DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Final Essay: "Driving back the pain of the sick and the dying"


“Driving back the pain of the sick and the dying” [1]


 View of Asaka Region

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As Yamabe No Akahito, one of the primary poets writing during Japanese Emperor Shomu’s reign looked down on the valley below him from the summit of Kamuoka, he celebrated the beauty of “the abode of the gods.” Lyrically, his brush strokes resemble a mid-Tang literati-style scroll: short, succinct, precise. Beautiful. The landscape he paints depicts one of the three sages often included on a silk painting: the hemlock, symbol of wisdom and longevity, “growing so thickly/ with countless branches/ on the holy hill.” He looks nostalgically upon “the old capital at Asuka,” where the clear running river with its “spring days” and “autumn nights” evoke images and longings “that will not fade away.” The poet must “cry out and weep,/ thinking of the past” (Akahito, 91). Scholars speculate that the poem was written as a tribute to the Emperor’s father, Monmu, who had reigned over the capital in Asuka, which was where the first Buddhist temple was erected in Japan. 


Korean King Song of Paekche officially introduced Buddhism to Japan in either 538 or 552 CE when he gave Buddhist icons to Emperor Kinmei (McCallum, 3, 17). Emperor Kinmei, in turn, gave the icons to the wealthy Soga clan, who initiated construction on the first Buddhist temple, Asukadera, roughly around 590 CE after the family had received two additional icons from Paekche in 584 (McCallum, 6, 25). Our poet celebrates a region protected by the Yoshino Mountains, where the Amakashi no oka hill rises from the fertile plains as the primary landmark. The Asuka river, one of many clear streams and rivers in the mountainous and hilly region, transverses the valley, painting a landscape which would inspire poet and artist alike (McCallum, 11). Although little remains of the first Japanese Buddhist temple, the historical annals of Japan, the Gangoji engi and Daianji engi record the erection of Askudera, one of the Four Great Temples (Yondaji) built during the seventh century (McCallum, 5).  

In Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature, feminist theorist Liz Wilson argues that because of “grotesque figurations of the feminine” first century hagiographies depict “the objectification of women for the edification of men,” identifying this trope as “truly a pan-Buddhist theme” ( L Wilson, 4). Wilson supports her thesis by noting that while persuading his brother Nanda to pursue his teachings, the first historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama,  “preys on the weakness of Nanda’s flesh in order to captivate the wayward monk’s mind,” baiting his “traps with the bodies of alluring young women” to encourage celibacy (L Wilson, 33). Wilson concentrates entirely on the literature of the first century, ignoring the sociological constructs regarding marriage and patriarchy of the time, and entirely overlooks the power afforded to the Japanese Buddhist nuns who were instrumental in the initial construction of the first Buddhist temple in Japan during the seventh century.


Much of the first century hagiographic literature is divided into two types of Gathas, or metrical, biographical poetry that originated in India during the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The Therigatha was recited by nuns and Theragatha by monks at the First Council, which was held shortly after Buddha’s death around 486 BCE (Rhys Davids, vii). Buddhist scholar Susan Murcott notes that although the verses were originally chanted during the sixth century BCE, they were preserved only through oral tradition until they were finally recorded during the reign of India’s Emperor Asoka (c. 272-236 BCE). [2] The Therigatha were originally composed in strict meter, with four pada (verses), each comprised of eight syllables, with the first and second padas divided by a momentary silence, a caesura, which would allow the chanter and listener a brief moment for meditation (Murcott, 17-18).


In her analysis of the first century hagiographic literature, Wilson notes that both Theragatha and Therigatha “involve horrific representation of the human body” and adds that the horrific figurations are either gender neutral or designated as specifically female. The male body, she argues, is free from being represented as abhorrent (L Wilson, 105). In her 2006 translation of the Therigatha, Murcott explicates the cultural norms during the life of Gautama. According to tradition, his mother died a week after giving birth to him, and he was subsequently raised by his mother’s sister, Pajapati, who would later appeal to him to establish an order of ordained nuns. Although he married a woman when he was 16, he was granted a large harem because of his prominence as a renowned regional prince (Murcott, 25-6). After encountering an old man, an ill man and a cadaver, at the age of 29, Gautama chose to abandon pleasure and its desires, asking, “What rest or quiet can there be” (E Wilson, 311)?


