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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

Bodhisattva as Saint: Japanese Bodhisattva Monks In the Broader Hagiographic Context
Jonathan Augustine (
Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University

In the past few decades there has been a resurgence of works in English and European languages that deal with hagiography. But the studies of sacred religious figures such as bodhisattvas and Buddhist saints have not received nearly as much attention in East Asia. The first and foremost reason for this is because to this very day the Roman Catholic church uses a judicial process to determine whether a person should be canonized. The present pope, John Paul II, has canonized more people than any previous papal authority, so many scholars have become interested in the formal procedures of canonization. Kenneth Woodward in his Making Saints has even asked why Mother Teresa could not have been declared a saint while she was still alive? Her order of religious women founded back in 1949 called the Missionaries of Charity had become a world wide organization with three thousand full-time members during the 1990s. The shelters and clinics that her organization founded are located in more than eighty countries. Yet, without an official investigation by a carefully selected group of church authorities, Mother Teresa could not be considered a candidate for sainthood even after her death. In fact, to this very day the church has never revealed the official procedures for determining who should be considered a candidate.

In East Asia there was no formal procedure for designating holy monks and Buddhist ascetics as Bodhisattvas. During the Nara (710-784) and Heian (794-1191) periods the imperial court posthumously awarded certain extraordinary monks the title of bodhisattva, but the practice was sporadic and the criteria for their selection was never specified. The lack of a canonization process in Japanese Buddhism has allowed greater diversity within the bodhisattva tradition. Emperors who devoted themselves to the welfare of suffering masses, monks who received the bodhisattva precepts, aesetic monks, and celestial deities who embodied wisdom and compassion were all venerated as bodhisattvas.

Richard Kieckhefer and George Bond in their recent work, Sainthood: Its Manifestations in World Religions, raise the need for a more comparative examination of "sainthood" across religious and academic boundaries. Although the religious ideals of Christian saints are often quite different from those Buddhist monks who were revered as bodhisattvas in China and Japan, almost every saint stirs up the jealousy and suspicion of some religious order or powerful political clique. William James argues that there is a "certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions." Scholars have been trying to devise a "typology" for the study of saints throughout the world, one which would take into consideration the individual personality and the social structures that explain saints' ritual behavior. But I think a "typology" is not necessarily what we need since they usually tend to simplify and universalize important distinctions. We need to limit our examination of sainthood to a give region and period, and state which aspects we want to examine such as relics, charity, or canonization.

For convenience, we will use the word "saint" not just to refer to Christian saints, but to bodhisattvas and lamas or any other type of holy persons who were set apart from the rest of the community for their exemplary life-styles. In this chapter, we will see that during the Nara and early Heian periods the bodhisattva figure emerged in popular tales and spiritual biographies as a ascetics who preferred to conduct his or her charitable activities outside the mainstream monastic establishment. During the eighth and ninth centuries the term bosatsu (bodhisattva) did not always refer to fully ordained Buddhist monks. Some of the bosatsu who appear in the "biographies of lofty monks" (kôsôden) and Nihon ryôiki (827?) were married shamanic figures who lived in the local village. Using the Christian "lives of the saints" (vitae) and the canonization proceedings from the early medieval period as a reference could help us expand our cross-cultural understanding of sainthood. After all, many of the bodhisattva's spiritual goals, and ethical virtues are quite similar to those of the Christian saint. And although the degree of emphasis may be different, most bodhisattva monks and Christian saints are believed to have dedicated themselves to asceticism, contemplation and the service to humanity.

In this study vitae or the lives of Christian saints will not be used to provide a detailed examination of the concept of charity in medieval Christian hagiographies. However, the methods that are raised in these studies will be applied to issues that have not been dealt with in the Japanese hagiographic context. We should consider questions such as how much individuality could hagiographers display given their doctrinal constraints, who the hagiographers intended audience was, and how did they intend to transform the lives of their audience. Hagiographic texts carry paradigms within their network of symbols. How does this affect the content of their spiritual biographies? Without a grasp of these important issues, an examination of Japanese bodhisattva monks would inevitably become esoteric and limited in scope.

Jonathan Augustine is a Ph.D. candidate of Japanese history at Princeton University. His area of interests include comparative folklore, ethnography and just about anything that steps outside traditional academic boundaries. His dissertation deals with hagiographic accounts of a famous Japanese monk called Gyôki, who is believed to have built more than forty practice halls, bridges, dikes, ports and orphanages.

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