Japanese, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in

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Japanese secular literature is grounded in ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving that developed centuries before they were defined by the classifications used today: Shintō (Way of the Gods), the national memory of ancient myths and rituals; Buddhism, a religion teaching spiritual enlightenment, which originated in India circa 500 b.c.e. and spread to Japan through China by the middle of the sixth century c.e.; and Confucian social philosophy, which trickled into Japan from China and was selectively adapted to the country's needs.

It is equally important to stress that Western attitudes concerning proper feeling, thinking, and behavior—through the Christian missions circa 1549–1630, eighteenth-century Enlightenment notions of democracy, Marxism, and such—have left their mark mainly since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. To appreciate Japan's literature is first to come to terms with Japan's own deeply seated ideological roots before attempting to impose values and critical analyses developed in other societies.

Evidence of Buddhist influence on Japanese vernacular literature—both doctrinal and secular writings—can be seen, of course, in obvious references to pagodas, sūtras, and monks. But a more difficult, and far more rewarding, understanding can be found by exploring the aesthetic milieu that informs this literature rooted in a native tradition assimilated with Buddhism and Confucianism. The two oldest surviving Japanese literary works—composed in Chinese—the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712 c.e.) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720 c.e.), have much to offer historically, but say little about Buddhist literature. They offer slight opportunity to share an author's feelings, ideals, and sentiments with the immediacy that distinguishes literature from reporting.

The following short thirty-one-syllable Japanese poem (waka) by Buddhist novice Manzei (fl. 704–731) is a rare example of a verse arguably revealing Buddhist influence. This poem first appears in the monumental Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759):

To whatyo no naka wo
shall I compare this life?nani ni tatoen
to the whitewake asaborake
of a boatrowing away kogiyuku fune no
at the break of dawn.ato no shiranami

The reasons for the late appearance of Buddhist imagery and ideals in Japanese literary works were simply the late development of a comfortable vocabulary to supersede the often abrasive transliterations of Chinese (and even Indian) religious technical terms into the more fluid native language (yamato kotoba) and the refinement of a phonetic (kana) syllabary to supplant the often stodgy Chinese compounds. The syllabary, traditionally attributed to KŪkai (774–835), is now believed to have developed gradually, becoming standardized by the late eleventh century. The anonymous I-ro-ha uta (Syllabary Song), an imayō ("modern-style") verse organizing all but one of the syllabary's sounds ("-n-"), first appeared in a work written in 1079, and is still a familiar furnishing of the Japanese literary consciousness. Its message is the ancient Buddhist theme of anitya (impermanence; mujō):

Blossoms glowni(h)o(h)e to
but then they scatter,chirinuru wo
and in this life of ourswak[g]a yo tare so
who endures?tsune naramu
Today we cross the dense moundu[wi] no okuyama
of worldly illusion,kefu koete
dissolving our shallow dreams,asaki yume mish[j]i
beyond inebriation.[w]ehi mo ses[z]u

It should be noted, however, that this sense of impermanence, in spite of its terminology and somber shadings, is a powerful affirmation of the value and wonder of every moment of our brief lives. The courtly priest Yoshida Kenkō declares in his Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness, ca. 1330–1333): "If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power to move us [mono no aware]! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty" (Seeds in the Heart, p. 859). Some time later the great Nativist scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801)—no friend of Buddhism—characterized Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji, ca. 1007) as a novel of mono no aware, though he defined it somewhat differently, possibly as "sensitivity to the wonder of things."

It is also well known that in her defense of fiction ("lies" in the opinion of traditional moralists), Lady Murasaki, the author of Genji monogatari, appealed to the Buddhist doctrine of skillful means (hōben; Sanskrit, upāya), which is so tenaciously argued in the Lotus SŪtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra; Japanese, Myōhō rengekyō), the source of seven parables whose imagery permeates traditional secular literature. There are many routes to religious enlightenment expressed through a variety of mythologies, modes of practice, and necessary "fictional" devices possible in literature. The blandness of many modern translations of traditional Japanese poetry and literature is often the result of its being sanitized to conform to Western expectations rather than asking the Western reader to suspend disbelief in a fascinating world of alien values and ideas.

The aesthetics of mono no aware lead us to the related ideal of "mystery and depth" (yūgen), of major importance to the poetry of the Shinkokinshū (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Times, ca. 1206) and the Muromachi Noh theater. The phrase first appears in a Chinese Buddhist commentary, and the comments of Kamo no Chōmei (1153–1216), the author of Hōjōki (Essays in Idleness), point to the emotional ideal while reminding us of Buddhism's understanding of the limitations of reason:

On an autumn evening, for example, there is no color in the sky nor any sound, yet although we cannot give any definite reason for it, we are somehow moved to tears…. It should be evident that this is a matter impossible for people of little sensibility to understand…. How can such things be easily learned or expressed precisely in words?

How, for example, can we explain why the following poem by Shunzei (1114–1204) moves us? And why should we try?

As evening falls,

yū sareba

autumn wind across
the moors

nobe no akikaze

blows chill into
the heart,

mi ni shimite

and a quail seems to
be crying

uzura naku nari

in the deep grass
of Fukakusa.

Fukakusa no sato

Without minimizing the profound influences of Shintō and Confucianism on traditional Japanese thought and feeling, we must recognize the preeminence of Buddhism in shaping the nation's artistic production, providing much of its imagery and aesthetic direction. The impermanence (mujō) behind the ideal of "sensitivity to things" and "mystery and depth," the consciousness of moral retribution between existences (sukuse, karma), and myriad half-sensed feelings and images from an antique past inform a rich literature of some five centuries of histories, poetry (waka, renga, haiku,…), novels (monogatari), "essays" (zuihitsu), anecdotal "tale literature" (setsuwa), theater (Noh, jōruri, kabuki, and their modern successors), memoirs (nikki), and travel diaries (kikō).

But Japanese and English literature, however their fruits may compare or contrast, nevertheless shared a common chronological timeline. The bards of the Old English epic poem Beowulf were contemporaries of the guild of reciters (kataribe) that produced the Record of Ancient Matters.

See also:Chinese, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in; Cosmology; Entertainment and Performance; Ikkyū; Poetry and Buddhism; Ryōkan; Shintō (Honji Suijaku) and Buddhism


deBary, William Theodore; Keene, Donald; Tanabe, George; and Varley, Paul, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition, 2nd edition. Vol. 1: From Earliest Times to 1600. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Keene, Donald. Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.

LaFleur, William R. The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.

Miner, Earl; Hiroko Odagiri; and Morrell, Robert E., eds. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Tanabe, George J., Jr., ed. Religions of Japan in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Robert E. Morrell

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