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A Storied Sage

Canon and Creation in the Making of a Japanese Buddha

Since its arrival in Japan in the sixth century, Buddhism has played a central role in Japanese culture. But the historical figure of the Buddha, the prince of ancient Indian descent who abandoned his wealth and power to become an awakened being, has repeatedly disappeared and reappeared, emerging each time in a different form and to different ends. A Storied Sage traces this transformation of concepts of the Buddha, from Japan’s ancient period in the eighth century to the end of the Meiji period in the early twentieth century.

Micah L. Auerback follows the changing fortune of the Buddha through the novel uses for the Buddha’s story in high and low culture alike, often outside of the confines of the Buddhist establishment. Auerback argues for the Buddha’s continuing relevance during Japan’s early modern period and links the later Buddhist tradition in Japan to its roots on the Asian continent. Additionally, he examines the afterlife of the Buddha in hagiographic literature, demonstrating that the late Japanese Buddha, far from fading into a ghost of his former self, instead underwent an important reincarnation. Challenging many established assumptions about Buddhism and its evolution in Japan, A Storied Sage is a vital contribution to the larger discussion of religion and secularization in modernity.

320 pages | 12 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Buddhism and Modernity

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“The life of the Buddha, which has served as the master narrative for most Buddhist traditions, has often been eclipsed in Japan by more celebrated celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In taking on this crucial, yet underanalyzed, topic, Auerback has produced an entirely original history of Japanese Buddhism. Insightful, sophisticated, and nuanced, A Storied Sage represents a major contribution to the field. This book is exemplary.”

D. Max Moerman, Barnard College, Columbia University

“Auerback brings to the foreground a topic that Buddhist monastics and scholars alike have neglected and provides a compelling explanation for the contemporary Japanese interest in the historical Buddha at a time when institutional Buddhism appears to be dying. Eminently readable, A Storied Sage will become standard fare among specialists of the early modern and modern period and provides wonderful historical scaffolding for work being done on religion and Japanese popular culture.”

Helen Baroni, University of Hawai'i at Manoa

"Auerback rightly asks whether the Buddha will outlive Buddhism in Japan....Highly recommended."


“The point where this study blossoms with voluminous detail is when developments in historiography made biographies of the Buddha controversial in the early modern era. . . . Auerback’s coverage of these debates is exceedingly thorough.”

Journal of Japanese Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: A Buddha without Buddhism
1 The Buddha as Preceptor
2 The Buddha as Local Hero
3 The Buddha as Exemplar
4 The Buddha as Fraud
5 The Buddha as Character
Conclusion: Sage as Story
Works Cited

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