Ritualized Writing: Buddhist Practice and Scriptural Cultures in Ancient Japan

Hardback: $68.00
ISBN-13: 9780824859404
Published: March 2017
Paperback: $20.00
ISBN-13: 9780824895471
Published: October 2022

Additional Information

296 pages | 11 b&w illustrations


  • Winner of the Association for Asian Studies – John Whitney Hall Book Prize (Japan), 2019
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  • About the Book
  • Ritualized Writing takes readers into the fascinating world of Japanese Buddhist manuscript cultures. Using archival sources that have received scant attention in English, primarily documents from an eighth-century Japanese scriptorium and colophons from sutra manuscripts, Bryan D. Lowe uncovers the ways in which the transcription of Buddhist scripture was a highly ritualized endeavor. He takes a ground-level approach by emphasizing the activities and beliefs of a wide range of individuals, including scribes, provincial patrons, and royals, to reassess the meaning of scripture and reevaluate scholarly narratives of Japanese Buddhist history.

    Copying scripture is a central Buddhist practice and one that thrived in East Asia. Despite this, there are no other books dedicated to the topic. This work demonstrates that patrons and scribes treated sutras differently from other modes of writing. Scribes purified their bodies prior to transcription. Patrons held dedicatory ceremonies on days of abstinence, when prayers were pronounced and sutras were recited. Transcribing sutras helped scribes and patrons alike realize this- and other-worldly ambitions and cultivate themselves in accord with Buddhist norms. Sutra copying thus functioned as a form of ritualized writing, a strategic practice that set apart scripture as uniquely efficacious and venerable.

    Lowe employs this notion of ritualized writing to challenge historical narratives about ancient Japan (late seventh through early ninth centuries), a period when sutra copying flourished. He contends that Buddhist practice fulfilled a variety of social, political, and spiritual roles beyond ideological justification. Moreover, he demonstrates the inadequacy of state-folk dichotomies for understanding the social groups, institutions, and individual beliefs and practices of ancient Japanese Buddhism, highlighting instead common organizations across social class and using models that reveal shared concerns among believers from diverse social backgrounds.

    Ritualized Writing makes broader contributions to the study of ritual and scripture by introducing the notion of scriptural cultures, an analytic tool that denotes a series of dynamic relationships and practices involving texts that have been strategically set apart or ritualized. Scripture, Lowe concludes, is at once a category created by humans and a body of texts that transforms individuals and social organizations who come into contact with it.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Bryan D. Lowe, Author

      Bryan D. Lowe is assistant professor of religion at Princeton University.
    • Robert E. Buswell, Jr., Series Editor

      Robert E. Buswell, Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and founding director of the university’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Center for Korean Studies.
  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • Through his patient analysis of the religious and literary practice of sutra copying within the context of Buddhism in Nara Japan, Bryan Lowe has contributed to the field with an important monograph. . . . [T]he book deserves attention from scholars of East Asian religions and history. With a wide array of sources, it also points to exciting directions for further scholarship on prayer texts, the Shōsōin archive, and the religious power of scriptures. Alongside with other recent works that try to reconceptualize early Japan with more caution over existing narratives, the central arguments of this book can reorient future studies of not only the history of religion in Japan but also the history of Japan in general.
      —Journal of Religion in Japan
    • Drawing on a rich trove of eighth-century documents that describe everything from donation sums and sources, to the types of paper used, to the purification rites practiced prior to transcription, to records of which scribes had borrowed or returned their brushes, Lowe provides us not only with an expert analysis of the religious meaning of various aspects of sutra-copying, but also with a detailed description of the fascinating ritual and material culture of public and private scriptoria and intimate glimpses into the lives of the patrons and laborers of these institutions. . . . A delightful read for the Japan specialist, it is also accessible to those with no knowledge of Japan. Besides being indispensable for those studying pre-modern Japanese Buddhism and religion, Lowe’s book will be particularly rewarding for anyone interested in religious ritual in general, the use of Buddhist ritual by the state, the influence of calendrics on Buddhism, ideas about purity and pollution, Buddhist writing practices, and debates about semantic vs. performative uses of texts.
      —New Books Network
    • [Bryan Lowe’s] fresh approach to Buddhist canon formation, scribal practice, and manuscript cultures comprises a masterful examination of the interplays between archive and repertoire in ancient (seventh- to ninth-century) Japan. . . . Reading creatively and inventively, with an impressive eye for detail and a keen sense of story, Lowe carefully recreates for us a wide variety of embodied repertoires which, enacted by a wide range of actors from sovereigns to scribes, created, adjusted, maintained, and imagined this archive. . . . [His] is a very careful sort of scholarship, one which is diligent and generous in showing its work and acknowledging its sources of inspiration. The arguments are watertight; the foundations are solid.
      —Charlotte Eubanks, Pennsylvania State University, The Journal of Japanese Studies, 44:2 (2018)
    • Bryan Lowe’s ground-breaking book is extraordinary for its insights into an era and topic that have long been ignored in the West: the Nara Period and the copying of scriptures. Lowe uses an interdisciplinary approach that includes political, economic, ritual, and ethical aspects in an exemplary fashion. His examination of the Indian, Central Asian, and Sinitic backgrounds of the subject extends his discussion to almost all of Buddhist Asia.
      —Paul Groner, professor emeritus, University of Virginia
    • Bryan Lowe offers a richly textured account of early Japanese Buddhist manuscript cultures and their associated ritual practices. Through careful analysis of scriptural colophons as well as materials from the Shōsōin archive, Lowe demonstrates the importance of ritualized writing for rulers, aristocrats, scribes, and ‘good friends’ of the Buddhist Dharma across the Japanese islands. In so doing, he provides a compelling new account of contemporaneous understandings of merit, kingship, deities, religious identity, and a host of other issues that resonated within Japanese religious culture for centuries.
      —Michael Como, Columbia University
    • In his examination of significant minutiae, Lowe also demonstrates the benefits of comparison with materials from Dunhuáng and elsewhere, highlighting both the universal nature of some East Asian practices as well as the peculiarities of the Japanese case.Instructively, this wide-ranging analysis of fine detail remains grounded in the materiality of the sources at play, adroitly demonstrating both the wealth of these sources and how to use them.
      —Religious Studies Review
    • Rather than pursue a top-down model (state Buddhism), Lowe’s study builds from the ground up, introducing a range of individual actors—nonroyal aristocrats, mid-level officials, nameless fellowship members, obscure provincial monks, harried proofreaders, and female preparators—thereby showing us how ritualized writing ‘structured norms for kings and scribes alike’ and arguing persuasively that ‘agency was a matter neither solely of resistance [to] nor of control [by]’ the state. . . . It offers fascinating insights into, among other things, the ways in which the textual activities of eighth century sovereigns oriented not only toward creating notional, abstract realms of dominion, but at managing the effects of sorcery, black magic (sadō 左道), and curses while scribes articulated concerns with salary, patronage, and sickness.
      —Charlotte Eubanks, Pennsylvania State University, Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, Vol. 12, issue 1-4 (2021)
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