When his father discerned that Gautama planned to flee the palace, he sends members of the harem to Gautama to tempt him to stay, but the prince, “with resolute heart…sat as the great elephant-dragon, whilst the entire herd moves round him; so nothing could disturb or move his heart” (E Wilson, 315). As he watched the seductive women, he thought, “’Surely they ought to consider old age, disease, and death,” again noting that there was no “room for sport or laughter, beholding those monsters” (E Wilson, 315). The “monsters” do not refer to the women themselves, but are symbols of “old age, disease, and death” (E Wilson, 315). While women may frequently be depicted throughout the Theragatha as horrific figures of death, they serve as the embodiment of these monsters. Wilson’s analysis concentrates primarily upon the writings of the Elder Monks rather than the Therigatha, which more frequently features gender-neutral depictions of horrific cadavers. [3]


After his Enlightenment, Gautama’s stepmother, Pajapati, appealed to him to establish ordination for women within the Buddhist community. “Five hundred” other women accompanied her. The authors of the Therigatha, Marcott notes, were comprised in part by some of the former members of Siddhartha Gautama’s harem (Marcott, 26). They were, she adds, the “displaced wives, widows, consorts, dancers and musicians” who had formerly been enslaved by the patriarchal society in which they and Gautama lived (Marcott, 27). According to tradition, the women, after shaving their heads, walked one hundred, fifty miles barefoot and clad in saffron robes to petition Gautama for the right to be ordained as priestesses (Marcott, 29). Although Murcott suggests that these displaced women who were “lacking other kin” may have merely been seeking a form of refuge “by turning to her and to one another” (Marcott, 27), Paula Kane Robinson Arai in Women Living Zen argues that “the women seeking the monastic life in ancient India were sincerely pursuing a deeper and more meaningful life” (Arai, 133). They, like the monks who had been granted ordination before them, were truly seeking the path of spiritual Enlightenment.


Although these women were eventually granted ordination, with full power to ordain others in turn, Wilson maintains that they remained subservient, subjugated entities within the Buddhist tradition. In her analysis, Wilson states “nuns are frequently depicted going to monks for instruction in the Dharma,” but “no monks are seen to take instruction from nuns” (L Wilson, 147). She adds that several of the nuns were “celebrated teachers” who “may have taught men while addressing lay audiences” but “their teaching was strictly segregated, with no monks in attendance” (L Wilson, 147). While she lists the Khema as one of those teachers, Wilson fails to note both the content and context of this Elder Nun’s Gatha. Khema served as one of the two administrators of the first community of nuns. Noted for her remarkable beauty, she was from a ruling family and served as chief consort of King Bimbisara, serving, as Therigatha translator Caroline Rhys Davids states, “a slave to others” (Rhys Davids, 66). She was noted for her vanity, and since she knew the Buddha disdained pursuit of earthly pleasure, she avoided him when he was her husband’s guest. She was, however, intrigued by the purported beauty of his hermitage, and eventually chose to visit him. When she offered three sweetcakes to the Buddha, she found him attractive and “took down her hair” in an effort to seduce him (Rhys Davids, 67). He “conjured up a woman like a celestial nymph, who stood fanning him with a palmyra leaf” (66-7). It is interesting to note that Wilson doesn’t reference this particular tale of conversion, because initially, it supports her argument that the “pan-Buddhist theme” is based upon horrific disfigurations of the female form since the nymph ages and is transfigured into a dead corpse in front of Khema. Upon observing the transformation, Khema is horrified, and Buddha instructs her to “forsake the world/ And all delight in sense put far away” (Rhys Davids, 67).


Khema’s Gatha consists of several verses. Following her conversion, according to the gloss provided by Dhammapala of Kancipuram during the fifth century CE, as she was sitting under a tree, the ungendered tempter Mara, adopting the form of a man, came to her, saying, “Thou art fair, and life is young” (Rhys Davids, 67). Mara tempts her with her own weakness, her vanity, and challenges Buddha’s horrific vision of old age, adding, let us “enjoy each other! It will be like the music of a symphony” (Murcott, 79). Khema’s temptation takes the same form of the Buddha’s the day he embarked on the Great Departure, the same one she offers to him when she visits his hermitage after his Enlightenment: fulfillment of lustful passions through desire. Not only the temptation is the same, but also like Buddha, whose Enlightenment occurs while sitting under a tree, Khema’s temptation likewise occurs while she is sitting under a tree. Khema and the Buddha, then, become foils for one another, mirror images of male and female, both tempted by but overcoming sexual desire.


