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Sages, Sinners, and the Vernacularization of Buddhism in Nihon ryōiki

  • Author(s): Sun, Shih-Wei
  • Advisor(s): Duthie, Torquil
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

Nihon ryōiki is known as the earliest extant Buddhist anecdotal collection in Japan. Very little is known about its compiler, a monk named Kyōkai who belonged to the lower aristocracy and was active in the provinces rather than at the central court. Nihon ryōiki was compiled to keep a record of the miraculous events occurred in Japan. Like the tales documented in Buddhist sutras and Chinese anecdotal collections, Kyōkai insisted that similar events had happened in Japan in different ages and areas. Evidence of such miraculous events indicated, in Kyōkai’s view, that Japan, like India and China, was a land that deserved the Buddha’s salvation. Nihon ryōiki makes the case that the reason miraculous events occurred equally in Japan is the existence of Japanese sages of great virtue who were not inferior to Chinese sages. Although the reliability of the historical accounts in Nihon ryōiki is somewhat questionable, I am not interested in whether the Nihon ryōiki stories have any basis in reality, but rather in what has been changed and why the changes have been made. Stories that are adaptations from sutras or Chinese sources have been modified and adapted to become miraculous events that supposedly occurred in Japan. In the first chapter, I discuss how Kyōkai establishes a Japanese lineage of sagehood as evidence of Japan being a sacred land. In the second chapter, I focus on Prince Nagaya, who is depicted as a sinner who receives the penalty of death because he is unable to identify a “hidden sage”. In the third chapter, I examine the historical context of the Chinese monk Jianzhen’s arrival at Japan and introduce how Tiantai teachings were promoted by Jianzhen’s disciples, how a tale that asserted Prince Shōtoku was a reincarnation of monk Huisi spread. I also make a comparison between the Nihon ryōiki and a Chinese anecdotal collection titled Min bao ji to examine how Chinese influences are vernacularized and changed. Nihon ryōiki adopts a deliberate and consistent policy of vernacularizing its Chinese sources by changing key details in the stories and thereby adapting them to a Japanese context.

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