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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Unfurled and Unfolded: East Asian Buddhist Manuscript Cultures
2: Buddhist Manuscript as a Way of Worldmaking in Early Medieval Japan
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Carleton College, United States
“Publish or perish” is the aphorism of today’s academia, but in early medieval Japan, “debate or perish” was the way of life for Buddhist scholar monks, who competed with one another in order to attend a series of state-sponsored debates (rongi-e) and receive the resultant promotion. Training for debates, they produced a large body of manuscripts, many of which survive today in the original handwritten format indecipherable to the untrained eye. One of the most abundant writers (polygraphoi) of this era was the Tōdaiji scholar monk Sōshō (1202–1278), who produced 351 bound books and 129 handscrolls covering multiple Buddhist schools, topics, and genres. Analyzing the content, context, and materiality of manuscripts written by Sōshō and his fellow scholar monks leads me to argue that the birth of state-sponsored debates in the tenth century created what we call today “information overload,” and, as a result, necessitated strategies of sorting, selecting, and organizing knowledge: e.g., using a list, a table of contents, citations, and indents; producing bound books, rather than scrolls, for reference works that were regularly consulted. Such technologies of knowing were “ways of worldmaking,” as Nelson Goodman famously puts it, and manuscripts were the fabric used to make, remake, order, reorder, add to and subtract from the resources of doctrinal teachings shared among scholar monks. This form of knowledge production was interactive and open as manuscripts allowed multiple authors to write and rewrite at different points in history.