SOAS University of London

Japan Research Centre

Stamping out Death in Japanese Buddhist Palimpsests

Halle O'Neal talk
Dr Halle O'Neal (University of Edinburgh)

Date: 19 February 2020Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 19 February 2020Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Djam Lecture Theatre (DLT)

Type of Event: Seminar


Despite its inherently ephemeral character, paper played significant roles in Buddhist rituals and private practices in premodern Japan. Through a focused examination of a thirteenth-century letter by the monk Jōgyō (1186-1231) that was stamped with Amida Buddha figures after his death and sealed within an Amida statue, this talk draws out the sacral importance of paper and handwriting alongside reuse and recycling in Japanese Buddhist visual and material culture. By reframing and layering Jōgyō’s letter with the repeating rows of stamped Buddhas, this memorial practice creates a palimpsest of sorts. Paper, in its materiality, was therefore a key site of memory and commemoration. And by fragmenting, rearranging, and reusing left-behind letters, brushwork became embodied writing, marked and filtered through the simple recurring figures. In these ways, this talk suggests that purposeful palimpsests offer an intimate view of the grieving process and of prayers for salvation.

Speaker Biography

Halle O’Neal, a specialist in Japanese Buddhist art, is a Reader and Director of Research in the History of Art department at the University of Edinburgh and an Associate in Research at Harvard University, Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Her recent book, Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018 and explored the intersections of word/image and relics/reliquaries. Her current monograph project, “Writing against Death: Buddhist Palimpsests of Medieval Japan,” examines the materiality of death and mourning and the visualisation of memory and embodiment in Japanese letter sutras.


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Organiser: SOAS Japan Research Centre

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