been disrupted. what appears to be a single document today may be several documents and what appears to be several could actually be one. only in recent years have reference tools become available to allow their reassembly. but it remains something like a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and has still not been entirely solved. learning to use these sources responsibly was certainly an obstacle.

i’m not sure if anything turned out well or was easy, but i will say that i enjoyed the process, especially the many people i got to meet along the way. i still feel excited to be able to touch an object produced more than 1,200 years ago. really, i just feel privileged to be able to research things that interest me. it’s a luxury that i am grateful for.

what is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

my favorite source might be a somewhat well-known document amongst shōsōin scholars that records complaints by scribes. they demand better food and hours, but they also ask for wine to help with the pain from sitting at the desk so long. writing a book makes that complaint relatable!

more generally, i loved the intimacy that the shōsōin documents occasionally provide. to read letters requesting time off from work from the eighth century gives the archives a decidedly human element that makes the materials and period come to life.

what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

i was inspired by so many scholars that i will never be able to list them all. first, i should point to the essential work on shōsōin documents by scholars such as sakaehara towao as well as teams at the tokyo historiographical institute and the shōsōin office, which really provided the foundation for much of my research. in terms of more theoretical and methodological issues, i found the work of catherine bell, amy hollywood, and saba mahmood to be particularly helpful on ritual; d.f. mckenzie on bibliography; w.c. smith and vincent wimbush on scripture; and carlo ginzburg on microhistory. i would hope people would read my work along those of my teachers, jackie stone and buzzy teiser, as i see my book complementing their larger projects. for early japan, recent monographs by michael como, david lurie, and torquil duthie all masterfully cover different areas of early japanese religion, history, and literature that would flesh out the period more than was possible in my limited study. my approach to japanese buddhism more generally was shaped by a group of scholars who share an interest in how religion exists on the ground in the lives of people; this book would not exist without inspiration from the historical work of scholars such as paul groner, heather blair, lori meeks, and asuka sango and the ethnographic research that keeps me honest by levi mclaughlin, mark rowe, jessie starling, and others. i’ve tried to link to a single representative work for each author, though the list feels terribly incomplete and inadequate.

what are you working on now?

at present, i’m spending a lot of time getting ready to start a new position this fall as an assistant professor in the department of religion at princeton university. but i’m also trying to work on a new book on provincial preaching in ancient japan (again seventh through ninth centuries). in addition to continuing my interest in manuscript and ritual cultures, this project has also required that i learn a lot about archaeology and excavated materials, which has been tremendous fun.

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