SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Of Monks and Embryos: Buddhist Embryology and Construction of the Ritual Body in Mediaeval Japan

Buddhist practitioners developed distinct theories on the process of generation of the human body by applying medical knowledge to the realm of religious practice. These theories constitute the rubric of Buddhist embryology. The Indian and Tibetan context of this discourse has received scholarly attention, but no sustained exploration of embryological patterns in East Asian Buddhism exists. This project seeks to fill a gap in the field with a monographic study that maps out the embryogenetic discourse in the ritual landscape of medieval Japanese Buddhism and explores the practices of the body which nurtured it.

Why is the study of Buddhist embryology in Japan particularly significant and timely? Normative views of Japanese Buddhism considered embryological notions to be heretical interpretations, connected to an allegedly heterodox lineage of Tantric Buddhism, the Tachikawa-ryû. In recent years, however, archival investigations at different Japanese temples have uncovered a number of medieval documents, ranging from the 12th to the 15th century, which present a consistent exegesis of the process of generation and foetal gestation. The diverse provenance of this material suggests that the embryogenetic discourse was not the monopoly of a single group of marginal practitioners but represented a major soteriological model that circulated across the borders of schools and lineages. How was this discourse articulated, and what actual practices underpinned it? What were the origins of these notions and why did they surface so conspicuously in the medieval period? Did a parallel development take place in Chinese Buddhism, which was then transmitted to Japan? This project addresses these historical and philosophical questions, and open up new avenues to critically reassess the specificity of Japanese Buddhism vis à vis continental Buddhism.

The narratives presented in the manuscripts are complex and ambiguous: they often unfold in a diagrammatic rather than discursive mode, and combine different strands of knowledge, from Indian medicine to Chinese notions of the organic body and elements of Tantric ritual. The project will reconstruct this web of doctrinal, ritual and visual interactions. My working hypothesis is that the compilation of such manuscripts did not respond to a new medico-ethical concern with the embryo nor did it express socio-political concerns with the female body. Rather, the sources I have examined expound a type of initiatory embryology for advanced Tantric practitioners, clearly developed in a ritual (Tantric) context and drawing on canonical imagery, but different from early Japanese Tantric Buddhism and what we know of Chinese Buddhism. The documents emphasise the materiality of the body and the moment of sexual intercourse that starts the reproductive process, and these sexual overtones might have been one of the reasons why these sources have been marginalised. By contrast, I approach the material through a closer, inter-textual analysis that brings it in conversation with (arguably related) sources included in the canonical collections of the various Buddhism schools, and connects it with a broader discourse on the ritual body which, I have suggested elsewhere (Dolce 2010), developed in the same period in Tantric circles.

The monograph will bring to fruition several years of research. I first came across embryological imagery while working on a study of Tantric interpretations of the indigenous gods, based on medieval and early modern Shinto documents (Dolce 2009). Close collaboration with Japanese colleagues later allowed me to identify a set of manuscripts that present cryptic embryogenetic models. In the past two years, a generous British Academy/Leverhulme small grant has given me the opportunity to study these unpublished documents in Japanese archives and conduct a preliminary analysis of their content. These findings are surveyed in a long article that examines a trope of Japanese mediaeval embryology, namely, the charts of the so-called “five stage [gestation] in the womb” (tainai goi) (Dolce 2015).


Dr Lucia Dolce
Numata Reader in Japanese Buddhism

SOAS, University of London
Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London WC1H 0XG

Telephone: 020 7898 4217