Book review: Il dio incatenato

di Michele Marra — Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 41, n. 4 (Winter 1986) published by: Sophia University-Tokyo

Il Dio Incatenato: Honcho Shinsenden di Oe no Masafusa. Storie di Santi e Im­mortali Taoisti nel Giappone dell'epoca Heian (794-1185). Translated by Silvio Calzolari. Sansoni, Florence, 1984. 204 pages; illustrated. L.38.000.
[Il volume è stato ripublicato in edizione riveduta e corretta dalla casa editrice "Luni": Il Dio Incatenato:Storie di Santi e di Immortali Taoisti nel Giappone dell'epoca Heian ( 794-1185). Lo Honcho Shinsen Den di Oe no Masafusa, prefazione di Fosco Maraini e Franco Cardini, Milano, Luni, 2015.]

SILVIO CALZOLARI is to be congratulated for presenting an Italian annotated transla­tion of Honcho Shinsen Den ('Biographies of Japanese Magicians'), a collection of thirty-seven anecdotes probably compiled at the beginning of the twelfth century by Oe no Masafusa, 1041-1111. It was a good choice to translate this work for it enables readers of Heian literature to broaden and enrich their conventional view of a world that isso often perceived solely through novels such as Genji Monogatari and fictional histories such as Okagami. The choice is especially welcome now that setsuwa collec­tions are finally finding their way into the world of Western readership.

The translation is preceded by some notes on Heian culture by Fosco Maraini, three pages on Western saints and Eastern sennin by Franco Cardini, and a brief introduc­tion by the translator himself presenting Oe's biographical data, his supposed purpose in collecting the stories, and a discussion of extant manuscripts. The translation is ac­curate and richly annotated, and it includes all the thirty-seven biographies believed, according to the index of Daitōkyū Kinen Bunkobun, to form the complete originai collection, as against the twenty-nine stories (plus the tale of Urashima no Ko as an appendix) printed in Nihon Shisō Taikei, lwanami, volume 7. Il Dio Incatenato is embellished by twenty-four marvelous plates of Buddhist statues and kakemono, the fruii of Maraini's photographic skills in the temples and museum of Mt Kōya.

Calzolari presents a wealth of information on people and situations appearing in the stories, yet he fails to provide a clear perspective from which to study Honchō Shinsen Den in the context of Heian intellectual history. In the first piace, he does noi explain the meaning of his book's title, the choice of which was surely not fortuitous. Who are these Taoist saints? It is difficult to conceive of Shotōkū Taishi, Kōbō Daishi, En no Gyōja, Zōga Shōnin, Ennin, and the other Buddhist monks and holy men (hijiri) as Chinese magicians using alchemy in order to achieve immortality. No less difficult is it to believe thai Oe would have portrayed popular Japanese heroes as Chinese sennin in order to 'demonstrate the cultural, religious, and political greatness of his own coun­try,' as Calzolari argues in his Introduction (p. 25). A few pages later, on p. 38, he has to recognize that there is a good deal of difference between the Chinese sennin and his 'Taoist Saints and Immortals of Japan'. Paraphrasing Inoue Mitsusada's commentary in the Iwanami text (a borrowing that is not acknowledged, but unfortunately gives the impression that these ideas are the author's own), Calzolari affirms that the magicians of Oe's work earn their powers more through ascetic practices than through alchemic and dietetic techniques as was the case of their Chinese counterparts. He also notes, 'Another big difference between the Chinese Taoist hagiographies and Masafusa's is that the Chinese "immortals" were not generally described as Buddhist monks, a fact quite common in Honchō Shinsen Den' (p. 39).

Of course they were not, since we are dealing with two completely different categories of magicians. On the one side, there are the Chinese heroes of popular belief, and, on the other, the Japanese hijiri tradition which, in spite of obvious influences from Taoism, was shaped in the context of Mantrayana asceticism and gave rise to upasaka-magicians known as yamabushi, shugensha, gyōja, and hijiri of Kimpu, Kumano, Hikosan, and Haguro mountains, as was admirably explained by Hori Ichiro almost three decades ago.

