SOAS University of London

Japan Research Centre

Walking the Sutra in Katsuragi, Japan: A Semiotic Theory of Pilgrimage

Dr Tatsuma Padoan (University College Cork)

Date: 26 May 2022Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 26 May 2022Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre (KLT) and Online

Type of Event: Seminar


This presentation will attempt to map the mutual interconnections between ethnography, translation, and pilgrimage from a semiotic perspective, by exploring a mountain ascetic pilgrimage in Katsuragi linked to the twenty-eight sutra mounds of the Lotus Sutra (Katsuragi nijūhasshuku no kyōzuka). In this pilgrimage the twenty-eight chapters of the Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture Lotus Sutra are worshipped at twenty-eight spots, where each chapter is said to have been buried since ancient times, thus inscribing the scripture into the materiality of the landscape. Through an analysis of the contemporary practice and revitalisation of this premodern route by a group of ascetics affiliated to the Tenpōrinji temple on Mt Kongō, I will consider pilgrimage as a process of intersemiotic translation involving body, space, materiality, sacred scriptures, cognitive and affective dispositions of pilgrims. By interpreting the landscape as translation of the Lotus Sutra, ascetics in fact learn how to walk it, through the performance of rituals, mantras, fasting, and other bodily techniques. And they do so by interacting with the material environment, local gods and Buddhist deities who inhabit the landscape, as well as places where the sutra chapters are worshipped as physical relics (shari) and living presence of the Buddha. To analyse this pilgrimage, we will focus on what I will call its actional spheres—targets, subjects, sources, and evaluators of pilgrimage considered as dynamic positions or “actants” (Greimas 1987; Floch 2000; Fontanille 2007). More specifically, I will examine how these positions are constructed and negotiated by human and nonhuman actors, namely pilgrims, places, institutions, deities, and other entities. By exploring the actional spheres of pilgrimage, and the networks and hierarchies emerging from them, we will see not only how pilgrims constantly translate a Buddhist scripture into a landscape by walking it, but also how they translate ascetic values acquired in the mountains into their everyday lives, at home and at work, in the private and public domains. Finally, I will analyse the role of ethnographers as translators, themselves engaged in making sense of the flow of pilgrimage through their participant observation and their bodily experience of the environment, while learning to perceive a “semiotics of the natural world”.

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Walking the Sutra in Katsuragi, Japan: A Semiotic Theory of Pilgrimage

Speaker Biography

Tatsuma Padoan (PhD, Venice) is Lecturer in East Asian Religions at University College Cork, and a research associate at SOAS, University of London. As an anthropologist and a semiotician, he has worked on ritual—including asceticism, ritual apprenticeship, pilgrimage, religious materiality and spirit possession—as well as on the study of design practices and the politics of urban space. His most recent publications include: “Recalcitrant Interactions: Semiotic Reflections on Fieldwork among Mountain Ascetics” (Acta Semiotica 1, 2, 2021: 84-119); and “On the Semiotics of Space in the Study of Religions: Theoretical Perspectives and Methodological Challenges” (in Sign, Method, and the Sacred:  New Directions in Semiotic Methodologies for the Study of Religion, edited by Thomas-Andreas Põder and Jason Van Boom, 189-214. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2021).

Organiser: SOAS Japan Research Centre and SOAS Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions (CSJR)

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