Theses Doctoral

Esoteric Moxibustion for Demonic Disease: Efficacy and Ritual Healing in Medieval Japanese Buddhism

Macomber, Andrew

This dissertation explores ritual healing and the issue of efficacy in early medieval Japanese Buddhism through a study of The Ritual of Shōmen Kongō for Expelling Demons and Māras. Designed by monks of the Jimon branch of the Tendai school in the 1170’s and transmitted over the thirteenth century, this ritual stood out in the field of esoteric ritual healing at the time for two significant reasons. First, its therapeutic program was centered on moxibustion (kyū), a Chinese medical modality in which the healer burns dried mugwort on multiple locations on the patient’s body. Second, it was the earliest esoteric rite created in Japan to target a single, named affliction. That affliction was “corpse-vector disease” (denshibyō), a contagious wasting disorder known to Japan through transmitted classical Chinese medical texts as well as Buddhist scriptures. Until this time, esoteric ritual healing in Japan had never before featured direct engagement with the patient’s body so prominently. What was it about corpse-vector disease, an affliction that only became known in the late twelfth century, that spurred monks to reorient esoteric ritual healing around a technology for burning the body of the sick? Why, moreover, had Jimon monks made the unprecedented move of looking beyond the tried-and-true techniques of the esoteric ritual repertoire to instead adopt a non-Buddhist medical modality?

Through an examination of the extant textual sources for the rite as well as medical texts, courtier diaries, tale literature, and other ritual sources, this dissertation investigates these questions in order to reconsider the issue of efficacy in the context of Buddhist ritual healing. Challenging the longstanding notion that esoteric ritual efficacy was the object of unquestioning belief throughout the early medieval period, I define efficacy as a site of uncertainty for both healers and patients, a nexus for the convergence of vexing questions and anxieties pertaining to disease, technology, and the body. Responding to new problems posed by the emergence of corpse-vector disease, Jimon monks—the most prominent therapeutic exorcists at court in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—offered an unheard of solution that would thereafter transform healing culture in Japan for centuries. I examine how Jimon monks drew upon liturgical, doctrinal, and medical texts to reimagine the disease as well as moxibustion and the patient’s body, and consider the transformations the enactment of the rite’s prescriptions would have brought to performances of ritual healing. In so doing, I argue that efficacy cannot be understood solely through universal ascriptions of ritual power, common as those ascriptions may be throughout esoteric liturgical literature. Rather, the Jimon ritual demonstrates above all that esoteric healers had to negotiate efficacy through a specific constellation of images and material practices that engaged issues of affliction, technology, and body in compelling ways.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Como, Michael I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 22, 2019