Materiality, Labor, and Signification of Sacred Objects in Japanese Buddhism

in Journal of Religion in Japan
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Recent studies on Buddhist materiality tend to focus on specific objects and their ritual uses, without dedicating much attention to processes of production of those objects and their actual makers. This article begins to redress this situation by outlining a general theoretical framework for the study of Buddhist objects and material culture in general through their continuous transformations—a framework that takes into account not only the ontological status and phenomenological features of individual objects, but also their signification and the various types of labor involved in their production and fruition. After proposing a general typology of objects, in order to gain a better sense of the ontological extension of Buddhism, the article also discusses the types of labor and practical activities involved in the production and use of Buddhist objects. Next, it deals with different aspects that determine the value of Buddhist sacred objects, and addresses modes of transformation affecting Buddhist objects through time and space, envisioned here as instances of broader processes of semiotic transformation (semiomorphosis). While this paper mostly examines objects within the Japanese Buddhist tradition, it hopes to offer a contribution to the study of practical materiality and labor in other Buddhist traditions as well.

Materiality, Labor, and Signification of Sacred Objects in Japanese Buddhism

in Journal of Religion in Japan




Most recently Christine Guth (2014) made this point in a clear and convincing way. I have tried to contribute to the problematics she raises in Rambelli (forthcoming); this section here aims to further contribute to the discussion in a more systematic way.


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    Figure 1

    Types of objects

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    Figure 2

    Buddhist high prelates: Tendai 天台, right, and Shingon 真言, leftFrom Jinrin kinmō zui, pp. 40–41

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    Figure 3

    Itinerant religious specialists. From right to left, respectively, busshōtori 仏餉取 (food alms collectors), uta nenbutsu 歌念仏 (singers of nenbutsu), hachihiraki 鉢ひらき (alms collector), and kotofure 事触 (conferrers of blessings).From Jinrin kinmō zui, pp. 268–269

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    Figure 4

    Itinerant religious specialists. From right to left, respectively, kanei kanjin 鐘鋳勧進 (fundraisers for temple bells), hari no kuyō 針供養 (memorial services for needles), Kōshin no daimachi 庚申代待 (ritual specialists for the god Kōshin), kadogyōyomi 門経読 (street-corner sutra reciters).From Jinrin kinmō zui, pp. 264–265

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    Figure 5

    Tree cutters (kikori)From Jinrin kinmō zui, pp. 124

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    Figure 6

    Log movers (kiyari)From Jinrin kinmō zui, p. 125

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    Figure 7

    Timber shops (mokuzaiya)From Jinrin kinmō zui, p. 155

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    Figure 8

    Religious sculptors (busshi)From Jinrin kinmō zui, p. 169

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    Figure 9

    Wood carvers (gakuhori, right, and kiborishi, left)From Jinrin kinmō zui, p. 176

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