SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

CBS/CSJR Seminar: Mirrors, Sex, and Oranges - Interpreting Zen in Medieval Japan

Dr Stephan Kigensan Licha

Date: 25 February 2021Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 25 February 2021Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Virtual Event

Type of Event: Seminar


Irrespective of claims to the contrary, for practical intelligibility the Zen traditions depend on semiotic, ideological, religious, and institutional norms shared with the wider cultures they inhabit. In their modern, globally disseminated forms, such common ground often is established using the languages of psychology and spiritual experientialism, which allow practitioners to act on otherwise nonsensical injunctions such as to see “one’s original face before mother and father were born.”

Medieval Japanese Zen practitioners were not exempt from this need to make sense of the frequently obscure yet excitingly exotic patriarchal oeuvre arriving from the continent. In order to do so, they drew on the risqué doctrinal discourses and cutting edge ritual technologies developed within contemporary Japanese Buddhism, notably the Tendai and esoteric traditions. Thereby emerged a form of Zen in which the injunction to see “one’s original face” could meaningfully be understood as an exhortation to return into the womb, covering one’s fetal nakedness with the robe-like placenta.

By focusing on materials from the early medieval Rinzai Shōichi and late medieval Sōtō lineages, this talk will explore some of the shared structures of Japanese Buddhist thought through and within which Zen was made to make sense in medieval Japan. I will suggest that such an approach helps to navigate some of the perennial problems plaguing scholarship on this elusive tradition by shifting the focus of inquiry from asking “what” Zen is to “how” it is continually re-invented.

Speaker Biography

Stephan Kigensan Licha is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Japanese Studies at the University of Heidelberg. He specializes in the intellectual history of East Asian Buddhism, with an emphasis on the Chan, Tiantai, and East Asian Yogācāra traditions. Besides his work on medieval Japanese Zen, he is leading a research project on the confluences of Sri Lankan and Japanese Buddhist modernisms in the 19th century.


This event will take place online via Zoom. It is open to the public.

Please register online.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

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