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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.2 (2023): 318–342;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Religion and Local Society)

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Groner, Paul. Precepts, Ordinations, and Practice in Medieval Japanese Tendai. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2023 Pp. 400. Hardcover, USD $68.00; Paperback $20.00

Alessandro POLETTO
Washington University in St. Louis

Paul Groner, one of the best-known scholars of Tendai 天台 Buddhism outside of Japan, has over the years published a number of articles on precepts within and outside the Tendai school. This volume collects twelve of those articles, revised for the occasion, with the addition of an introduction and a conclusion. Unlike Groner’s previous works, Precepts, Ordinations, and Practice in Medieval Japanese Tendai takes a thematic approach, one that lacks a clearly defined narrative arc, to tackle a number of issues that should be of concern to any scholar of Japanese Buddhism; among them: why is Buddhism in Japan today so different from the rest of East Asia? What are the historical contingencies that have led to the laxity in the observance of the precepts by Japanese monks? This collection of essays, first and foremost a study in discourses on precepts and ordinations within medieval Tendai, takes those questions and concerns as its starting point. While Groner makes an attempt to bridge the temporal gap that separates his centre of attention from the modern period in the final chapter, his study illuminates a segment of Japanese history in which, despite their perceived (and, one might say, assumed) laxity, Tendai monks showed great concern towards the precepts, and composed doctrinal and ritual texts to clarify how they were to be understood, conferred, and maintained. Groner’s essays deal with a number of figures, lesser and well-known, to highlight the complexity of these conversations within Tendai, a school that, for most of the period covered in this book, constituted a major cultural and social force in Japan. At fourteen chapters and over three hundred pages, this expansive collection of essays is challenging to review. In the rest of this essay, I will therefore unequally focus on a number of thematic clusters, figures, and chapters, to highlight, without any claims of exhaustivity, some of what I perceive as the main contributions of this work to our understanding of medieval Buddhism and the Tendai school. I will also attempt, in the second part, to offer new avenues of research with regard to the precepts and ordinations in medieval Japan.


About the Author: Alessandro Poletto specialises in the social and religious history of premodern Japan, with an emphasis on Buddhism in the early medieval period (approx. tenth to the thirteenth century). He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2020 with a dissertation entitled ‘The Culture of Healing in Early Medieval Japan: A Microhistorical Study in Premodern Epistemology’, in which he examined discourses and practices concerning healing and disease, with particular attention to the relationship between Buddhist healers and other technicians involved in the treatment of illness, namely court physicians and onmyōji. Before joining Washington University in St. Louis as a lecturer in East Asian religions, he was a JSPS postdoctoral fellow at Kyoto University.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.