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Nuns, Relic Theft, and Power in Medieval Japan
Julia Cross - Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies and Lecturer in Religious Studies

Throughout Japanese religious history, relics were placed under pagodas or in the inner sanctums of high temples. As powerful religious objects, relics were accessible to only an elite few. In the Kamakura era (1185–1333), however, this all changed, as believers started to steal, trade, and gift relics in the capital and the periphery. Extant reliquaries from this time reflect this trend: they were constructed so they could be moved, transported, hidden, and worshipped in private temples or shrines. This talk examines this new relationship to relics. In regards to gender, it also addresses how nuns used relics to rebuild the nunhood, establish legitimacy, and create networks.

Relic worship during this period also included a syncretic nature. As seen through extant reliquaries, many of which are national treasures in Japan, relic-related iconography combined multiple religious practices and schools of thought from Japan, China, and India. This ability to incorporate various pantheons into one frame of worship illustrates the multidimensionality of relic worship during this period, and its ability to draw on various belief systems. Along with this syncretism came a desire to be close to relics. There was a need for a physical proximity to Buddha relics; this included holding, stealing and even swallowing them. As a result, relics were often taken in the night or transferred through dream-visions. It was through this proximity—almost osmosis—to the Buddha’s body (i.e., his bones) that devotees moved closer to the Buddha, and their own spiritual salvation in the afterworld.

Nov 30, 2021 12:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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