Khema rebukes Mara’s temptation, responding, “Your desire for sex/ means nothing to me./ Pleasures of the senses are swords and stakes” (Murcott, 79). She adds, “Slain on all sides is the love of the world, the flesh,” thus continuing to “worship th’ Enlightened….Utterly free from all sorrow” (Davids Rhys). In this particular Gatha, the female form is not represented as a horrific example set up for what Wilson identifies as “the edification of men,” but instead the female is a powerfully determined, self-actualized entity that is emancipated from desire manifest in masculine form (L Wilson). Khema dismisses the tempter Mara, asserting that she is “disgusted by” his “foul and diseased” body (Murcott, 79). [4]


Wilson not only blatantly omits the content of Khema’s Gatha in her consideration of first century hagiographic literature, as previously mentioned; she also disregards the context as well, listing the influential Khema only once in her analysis, including her as a  “masterful teacher” who “had no opportunity to teach the sons of the Buddha” (L Wilson, 147). Yes, Khema did, indeed, address men in secular contexts as Wilson notes, but she fails to mention who Khema addressed. Murcott notes that in the Indian patriarchal society in which women were typically subservient to men, Khema returns to her husband, the powerful King Bimbisara, to attempt to persuade him to follow the Buddha as well. In addition, she is revered enough as a spiritual leader that another king, Pasenadi of Kosala, sought her out to ask her about Buddha’s existence after death. Her response is so accurate that when King Pasenadi relates her response to the Buddha, he praises her to the king, adding that she had responded exactly as he would have done, further establishing their role as male/female foils (Murcott, 78-9). Khema possesses influence in both secular and spiritual realms, a practice that is repeated again in Japan as Buddhism is adopted on the island during the sixth century.


Arai notes that the first Buddhist priests in Japan were three women, who were responsible for encouraging the wealthy Soga family to erect the temple Asukadera, the same temple our initial poet evokes in his nostalgic backward glance across the beautiful countryside of Asuka. Arai adds that there “is no distinct dichotomy between aesthetic experience and religious experience in Japan” (Arai, 143). Art historian Donald McCallum states in The Four Great Temples, that Asukadera “was of overwhelming importance for Asuka Buddhism and Buddhist art and architecture” (McCallum, 29). Although it not longer stands atop the hill Ono no oka in Asuka, the first temple initiated in 587 CE, built for these three ordained nuns, serves as symbol of Buddhist religious and aesthetic ideology of Japan.


Arai further notes “the story of the first ordained Japanese Buddhists is a lucid example of a time when women were favored” (Arai, 32). As a pictorial exemplar of both aesthetic and religious experience in Japan, it represents not the “objectification of women” present in “pan-Buddhist” tradition, but an enduring testament of interdependent power between male and female, political and secular influences in Japanese Buddhism. Indeed, the introduction of the monastic Buddhist order by these three ordained nuns was so highly successful that within a generation, Japan had 569 ordained nuns and 816 monks serving in 46 different temples (McCullum, 28). Furthermore, by 674 CE, 2,400 nuns gathered in Japan to celebrate a ceremony during Emperor Temmu’s reign (Arai, 33). As Buddhism spread across Japan, Arai notes that powerful women were not limited to religion alone, but the period was also marked by a number of women who held political power as well, historical evidence that contradicts Wilson’s argument that Buddhism is built upon objectification of women (Arai, 34). Arai adds, “it is evident that Buddhist women were not only not discriminated against during this period, but that they were strong leaders and respected members of society” (Arai, 35). In fact, as Japan emerged from its tribal origins into a state deserving respect even from far away peninsular China, Japan’s Empress Regnant Suiko (593-628) was ruler, and the first phase of Japanese Buddhist art bears her name (McCallum, 24).


Art historian John Rosenfield notes that compared with the original Indian form of Buddhism, Japan’s early practices were “heretical” because church and state were closely linked, again illustrating that the politically powerful women in Japan also played an active part developing Japan’s Buddhist practices. By the time construction concluded on the eighth century temple Todai-ji, Emperor Shomu abdicated the throne, surrendering it to his wife Komyo, and their daughter, Empress Koken, ascended to the throne when Shomu’s wife also surrendered the throne to become a Buddhist nun (19).


