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“Was the yamai-no-sōshi (Scroll of Illnesses) a Buddhist Scroll?”


Shalmit Bejarano (Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University)


Originated in late Heian period , the renowned Scroll of Illnesses (病の草紙) comprises illustrations of deformed or sick persons accompanied by short explanations. The selection of ailments is unusual by any measure, and attracted much attention from both scholars of the history of medicine and of scholars of Buddhist studies. It is commonly argued (although not accepted by all scholars), that the Scroll of Illnesses should be classified among the rokudō-e as the human form of reincarnation, because the miscellaneous illnesses portray the consequence of sins committed in former life. 

In my talk I argue that although karmatic thought was indeed basic to this scroll, the scroll’s main message is narrating the place of the marginal and outsider within the contemporaneous Heian-kyo. I demonstrate that the short written texts focus on the bodily deformations of the sick (without referring directly to former lives), and that the painted illustrations focus on the attitude of the caregivers to the ill. These attitudes include mainly mockery and finger pointing which are analyzed in themselves as a sort of punishment. I thus conclude that the scroll can be read as an expression of fears and loss that are linked to societal decomposition and hierarchical changes occurring during the decay of Heian regime. 


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