I wonder whether instead of presenting Honchō Shinsen Den as a Japanese mirror of Taoist ideals, it might be better to locate the collection in the mainstream of hijiri thought, in which ascetical training and strict discipline were combined with Buddhist practices aimed at the acquisition of magical powers. By the time Honchō Shinsen Den was compiled, hijirì were already well-known magicians whose powers were con­sidered not inferior to those of their Chinese counterparts. Thus the present work might be titled more appropriately, 'Stories of Saints and Immortals in Heian Japan', omitting any reference to Taoism.

The same problem can be found in the entire perspective of the book, for the reader cannot help wondering why Masafusa, if indeed he was the compiler, went to the trou­ble of collecting these stories. Was his motive merely his desire to play with 'Chinese ex­otic ideas, a [simple] literary exercise far removed from the expression of genuine religious feelings' (p. 26), as the translator would have us believe?

As is well documented in Fujiwara diaries, Honchō Shinsen Den was compiled at a time when the concept of the Final Age, or mappō jidai, was strongly felt among nobles and courtiers. It is doubtful whether a courtier had time to play with 'Chinese exotic ideas' during the insei period, for the text itself shows that the superhuman powers of a sennin tended to be used to promote the Buddhist faith in a time of crisis.

A few examples may help to clarify this point. Monk Kyōtai employs all his powers to live for more than a hundred years simply to meet Chishō Daishi so as to transmit Onjōji to him and urge him to spread Buddhism (pp. 83-86). The Kawachi monk, whose long hair and abstinence from food gave him the appearance of a sennin, spends his day practicing meditation and reciting the nembutsu (pp. 136-38). This, as a matter of fact, is Masafusa's ideal type of sennin, a man who can survive hundreds of years in a cave, motionless, free from all kinds of cravings, a man who is continuously absorbed in deep meditation. Examples of such men are the hermit of Dewa (p. 140) and the monk met by Jōzō, whose practice of meditation (zensō, not 'a Zen monk' as the translator has it) earns him enormous magical powers (pp. 141-43).

To obtain such powers is not an easy matter as Sao Uchi finds out when he fails to fly in the air because of his inability to master the arts of a sennin and of his failure to rid himself of his material body (p. 146). An imperfect state of meditation does not bring one to enlightenment. If the young disciple of Chūzan wanted to reach the biggest peak of sennin performances, that is, to see the robe of feathers (hagoromo) growing on bis body, be had to seclude himself in the mountains 'to recite the sacred Buddhist texts', ignoring the pangs of hunger (p. 150). Only when cravings are overcome can human beings obtain spiritual freedom and become aware of their state of enlighten­ment as if they were sennin. Nichizo's immortality (kabaneto) -his body cannot be found in the coffin (p. 167) -seems like a metaphor in sennin language for enlighten­ment (gedatsu).

The Way of the Sennin (Shinsen no Michi, where shinsen is often read ikihotoke, or monk of high virtue, in the Iwanami text) is a long and arduous path that requires the sundering of all ties, as Minamoto Tōru faced when obliged to abandon and forget bis family in order to become a sennin (p. 125). This is a Way that endows the practitioner with magical powers, it is true, but such powers do not originate from the world of magic. Masafusa is quite explicit on this point. The monk of Tōji loses his ability to fly in the air as soon as he meets the four guardians of the Law (shitennō), since his tech­nique is shallow and his flight is supported by a demon, an unorthodox way to enter the sphere of magic (pp. 155-57). His strength does not come from the Law, which, in Masafusa's world, is the only source of sennin virtues. A sennin can do nothing against the power of a Buddha, and no one can be helped without the consent of the Dharma, not even a Shinto deity such as Rito Koto Nushi; although the monk Taichō contemplated using his magical powers to free him from his fetters on Mt Yoshino, a voice from heaven forbade him to do so (pp. 66-67). No power, not even that obtained through Buddhist practices, can go against the Law, and no deity, whether Shinto god or Chinese magician, can ignore the severe rules of the Doctrine.

Perhaps in this way the title of the book, 'The God in Fetters', finds its justification. In fetters is the tradition of Chinese magicians whose liberation can be achieved only by the Buddhist Law. lf Masafusa aimed at opposing a superior Japanese tradition to the Chinese tradition of sennin, he found his ideal not in the narrow stream of Japanese sennin but in the much broader river of Buddhist hijiri.

A few more hints by Calzolari about the fundamental problem of interpretation would have helped to initiate a discussion on a topic that is far from being exhausted. But full praise and recognition are due to him for having introduced to the West a fascinating and important aspect of Japanese culture.

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