Emperor Shomu (701-56) was the primary patron guiding the construction of the Todai-ji complex. Like our poet who reflects nostalgically upon the first Buddhist temple, Asukadera, we can look toward the architectural elements of Todai-ji, assured that they mirror those of the complex originally erected for the first ordained Japanese Buddhist nuns. As we consider the now destroyed twin wooden Pagodas which were 30 stories tall and were among the tallest wooden structures erected before introduction of steel-frame construction (Rosenfield, 12), we see an embodiment of interconnected dependence in architecture that reflects the interdependence of male and female, secular and religious influences that shaped Japanese Buddhist tradition. The compound contains dozens of buildings, including dormitories, storehouses, votive halls, gateways, and Daibutsu-den, or The Great Buddha Hall (Rosenfield, 17). As noted, Japanese Buddhism was vastly different than that practiced by the first Buddhist monks and nuns. Initially, early monks withdrew from society to seek enlightenment, which was achieved only by those who had entered the monastery. Laymen could attain nirvana only through reincarnation at a higher level, achieved in part through supporting the monks in the monastery. Enlightenment had been extended to laymen by the beginning of the current era through the doctrines of Mahayana (Rosenfield, 19). The Flower Garland, translated from Sanskrit into Chinese before 2nd Century CE, heavily influenced the teachings at Todai-ji, which was a temple with 500 priests and over 50,000 followers (Rosenfield, 19-20).


Unity at the Todai-ji complex is a predominate theme, manifest in the construction of the temples, which was funded in part through vagrant monks who wandered the country sides, equipped with scrolls to describe the rich heritage of Buddhism, begging for offerings to finance the construction. Emperor Shomu served as the primary patron of the project of the third decade of the eighth century, CE. The temple solidified and unified his power, allowing him to unite hitherto fractious clans of Japan against his rivals, self-ordaining his reign as the era Tempyo, or Heavenly Peace (Rosenfield, 20). In 743, Shomu proclaimed, “It is We who possess the wealth of the land; it is We who possess all power in the land. With this wealth and power at Our command, We have resolved to create this venerable object of worship” (Rpt in Rosenfield, 20). He called upon each citizen to donate to the temple, even if it was merely twigs or a handful of dirt (Rosenfield, 20). Construction on the Todai-ji complex began in 784. [5]


Shomu, who was primarily influenced by the High Priest Roben, in an effort to further unite the fractious clans, sought to align Buddhist doctrine with the extant Shinto practices. Shomu proclaimed that each province in Japan should erect nunneries and monasteries with seven-story pagodas (Rosenfield, 22). Although he was a disciple of Buddha, Shomu was also a devotee of Hachiman, the native god whose name means “eighty military banners” (Rosenfield, 26). His daughter, Empress Koken, established a shrine south of Todai-ji to Hachiman. Although the shrine is dedicated to the local Shinto deity, it represents the assimilation of Buddhism in Japanese culture because the military god is depicted as a Buddhist monk rather than a warrior (Rosenfield, 26). The temple became a cultural center and primary destination, and when the first phase of construction ended in 752, over 4,000 court performers and 10,000 monks convened during the fourth month for the dedication (Coaldrake, 35).


The theme of interdependence on the Todai-ji complex is most evident in the Hall of the Great Buddha. In his analysis of Todai-ji temple architecture, art historian William Coaldrake notes that the seven bays on each side of the Daibutsu-den are supported by massive pillars which support the interior horizontal tie beams. The roof tiles, weighing over 2000 tons, serve to lock into place the beams and cantilever bracket sets conjoined to the pillars with mortise and tenon joints (Coaldrake, 35). [6] Over 1.6 million volunteer laborers assisted 227 supervisors, 917 master builders and 1,483 paid laborers. As an overweening example of unification, over 370,000 people donated valuable goods to finance the project (Coaldrake, 40). The other buildings on the complex, including the Sangatsu-do, or Hokke-do Hall, translated as the Great Lotus Hall, erected in the 8th century, also exemplify the post-and lintel, interdependent construction. Again, the upright pillars of the five-bay Lotus Hall support the horizontal bracket held in place by the sheer weight of the tile roof. The 1000 foot high storehouse (Shoso-in), containing the personal possession dedicated to the temple by Emperor Shomu upon his death, is constructed of rough-hewn logs. Like the other buildings on the complex, it, too, supports a heavy tile roof with post and lintel, cantilevered bracket system (Coaldrake, 39). Two large L-shaped dormitories for Buddhist monks and nuns were erected north of the Great Buddha Shrine Hall.


In his conclusion of the architectural discussion of Todai-ji, Coaldrake states, “Like most abiding religious edifices, it now stands as an expression of the faith—and the political exigencies—of successive governments and individuals” (46). The construction, with its interlocking architecture, symbolizes so much more. As we look toward the magnificent structures with their soaring, upright height balanced by the sloping downward flow of the roof, we are reminded of the poetry of the ancient Elder Nuns who, in their hagiographic writings are not merely objectified, horrific cadavers, but are women who, as Arai notes, “had the resolve to take control of their lives and not let themselves be pushed by the tides of suffering” (Arai, 153). The Todai-ji complex, a mirror of Japan’s first “abode of the gods,” stands as a visual echo of the song written by the Founding Mother of Buddhism:


            But I have seen the Blessed One;

            this is my last body,

            and I will not go

            from birth to birth again.


