Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism

Reviewed by James H. Foard

The Journal of Religion

Vol.78 No.2



Copyright by University of Chicago

            Faure, Bernard. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Princeton, N.J.: 
            Princeton University Press, 1996. xvi+329 pp. $45.00 (cloth).
            Most of those who will read this book will have already read Bernard 
            Faure's previous volumes from Princeton, The Rhetoric of Immediacy 
            (1991) and Chan Insights and Oversights (1993), the two most 
            important works on Chan and Zen ever published in a Western 
            language. Therefore, many will approach this book wanting to know 
            its relationship with those two. As Faure tells us, the fact that 
            the present work was originally written for a French audience means 
            that it uses some of the same materials found in the earlier books; 
            but he hopes that readers will find this one "complementary, not 
            redundant" (p. xiii). I found it complementary. Other readers should 
            be warned, however, that if they intend to pursue a particular topic 
            in the Chan/Zen tradition, they may find this volume redundant. For 
            some topics, such as the Arhats in East Asia (pp. 88-96) or the 
            Japanese kami (pp. 96-113), they will find the fuller discussion 
            here. For other topics, however, much of the same information is 
            given as before, and many are discussed more satisfactorily in one 
            of the other two volumes (e.g., death and relics in Rhetoric). On at 
            least one occasion (p. 238), I realized I had already read virtually 
            the same sentences elsewhere (Rhetoric, p. 170). 
            The book is nevertheless complementary for two reasons: its focus on 
            the texts relating to a single individual, and its use of the idea 
            of imaginaire to understand those texts. The individual is Keizan 
            Jokin (1268-1325), third in succession to Dogen (1200-53), the 
            founder of the Japanese Soto "sect" of Zen. Keizan has been seen by 
            previous scholars as a reformer, adapting his religion to local 
            conditions and accommodating esoteric Buddhism to make Soto a 
            powerful institution. As a result, he has been referred to as the 
            "second founder" of Soto. Faure has not written a biography of 
            Keizan. Instead, he concentrates on the texts attributed to him, 
            particularly the Records of Tokoku, a heterogeneous text for which 
            Keizan was only partly responsible. 
            Faure concentrates on this particular text, rather than on the more 
            "ideological" texts for which Keizan's authorship is surer, because 
            it allows him to explore the Zen imaginaire of early 
            fourteenth-century Japan. Following Jacques Le Goff's studies of the 
            European Middle Ages, Faure uses this term to indicate "the way 
            beliefs are rendered into images" (p. 3) that mediates, among other 
            things, "form and formlessness" (p. 281). The products of this 
            medieval imaginaire--icons, myths, local deities, relics, and much 
            more--are the very things that Zen ideology calls into question. The 
            premise of this volume (and in various fashions of all Faure's work) 
            is that this imaginaire was from the very beginning as present in 
            Zen as were discourses on emptiness and enlightenment. Its presence 
            in Keizan's universe, therefore, cannot be attributed solely to 
            popularizing and esoteric syncretism. In his own way, Faure must 
            once again struggle as mightily as any Mahayana thinker ever did 
            with the "two truths"--although in a modern idiom of enormous 
            erudition--in order to show us how a man whose religious ideology 
            rejected all imagination could describe himself as having been a 
            tree-deity "with the head of a dog, the body of a kite, and the 
            belly and tail of a serpent" (p. 30). 
            The genres of Keizan's imaginaire, furthermore, are not his, but 
            extend backward and forward in time, so that his text seeks to 
            homologize its expressions with what he perceives as eternal ones. 
            In the end, Faure cannot recover Keizan except as an intersection of 
            East Asian thoughts and images at a particular moment and place. He, 
            too, must move forward and backward in time, from China to Japan and 
            back, away from and toward Keizan. It is this last movement that 
            impresses most and distinguishes this book from Faure's previous 
            work. Here we have an intellectual biography that does not so much 
            place an individual in history as find a history in an individual. 
            Finally, Faure's use of Le Goff's terms suggests the possibility of 
            mutually illuminating comparisons with parallel studies of medieval 
            Europe. Faure, along with others such as Carl Bielefeldt and William 
            Bodiford, has reconstructed the study of Zen as a religion to the 
            point that scholars of religion generally should begin turning to 
            this field to find what they would not expect: a rich tradition of 
            icons, rituals, myths, and magical power. This volume is the best 
            place for them to start.