Crowdfunding for Shōsōin Reproductions

I’ve been meaning to post this for a few weeks now. The National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku) has been engaged in a long term project to create reproductions of Shōsōin documents (including the one used as the banner for this web page). Due to budgetary constraints, the future of this important project has recently been threatened. A crowdfunding campaign is now underway and is off to a great start. Please consider contributing!

Also, take a look at the press release. Unfortunately, everything is in Japanese, but I’m happy to provide more information to anyone who is interested.

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New Books Network Interview

Here’s another interview I did about my book. This one was with Luke Thompson for the New Books Network. I talk about the Shōsōin collection a bit, and I hope the interview also gives a sense of why the Shōsōin is important for those with a variety of interests including Buddhist studies, Japanese history, book history, and religious studies.

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2017 Shōsōin exhibition and conference plus Tanken bakumon on the Nara period

‘Tis the Shōsōin season. Unfortunately, teaching responsibilities will prevent me from attending the Shōsōin monjo conference and exhibition this year. But the program for the conference looks great. And the exhibition will surely be impressive, as it always is.

Also, this isn’t related to the Shōsōin, but I’m grateful to Micah Auerback for sharing this wonderful TV program that recently aired on archaeology and everyday life in the Nara period and features Baba Hajime from the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, whom I had the pleasure to work with this summer.

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Interview with Authorial Intentions

I had a great time talking to Chris Benda about my book today in this interview. Chris really forced me to articulate some of the bigger issues my book is addressing. Give it a listen!

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Book Announcement

I would like to take this chance to announce the publication of my new book. It is the first book in English to use Shōsōin documents to examine sutra copying in ancient Japan:

Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan (Kuroda Studies in East Asian Buddhism/University of Hawaii Press, 2017).
Ritualized Writing takes readers into the fascinating world of Japanese Buddhist manuscript cultures. Using archival sources that have received scant attention in English, primarily documents from an eighth-century Japanese scriptorium and colophons from sutra manuscripts, Bryan D. Lowe uncovers the ways in which the transcription of Buddhist scripture was a highly ritualized endeavor. He takes a ground-level approach by emphasizing the activities and beliefs of a wide range of individuals, including scribes, provincial patrons, and royals, to reassess the meaning of scripture and reevaluate scholarly narratives of Japanese Buddhist history.

Copying scripture is a central Buddhist practice and one that thrived in East Asia. Despite this, there are no other books dedicated to the topic. This work demonstrates that patrons and scribes treated sutras differently from other modes of writing. Scribes purified their bodies prior to transcription. Patrons held dedicatory ceremonies on days of abstinence, when prayers were pronounced and sutras were recited. Transcribing sutras helped scribes and patrons alike realize this- and other-worldly ambitions and cultivate themselves in accord with Buddhist norms. Sutra copying thus functioned as a form of ritualized writing, a strategic practice that set apart scripture as uniquely efficacious and venerable.

Lowe employs this notion of ritualized writing to challenge historical narratives about ancient Japan (late seventh through early ninth centuries), a period when sutra copying flourished. He contends that Buddhist practice fulfilled a variety of social, political, and spiritual roles beyond ideological justification. Moreover, he demonstrates the inadequacy of state-folk dichotomies for understanding the social groups, institutions, and individual beliefs and practices of ancient Japanese Buddhism, highlighting instead common organizations across social class and using models that reveal shared concerns among believers from diverse social backgrounds.

Ritualized Writing makes broader contributions to the study of ritual and scripture by introducing the notion of scriptural cultures, an analytic tool that denotes a series of dynamic relationships and practices involving texts that have been strategically set apart or ritualized. Scripture, Lowe concludes, is at once a category created by humans and a body of texts that transforms individuals and social organizations who come into contact with it.

“Bryan Lowe offers a richly textured account of early Japanese Buddhist manuscript cultures and their associated ritual practices. Through careful analysis of scriptural colophons as well as materials from the Shōsōin archive, Lowe demonstrates the importance of ritualized writing for rulers, aristocrats, scribes, and ‘good friends’ of the Buddhist Dharma across the Japanese islands. In so doing, he provides a compelling new account of contemporaneous understandings of merit, kingship, deities, religious identity, and a host of other issues that resonated within Japanese religious culture for centuries.” (Michael Como, Columbia University)

“Bryan Lowe’s ground-breaking book is extraordinary for its insights into an era and topic that have long been ignored in the West: the Nara Period and the copying of scriptures. Lowe uses an interdisciplinary approach that includes political, economic, ritual, and ethical aspects in an exemplary fashion. His examination of the Indian, Central Asian, and Sinitic backgrounds of the subject extends his discussion to almost all of Buddhist Asia.” (Paul Groner, professor emeritus, University of Virginia)

The book can be purchased from University of Hawaii Press. Kindle editions are also available from Amazon at a significantly reduced price.
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Sugimoto Kazuki to speak at Princeton conference

A number of deadlines have prevented me from blogging about the 2016 Shōsōin exhibition, though I still do hope to get back to it. I will say that the Shōsōin documents conference was remarkably informative (a good summary, one far better than I could have written, can be found here).

Instead, I want to take this chance to note an upcoming conference that is relevant to readers of this blog. Princeton will be hosting an “International Conference on Buddhist Manuscript Cultures” from January 20-22, 2017. This is the third in a series of conferences supported by the Luce Foundation, as well as other generous sponsors. The first in the series addressed Dunhuang, and the second was also on Buddhist Manuscript Cultures more broadly. Full details can be found on the conference web page.

