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Thinking Through Minshū Bukkyō: Popular Buddhism and the Study of Premodern Japan

Max Moerman, Columbia University; Jacqueline Stone, East Asian Studies, emerita

September 22, 2023 · 9:00 am5:00 pm · 202 Jones Hall

Center for Culture, Society and Religion

The category of folk or popular Buddhism (minshū Bukkyō) offers tremendous promise for scholars of Japanese religion. It forces us to consider Buddhism beyond the walls of the monastery and challenges elite centered narratives by turning to the religion of the many (minshū) rather than the select and famous few. As such, taking the Japanese category of popular Buddhism seriously helps usher in a new understanding of religion in premodern Japan, one that addresses lived religion as enacted by individuals from diverse walks of life. Attention to the broader populace (minshū) allows scholars to move beyond standard accounts of premodern Japanese religions, which have typically centered on powerful religious institutions as gates of power (kenmon) or the state’s role in promoting and regulating Buddhism. Put succinctly, the model encourages a shift from top-down to bottom-up accounts of religiosity.

But the category also presents numerous problems, many undertheorized in scholarship to date. Who is included in the category of popular? How is the term minshū best translated? What are the boundaries of this sociological category? Are the lines between elite and popular sharp? Does religious practice necessarily map onto social class? And given the fact that most extant sources stem from elite circles, to what extent can we even access the religious lives of those outside of the upper echelons of society in premodern times? What methods are needed to do so?

This workshop encourages us to think through the concept. By this, the organizers mean that we will both use the notion of popular Buddhism as a lens onto premodern Japanese religions while also engaging in a reassessment of the category’s meaning, utility, and limits. In doing so, we will contribute to both the study of Japanese Buddhism and to that of the humanities more broadly. For the former, we aim to develop new historiographical angles and greater conceptual rigor. For the latter, we hope that the Japanese concept of minshū and the presented case studies will contribute new theoretical language and methods for studying non-elite practices.

The conference is open to the public and is bilingual. Papers will be presented in both English and Japanese. No translation will be provided. Register here.

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