Tanabe Books

Nonfiction and fiction writings about Religion, Buddhism, Japan, Hawaii, and Japanese-Americans

​George Tanabe writes nonfiction and fiction about Religion, Buddhism, Japan, Hawaii and Japanese-Americans.

Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawaii: An Illustrated Guide
By George J. Tanabe, Willa Jane Tanabe

     Co-authored with my wife Willa, professor emeritus of Buddhist art history at the University of Hawai'i, Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawaiʻi: An Illustrated Guide is designed to help people look very carefully and understand what they are seeing. Look at an altar table, and you might see a bird with two heads. Have you ever noticed that one dragon on the incense burner has its mouth open, while the other has it closed? What do these mean? Each object has a reason for being there, a meaning that often is hidden in ancient symbolisms, and unless we know how to decipher these objects, we will miss what they are trying to say to us. From the external architecture, some styles of which are totally unique to Hawaiʻi, to the interior accoutrements, temples are like texts written in a special graphic language, and this Guide will help anyone learn to read them.
     Written in a concise and accessible style, the Guide begins with introductory chapters that explain the basic history, teachings and practices of the different denominations, and the meanings of individual objects commonly found in temples. These chapters comprise a short primer on Buddhism in Japan and Hawaiʻi, and gives this book a depth not found in ordinary travel guidebooks. The heart of the book is a narrative description of each of the 90 temples that still remain in Hawaiʻi. Each entry begins with brief historical background information, and describes the architecture, sanctuaries, columbariums and grounds with any eye to the meaning and uniqueness of the material culture of each temple.

     Written with my colleague Ian Reader (University of Lancaster, UK), Practically Religious is a study of one of the most widespread religious activities in Japan: the use of amulets and talismans for everything from traffic safety and education success to business prosperity and protection from disease. These practices have veen virtually ignored in academic studies or relegated to the margins as a product of superstition or an aberration from the so-called true dynamics of religion.                                                                                                    Basing our work on a fusion of textual, ehtnographic, historical and contemporary studies, we demonstrate the fallacy of such views, and show that, far from being marginal, the concepts and practices surrounding the quest for practical benefits (genze riyaku) lie at the heart of the Japanese religious world. They thrive not only as popular religious expressions, but are supported by the doctrinal teachings of most Buddhist sects, are ordained in religious scriptures, and are promoted by monastic training centers, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. We also examine the business of guidebooks, which combine travel infomration with religious advice, including humorous and distinctive forms of prayer for the protection against embarrassing physical problems and sexual diseases.                                                                                               Written in a direct and engaging style, Practically Religious reveals the intimate relationship between higher and lower traditions, and will appeal to a wide range of readers.

The Teaching of Buddha
By Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai

     The Teaching of the Buddha is a classic compilation of passages from several sutras, the basic scriptures of Buddhism. First published in 1925, The Teaching of the Buddha was originally edited by Japanese scholars of Buddhism before WWII and distributed widely throughout Japan. The first English edition was published in 1934, and a second English edition was brought out in 1962. In 1966, after the establishment of BDK Japan, a committee of Buddhist scholars produced a new English-Japanese edition. The Teaching of Buddha has undergone minor revisions and numerous reprintings since. It is now available in more than 46 languages, and over 8 million copies have been distributed and placed in hotel rooms in 64 countries across the world. 
     The Teaching of the Buddha is a publication of the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism), which is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan with branches throughout the world. I edited an eBook version that is available in English for Amazon Kindle readers. For more information, go to http;/www.bdkhawaii.com

      Since 1958 when it was first publsihed, Sources of Japanese Tradition has been one of the most widely used collection of primary source readings about all aspects of Japan. It was compiled by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, the legendary pioneers of Asian studies in the West. As a graduate student, I had the good fortune of studying with de Bary and Keene, and was honored when, after I had started my own career at the University of Hawai'i, my former teachers asked me to compile the Buddhist and Shinto materials for the first volume of the second edition.

     The source readings cover history, society, politics, education, philosophy and religion, and together shed light on the development of Japanese civilization on its own terms. These are the classic expressions by the Japanese themselves about their intellectual, religious and political life, and their views of their own traditions and the world they lived in.                     

     Volume One is complied by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley.

Religions of Japan in Practice
Princeton University Press

     Sources of Japanese Tradition (above) deals with the classical, so-called higher traditions of Japan and does not include much from popular culture. This upper echelon view dominated earlier studies of Asian religions, but more recently scholars have been paying attention to religion as practiced on the ground as well (Practically Religious is an example). The Princeton Readings in Religions series is an attempt to represent popular practices in India, Tibet, China, and Japan. I edited the Religions of Japan in Practice volume.

     This anthology reflects a range of Japanese religions in their complex, sometimes conflicting, diversity, and presents documents (legends, miracle tales, hagiographies, ritual prayers, sermons, reform treatises, doctrinal tracts, historical and ethnographic writings), most of which have been translated for the first time here. Readers will be able to examine a wide range of relationships between great minds and ordinary people, abstruse theories and mundane acts, natural and supernatural powers, altruism and self-interest, disappointment and hope, quiesence and war.

Harvard University Press, 1992 Out of Print

Harvard University Press, 1992

Out of Print

      Based on my Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, Myoe the Dreamkeeper is a study of the life and thought of the medieval Japanese Buddhist monk Myoe, who was known for moral purity, wide and deep learning, trenchant criticisms, meditation experiences, and his dreams. His diary of dreams, kept for over 40 years, is the most extensive account we have of any monk's dream life, which included erotic visions.
      Active in a time of social and religious ferment, Myoe was a preserver and reformer of tradition, and was a prolific writer on doctrine, ritual, poetry and meditation. This book covers all aspects of his life, but pays particualr attention to what we might learn about his inner life through his dreams, and includes a translation of his dream diary (Yume no ki).
      My first novel, Mara's Advocate, is inspired in part by the life of Myoe. You can find a description of Mara's Advocate on my Fiction page.

The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture
By George Joji Tanabe, Willa Jane Tanabe

In 1984, Willa and I organized the first International Conference on the Lotus Sutra and Japanese Culture at the University of Hawaii.  The meeting was such a success that others have organized subsequent meetings in Japan and Europe.  The conference series continues to this day.

This volume is a collection of papers presented at the first conference by some of the finest scholars in Japan such as Shiori Ryodo, Tamura Yoshiro, Miya Tsugio, and Kuroda Toshio.  Western contributors include Paul Groner, Neil McMullin, Allan Grapard, and Helen Hardacre.

With its parables and graphic stories, the Lotus Sutra is one of the most popular scriptures in East Asia, and its far-reaching influences on Japanese intellectual history, art, politics, and poetry are explored in this pioneering collection.