Perhaps most importantly for Shōsōin studies, Sugimoto Kazuki, the director of the Office of the Shōsōin Treasure House, will be giving a presentation entitled, “Copying Buddhist Manuscripts in Ancient Japan: The Actual Practice Evident in the Shōsōin Documents and Shōgozō Sūtras.” Dr. Sugimoto is one of the leading experts in the world in Shōsōin studies, and one of the only individuals who can regularly view and handle the original documents, as a part of his position. This is a rare opportunity to hear one of the true great scholars in Shōsōin studies present in the United States. I’ve cut and pasted the abstract from the conference web page below:


Copying Buddhist Manuscripts in Ancient Japan:
The Actual Practice Evident in the Shōsōin Documents and Shōgozō Sūtras

The Shōsōin (Japanese imperial treasure house) holds a significant number of Buddhist manuscripts, the so-called Shōgozō (repository of sacred works) sutras copied in the eighth century AD. This group of sutras was produced for Tōdaiji temple in Japan’s capital of the time, Nara. At that time Buddhism was considered a crucial means of maintaining peace in the country, and activities such as copying sutras and completing the Great Buddha and other building projects were considered of national importance.

The Shōsōin also contains a great number of ancient documents known as the Shōsōin monjo (Shōsōin documents), the core of which consists of various types of administrative documents that had been recorded in scriptoria (shakyōsho) in a relatively accurate and efficient manner. In addition to the written materials, contemporary clothes and objects are also preserved in the treasure house. All these artifacts are invaluable because they offer concrete knowledge of not only the study of religious doctrine but also the activities of secular officials who supported religious practices.

杉本一樹 古代日本における仏教経典の書写―正倉院文書・ 聖語蔵経巻にみる具体相

正倉院には、西暦 8 世紀に書写された仏教経典(聖語蔵経巻)が大量に伝存する。この 経典群は、東大寺のために作成されたものである。東大寺は、当時の日本の首都である 奈良の地に創建された。仏教の力は、国家の安泰を保つための重要な支えと考えられた。 本尊である大仏、多くの建物の造立と並んで、経典の書写事業写経も重要な国家的事業 と位置づけられていた。

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2016 Shōsōin Exhibition

I’m particularly excited to announce the next Shōsōin exhibition, particularly because it will be the first one I have attended since 2010, due to teaching obligations in previous years.

I’ll blog about it after I get back.

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The Future of Digital Resources for Shōsōin Studies

I recently received a volume about the Shōsōin collection that contains valuable historiographical and methodological pieces by eminent Shōsōin scholars such as Sakaehara Towao, Yamashita Yumi, Iida Takehiko, Yamaguchi Hideo, and others. The volume is a must read for anyone interested in Shōsōin documents. For me, the most exciting aspect of the volume was the information about current digital projects related to Shōsōin documents. These resources strike me as potentially field-changing ones that will make Shōsōin studies more accessible and also allow for innovative new research.

One of these resources is being designed by a team of researchers including Gotō Makoto, who recently accepted a position at the National Museum of Japanese History, and authored an article in the volume about the project. Gotō had previously helped design the Somoda database. This was an ambitious project that focused on text data to enable restoration (fukugen) of fragments (dankan). Unfortunately, the database has not been updated since 2007, was never fully functional as far as I can tell, and encountered some problems outlined by Gotō in his article. But the future looks bright for this project. Gotō is currently revising it to be based on topic maps. While the technical aspects are beyond my comfort zone, it essentially enables users to visualize the relationship between and number of occurrences of various topics. A more concrete example would be as follows: a researcher could search for a particular text, such as a sutra commentary, and see where it was held and what monks had requested it. This type of complex search would allow researchers to understand textual circulation to write a biography of a sutra in early Japan or to better understand the curriculum for monks and nuns. Similarly, a scholar could find all the times a scribe appeared in documents in a given year. In the future, the project could also link to other resources on the web, such as the text of a given sutra in SAT or to other sources for early Japan such as the Shoku Nihongi.

A second exciting project described in an article in this volume by Adachi Fumio, Suzuki Takuji, and Nitō Atsushi makes super high definition color images of Shōsōin documents available (or more accurately, images of the collotype replicas that the National Museum of Japanese History is producing). Moreover, the software allows some really useful functions. For one, users will be able to put the recto and verso side by side or on top of one another for comparison. Second, users will be able to put documents in order sequentially, thus allowing images that provide restoration (fukugen) of fragments (dankan) in their eighth-century configurations. Third, users can zoom. Unfortunately, as outlined here, the database is only available in the National Museum of Japanese History and printing images is not allowed. More detailed information on the system, including some screen shots can be found here.

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New Online Shōsōin Resource via Tokyo Historiographical Institute

The Tokyo Historiographical Institute has added a new resource for using Shōsōin documents to their database. This tool, called the SHOMUS 正倉院文書マルチ支援データベース, provides data from the Shōsōin monjo mokuroku, the key catalog for using Shōsōin documents, in an online and open-access format. The database quite usefully offers links between entries following the connections (setsuzoku) between documents before they were reconfigured by Hoida. It also offers links to images from Dai Nihon komonjo. It is searchable by keyword. The announcement promises that it will expand in the coming months. I noticed that entries include the tantalizing promise of photographic images (satsuei gazō 撮影画像), a field empty in the examples I’ve looked at. Perhaps one day, we will be able to access high quality images of Shōsōin documents online. It doesn’t hurt to dream, right?

Here are some other Japanese language blog posts related to this new resource:

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I won’t post every typo I find in my published works on this blog, but I did want to note one unfortunate infelicity regarding a date that was just brought to my attention. In a recent JJRS article, I refer to a 742 project to transcribe one hundred copies of the Scripture on Saving and Protecting Body and Life (Jiuhu shenming jing 救護身命經), a text I have translated elsewhere. This is actually a 748 project and is a topic I explore in detail in my dissertation, where I get the date right. I apologize for any confusion this incorrect citation in JJRS may cause future researchers.

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