Vol. 23 (2016)

Being Alive: Doctrine versus Experience in the Writings of Yamanoue no Okura

Nicholas Morrow Williams
University of Hong Kong


Yamanoue no Okura’s 山上憶良 (660–733?) writings in the Man’yÅshÅ« è¬è‘‰é›† anthology present unique challenges of linguistic and literary-historical reconstruction. Composed in various permutations of man’yÅgana and logographic script and also in Chinese (kanbun), Okura’s texts are replete with allusions to Chinese texts ranging from the Confucian canon to apocryphal Buddhist sutras and popular anthologies, many of which are lost or survive only in Dunhuang manuscripts. But the technical challenges in approaching Okura’s writings should not blind us to the spirit of skeptical self-awareness that underlie these literary artifacts. Okura frequently cites the spiritual doctrines contained in his Chinese sources: the overcoming of suffering in Buddhist scripture, the perfection of the body through Daoist practices, or the ethical responsibilities set out in Confucian teachings. But he has a singular practice of partial or misleading quotation: borrowing scattered fragments of philosophy or religion, but reusing them to shape singular representations of his own experience. This article will first present an overview of Okura’s extant works as contained in the Man’yÅshÅ« anthology, as well as the primary Chinese sources that seem to have influenced him. The next three sections analyze particular works of Okura in light of their Chinese intertexts, roughly organized around their Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucian orientations. The conclusion offers some tentative indications of how Okura’s distinctive reactions to his sources influenced his own literary style, and also regarding Okura’s legacy for Japanese letters.