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Materiality and Spiritual Economies in Premodern Japanese Buddhism: A Problem in Historical Change

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AbstractThe recent emphasis on materiality in religion has encouraged a good deal of attention to materiality in Buddhism, but that attention has fallen entirely on Buddhist traditions with conventional monastic orientations. Yet the major Japanese Buddhist school known as True Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo Shinshū) has also historically possessed a highly important, if different, material dimension, for which one touchpoint has been its merchant members called Ōmi shōnin who flourished in later premodern Japanese history. After alluding to the difficulty of isolating the ‘material’ in any religious culture, the article sketches the transition in Christian materialities in Europe which marked a cognitive shift from medieval modes of thinking (exteriorized, animistic-monistic, oriented to relics and ancestor religion) towards modern modes (interiorized, oriented to abstraction and the psychological individual). Against that paradigm, almost all premodern Buddhist materialities, including those in Japan, can be seen as medieval in nature. However, Jōdo Shinshū was a departure employing an innovatively interiorized doctrine. From that perspective, both Europe and Japan were highly complex civilizations displaying a long-term medieval-to-modern shift, which impacted the material manifestations of religions by gradually replacing older economies of ritual exchange with more modern-looking economies of preaching, religious publication and commercial life. Western scholarship has resisted appreciating these issues in an Asian setting.

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Buddhist Studies Berkeley, California USA, Email:, URL:


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