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Allegories of Desire

Allegories of Desire

Esoteric Literary Commentaries of Medieval Japan

Susan Blakeley Klein

ISBN 9780674009561

Publication date: 05/30/2003

One of the more intriguing developments within medieval Japanese literature is the incorporation into the teaching of waka poetry of the practices of initiation ceremonies and secret transmissions found in esoteric Buddhism. The main figure in this development was the obscure thirteenth-century poet Fujiwara Tameaki, grandson of the famous poet Fujiwara Teika and a priest in a tantric Buddhist sect. Tameaki's commentaries and teachings transformed secular texts such as the Tales of Ise and poetry anthologies such as the Kokin waka shu into complex allegories of Buddhist enlightenment. These commentaries were transmitted to his students during elaborate initiation ceremonies. In later periods, Tameaki's specific ideas fell out of vogue, but the habit of interpreting poetry allegorically continued.

This book examines the contents of these commentaries as well as the qualities of the texts they addressed that lent themselves to an allegorical interpretation; the political, economic, and religious developments of the Kamakura period that encouraged the development of this method of interpretation; and the possible motives of the participants in this school of interpretation. Through analyses of six esoteric commentaries, Susan Blakeley Klein presents examples of this interpretive method and discusses its influence on subsequent texts, both elite and popular.


  • Klein offers a meticulous explication of a group of literary commentaries of the mid-thirteenth century in Japan that adapted precepts of esoteric Shingon Buddhism…to construct ‘hidden’ meanings in canonical texts such as the Tales of Ise and the Kokinshu poetry anthology… With brilliant and disarming clarity, Klein analyzes the operation of allegorizing strategies in literary discourse and the cultural and textual triggers that bring such readings into play.

    —S. Arntzen, Choice


  • Susan Blakeley Klein is Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture and Director of Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Book Details

  • 378 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center

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