June 7th, Helen Findley: The Language of Sekkyô: Buddhist Homiletic Performance in Late Meiji Japan

Art and Politics of East Asia Workshop presents

The Language of Sekkyô:

Buddhist Homiletic Performance in Late Meiji Japan

(click here to read the paper)

Helen A. Findley
Ph.D. Candidate
East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago

Cameron Penwell, Respondent

(PhD student, History, University of Chicago)

June 7th (Monday)

3:00-5:00 p.m.

Judd Hall 313

5835 South Kimbark Avenue

Chicago, IL 60637


For many Buddhist reformers of the Meiji period (1868-1912), language became the principle object through which to address the interpretative project then underway, namely the discursive creation of a “modern” Japan.  The practice of sekkyô, or preaching, is crucial to this debate, not only as an important medium of social communication but also as an essential form of Buddhist praxis.  Deployed in a variety of physical settings – from train stations, temple grounds, to colonial missions – this mutable, peripatetic practice is ultimately argued to constitute a new understanding of religious space in modern Japanese society, one which by 1912 had expanded to include every place and every time available to the preacher in the course of “expounding the teachings.”

In this chapter, I explore the ways in which Buddhist preaching was reconceptualized in the years following the dissolution of the doctrinal instructor system in 1884. In addition to examining the hermeneutical constraints posed by homiletic terminology, contemporary debates surrounding the development of a standardized written language will be drawn upon as I seek to argue that Buddhist preaching in the form of sekkyô constitutes a “standard language” in its own right, one that is predicated on plain and elegant use of the vernacular as a skilfull means by which to disseminate Buddhist teachings.  The performance of Buddhist preaching events was ultimately argued to constitute a form of bodhisattva practice that required formal training and discipline in refining the entire corpus of communicative tools available to the preacher – from the body, to the spoken word and finally to the written text.  While the individual was transformed through the theorized discipline to become a “speaking bodhisattva,” the audience was expected to also undergo a transformation commensurate with the speaker’s skill, ideally resulting in the production of a Japanese Buddhist citizenry, and hence a Buddhist vision of “modern” Japan.

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Faculty sponsors: Michael Bourdaghs, Paola Iovene

The workshop is sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies and the Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. Persons with a disability who believe they may need assistance, please contact Ji Young Kim (jiyoung22@uchicago.edu) or Ling Zhang (ling1@uchicago.edu)


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