Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment
Author: Pamela D. Winfield
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Pamela D. Winfield offers a fascinating juxtaposition and comparison of the thoughts of two pre-modern Japanese Buddhist masters on the role of imagery in the enlightenment experience. Kukai (774-835) believed that real and imagined forms were indispensable to his new esoteric Mikkyo method for “becoming a Buddha in this very body” (sokushin jobutsu), yet he deconstructed the significance of such imagery in his poetic and doctrinal works. Conversely, Dogen (1200-1253) believed that “just sitting” in Zen meditation without any visual props or mental elaborations could lead one to realize that “this very mind is Buddha” (sokushin zebutsu), but he too privileged select Zen icons as worthy of veneration. In considering the nuanced views of Kukai and Dogen, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism updates previous comparisons of their oeuvres and engages their texts and images together for the first time in two decades. Winfield liberates them from sectarian scholarship, which has long pigeon-holed them into iconographic/ritual vs. philological/philosophical categories, and restores the historical symbiosis between religious thought and artistic expression that was lost in the nineteenth-century disciplinary distinction between religious studies and art history. Winfield breaks new methodological ground by proposing space and time as organizing principles for analyzing both meditative experience as well as visual/material culture and presents a wider vision of how Japanese Buddhists themselves understood the role of imagery before, during, and after awakening.