In Pursuit of Companionship: Hansen’s Disease in the Jōdo Shinshū Moral Imagination
Jessica Starling, Lewis and Clark College
March 2, 2023 · 4:30 pm—6:00 pm · 202 Jones Hall
Center for Culture, Society and Religion
Buddhist Studies Workshop
In premodern Japan, Hansen’s disease (or leprosy, as it is better known) evoked a mixture of fascination, pity, and awe, and was often described as a “karmic retribution disease.” The discourse on Hansen’s disease has since shifted to a more medical one, but those who visibly suffer from the effects of the mycobacterium leprae retain a powerful affective charge related to their perceived singular misfortune. Survivors, many of whom live in one of the country’s thirteen state-run sanitariums, are still cast as objects for the moral practice of able-bodied, compassionate agents, whether Buddhist, Christian, or secular humanitarian.
In this talk, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork among contemporary Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist volunteers at leprosaria across Japan to explore the tension between “solidarity and inequality” that inheres in charity work (Fassin 2012). In the Jōdo Shinshū, with its radical emphasis on the other-power (tariki) of Amitabha’s vows, the prescribed response to suffering is in fact not one of compassion (jihi or jizen), but rather companionship (dōbō). Truly egalitarian companionship is an elusive ideal, however, and I demonstrate how Buddhist ethics are actively negotiated by practitioners on emotional terrain.