Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2020
Halle O’Neal Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art Harvard East Asian Monographs 412. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 310 pp.; 90 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780674983861)

In this monograph, Halle O’Neal investigates a genre of Buddhist painting known as “jeweled pagoda mandalas” (kinji hōtō mandara; hereafter JPM), which was popular in Japan during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Three full sets and a few lone examples separated from their original sets remain. At the center of these vertical compositions on indigo-dyed paper, a multistory pagoda appears surrounded by narrative vignettes from a popular sutra. The central pagoda is constructed from a transcription in gold of the very sutra that the painting features in the surrounding vignettes, in some cases with further embellishment in silver and color. (An animated rendering of one JPM is accessible through O’Neal’s faculty profile page.) Previous studies of JPM have focused on the narrative vignettes, leaving the pagoda itself largely unexamined. O’Neal’s monograph fills this lacuna by considering the pagoda as the central “icon” of JPM. It examines the pagoda not only in the context of the paintings’ production and comparable examples from China and Korea but also in relation to practices of sutra copying and discourses on the place of sacred words and inscribed texts in Buddhist images.

In JPM, the central pagoda oscillates between the audience’s acts of seeing and reading, blurring the word-image boundary. The smallness of the transcribed characters draws viewers close to the painted surface. However, even upon close inspection, the transcription remains only partially legible, as the characters often jump from one architectural detail to another; moreover, they are sometimes written diagonally or sideways following the directionality of the beams and railings that they represent. The transcribed characters are neither completely legible or illegible, but “alegible.” As O’Neal argues, JPM effectively express the indivisibility of the sacred words of the Buddha, the characters that transcribe those words, and the pagoda that takes shape through those characters. O’Neal further contends that these icons imbue the paintings with an inherent performativity, compelling viewers to move in a specific way—pulling them inward for closer inspection of the written texts, pushing them out for a wholistic appreciation of the pagoda image, and ultimately directing their gaze around the individual vignettes.

The book has five chapters. After an introduction to the layout, materials, and production process of JPM in chapter 1, and chapter 2’s summary of what little we can know about the historical contexts of each of the extant examples, chapter 3 (“Medieval Textual Images”) examines how the use of writing in JPM constitutes, in one sense, a natural progression from experimentation with methods of sutra copying in Japan during the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. O’Neal argues, however, that the approach to writing in JPM was far more ambitious and innovative than any other parallel practices. Chapters 4 and 5 are the heart of O’Neal’s argument. Together, they respond to the fundamental questions of why JPM presented the pagoda by means of sutra transcription and why the pagoda was selected as the main icon in the first place.

Chapter 4 (“Dharma Relics in Medieval Japan”) investigates the former question by tracing the doctrinal justifications behind, and historical receptions of, the salvific power of words in Buddhism. More specifically, it focuses on sutra texts as “dharma relics”—that is, the corpus of the Buddha’s teachings (dharma or “the Law”) as the sacred and venerable body of the Buddha. Popular scriptures in medieval Japan contended that the Buddha’s teachings are the dharma relics from which all the buddhas of the past, present, and future emerge(d). This concept gives precedent to words over physical remains, while underscoring the indivisibility of the physical and dharma relics of the Buddha. In JPM, this indivisibility was expressed by literally materializing a pagoda—a type of architectural structure originally intended to house the physical relics of the Buddha—by using transcribed scriptures, or the Buddha’s dharma relics.

Chapter 5 (“Buddhist Reliquaries and Somatic Profusions”) takes the idea of the indivisibility of physical and dharma relics one step further by considering the choice of the pagoda as the central icon. O’Neal responds to this question by unpacking the conflation of multiple forms of the Buddha’s body, which, by the time of JPM, enabled the pagoda to be understood as an architectural “body” of the Buddha endowed with its own salvific power.

