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This review is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.

ENLIGHTENING William R. LaFleur, The Karma of Words. Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (University of California Press) £19.25

As the title of Professor LaFleur's book suggests, his theme is an ambitious one. His treatment of this theme is just as ambitious and in the course of his discussion he raises a number of important questions concerning the understanding of Japanese literature and the nature of Japan's modernity in comparison with that of the West. He draws on a variety of recent theories that have a relevance to literary and intellectual history, notably those of Thomas S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), the structuralists, certain anthropologistts and Michel Foucault. LaFleur actually understands the theories he draws on (something that is not to be taken for granted), knows their limitations and what he wants from them, and is therefore able to use them in an illuminating way.

LaFleur begins by mapping the mediæval Japanese episteme - the 'universe of discourse' in terms of which men thought, concurred and disputed. This was, of course, Mahayana Buddhist, and we are taken from the establishment of a Buddhist hegemony over Japan's religious and intellectual life, in which Kyõkai's Nihon ryõi-ki played an important part, to the gradual collapse of this hegemony, which, according to LaFleur, was as much for reasons intrinsic to Mahayana Buddhism as due to the rise of intellectual systems that explicitly challenged the Buddhist view of things: neo-Confucianism and the 'native learning' of Motoori Norinaga. Thus, becoming 'modern' was, in LaFleur's view, a less tormented process for Japan than it was for the European nations.
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