Marking death: Stamped Buddhas and reused letters in 13th-century Japan

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Abstract / Description of output

Despite its inherently ephemeral character, paper played significant roles in Buddhist rituals and private practices in premodern Japan. Through a focused examination of a thirteenth-century letter by the monk Jōgyō (1186–1231) that was stamped with Amida Buddha figures after his death and sealed within an Amida statue, this project draws out the sacral importance of paper and handwriting alongside reuse and recycling in Japanese Buddhist material culture. Examining the crux of these transformational moments tells us how mourners navigated loss, reveals the productive tension between preservation and destruction, and exposes the paradoxical importance of intentional invisibility in artistic culture. By reframing and layering Jōgyō’s letter with the repeating rows of stamped Buddhas, this memorial practice creates a palimpsest of sorts. Paper, in its materiality, was therefore a key site of memory and commemoration. The tangibility and tactility of paper mattered. And by fragmenting, rearranging, and reusing letters left behind, brushwork became embodied writing, marked and filtered through the simple recurring figures. In these ways, purposefully visual palimpsests offer an intimate view of the mourning process and of prayers for salvation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2
Pages (from-to)10-39
Number of pages30
JournalArs Orientalis
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2023


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