Prof. Delivers Lecture and Tells Story
Her name is Eshinni. A Buddhist nun in Japan during the 13th century, she has for most of the 20th century been known as the wife of the man who gave rise to the largest school of Buddhism in Japan. She is also the author of a set of ten letters discovered in a temple in Kyoto in 1921. Though barely decipherable, they are one of few examples of everyday writing by medieval Japanese women.
Going on little more than these facts, Professor of Religion James Dobbins wrote Letters of the Nun Eshinni: Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan, published last year. At the last Friends of the Library program of the semester Wednesday, Dobbins told his audience how only ten letters allowed him to paint a portrait of both Eshinni and her time.
“I want to tell a story that is something like a detective story,” Dobbins began.
Dobbins, an Oberlin professor since 1983, first encountered the letters while doing research for an earlier book, Jodo Sinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan. Shin Buddhism, part of the Pure Land Buddhist tradition and the largest school of Buddhism in pre-modern Japan, traces its roots to the life of Shinran, Eshinni’s husband. Her letters originally provided Dobbins with useful information about Shinran’s life.
“The second book is about the letters and, by extension, about the woman who wrote the letters,” Dobbins said. “It is a snapshot of various dimensions of both the person, and the time and place.”
Dobbins went on to say that, because of Eshinni’s connection to Shinran, what has been said about her has been less about her and more about her husband.
“I went back to the letters and I thought, this would make a very interesting sort of counterpoint study to the Shinran-centric perspective on Buddhism,” he said.
Dobbins said that he sees the letters as being “a very rich source on, first of all, daily life in medieval Japan; secondly, on the experience of women in Japan and third, on the religious inclinations of ordinary people.”
Dobbins set out to write the book and delve deeper into the story of Eshinni. The “detective part of the story,” he said, is figuring out just what the letters say. Although he is not the first to translate them, the book contains his own translations of the texts.
“The letters themselves are not — what should I say — they’re not pretty,” Dobbins mused. “They’re really hard to read.”
Apart from the sheer visual roadblock, other difficulties Dobbins encountered included Eshinni’s habit of writing more at the top of a letter after she had finished the page and the use of a multiplicity of names for one person, a habit traditional in medieval Japan. Eshinni sometimes made mistakes in her use of kanji, one of the Japanese writing systems, and left out letter markings that change consonant sounds from soft to hard, such as “ka” to “ga.”
Still, the text of the letters themselves gives enough information not only to piece together basic information such as their general order, but to figure out the recipient: Eshinni’s daughter, Kakushini. They also reveal Eshinni’s age at the time; she wrote the earliest letter when she was 75 and the last when she was 86.
After he discussed the technicalities of translation and detective work that went into writing his book, Dobbins moved on to summarize the content and implications of the letters.
Scholars divide the letters into three groups based on content. The first two are letters of bequest or transfer in which Eshinni bestows on her daughter some of her servants. The second group, letters three through six, revolves around the death of her husband, Shinran. These letters include stories Eshinni intended to help Shinran’s followers remember his greatness.
Dobbins said that the last group is from Eshinni’s “twilight years.” An enlightening record of her daily life, Dobbins described these letters as “passages where she’s dealing with the ravages of old age,” thoughts on her children and grandchildren, and accounts of famines and epidemics she and her servants had to endure.
Perhaps getting to the heart of his interest in the letters, Dobbins paused in his descriptions to explain, “these four letters, more than anything, are the one place where Eshinni sort of steps out of the shadow of Shinran.
“You see her hopes, her religious aspirations, her desires,” he continued.
Addressing his book as a whole, Dobbins said that he sees it in part as “a revisionist interpretation” of some portrayals of Buddhism, particularly in regard to the classical view of suffering.
Dobbins also emphasized the importance of his book as a new perspective on the religious life and status of women in medieval Japan.
“Women in the medieval period had greater autonomy and greater economic independence than women in the subsequent early modern period,” he said. He mentioned that Eshinni was not divorced, yet lived apart from her husband and took care of her own property. Equally important: Eshinni’s life rejected common notions of medieval Japanese nuns as being cloistered, tragic figures with no connection to the everyday world.
“I think the lesson to be learned here is that we carry, especially in the 20th century, a lot of idealized images of what Buddhism is,” he concluded. “There needs to be a kind of reorientation of typical view to figure out what is going on in the ground.”
In his final words, Dobbins admitted that the audience might be wondering, “Why did I go to all this trouble to read these dinky little letters?”
His fascination seems to come from their unassuming quality.
“I’ve come over these years to see their plainness as their
virtue,” he said. “For me they are kind of like a precious mirror
into a world that’s long past. I sort of revel in their plainness.”