May 03, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *book review* _Muroji_, by Sherry Fowler (Reviewed by Yui Suzuki)

apologies for cross-postings

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Subject: > _Muroji_, by Sherry Fowler (Reviewed by Yui Suzuki)
Date: Thu, 4 May 2006 00:12:27 +0900
From: H-Buddhism <h-buddhism@JJ.EM-NET.NE.JP>

Published by (May 2006)

Sherry D. Fowler. _Murōji: Rearranging Art and History at a Japanese
Buddhist Temple_. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. xiv +
293 pp. Maps, figures, tables, glossary, appendix, bibliography,
index. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8248-2792-9.

Reviewed for H-Buddhism by Yui Suzuki, University of Maryland, College

Based on the author's 1994 dissertation, this book is a study of the
remote mountain temple complex, Murōji, in modern day Nara
prefecture. Aside from the fact that the temple is located in a
breathtakingly beautiful mountain environment, Murōji has always been
a topic of great importance to Japanese art history due to the
temple's collection of some of the finest examples of ninth- and
tenth-century Buddhist wood sculptures, many of which have been
granted Important Cultural Property and National Treasure status. In
the book, Sherry Fowler expands her focus on the origins of the Heian
period images to encompass a multiplicity of issues pertaining to
Japanese religious, artistic and cultural practices found within the
sacred microcosm of Murōji. In each of the five chapters, the author
examines the factors, motivations and complex processes that have
contributed to the making of Murōji, arguing that it is a site marked
by accretions of variegated and often contesting meanings, which are
thoroughly analyzed in each chapter. It is particularly successful in
illustrating how a sacred site is produced, recognized and maintained.

The first chapter sets the tone of the entire book by discussing
geographical features, local legends and practices which coalesced
there and made the area ideal for establishing a mountain temple
complex. The temple was built in a deep mountainous terrain with
abundant water sources which have long been regarded as a sacred
dwelling place of local water deities, mainly the "Dragon King"
(_Ryūō_) believed to reside in the many caves that are found in the
region. Consequentially, the Dragon King was revered at the Murōji site
for his rain-making abilities, and prayers and rituals were frequently
offered by experienced ascetic practitioners to entice the dragon to
bestow rain.

Another factor contributing to the numinous nature of the Murō region
was the belief from early times of Buddhist relics buried and hidden
in the mountains. Relics were commonly associated with dragons and
jewels (p. 21) and according to one legend, the Shingon master Kūkai
(774-835) had brought back relics from China which he buried on
Mt. Murō. Though no longer frequently practiced at the temple today,
relic veneration was of great importance to Murōji throughout the
medieval period and undoubtedly enhanced the sacred power of the
site. Of particular interest is Fowler's discussion on _momitō_, small
wooden stūpas with rice grains inserted inside. Over thirty-five
thousand of these wooden stūpas, dated to the fifteenth century, were
discovered beneath the main altar of the Maitreya Hall during the 1953
repairs. They were closely linked to the rituals for controlling rain
for the purposes of securing bountiful harvests.

Chapter 2 explores the temple's complicated history (or histories) by
focusing on its shifting religious affiliations since its founding in
the mid-eighth century, reminding us that politics and human
intentions have as much influence in the construction of a sacred site as
natural circumstances. Though Murōji was established by two Kōfukuji
monks, Kengyō (714-793) and Shūen (769?-835), as a sub-temple (_betsuin_)
of Kōfukuji, during its early history the temple attracted religious
figures from various schools such as Hossō, Tendai, and Shingon. It was
the constant flux of these monks from different religious affiliations
that contributed to the "plurality of practice" (p. 2). The monks came
to reside at Murōji to train in mountain asceticism and esoteric
Buddhism, which was also the chief reason why it attracted many
Shingon practitioners in the later periods.

The fourteenth century was the time of a key transitional phase for
the temple, as Kōfukuji began losing some of its control over its
sub-temples and Shingon Buddhism came to play a much greater role at
Murōji. For the next few centuries, Shingon factions came to exert
considerable influence over the temple, culminating in a dispute
between Kōfukuji and Tōdaiji Sonshōin, over who would succeed as head
of Murōji. Though the 1658 ruling granted Kōfukuji the right to
control Murōji, this decision was overturned in 1694, and in 1700
Murōji became a sub-temple of Gokokuji of Edo, a Shingon Buzan branch
temple. Through an analysis of the eighteenth-century temple origin
tale, _Murōji engi_, Fowler demonstrates how contesting histories of
Murōji were fashioned by different religious factions (represented by
Kōfukuji and Shingon) to win control over the site. The frequent
appearance of Kūkai in many of the post-thirteenth-century historical
documents on Murōji, for example, was due to the effective tactics
used by Shingon factions to claim legitimacy over Murōji.

The next chapter continues to explore this idea of shifting sectarian
affiliations by focusing on four central buildings at Murōji--the
pagoda, the Maitreya Hall (Mirokudō), the Main Hall and the Founder's
Portrait Hall (Miedō)--as well as the icons that are enshrined inside
them. While the Maitreya Hall built in the thirteenth century and the
hall's principal icon--Maitreya Bodhisattva (Miroku Bosatsu)--was
indicative of Kōfukuji's close ties to Murōji, the Founder's Portrait
Hall dedicated to Kūkai and the Abhisheka Hall (Kanjōdō, also known as
the Main Hall) demonstrated "practical endeavors to visibly construct
Shingon presence at Murōji" (p. 123). Fowler's detailed account
describing the restoration project of the five-story pagoda that was
severely damaged in a 1998 typhoon is particularly fascinating. The
pagoda enshrines secret images (_hibutsu_) of Gochi Nyorai (Five
Wisdom Buddhas) which were most likely installed in the
late-eighteenth century, around the time Shingon factions were gaining
increasing control over Murōji.

