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The Account of How Nichiren Miraculously Escaped Beheading and Its Modern Critics: History and Hagiography in a Japanese Buddhist Tradition
Jacqueline I. STONE
Abstract: Stories of saints and heroes must speak to their auditors to be effective. Over time, as circumstances change, episodes in sacred biography may be reinterpreted, even deleted, or their historicity may be disputed. This paper examines this process by tracing the reception history of an episode in the life story of the Japanese Buddhist teacher Nichiren (1222–1282). By his own account, Nichiren dramatically escaped beheading at the hands of hostile officials when a luminous object streaked across the night sky, terrifying his wouldbe executioners. For centuries, this scene has featured prominently in biographies, plays, woodblock prints, historical fiction, movies, and graphic novels about Nichiren. Since the modern period, however, its historicity has been debated by scholars both inside and outside Nichiren Buddhist circles. Those eager to strip Nichiren’s biography of legendary elements question his authorship of those among his writings referring to the incident. Defenders of the traditional account maintain that the terrifying ‘luminous object’ was a natural phenomenon. This paper argues for treating Nichiren’s escape from beheading and similar ‘miraculous’ episodes in hagiography as belonging to a realm where distinctions between myth and history cannot be clearly drawn; what ‘really happened’ may less significant than what the story has meant for the traditions involved.
Keywords: Asai Yōrin, hagiography, hosshaku kenpon, Nichiren, Lotus Sūtra, Shigeno Yasutsugu, Tanaka Chigaku, Tatsunokuchi Persecution
About the Author: Jacqueline I. Stone is professor emerita in the Department of Religion at Princeton University, where she taught Buddhism and Japanese Religion for almost thirty years. Her chief research field is Japanese Buddhism of the medieval and modern periods. Her current research interests include traditions of the Lotus Sutra, particularly Tendai and Nichiren; the role of Buddhism in premodern Japanese identity formation; and modern reinterpretations of Buddhist thought. Her books include Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (2001 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Historical Studies category) and Right Thoughts at the Last Moment: Buddhism and Deathbed Practices in Early Medieval Japan (2017 Toshihide Numata Book Award); she has also co-edited several volumes of essays on the Lotus Sūtra and on death and dying in Buddhism. Stone has been president of the Society for the Study of Japanese Religions and co-chair of the Buddhism section of the American Academy of Religion. Currently she is vice president of the editorial board of the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and serves on the international advisory board of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.
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