Theses Doctoral

Precepts and Performances: Overseas Monks and the Emergence of Cosmopolitan Japan

MacBain, Abigail Ironside

In 733, Japan’s ninth diplomatic mission to Tang China conveyed two Japanese Buddhist monks committed to finding a Chinese master of Buddhist precepts. The prevailing explanation for the precepts master solicitation states that Japan lacked sufficient numbers of fully ordained monks to conduct ordinations using vinaya codes of conduct. While this campaign successfully resulted in precept masters going to Japan in 736 and again in 754, there were no notable changes to monastic ordinations until after the final monk arrived. It is commonly presumed that only the latter precepts master possessed sufficient charisma, training, and followers necessary to establish a vinaya tradition. However, this explanation presumes that the later reforms matched the original expedition’s intent. Moreover, this position ignores the other monks’ activities in Japan’s political, cultural, and religious affairs between 736-754. It is also not supported by period texts. In this work, I utilize textual and physical evidence to demonstrate that these overseas monks’ activities and significance were largely unrelated to monastic precepts and ordinations. Instead, they rose to prominence due to their knowledge of Buddhist texts and rituals, familiarity with neighboring countries’ Buddhist legitimation and protection systems, fluency in overseas forms of cultural capital, and embodied otherness. Their influence can be seen in their involvement in the Ministry for Monastic Affairs, promulgation of the Avataṃsaka Sutra, and the creation and worship of the Great Buddha of Nara.

Through highlighting these understudied and highly diverse monks, I demonstrate that Japan’s overseas population was intrinsically involved with the country’s transformation into a transregionally-connected, Buddhist country. Moreover, I argue that the overseas monks affiliated with Daianji Temple (大安寺) provided the Japanese court with direct ties to foreign countries that not only expanded Japanese international awareness, but also helped establish the country’s understanding of its position within a broader Buddhist world.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Como, Michael I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 18, 2021