The search for literary sources has been inspired largely by the difficulty scholars have experienced in imagining that a work of the magnitude of The Tale of Genji could have been created without models. The early commentators found sources in the Tendai Buddhist scriptures, the Records of the Historian of Ssu-ma Ch’ien, the Spring and Autumn Annals, and other Chinese sources. Other commentators, concerned less with literary sources than with the moral intent of the work, provided a simplistic Buddhist explanation that persists to this day: The Tale of Genji is the story of a man who was punished for his affair with his stepmother when his own wife betrayed him with another man.

The best-known and most persuasive interpretation, however, was that of Motoori Norinaga, who denied Buddhist and Confucian intent behind the novel and treated The Tale of Genji as a work embodying the principle of mono no aware, a sensitivity to things.


Motoori, later in the same essay, declared that the purpose of the author of The Tale of Genji was similar to that of a man who collects muddy water in order to have lotuses bloom: “The impure mud of illicit love affairs described in The Tale of Genji is there not for the purpose of being admired but for the purpose of nurturing the flower of the awareness of the sorrow of human existence.”

If Motoori’s explanation is correct, Murasaki Shikibu was inspired by a literary rather than a didactic purpose, and similarities between The Tale of Genji and Buddhist or Confucian writings are therefore coincidences or of only minor significance. (source: Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Keene, Donald, 1999, pp 477-514)

This passage makes me wonder if Donald Keene really gave Buddhist interpretations of Genji their due credit, as his argument doesn't sound very convincing. Per his explanation, Genji scholars and critics since the work's completion and before Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長) all took either the Buddhist or the Confucian/Chinese influence route and all failed to satisfactorily explain the central theme of Genji. But the summary of those failed attempts given by Keene is so pithy and oversimplified that it sounds insincere and mischaracterized. The period between Genji and Motoori spans almost eight centuries. 800 years is a long time. 800 years of literary reviews, commentary, interpretations, analysis all come down to one convergent reading that Genji is a didactic edification where iniquity must be punished? And after the old guards of the Japanese literati all failed, this miracle kid Motoori invented a new concept that perfectly explains everything in Genji. How could that be fair or true to Japanese literary history?

Equally puzzling is Keene's explanation of Motoori's interpretation which, built on Motoori's newly coined concept mono no aware, rings uncannily Buddhist/Zen. It seems to bear a great deal of resemblance with several key Buddhist concepts, including but definitely not limited to impertinence (anicca or anitya), suffering (duhkha), and emptiness (sunyata).

This passage makes me wonder if there had been Buddhist interpretations beyond Keene's over simplified digest. What are some examples? How do them compare to Motoori's reading?


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