            Look at the disciples all together,

            their energy,

            their sincere effort.

            This is homage to the buddhas. (Marcott, 31)



Works Cited


Akahito, Yamabe No. “Having Climbed Kamuoka.” Haruo Shirane, Ed. Traditional

Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginning to 1600. New York: Columbia, 2007. Print.

Arai, Paula Kane Robinson. Women Living Zen: Japanese Soto Buddhist Nuns. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Coaldrake, William. “Architecture at Todai-ji.” Yutaka Mino, Ed. The Great Eastern

Temple: Treasures of Japanese Buddhist Art from Todai-ji. Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1986. Print.

Marceau, Lawrence E and Christine M. E. Guth, trans. Yutaka Mino, Ed. The Great

Eastern Temple: Treasures of Japanese Buddhist Art from Todai-ji. Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

McCallum, Donald F. The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture,

and Icons of Seventh-Century Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press,

2008. Print.

Murcott, Susan. First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening. Berkeley:

Parallax Press, 1991. Print.

Rhys Davids, Caroline, trans, 1909. Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns: Therigatha. Oxford:

Pali Text Society, 1997. Print.

Rosenfield, John M. “Introduction: Godai-ji in Japanese History and Art.” Yutaka Mino,

Ed. The Great Eastern Temple: Treasures of Japanese Buddhist Art from Todai-

ji. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

Wilson, Ephiphanius. Life of Buddha. Rpt in The World’s Great Classics: Sacred

Books of the East. New York: Colonial Press, 1900. Print.

Wilson, Liz. Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian

Buddhist Hagiographic Literature. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. Print.




[1] My title is the last two lines of Elder Nun Mahapajapati Gautami’s Gatha, as it appears in Marcott’s translation (Maracott, 30).

[2] Because of the century long delay in recording the Therigatha, scholars K. E. Neumann and K. R. Norman, who translated the poems in the 1970’s, argue that women may not have composed the verses. Furthermore, some argue that the nuns were mythological as well. Murcott calls this dismissal of female authorship “sexist,” noting that the authorship of the Theragatha is never called into question. The Therigatha texts were first translated into English in 1909 by Caroline Rhys Davids, but a “noted publisher declined even to read the manuscript” (Murcott, 19-20). Neumann claims his translation has “produced a literal, almost word-for-word translation” (rpt in Murcott, 19). In a side-by-side comparison of the two texts, Neumann eliminates the personal agency of the nuns Rhys Davids translation provides. Neumann uses passive verb construction, whereas Rhys Davids word choice repeated allows the nuns personal agency. Murcott’s translations lay somewhere between the two styles, still tending toward the passive construction utilized by Neumann. See note 4 for further analysis of the translations.

[3] In her criticism of the hagiographic first century literature, Wilson overlooks that the onset of Gautama’s disillusionment is a direct result of his encounter with these three male figures. She also fails to discuss Gautama’s vision of the fetid bodies he has the morning of his Great Departure from his father’s palace that serves as the means of his rejection of desire. She does note that when Gautama returns to his home following his enlightenment, he uses a heavenly vision of 500 nymphs who are transformed into decaying bodies to convert his half-brother Nanda to join the monastery (Wilson, Liz, 33).

[4] I have chosen to use passages from both Murcott and Rhys Davids to illustrate the two styles of translation. Rhys Davids translation allows increased agency. Khema, for example, is a “doer of Buddha’s commandments,” whereas Murcott’s translation has her in the more passive role of “practicing his teaching” (Rhys Davids, 68; Murcott, 80). While the difference is subtle, Rhys David’s Khema as a “doer” indicates an internalized, active choice to follow Buddha’s commandments. Murcott’s Khema, on the other hand, by “practicing” the Buddha’s teachings evokes a ring of hollow, externally realized ritual. In Norman’s translation, Khema is merely “doing the teacher’s teachings,” rendering the action even less powerful than either of the female translators allow her (Norman, 187.)

[5] During the 14th century renovation project, three scrolls were used for the purposes of collecting funds. One features Komyo serving peasants. Another is part of Chicago Art Institute’s collection (Lawrence E. Marceau and Christine M. F. Guth, 186).

[6] According to tradition, the monk Gyoki collected donations of timber from over 50,000 people to finance construction (Coaldrake, 39).


DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.