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KFBSLS Year 4, Lecture 4: Andrew Macomber, "Evil Dead in the Aristocratic Mansion: Buddhist Experiments with Ritual Healing in Heian Japan"

When: Friday, January 19, 2024
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM CT

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Joshua Brallier  

Group: The Khyentse Foundation Buddhist Studies Lecture Series

Category: Academic


From the middle of the Heian period (794–1185) on, the aristocracy in the capital of Heian-kyō more and more found themselves—their mansions and their bodies—haunted by pathogenic spirits. Provoked by the agitated ghosts of deceased members at court, “evil influence” was a disease native to the culture of resentment that prevailed in the competitive world of the aristocracy and reflected growing anxieties about one's own increasingly uncertain postmortem fate. In this talk, I examine the ways that Buddhist monks of esoteric lineages responded to the psycho-spectral irritants that came to possess the mansions, minds, and bodies of their courtier patients, focusing in particular on the "possession rite." 

Descending from their mountaintop temples to make a house call directly at their patient’s mansion, monks used the "possession rite" to transfer the offending spirit from the body of the patient to the body of a medium, sought to engage the pathogen in a kind of spirit diplomacy not dissimilar from court politics, and then subjugated it. Although this ritual often proved successful, I demonstrate that it came into being through a messy historical process of experimentation in which monks drew upon but also diverged from the techniques of their liturgical tradition. These modifications were motivated, I argue, by an attempt to better align the universal, non-specific efficacy of esoteric ritual healing with a disease whose pathology was specific to the dynamics of the lifeworld of their patients at court. My talk thus shows how creative ritual engagement with the evil dead enabled monks to form with patients strong “immunitary relations,” a therapeutic interdependence in which the bodies and diseases of courtiers were irrevocably tethered to monks and their rites.

Andrew Macomber is an Assistant Professor of East Asian Religions at Oberlin College.

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