JJRS > Volume 50 Issue 1 On the Verge of Damnation and Buddhahood: Motherhood, Female Corporeality, and Koan Exegesis

Sanvido, Marta

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Buddhist scriptures depict the female body according to two contrasting models. On the one hand, female flesh is the epitome of defilement that hinders proper salvation. Yet, on the other hand, the gestational body is employed as a metaphor and a model to depict the highest spiritual perfection of the Buddhist clergy. By investigating these two seemingly incompatible approaches, this article shows how these contrasting models coexisted within the same doctrinal framework in early modern Sōtō Zen secret sources. In particular, it explores a Sōtō Zen secret document from the early modern period entitled Ise niji kirigami, which provides the doctrinal foundation for salvific rituals directed to women who died during parturition. The peculiarity of this document is the combination of conceptualizations typically associated with female pollution with a wide range of theorizations mainly derived from esoteric discourse on the kami, the Lotus Sūtra, and Zen koan interpretations. Therefore, through the investigation of the affinities with koan exegesis, Buddhist scriptures, and kami-related theories, this article aims to broaden our understanding of the tools used by early modern Zen monks to theorize the female body and contribute to the ongoing debate on the representation of the female spiritual and corporeal condition in Buddhist sources.