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Returning to the Founder: Śākyamuni Devotion in Early Medieval Japan and Japanese Buddhist Conceptions of History

Thompson, Luke Noel

This dissertation examines Japanese conceptions of and devotional attitudes toward Śākyamuni (the historical Buddha) during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. It focuses in particular on a new interest in Śākyamuni that arose in the twelfth century, and argues that this interest was a response to two developments: the appearance of the belief that the world had entered Buddhism’s final age, and the increasingly acute sense that Japan existed at the periphery of the Buddhist world. These two developments evoked in some clerics a sense of distance from the origins of Buddhism and a feeling of helplessness since the final age was a time when soteriological progress was thought to be particularly difficult. Japanese Buddhists were thus faced with a problem: how to proceed given these disadvantageous circumstances? Some clerics found comfort in theories about the Buddha Amida’s ability to take humans away from this world to his pure land, while others turned instead to the Mahāyāna Buddhist idea that humans are born enlightened (and thus need not worry about their personal salvation after all). The monks and texts at the center of my research instead looked to Śākyamuni in an attempt to reconnect with the source of the Buddhist tradition, thereby countering the inevitable decline of Buddhism by linking themselves to, and in some cases recreating, the imagined golden age that Śākyamuni and his Indian environs represented.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Como, Michael I.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 6, 2017
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