Events Feeling Cross-species Kinship in Edo-Period Morality Books: Excessive Affect and the Ethic of Refraining from Killing and Releasing Life

May 20th, 2024. 17:30~19:00 JST

Reiners Library, Nanto Room

Speakers Barbara R. Ambros

A talk by Barbara R. Ambros, UNC Chapel Hill

Influenced by Ming and Qing morality books, particularly the works of the Buddhist cleric Yunqi Zhuhong (1535–1615), devotional ritual releases of captive animals on the verge of death surged in popularity in the Edo period. Zhuhong’s seminal Jiesha fangsheng wen (Tract on refraining from killing and releasing life) was published in Japan as a Sino-Japanese edition in 1661 and inspired the composition of about three dozen Japanese Buddhist texts over the next two-and-a-half centuries. Most Japanese tracts on refraining from killing and releasing life were authored by Buddhist clerics, but some texts were composed by wealthy merchants, village heads, and lay intellectuals. These texts used didactic exposition augmented by uncanny karmic and anomaly tales from Chinese and Japanese sources to dramatize the ethic of refraining from killing and releasing life, which was essentially two-pronged: it sought to convince its audience to abstain from the harmful and sinful behavior of killing living beings and engage in the wholesome conduct of releasing them instead.  Proponents conveyed this message through an emotionally grounded, family-based morality that relied on highly sentimental narratives and strong emotions. Their writings, on the one hand, instilled fear, disgust, and shock to prevent immoral conduct and karmic retribution and, on the other hand, encouraged the cultivation of loving-kindness, benevolence, and compassion to arouse empathy with the suffering of sentient beings and usher in karmic rewards for the human actors, their families, and the animals. Thus, cultivating non-killing and compassion was thought to benefit humans and animals alike. Advocates of this discourse understood humans and animals to share natural, innate emotions and reciprocate feelings and moral conduct. Animals demonstrated their moral worth through their capacity to suffer and have feelings, not just as individuals but as beings with karmic and social bonds with humans and their own kind and kin. Highlighting these interspecies bonds of kinship, morality books employed narratives of cathartic redemption, prevailing justice, and tangible rewards to provoke, or rather startle, their audiences into moral action. In this presentation, the former village head and writer Kawai Gen’s Hōjō wasan (Hymns on releasing life; 1795) serves as an example of the common affective strategies used in this morality literature.

Barbara_Ambros_Talk_Cross-Species_Kinship_2024.05.20_fixed.jpg 405.15 KB