Beyond death and the afterlife: Considering relic veneration in medieval Japan

Brian O. Ruppert

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Although the cult of the saints in medieval Christianity is better known in the West, Buddhists likewise had their own saints.1 Early Buddhism featured arhats ( Jpn. rakan), who trod the eightfold path in the footsteps of the historical Buddha, Ś ākyamuni. Arhats, like the saints of Christian traditions, left bodily relics. However, while early Buddhists venerated the relics and reliquaries of arhats, their relic worship most commonly focused on the remains of the historical Buddha. In later, Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, the remains of the Mahāyāna saints, or bodhisattvas, were also venerated, yet here, too, the worship of the Buddha's relics remained paradigmatic. Indeed, to understand relic veneration in the Mahāyā na, we must understand its connection to the bodhisattva career of Ś ākyamuni in his previous lives.2 In this study we will consider Buddhist relic veneration in Japan's early medieval era (about the late tenth through the fourteenth centuries). By examining relic veneration in this period, we can gain access to a world of ritual practice that directly intersected with concerns for the afterlife. We will consider how texts depicting Japanese relic veneration evoke not only ritual associations of relics with death and other worlds but also the topoi or themes in Buddhist traditions linking stories of earlier lives of Ś ākyamuni Buddha, the ritual act of relic veneration, and belief that the merit of such action will accrue to both the sponsor(s) of the rite and those for whom their prayers have been offered, namely, the deceased. Analysis of this thematic complex will enable us to better understand the relationships between the living and the dead in premodern Japan. I would like to argue that Japanese of the early and medieval eras reimagined the afterlife and refigured mortuary practice precisely through such appropriation. Stories concerning the bodhisattva career of Śā kyamuni and the struggle over his remains at the time of his death; the legends surrounding the great faith and actions of the Indian King Aśoka, famed for erecting relic stūpas; and the depictions of relic veneration by Buddhist believers throughout Asia constituted a narrative nexus that would be mimetically reenacted by Japanese Buddhists in ritual patterns long known throughout the Buddhist world. Believers in early and medieval Japan often coveted relics and appropriated them in negotiating power relations.3 In so doing, they drew upon discursive practices that linked the stories of Ś ākyamuni's past actions of self-sacrifice as a bodhisattva, his relics, legends, pilgrimage narratives, and other representations of relic worship.4 However, their appropriations of this thematic complex rested implicitly on the inseparable relationship between these topoi and Buddhist concerns about death and the afterlife. Relic veneration and its symbolism formed a ground of possibility for discursive practices and related imperatives to make or transfer merit toward a better afterlife, whether for oneself or for a loved one. The appropriation in the Japanese isles of a pan-Buddhist thematic complex involving relics, merit, and sacrifice opened new modes for conceiving of the afterlife and mortuary practice. Moreover, as we will see, the wealth of hitherto unexamined primary sources on this topic makes clear how relic veneration and its presumed connections to the afterlife were appropriated by those in sundry social groups in related ways-yet for ends that varied, sometimes dramatically, according to context. Fundamentally, however, relic veneration enabled people of Japan's early and medieval eras to find permanence in Buddhism- permanence beyond the instability (mujō) of both sentient existence and the grave, tangible in the remains of the Buddha himself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDeath and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism
PublisherUniversity of Hawai'i Press
Number of pages35
ISBN (Print)9780824832049
StatePublished - 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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