Nissan Seminar: From Disgust to Compassion: Excrement in the Buddhist Narratives of Medieval Japan

Co-Convenors: Juliana Buriticá Alzate, Jenny Guest, Hugh Whittaker

Speaker(s): Professor Rajyashree Pandey (Goldsmiths, University of London)

From Disgust to Compassion: Excrement in the Buddhist Narratives of Medieval Japan


This paper is part of a larger project, which addresses a much-neglected theme, namely the significance of excrement in the literary and Buddhist narratives of medieval Japan. In this paper I focus on Buddhist texts ranging from sutras and commentaries to popular setsuwa tales and pictorial scrolls to argue that excrement was a polyvalent symbol, which was deployed for a variety of Buddhist pedagogical projects and that the effects it produced were heterogenous, ranging from disgust and revulsion to compassion and laughter. Within the Buddhist epistemic framework, conceptions of karmic retribution, expedient means, non-duality and so on made it possible to see excrement both as proof of the inferior status of humans, animals, hungry ghosts and so on, as well as the very condition for their attainment of salvation.

Rajyashree Pandey is Professor of Japanese Studies in the Politics and International Relations Department of Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of Writing and Renunciation in Medieval Japan: The Works of the Poet-Priest Kamo no Chõmei (Michigan University, Japanese Monograph Series,1998) and Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair: Body, Woman, and Desire in Medieval Japanese Narratives (University of Hawaii Press, 2016). She has also published articles in a wide range of journals from Monumenta Nipponica to Postcolonial Studies on medieval Japanese literature and Buddhism, gender, sexuality, and Japanese popular culture. She is currently working on a monograph on the significance of excrement in medieval Japanese narratives.