To forget the self: Aging and senility in medieval Japanese Buddhism
While modern narratives of aging and senility are profoundly influenced by the findings of scientific medicine, medieval Japanese understandings of these processes were primarily shaped by religion. Pre-modern Japanese medical knowledge was inextricably intertwined with religious knowledge and construed “mind” not primarily as a faculty of reasoning, but as a complex of energies and spiritual forces. Aging was understood as a process whereby these energies were dissipated or depleted, and prescriptions for their conservation were compatible with broader religious recommendations for skillful aging involving retirement from secular life. Medieval discourse described the elderly as particularly well suited for religious life and constructed old age as a social category situated between the human realm and the realm of “gods and buddhas.” Rituals, social conventions, and retirement customs encouraged ever more extreme forms of de-socialization for the elderly, imbuing them with more spiritual charisma the more they were able to detach themselves from human society. Medieval literature provided models of spiritually advanced elders whose wandering, incomprehensible behavior, and transgressions were seen not as evidence of disease, but as marks of their advanced spiritual realization. Facilitating the view that even seemingly cognitively impaired men and women could possess hidden virtue, medieval Japanese Buddhist philosophies of mind held that cognitive functions such as memory were of dubious importance in the spiritual quest. At their most radical, these traditions maintained that “forgetting” could be an essential step toward gaining release from attachment, and thus a gateway to spiritual mastery.