In her concluding chapter, O’Neal returns to the idea of performative viewing to disclose the complex conceptual tapestry of JPM. She “pulls” on the different threads of discussion in the monograph—from soteriological to textual to somatic. The chapter fully reveals this pagoda as a powerful icon and nexus of the “salvific matrix” of word and image. It embodies the indivisible but varying emanations of the Buddha body that encompassed both the receptacle (reliquary) and its content (relics) in text, dharma, transcribed characters, and pagoda. As both the words of the Buddha and the physical manifestations of those words, the transcribed characters are each their own miniature conflation of relic and reliquary. Each of these characters, in turn, serves as a building block for the architectural body.

In his seminal work on the seventh-century Tamamushi Shrine, Shōtoku Taishi to Tamamushi no zushi (1998), Ishida Hisatoyo, one of the giants of the field of premodern Japanese Buddhist art, commented that his work was addressing the “eye of the storm” in otherwise robust scholarship. The contribution of O’Neal’s monograph matches that of Ishida’s in its magnitude. Although scholars have traced the visual lineage of the central pagoda in JPM to preceding examples, until this monograph, the fundamental questions of what exactly it meant to construct a pagoda with a transcribed sutra, why it was acceptable for this transcription not to be easily legible, and why the central icon necessarily had to be a pagoda were not raised. Although the pagoda occupies the compositional center of JPM, the unconventional method of its portrayal defies any neat categorization, making it simultaneously too obviously visible on the surface and utterly invisible in scholarship. Marshalling textual, historical, Buddhological, and art historical approaches, O’Neal has pulled the pagoda out of the dark (indigo) abyss, and through her multiple threads of inquiry, she has reconnected it to the historical and devotional contexts of medieval Japan.

This monograph seems to be structured so that each chapter can stand on its own as a coherent essay. Such a collection of stand-alone chapters is particularly welcome for classroom use. However, an unfortunate side effect of this organizational approach is that when the book is read straight through, one may feel a certain sensation of déjà vu. True, this book is an exploration into the expression of indivisibility in multiplicity. It is thus unavoidable that some overlaps occur in the course of its discussion. When such overlaps brush against the heart of O’Neal’s argument, however, this sense of déjà vu approaches the more problematic feeling of chasing one’s own tail. This side effect is perhaps most apparent in O’Neal’s discussion of the performative nature of JPM, which functions as a conceptual bookend to the monograph, being first introduced in chapter 1 and returned to in the conclusion. Somewhere in the intervening body of text, however, the “inherent performativity” of JPM seemingly morphs from being something that provides the viewer with the “opportunity to experientially encounter the multiplicity of the Buddha’s body” in chapter 1 (41) to, in the conclusion, something that the central icon required to realize its “full potential” (228). The idea of “performative viewing” resonates well with how one might experience JPM if one were to view the paintings today, but unfortunately no historical document explicitly states that that was the intended mode of engagement. The problematic slip in the level of necessity of the viewer’s bodily engagement with JPM may be rooted in the author’s attempt to discuss both the performative potential of JPM and the performance of the viewer’s body through the same analytical tool kit of “performativity.” In order to weave in this thread of inquiry, O’Neal limits the “viewers” who definitively saw the pieces upon completion to those directly involved in the production of JPM. However, the book never provides a clear discussion of why the producers of JPM—who knew exactly what they were creating—had to move their bodies a single inch to grasp the indivisibility inherent in the central icon once they were completed. The fact that three full sets remain, at the least, indicates that JPM as an object type and a concept were known among a certain echelon of Buddhist practitioners, making the physical movement of the viewers even less relevant. Arguably, the matrix of conflation already existed or could have been established all in the devotee’s mind. Perhaps a more fruitful ground for the exploration of the performative potential of JPM in terms of bodily movement might lie in the process of their transcription, rather than in their second life after their completion.

Regardless of how JPM were intended to engage, or actually engaged, with their viewers, O’Neal’s explication of the doctrinal and visual foundations that made this fascinatingly unstable icon possible is undeniably compelling. I would expect this study to become a standard text not just in the study of Japanese (and East Asian) visual and material culture but also in broader research on the function of writing within devotional and ritual contexts.

Akiko Walley
Maude I. Kerns Associate Professor of Japanese Art, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Oregon

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