Chapters 4 and 5 best reflect Fowler's central ideas of the fluidity
and plurality of practice at Murōji, and how they are concretely
manifested in Murōji's material culture, through a careful discussion
of the Golden Hall (along with its main icons), which was one of the earliest
buildings to be constructed at the site. The building is dated to the
mid- to late-ninth century, but underwent substantial alterations over
the centuries, including changes in its appellation from "Yakushi
Hall" to "Main Hall" to "Golden Hall" which simultaneously reflected
changes in Murōji's sectarian affiliations that Fowler discusses in
chapters 2 and 3.

Along with these external changes, the main icons housed inside also
went through shifts in their identities and their display
configuration at the altar. Five wood statues are displayed in the
inner sanctuary altar and are currently identified, from right to
left, as Jizō Bosatsu, Yakushi Nyorai, Shaka Nyorai, Monju Bosatsu and
Jūichimen Kannon Bosatsu. Fowler relies on a rigorous stylistic
analysis to demonstrate that this present pentad was not the original
configuration. Fowler's analysis reveals the surprising fact that the
central Shaka statue in the middle of the pentad was in fact initially
a Yakushi Buddha enshrined in the Yakushi Hall as its principal
icon. Interestingly, a Heian Yakushi is more frequently displayed on
the altar by itself or as a triad flanked by its bodhisattva
attendants Nikkō and Gakkō, rather than by Jizō and Jūichimen
Kannon. Fowler aptly demonstrates that this rare triad configuration
of Jizō, Yakushi and Kannon was devised in the Heian period following
Chinese and Korean practices of combining and worshiping the three
deities together for their triply reinforced powers to facilitate
childbirth and ensure healing.

The notion of fluidity is also demonstrated by exploring the reasons
temple icons are often subject to shifting identities and other
changes. Fowler explains that the original triad (Jizō, Yakushi and
Jūichimen Kannon) was later modified to form a pentad, by adding two
more images (another Yakushi and Monju) and then shifting the identity
of the original Yakushi to that of Shaka. This new grouping of
Jūichimen Kannon, Monju, Shaka, Yakushi and Jizō, was deliberately
re-assembled to concretely represent the medieval _honji suijaku_
belief where Buddhist deities as "original ground" (_honji_) were
believed to have alternative incarnations as native gods (_kami_) or
"traces" (_suijaku_).

At Murōji, the five Buddhas were matched to correspond to the five
main deities of Kasuga Shrine, which was in turn located adjacent to
Kōfukuji and comprised a vast shrine-temple complex throughout
medieval times. It is also a powerful reminder that temple icons can
often be manipulated to accommodate the political agendas of those in
control. Fowler contends that this pentad grouping was also Kōfukuji's
"final effort to assert Kasuga/Kōfukuji heritage" in the second half
of the seventeenth century (p. 196). Even after the Shingon faction
succeeded in taking control over the temple at the end of the
seventeenth century, this pentad configuration was kept intact and
preserved until the present.

Some critics may question the appropriateness of focusing an entire
book on one specific site. As the author herself acknowledges, within
the last decade there has been a number of studies on specific sites
or regions by art historians--_Zenkōji_, _Hiraizumi_, and more
recently, _Chikubushima_.[1]  Nevertheless, an in-depth study of Murōji
is a welcome contribution for a number of reasons. As noted earlier,
the temple has impressive architecture and Buddhist images from the
Heian period. Murōji is also unique in ways not taken up in past art
historical studies on sacred sites. Unlike Zenkōji, it did not give
rise to a powerful icon that was replicated over and over and spread
throughout the country, nor was its artistic production defined by the
patronage of local political rulers, as in Hiraizumi (Ōshū Fujiwara)
and Chikubushima (Toyotomi Hideyoshi). What was so incredibly
attractive about Murōji was its richly forested locale that inspired
local beliefs in water deities and attracted religious practitioners
who wished to procure some of this numinous power by undergoing
ascetic and esoteric practices there.

In sum, this volume is a well-prepared and clearly articulated study
of a renowned mountain temple with a long history, drawing on a large
body of both textual and visual materials to offer an insightful
case-study of how a sacred site is created and developed, and how its
sanctity is perpetuated by various legends, practices, religious
affiliations and political motivations and embodied in its
architectural structures and icons. I highly recommend this book to
both undergraduates and graduates as well as those in the disciplines
of Asian art history, religious studies and history.


[1]. Donald F. McCallum, _Zenkōji and Its Icon_ (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1994); Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan,
_Hiraizumi:  Buddhist Art and Regional Politics in Twelfth-Century
Japan_ (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1998); and Andrew
M. Watsky, _Chikubushima:  Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan_
(Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2004).
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[This review was transacted by Gail Chin, H-Buddhism area editor for
Buddhist Art]

H-Buddhism  (Buddhist Scholars Information Network)

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with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)


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